In my recent visit to Arizona, the colors of the flowering cacti, were a notable and inspiring contrast amidst the sparse and arid dessert backdrop- gaining my respect for all that not only survives, but thrives within the parameters of the Southwestern U.S. In a similar fashion, the vibrant classroom of Dr. Jackie Gerstein and her students, was exciting and inspiring against a backdrop of daily newspaper articles featuring stories of budget woes by surrounding Arizona schools, aging computers, inadequate bandwidth, and exhausted supplies where students are bringing in printer ink and paper from home to be able to continue using classroom printers.
Within minutes of arriving at Sahuarita Intermediate School, both Dr. Peggy George and I, we were greeted by two very poised 5th grade students who lead us to a classroom filled with evidence of constructivist learning- a fertile ground for nurturing the infinite thinking machine.
Every student was fully engaged in activities that challenged them to take charge of their leaning. One student was putting the finishing touch on a miniature piano made of craft materials, while her partner was busy programming Pico Cricket sound sensors to play the melody they had composed as part of an interactive digital story they were writing. Another was demonstrating how the hot Arizona sun could be used as solar power in a windmill created with legos. Two fifth grade boys huddled around an aging computer debating the plot of the digital story they were writing using Tikatok's online book publishing site. At other computer stations, students were exploring Tux Paint – an open source software. Others were using the forums in Think.com to critically analyze the potential of Web 2.0 sites for learning. Storyboards and backdrops made of legos, clay, science kits, and other craft materials filled tables and shelves, each to be used with student's original writing in a long term digital storytelling project.
One classroom wall was lined with student created newspapers as evidence that the students had developed interviewing skills to learn more about each other. Another wall was lined with colorful 3-D representations of FIVE word questions that was to guide a self directed research project. In the middle of it all hung a student created hand painted Wordle that captured the essence of the type of learning that filled their day and avatars of the students who drove that learning. The avatars were enlarged versions that the students had traced and colored of the actual avatars these students use to safely participate in collaborative learning environments outside their classroom using a variety of Web 2.0 tools made available to them through their classroom wiki- Wee Web Wonders. Here are just five of the many web sites we saw student using during our visit with Dr. Gerstein and her incredible infinite thinkers.
When we arrived in Jackie's classroom, students were using Tikatok to write and
publish their stories. Teachers can set up classroom accounts and manage their
own student accounts. The site includes story starters, prompts, and
collaborative options. Students can share the stories with coauthors, family,
friends. Parents can order printed copy of the students book in hardcover or
Jackie's students proudly showed us the books they've read using Shelfari
bookshelves. They have become experts at putting widgets that display the books
they read on their project wiki. They also use the site to read reviews of books
or write their own.
During computer time, some of Jackie's students collaborate with students all
over the world in a 3D environment helping the council of the virtual world,
Atlantis, solve problems impacting its water, air, health, and animal life. As
an active member of the Second Life Educational Committee, its easy to
understand how Jackie found Quest Atlantis a very compatible technology tool to
her constructivist teaching.
As I walked around the classroom, I noticed one of my favorite sites, Think.com,
on some computer screens. The students were using this very safe social
networking site to post reviews about new web 2.0 links their teacher had
posted. The site is especially supportive of teachers, parents, and students who
want a more private place to collaborate. Oracle has very stringent rules about
participation and offers teachers a setting that allows their students to
interact ONLY with those from the same school. Oracle also checks each teacher's
credential and school affiliation before activating accounts. Teachers are
required to carefully monitor their classroom Think accounts.
One of the most impressive examples of learning and student leadership I
witnessed during my visit was students using the projector to lead their
classmates through group participation in student designed quizzes about the
topics they were studying. Students used My Studiyo to create quizzes, embed
them on their research wikipages, and then facilitated group decision making
about the answers to each question as they proceeded through the quiz using the
classroom projector. These student presentations were far from the traditional
student presentation. They had mastered the concept of “engaging” the audience.
It was obvious that they had witnessed good modeling from their teacher – Dr.
Gerstein who doesn't know the meaning of “sage on the stage” when it comes to
teaching. These students are defintiely in charge of their learning, and their
teacher is a superb 'designer of learning environments.
I wish I could share all of the great ideas and websites, I learned about during my visit to Sahuarita Intermediate School, but I think I will follow Jackie's philosophy of letting the students be the guides and leaders. Follow their evolving project pages at weewebwonders.pbwiki.com/
and see for yourself the evidence of student centered learning, and if that doesn't blow you away, brace yourself and visit their fantastic role model of self-directed learning by visting Dr. Gerstein's own learning space.
P.S. Thanks to my Personal Learning Network powered by powerful Web 2.0 tools like Twitter, I had the pleasure of meeting both Jackie and Peggy face to face and you have the opportunity to meet their students virtually. Special thanks to Jackie for inviting us into her classroom, and for Peggy to driving all the way from Phoenix to join me in this visit.