Animal Farm 2.0 – Reading won’t hurt

 We are almost the end of the first week of the two week Animal Farm 2.0 project. Our goals have been clear. We want the students to get back into reading books, talking about books and thinking the language of books. We also want them to use what they are reading to help them learn about basic creative writing techniques, start to repack ‘language’ in a formal context and then to produce a series of books containing short stories.

It’s fast and furious. I am not the ‘classroom’ teacher – in fact there are 8 of them. I think that the design of this project has created for the teachers a real feeling of ‘unity’. Casual conversations with the teachers suggests that they feel enthusiastic, becuase of the way the students have taken to reading and asking questions. It has not been perhaps the ‘battle’ to get 15 year old boys to get engaged with reading that it might have been in the past, but that is just a feeling I get from talking to them.

The students have shared a simple GoogleDoc with their teachers online, and have been actively responding to questions. These questions are individual to each student, so the teachers have mapped the ‘key learning’ and been able to explore the student’s ideas as well as meet the objectives of the unit. The classroom lessons are given to explore the text in groups, take part in writing exercises to support it. The deconstruction and reflection of that classroom activity – is done in GoogleDocs, and it may well be that the students are talking to a different teacher.

In effect they are talking to an advisor and mentor. When they return to class – its clear that the students are bring a number of persectives to the class.

They can say to the teacher ‘That is what I thought, but then Snowball said ….”. It gives the student some ‘expert’ feeling, that they are bringing information and new ideas to the teacher – creating a greater democracy in learning.

Around the campus, students can be seen reading. They have also formed discussion groups with teachers at lunch time – because they want to know more and get more from the text. In the 3 years I’ve been at the school, I have never seen this in 9th Grade. The actual manditory tasks this week are actually quite low, yet the effort and enthusiasm is remarkable. We have a new teacher in the mix, Brad. Lucy has taken on the project in her usual creative and enthusiastic manner and Brad has falled right into line. Her understanding of how technology can be used strategically to create a sense of drama and mystery in learning is fantastic.

The students know that there is something about to happen in the project, and not sure what, but it has something to do with the meaning that they need to get from Animal Farm. (I’d say more, but they might read this). What is important is that when I ask the students about ‘how’s the project going’ … they talk about the meaning of the book, and how it might apply to all manner of things, no least the way the school operates. They are not retelling the story. At the end of almost a year, these kids are now looking well beyond the immediate ‘task’.

In this project, I think we’ve got a strong ‘content’ and ‘learning’ balance. One of the critisisms of PBL is how kids stack up against kids learning the same content in more traditional ways. I guess that really depends on how you define the summative assessment – but I do think that there is a danger to skip content milestones in favour of other goals – which are valid – but make it hard to draw direct comparisons.

This project, so far, has created unity in the teachers – each has a part to play, and has been able to teach in their own style. The enthusiasm that the teacher brings to class is picked up by students. At times I think teachers can be lost in the fog of technology, or the process of project based learning – and students know it. When putting this task together – a major goal Lucy and I had – was for the teachers. To create a project that let them do what they do best, to learn a new tool (GoogleDocs) and create unity and engagement as a teaching team – that has the ability to focus on individual students. I am learning just how critical that is – and unity is as much of a key word as collaborative to me right now.

The next phase of creative writing starts tommorrow – so I really want to try and capture that – with the end ‘book’ writing the week after.

Animal Farm 2.0 – Reading and Sharing

A funny thing’s happened at the farm. Firstly, strange messages started appearing on the walls in the barn. A few days later, students were given the shocking news that they had to not only read, but talk about Orwell’s Animal Farm. The farmer did come in and ‘yeah but’ a few things, but the animals didn’t bark or moo back.

Students remind me constantly that what they have learned this year in a web2.0 classroom, are skills and methods of learning – that boost learning. One example. Students chose one of several study themes while reading the book this week. So for instance, one theme is Napoleon, looking at power. They share a GoogleDoc with Napoleon, and answer the questions. Each day, the questions move onto 2 new chapters.

This was Lucy’s idea not mine – for the character in the book to be having the conversation with the student – about the content of the book – and as a formative tool. So the learning goes back and forth in a very conversational style.

The benefit, and perhaps the significant shift that technology brings – is that the conversation is instant and between teacher and student. It is not marking at all, it is a conversation and the teacher is able to push or pull the student to explore any ideas they have. The teacher is NOT asking all the questions, but posing questions that generate discussion. The learning comes from that discussion – no getting a question right a,b, or c.

GoogleDocs allows that to happen. It also gives the teachers an opportunity to share and work with students outside of the classroom setting, where peer pressure and ‘its not cool to read a book’ might otherwise stop boys asking questions. But in the classroom is not silly-boyish behavior, over what many 9th grade boys would cite as ‘boring’ .. why are we reading this old book about stupid animals.

Why is not a question that immediately comes to mind for them now. As they know that the answer will not be simple enough to be given to them.

I think that is what schools need to see happen. Students learning that there is often no single answer and that even if there was, then they know how to challenge it – not simply accept it as truth because the teacher is the one with both the questions and answers. Technology enables but does not determine this learning.

Perhaps from a social media perspective – the most significant ‘observation’ I’ve had is that students no only shared their document with the teacher (who remains anonymous throughout the week), but with several of their friends. There is discussion about the book at school. Not teacher led but student lead. GoogleDocs is being used in a way that negates asking ‘class questions’ at all, so even though they are sharing, each only has ‘their answers’ which are related to others, but in no way singularly satisfies the teachers question.

This promotes more sharing, and more discussion. It leads to clarification, and the teachers are now being asked to have a book-group in lunch times. Some read, some listen, some GoogleDoc.

As they know there is more creative work to do next week, they also know that in someway, just as the pictures appeared in the barn, that reading and talking about Animal Farm must in someway link to what comes next.

Right at the center of this project is not a book, or a GoogleDoc – it is a natural conversation between tutor and learner – in which the teacher does not have to have or offer all the answers, but also pose questions – based on what the student is saying. It is a wonderful dialogue. Part digital, part face to face. Almost fireside at times.

Each teacher has the opportunity to explore the text with each student. GoogleDocs affords massive accountability to the student and teacher. It’s a living document, showing the relationship between teacher and learner. The students automatically ‘shared’ those conversations with other students. Not to copy, but to compare. Very little activity is given over to list, identify questions. The entry point is compare and it rises from there.

I think that finally, I’ve found a significant lens to say that I know what makes collaborative projects work in the classroom. There is a balance between mystery, interest, accountability and propaganda. As I end my time here, it do hope that I can continue to look at media literacy based learning with Lucy. But then these days, we never really leave do we.

Animal Farm 2.1 How To Enter a Project

This is the entry video I made for the launch of the Animal Farm / Creative Writing Project.

The images in here are going to be the ‘graphic’ content that the students will include in their 8000 word ‘books’ in about 2 weeks time. Why bother making a video? – because we reinforce the idea of drama and context. A few students will watch it several times, and many more will ask questions. It is a visual aid from which we can talk about creative writing.

It provides boundaries – and presents opportunities to discuss ideas.

We don’t simply introduce a projects as ‘you have to read Animal Farm then write 1000 word creative writing task’. When we open the project – we give them just a small part of the overall task.

The ending text tells them how they have to write 8000 words in one day – the first thing they are going to ask ‘how am I going to do that!’ – which means the ignition light is on to learning.