[important]This is a guest post from my wife, Dr. Jessica Meade. For a few years, we had a teaching blog together, but since we are going to be working in different districts this year, we decided to split the blog. Her new blog is called Peaceful Teacher. Check it out! [/important]
This year I taught AP Biology and 2 Integrated Science classes. In our urban, underperforming school, Integrated Science is for students who are either 1) not ready for chemistry 2) haven’t passed biology but there is no room in revisited biology 3) have an intense IEP and need a third science that is not too difficult or 4) it fit in their schedule and meets a requirement for a non-honors student. I requested this course to teach while I learned AP Biology because I had taught it before and really enjoyed it. This year had more challenges, but I learned more about differentiation and opening student interest than ever before.
Integrated Science in our school includes four basic sciences: chemistry, earth science, environmental science, and physics. My joy in teaching this course is that there is a lot of freedom in content and delivery. We don’t have enough books, so it can’t ever be a text book centered course. I start with chemistry to give them the foundation they need to take chemistry in the future if they choose to. Many of them do not feel confident about taking chemistry and I can quickly teach them the first several units of chemistry in four weeks. Then we move on to Earth Science. This year something magical happened. I was showing them the BBC video Power of the Planet (which is fantastic by the way), and they had an animation of how Iceland was formed. I pause movies all the time because it helps to keep kids awake. So I paused and said, “Hey, my mom is in Iceland right now.” This concept was completely beyond my students’ understanding of the world. People take vacations in places like Iceland? Why? What is she doing there? Are there hotels? The questions were endless.
I have always know that my students see their world as very small. Many have never been out of state. Some have never been out of our city. Some students are from other countries but left them for a better life here – they would never go back for a vacation. I had a light bulb moment: My students should plan a vacation to an earth science hot spot.
When I introduced it to them, they were excited. During our brainstorming session, the students struggled to hold onto the idea that it was a trip to see something in nature. “Can’t I see the Eifel Tower?” “Can I go see the pyramids? Where are the pyramids?” I quickly realized that my students have had very little experience with geography and that that would be a hurtle to undertake. After brainstorming, I told them we would be making blogs. Not one student of my two classes had ever made a blog. Most had no idea what it was. With this lack of information came resistance. They tried to argue with me to make posters or brochures. I tried to reassure them that it would be cool, that they would like it. At the very least, they would gain a powerful skill on the computer. I saw that students were truly very interested in gaining more skills even if they really did not want to.
Our computer labs have few working computers. Many of the computers run very slowly or have obvious viruses. We all accept these issues but it is frustrating. Students could work faster on their phones than waiting for google to load. None of the labs had a projector screen but my original plan was to walk the students through the blog set-up all together. I ended up walking them through the beginning process orally, but I had to go around to each student to help them. Then I quickly had a few student experts who could help others. I chose to use Blogspot because it is a format with which I am very comfortable.
In terms of setting up accounts, I anticipated that some students did not have reliable email accounts for which they knew both username and password. Most students have little use for email. I was prepared to help them set up new email accounts and names for their blogs. I did not realize how much they would struggle for a username, password, and name for their blog. In retrospect, I would have done more brainstorming about the names of blogs in our classroom and help them to understand what the name should be about. Some of the names were about their travel blogs and some of the their names were less applicable and more about personal expression.
Surprisingly, setting up the blogs took one entire block. It was much more difficult than I expected. Mostly because they did not understand what we were creating despite the examples I showed them. Some of course had their blog set up in five minutes and were ready to go. I had a handout which I will attach that guided students along the assignment. The faster students began researching different locations. I provided links to several travel websites and to obvious Earth Science hot spots – Hawaii, Iceland, Grand Canyon. The first page of the blog was to be an introduction to their trip. Once students had a spot selected, I helped them make their first post and publish it. When students saw their blog with a post as an actual website, it was a magical moment. Students said things like “I just made a website?” “Other people will see this and read it. Cool.” “Can I make a blog now about my own stuff too?” It was very exciting. Students were very motivated to make their blogs look good with pictures and design.
For my class, I decided they needed to have at least 8 entries including details such as how they would travel, costs, hotels, hiking guides, or tour guides to get to remote places, equipment needs, and whatever else they could think of, with many pictures to make it interesting. They were required to explain the Earth Science behind the place they were visiting – in other words, how was that volcano formed?, how did that canyon form? and so on. We also learned new words such as itinerary, we grew a real understanding of geography such as the difficulty of traveling from Arizona to Alaska in one trip, and students saw the range of costs of travel. This broad set up allowed me to tell students individually exactly what I expected from them. My class was supposed to be co-taught, but due to budget issues, I was on my own. After the first day, I asked some student experts to sit next to students who were struggling to give them some guidance, and I am very grateful that those students were willing to help.
After the first few days of getting things set up, locations chosen, and research in motion, things became more exciting in the classroom. Students were calling me over constantly, not for help, but to show me beautiful pictures or amazing hotels they found. They were showing each other the beauty of the Earth and figuring out how to explore it. One student showed her blog to her mother and they are now planning a trip to Sedona, AZ. The student felt very confident in helping her mother to find flights and hotels, and knew how to get there from the airport.
In total, we spent 8 full blocks in the computer lab. They were not consecutive days due to the difficulty of scheduling lab time in a large school. Having non-consecutive days gave us time to reflect on our projects and time for me to continue teaching the basics of plate tectonics, volcanoes, and earthquakes. As we worked, students were able to make connections between the content and their projects, and I saw evidence of this understanding in the final projects of the blogs. I took half a block one day and gave each student a copy of a map of the world. I showed a simple map of countries on my projector. We spent time finding the locations of everyone’s trip. Students also asked me to show them Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, feeling it was a safe environment to admit that knowledge deficit. We filled in about 30 countries, and the students were completely interested.
What started as a rough lesson plan of a project developed into a life changing educational experience for many of my students. They were proud of having a place on the internet, they were excited about travel and all desired to go to these places some day, and they were fully invested in learning. Many of my students have at-risk qualifiers on many levels and our classroom is disrupted by their issues almost daily. I can’t say that this project filled our classroom with rainbows and every student completed a perfect blog. I can say that more students than usual completed a project and that the students who did complete it or even get a good start at it, were very proud of their products. As a final project, students had to research an endangered species and teach us about it. They could make a powerpoint, a poster, a research paper, or a blog. All of the students chose to make a blog, because they felt it was such an easy way to present information.
Blogging is very powerful for our students, giving them a voice, creating a place to write and care about the message, and being a part of the technological world. I have no doubt that in future classes, if given a choice, they will use blogging for a project. Some teachers may feel hesitant to try a project like this in a class that is large, with many issues. I encourage those teachers to try. Blogging is not successful in the classroom because it is a nifty new tool. Instead it is successful because it gives the student creative ownership and an online presence in a healthy, intellectual format.