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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

To Kill a MockiPEDIA: An Experiment in Constructivism - Part 1

For the last five years, Rob Scotlan, the eight grade English teacher, and I have been co-teaching a research unit focusing on topics in African American history that contribute to the experiences of the characters in the book To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Each year, the goal of the project is to go beyond researching a single topic. We achieved this goal, sometimes more successfully than others, by finding ways for the students to share their research with their classmates. When they finish reading the book they use their research and that of their classmates to write an analytical essay incorporating historical context in their analysis. Oral reports, individual and group work, PowerPoint presentations and Moodle tools have been used as research project "products" to try to meet the goal of sharing information and understanding found during the research process. This year, we tried something new, but may have stumbled upon the perfect solution in the process.

One school-week ago we launched To Kill a MockiPEDIA. Using the Google Apps for Education platform adopted this year, and building on skills already learned during a previous research and web site project in 8th grade history, we created a site and invited the entire 8th grade to edit it collaboratively. To give some guidance and to build a framework that would meet the goal of the project, we created a "skeleton" of the site by dividing topics in African American history by eras and adding sub-pages with topics we've used in past years. Students were provided a rubric with a list of different ways to contribute to the site with associated point values and expectations. We want each student to make a variety of contributions to a number of different topics. We expect them to use expert sources, as they would for any research project, and we value quality over quantity. Students will work on the site in class one day each week for the next seven weeks while also reading and discussing the book the rest of the week. Rob and I explained all of this to the students and then set them free...the results so far have been inspiring.

This project, more than any I've worked on before, follows a constructivist model. Rob and I are truly facilitating rather than instructing. Students are making decisions about what topics to research, adding new topics when they deem it necessary, identifying possible incidents of plagiarism, and negotiating speed bumps inherent in any collaborative project. Rob and I are enjoying our roles as advisers and facilitators. Although keeping students accountable and tracking their contributions has necessitated a bit of extra time and effort, the positives have far outweighed any negatives. Students are engaging in a real-world experience that has already created teachable moments in digital citizenship. Today, two students were working on the same topic and discovered information differed depending on the source they used. We discussed how to work through the problem and they decided whether to trust one source over the other or address the discrepancy within the article they were writing. Another student had to decide what to do when a paragraph written about one of the topics sounded very much like something he'd read in an article on a subscription database. Was it plagiarism or an accident and how should it be handled? We've coached all the students to view editing of their work by classmates not as a judgment or criticism, but simply a different perspective that will make the collective product better in the long run.

I plan to post an update each week on the progress of this project and the very similar seventh grade Shakespeare unit, Et Tu, PEDIA? (yes, they are studying Julius Caesar). Wish us luck and join us in our grand experiment. It's been a wild ride so far!

Next week: What we've learned so far and tracking student contributions...

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