10 Pictures

I have been working on this blog post slowly as it happens.  The following took place over two weeks, but the reflections each happened immediately after the activity/lesson.

My class are motivated self learners, but not all of them are able to just jump to it and dive in.  They need scaffolding.  The idea for a project is not enough, there needs to be a roughly cut path to the goal.  I have been trying hard to help my students with that path, while being open to new emergent possibilities as they arise.  It is a hard balance, and it does not work every time, for every student.  Some students feel more comfortable with the scaffolding in place, and they enjoy me providing the step by step process.  Others feel suffocated and lose interest.  They want to be let free and to explore it their own way.  I have to make sure I provide a bit of both.

This project came together as a way to tie up our learning at the end of our current unit.  I wanted the students to give a presentation to the class about one geographical region of Japan, and what makes it unique.  Their enabling constraint was that it had to be done in Ten Pictures with no words.  They were working in groups of three.  Each group chose a different region.  We then went through the following stages of scaffolding. 
It is important to note that these stages were adapted and created as we went.  During the journey, I was able to make a judgement about what support they needed and then I offered it.  I do not advocate using this as a road map to follow, merely as reflection of the journey we have taken.

What makes the different regions of Japan unique? 

The first step was a simple brainstorming session.  I had them get together and talk about what they knew about their region and to pool their combined knowledge into a joint space.  Some groups did this by writing random notes all over a piece of paper, others made lists, others organized their data into topics.  We spent a bit of time after we finished trying to make our brainstorming more organized to help us develop our ideas more.  As a a group, we decided on a grid with the subheadings Economics, Food, Culture, People, Nature, and Weather.  In the boxes, we wrote what you knew, and what we didn't know about each.


After the initial brainstorming, we found a lot of blanks in our organizer.  Instead of getting out the computers asking Google-Sensei, we decided to see if we could get more information from the class.  We tried this strategy, which is inspired by socratic circles.  The group that is trying to figure out sits in the middle of the circle and listens, while the members outside the circle has a discussion about the topic.  They share what they know, or what they think they know, while the listening group takes notes.

This was a very fruitful activity.  Sometimes the kids were able to just talk about what they know naturally.  Others times I had to probe and lead the discussion.  It depended on the group dynamics of who was inside the circle and who was outside.  Other times I was orienting the attention of the people in the circle, 'did you hear that?  I think that is an important point.'  It was interesting to see where the kids were recalling their knowledge from.  TV shows.  Manga.  Video games.  Movies.  Those cultural tools that were the richest source of information.


This stage took some pre-planning on my part.  I organized for people from each region to sit down and chat with my kids.  I gave no real instructions, only that they should have a conversation.  I wish I could have been present to listen in on what they were talking about, but I hada little difficulty securing a person from Shikoku, so the night before I research the region and did my best as expert.  

The kids enjoyed this step very much.  We had people from the school community in that they usually have no reason to speak to (mothers of kindergarden students).  The conversations were really interesting.  People laughed.  They drank tea.  They did research.  They got tons of information and were able to fill up most of their organizers.  I had originally decided that the next step would to go onto Google and compare what they people said to what Google said, and to fill in the final blanks.  However, they got so much information from the first three stages that we skipped it, and instead did some thinking...

I was trying to get the kids to think critically about the use of technology and the human element.  For this we had a classroom discussion, and I wrote the main parts on the board.  I didn't really contribute much, except to ask for clarification or help with word selection.  Needless to say, even grade 5 and 6 students have very strong opinions of this topic!  Yet, they really surprised me.  They were able to hold both views in their head at the same time, seeing the pros and cons of each.  Hopefully, this critical thinking of technology is something they continue into their futures.  I love technology, and I think it is so important for schools to be up to date, but schools sometimes glorify it, and not look at what is lost by using technology.  

Here are the notes from our class discussion:

Google Vs. People
  • People know because they have experience
  • Google has more information
  • We don't know what is true online
  • People who write for wikipedia are experts and know a lot about the topic
  • Difficult to tell what websites have good info and bad info
  • People know only about their small region, while Google can tell you about the bigger picture
  • Humans memories are not always reliable
  • People are better for smaller regions and ideas (local vs global)



The point here was to make them think about what they would search for.  I didn't want them going online and just searching for general pictures.  I wanted them searching for specific pictures.  For example, one group decided that they wanted to show that Tokyo is very hot in the summer.  For this, they decided on a picture of a person fanning themselves with an uchiwa (Japanese fan).  To pull back the lens, what they are doing here is:

Recognizing what the main point (big idea) is ------ finding an image that represents that main point


Once they had thought hard about their ten pictures, I asked them to put them into an order that makes sense.  We talked about the word flow, and making connections.  What is the connection between the person fanning themselves with an uchiwa, and a birds eye view of Tokyo?  Does it make sense for the audience to go from one image to the next?  

For this I had them re-list their ten pictures and then present to the class the order they chose and why they chose that order.  It was a good activity, as they were presenting a list of ten pictures that they hadn't actually found yet!  It was up to the audience to imagine what the pictures would look like.  On several occasions, kids found that their phrase for their picture was weak, and this was a chance to make the appropriate changes.  Kind of like a test run for the real presentation.  I didn't antcipate that happening.


