Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Arkansas-Beijing Connection

One evening in January 2018, I began receiving several teacher librarian followers on Twitter from Beijing, China. After interacting with a few of them on Twitter, I discovered that Joyce Valenza was presenting at a conference there and had mentioned our library program at Lakeside High School. I was am so grateful she did this because it led to something special for our learners. It didn't take long to start conversing with Kristen Billings, a teacher librarian in Beijing. We started discussing the possibilities of an international collaboration.

I returned to school the next day and talked to Mr. Keith Todd, one of our 9th-grade Civics and Geography teachers at Lakeside, about some type of international connection for his students. He had witnessed our recent 8th-grade maker collaboration with social studies classes, and he had the desire to have his students create some type of product to share with our new friends in Beijing. I introduced Kristen and Keith to Flipgrid, and the discussions continued. Both of these fine educators decided to allow Keith's students to teach North American geography to Kristen's students via videos they would create. They used the library spaces to create, and they also used some of our technology (cameras, iPads, tripods, etc). The reflections below tell the story from each of their perspectives.

Kristen's Reflection

ArkansasBeijing Project

I was so excited when Stony suggested I team up with a high school teacher on his team to plan and coordinate a geography exchange project with my Year 6 (Grade 5) students. I had never done anything like this before so I was very excited but also very nervous. We dived right in and Stony teamed me up with Keith Todd and his Grade 9 geography students.

We used Flipgrid initially to meet each other and begin the planning. Keith, luckily, had a clear vision of what he wanted his kids to do so that really helped me to think about how my students could not only learn from Keith’s students, but also participate and reciprocate the teaching and learning. We decided the kids would choose a topic related to their geographic location and do some research, create a video or a tool of some sort to share what they’d learn and then we’d use EasyBlog to post the content that could then be easily shared with my students in Beijing. Then my students did the same.

The projects were great! Some of the topics covered by the Arkansas students were North American slang, Soul Food, small town vs. big city, the history of blues, jazz and rap, American football. My kids posted back videos about the Great Wall, Chinese slang, food from different regions of China, different cultural aspects of Korean or Chinese culture, how to make dumplings. The kids posted introduction videos to meet each other on EasyBlog and were able to view and comment on each others’ posts.

It was a wonderful collaboration and my students really enjoyed it. The positives were:
·      Global connections were definitely made
·      Student agency was clear and strong as the children were allowed to choose their own topics. This is something that doesn’t happen very much in a British school so I think my kids really appreciated having choice in what they researched and how they presented their topics.
·      It was really fun. I observed my students completely engaged and always enthusiastic to get to work. A lot of collaboration and cooperation had to happen in groups for them to accomplish the final task.
·      We made use of current technology and app smashing. We were able to combine many programs and apps to make this happen, some very new to me and my students. Really great learning happened on this level: Flipgrid, EasyBlog, Google docs, YouTube…all sorts of tools were used in both the planning and the sharing as well as in the creating of the content. Well done us! For me this was a tiny step in using tech more in the library context and learning how to apply these apps and programs to move my planning and teaching into a more Future Ready direction.
·      My students were very prepared to use the technology and very skilled at getting down to business when creating content.

What would I change or do differently next time?

The timing was difficult to manage. If this type of project was built into the calendar for both sides there would be more time to plan and execute the project with minimal impact on curriculum coverage. We needed much more time for our students to research and complete their tasks than we had anticipated and there was very little time for reflection or just general communication back and forth between the Arkansas groups and the Beijing groups to really build relationships, which I feel could have been a really valuable aspect and reason for doing the project to begin with. Next time I will have a look at my year-long plan in order to make sure I give the project enough time to be fully realized.

Working from the British system was challenging for me-inquiry-based learning is not a part of the British approach, which is very content-driven and teacher-driven. Students rarely have agency in their learning and therefore lack the inquiry skills necessary to ask really great questions and their research skills are lacking in that they do not have the ability to ask good questions and seek answers without Googling and copying and pasting. This could be perceived as a failure on the librarian’s part, however, the culture of the school is not such that it allows me to collaborate and work with teachers in planning and executing lessons that teach or emphasize these skills so it has been very challenging for me to move forward with this. Next year, a new school beckons and I will have more opportunity to embed these skills in context of current learning, not just taught as isolated skills with no connection to what the kids are learning.

Next time, I would like to have more interaction with the teachers in the execution of the plan. Working with teachers, making the project tie in more with something the students are working on, would have added extra depth. Due to the current ethos of the school, library lessons are viewed as 'extra' not 'added value'. This, combined with my limited access to the students in weekly half hour lessons made the project longer than it needed to be and didn't allow for me to have time to plan with my groups and then reflect. Because the project was kind of 'last minute' in the sense that it was not built into the calendar and we just got the idea and ran with it, and the fact that halfway through, I had to pack up and move my library and the Year 6 students begin their transition to the higher school at this time of the year, I didn't have the time to really follow through with the students and get their reflections and reactions to the project. Real planning and collaboration with classroom teachers to use the library lesson time more flexibly would have allowed for deeper learning and reflecting to occur. 

Keith's Reflection

Arkansas-Beijing Project Reflection

I loved this project and how creative it allowed our students to be. The chance to interact with other students halfway around the world was amazing. The project provided very valuable experiences, e.g. life skills via group work, managing personalities, deadlines,  technological difficulties, time management, etc. I would definitely assign a project like this again. Afterall, life is a group project and in virtually every profession or career, the skills that group work can teach will be a key element of success. For as wonderful as it was, however, if I have the opportunity to do this again, I have lots of things about it that I would like to change to try to make it even better.

The number one change I would make is to allow for more coordinated pre-planning time; preferably over a summer when other demands on our time would not be so pressing. Kristen and I put this project together on the fly, but in the future, it would be ideal for us to be able to have the summer to talk/write back and forth to initially plan how we would like the project to work and a set timeline. We ran the project with the Arkansas group going first and then the Beijing group going, but there was not really a reason to do it that way. Rather, it would have been easier for the Arkansas participants to maintain engagement with the Beijing participants if the projects were happening simultaneously rather than needing to take the time to in and out of class to remind students to remain engaged with what the other groups were accomplishing. Doing so also would have allowed the participants to establish relationships with one another. I would love to have the opportunity next time to do some pure cultural exchange, maybe even with a live Skype in time differences could be overcome, and then allow the different participants' groups to guide one another in topic selection rather than each side just picking their topics.

Ultimately, this project took eight instructional days to complete, and being able to pare that down will really be critical to preserving everything else I need to be able to cover in my curriculum as a few sacrifices had to be made to make room for this material. Possibly putting the students into groups, and then requiring them to pick and research their projects via coordinating with the other participants on their own time could save at least a couple of days.

Mr. Todd's student groups collaborated using Google Tools
Some of our issues were technological. On the Arkansas side, some of the video files after post-production were very large. A way to compress the video's size with a computer application (like handbrake) would be a good solution. I have also considered uploading the videos to YouTube and setting this up as unlisted videos so that only those with the link to the video would be able to see them, however, with some school's network filters, the other participants being able to see it could be very hit and miss.

We also had some share issues with students who make Google Slides and embedded their video files (not YouTube links, but actual video files) that they had saved in their Google Drives into their Google Slides. We eventually discovered that the share settings of the video must be changed in Google Drive so that anyone with the link can view it and changing the share settings just in Google Slides was insufficient.

I deployed this project across all of my classes which included pre-AP students and on-level students. I would definitely do so again, but on-level students by and large needed scaffolding and support than the work log along provided. A daily checklist would probably be the way to go, and better yet, one that we create as a class while exploring the directions packet. Several of the pre-AP groups struggled with ensuring that their groups were actually working and producing what they needed to be in order to make their final product a success.

I think my favorite part of this project was also the slipperiest part: trying to instill a desire in my students to produce a great project and to perform to the best of their ability, and not just try to "get it done." As always, some groups jumped in and needed very little direction. But, ALL groups really had to stretch themselves beyond the base academic skills that they were accustomed to using. Many of them also had what seemed to be their first opportunity to practice character skills. One of the best things was that many of the higher academic and character-based skills that students found themselves engaging in (or struggling with) are immediately transferable to other classes and to future jobs. Those skills included reading and following complex directions, reading all parts of a prompt, self-reliance, and collective responsibility. The project really revealed that those skills were areas of needed growth in several of my students and inspired me to really underscore those skills throughout the rest of my curriculum this year. I will definitely begin implementing many of the strategies we came up with week one next year, such as problem-solving techniques, receiving/checking school e-mails, receiving Google Classroom alerts for Android and Apple, Google Assistant/Siri uses for academics, e.g. reminders, Google Calendar, note-taking skills, annotation skills, the idea that "respect makes it easy," opportunity cost discussion/activities, learning styles, how learning happens, etc.

Ultimately, this project was a learning experience for everyone involved, Kristen and I most definitely included. But, those challenges are exactly what all of us need to keep stretching and keep growing. From a holistic perspective, this was easily my favorite thing that we did all year.

Check out one of the student-created video examples below:

Next Steps

This was a wonderful experience for us in the library. The activity corresponded with several Future Ready Librarian standards (Builds Instructional Partnerships, Empowers Students as Creators, Collaborative Leadership, and Curates Digital Resources and Tools). We got to help build international friendships from the library. We also had several opportunities to assist students when they encountered problems with technology as apps were used together. I believe we have a great foundation to do more international connecting next year. I can't wait to see what is coming.

Other links that may interest you:
Social Studies Maker Project Part 1

Social Studies Maker Project Part 2

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