Finally we got onto the computers to look for our images.  Before we started though we had to talk about a couple of important details.  First, I wanted them to look for pictures that were beautiful, or artistic.  Art is a subjective experience, so this was hard.  We made a general list of what a beautiful photo looks like.  It was interesting, they had a lot of trouble explaining it, but they know the difference when they see it.  We spoke about how that feeling was important, and they needed to go with their gut.

Second, we had to have an important conversation about searching for images on the internet, copy right, and creative commons credit.


I will admit that I am not great with this.  All the photos I use on this blog are my own, so I rarely take pictures off the internet.  I used to, but I am trying to be more aware of issues around CC.  Someone on twitter (I can't remember when and where or who) posted a list of CC image searching engines, so I stuck them all in one place on our class wiki so the kids could use them.  We spoke about how we need to give credit to people who create something, and how it would make them feel is somebody used their stuff without asking (funnily enough, many of them said they wouldn't care if somebody took their stuff and used it).  We spoke briefly about how we should give credit, agreed on a format for crediting images, and then they got it.   

The entire searching process took about forty five minutes.  My kids are very comfortable with google presentations (and most other google apps), so this was easy.  The amazing thing was how well the lists worked.  They had to adapt a lot their phrases, but they got everything they were looking for.  Their lists worked.




After we had collected the images, we started to plan for the presentation.  Using Google Presentation, it is easy to add notes, and each member of the group can do it at the same time.  We were able to write, edit and give feedback without ever having to stand up.  For me, the amazing thing about this stage was not something that I had planned, but how these kids communicated with each other.

The group members were all sitting down next to each other, so they could communicate with their voices if they need be.  They were all also in the same document, so they could go to a partners slides and help write something.  But something else was happening.  They were using the chat window on the side of google presentations to send each other links.  The multiple layers of communication and how seamlessly they flowed back and forth between them was amazing.  Granted, we use computers (and usually some form of google app) everyday, so these kids have had a lot of time to practice these skills.  Still, it amazes me how fast they make these digital spaces their own.

(On a side note, they also go into the chat option in their gMail inbox and have chats that are completely unrelated to anything, just for fun, you know.  I usually let this slide as long as they are working and engaged....)

The kids also taught me a lot about some neat little things I didn't know about gPresentation.  For instance, you can make the notes window bigger.  It also drove me nuts that there was this tiny little window for notes.  I had no idea the size could be adjusted until one boy figured it and shared it with the class.

As for the notes themselves, it has hard for them to not resort to narration for everything they wanted to say.  They are more comfortable reading their prose that looking at notes and speaking from knowledge.  However, that was kind of the point of doing it, so we persisted.  For some students it was comfortable, but for my EAL students, they needed to write it out, and then make the notes.  This helped them to see what they wanted to say.

Some of them were still resorting to simply explaining the picture, rather than what the picture represented, though I was pleased to see that if was only a few.  We were using the pictures to talk about the larger themes.  I did some editing and some brainstorming and helped orient attention to the larger themes at play, then we had time to practice before the big day!


Before we presented a gave a very basic rubric (above) to the presenters, and the audience.  The audience would assess each presenter on each of these speaking qualities.  We agreed on a five point scale.  After the presentation, each speaker would reflect on the scores given to them.  I wanted to keep it simple.  In this presentation, the speaker would be standing behind the audience, so body language would not matter.  I wanted the focus to be explicitly on the voice of the presenter.  The students were focusing on voice in their assessment, and I was focusing on their use of notes.  This was made explicitly clear to everybody, and my feedback (during one-on-one conferences) in the end was about these factors.



The presentations went really well.  I had some kids who were just reading their notes word for word and not expanding with personal narrative, and I had some who didn't even look at their notes.  I was struck by a cultural difference.  My Asian students were reading, and the rest were trying to ad lib (not 100%, but overwhelmingly so).  In Asia, presentations are presented in a very monotone pace, with the presenter reading everything is a smooth voice. That precision with the written word is valued.  In other cultures, ad libbing or speaking from the heart is valued.  Interesting to keep in mind when assessing something like this.



Last, but not least.  The kids had to share their presentations with the whole school by creating a display in the hallway.  I gave them complete control.  I didn't even go out into the hall to check on their progress.  They love it when I do this, and they are usually so proud to show me the final results (though I admit I was curious so I peaked once or twice...)


What I learned

1) Slow down.  A good idea for a project is only the first step.  Breaking it down and getting as much learning as possible is much better than doing many projects.  

2) Pay Attention.  Listen to the students and how they are reacting to the lessons.  Change things.  Create new ideas.  Don't be afraid to take it in a different direction.  Kids give great ideas, its what they do best.  Listen to those ideas and adapt to them.  When a kid suggests something and then you do it, they feel so empowered.

3) Trust the Kids.  They will make it great, you worry about the thinking.

4) Reflect as you go.  Coming onto this draft blog post almost everyday for the last two weeks has been a great way for me to reflect on what we have done.  Several times it was during the process of reflecting on what happened, that I came up with ideas of what would happen next.  Now I am thinking two things; 1) I should do this for an entire unit, blogging step by step what we do and documenting the entire ride, and 2) how can I get the kids to do this without it being over-bearing and oppressive?



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