Using Digital Projects with "At-Risk" Third Graders
“Last year I was not smart. This year I am. I don’t know why but I like it.”
This quote was written by one of my third graders in his autobiography in November of 2009. Very simply, it epitomizes my goal for my classroom.
This student entered my room in 09-10 school year. That year I was given a class of third grade students who ranged from one to three years below grade level. I tell you this with hesitation because I wouldn’t want anyone walking in my classroom door to even have the thought that these students struggled at some point. Rather, I would want them to think the opposite – here is a class of above grade level students. In order to reach that lofty goal, I knew I had to do something beyond the normal classroom.
The Year Before
In August of 2007, I began teaching Early Intervention Program (EIP) classes. The students in this program are students who are performing below grade level in either reading or math or both. During the first year, I was a resource teacher for first, second, and third graders who were struggling in math. Students came to me in small groups for 45 minutes segments.
I have always been a tech geek, and in prior years when I had a second grade homeroom I had dabbled with digital projects, Storybook Cinemas being one project. I loved them and the enthusiasm they engendered in my students. So almost selfishly (I really do love this stuff), I set aside the norm of drill, remediation, and acceleration for a week to do a digital project.
My second grade group became Shape Hunters searching for geometric shapes around campus, crawling and sneaking up on these “fascinating creatures”.
My third graders became Geo Detectives, finding examples and non-examples of a geometric term in the school, challenging the audience to decide which was the non-example.
The results of the project startled me. Not only did I see the enthusiasm for using video cameras and becoming film makers, which I expected, but the students also produced great work with deep understanding that far surpassed what I could get out of them in a regular 45 minute segment.
What started as a project I simply thought of as fun and, I hate to admit it, almost ‘fluff’, turned into one of the best learning experiences I ever gave to my students. Of course, my mind started reeling. Like any teacher seeing amazing accomplishments, I had one question: How can I keep this happening over and over? Then almost immediately following: What about the time? Yes, through the project the students were really able to gain deeper understanding, but there are so many topics to cover and so little time to do it in before the dreaded state testing. Battling that dilemma, that year I only did one more digital project with my third graders called Fraction Action. Again I saw amazing internalization of the concepts. I just grappled with my biggest questions – how do I deal with the time needed and still make sure these students not only caught up on prior material from previous grades but also learn the standards required for their grade level?
The First Howdy Dewar News Crew
The next year, my role changed a bit. Instead of being a resource teacher, I was back with a homeroom. This time my homeroom was going to be a self-contained third grade EIP class. Third grade in Georgia is a critical year in reading. The students must pass the Reading portion of our standardized tests in order to promote to fourth grade, and I was about to be given a class of students whose average reading level was first grade. How was I ever going to get these students to where they needed to be? I finally decided I had to figure a way to fit digital projects into my classroom as a permanent fixture for several reasons:
- Engagement – Digital Projects caught the attention of students who were already starting to feel dejected by school. School was completely separate from their home lives of video games and TV. This was a way to bridge that gap and put the spark of interest in their eyes.
- Deeper Understanding of Concepts – Through the projects students internalized and owned the material. The students were thinking critically, problem solving, and creating. Using thinking skills so much more powerful than simply memorizing.
- Genuine Audience and Purpose – No longer were they just doing static work for the teacher. This was a project they could share with the world. They had a voice and a reason, beyond a grade, to make the product their best work.
- Necessary Technology Skills – The world is digital now. The students need to be taught the skills and the thinking needed to work with it professionally.
- Pride and Confidence – Even in third grade my students were already aware of the fact that they were struggling in school. They were acquiring the “I can’t” attitude. That attitude needed to change for them to succeed. They needed something that they could feel pride and ownership of to start the swing to “I can”.
I still struggled with the time and scope factor, but I was also determined for every one of my students to be on or above grade level when they left my room at the end of the year. I needed to do something drastic to get them there. With this in mind and with some great advice from a fellow colleague, I created a classroom that looked like the typical gifted class and where the term EIP was not uttered. Digital projects, both individual and collaborative, became the norm through two main year-long projects that were daily fixtures in my classroom and then a splattering of digital storytelling projects throughout the year. Don’t get me wrong, we wouldn’t just be doing digital projects. Our normal third grade curriculum was still there and taught in the classroom pretty much like any of the other third grade classes on my hall. But the digital side of my class was going to be my trampoline to bounce the students up to where they needed to be.
The Year-Long Projects
Our biggest classroom project became the Howdy Dewar News, Dewar Elementary School’s first daily news broadcast, which my students created and produced. I had been asked by my principal and media specialist the summer before if I would help the school move from intercom announcements to close-circuit television and knew I had found my golden ticket. What the students saw as simply a fun project that only our class got to do would give them a genuine setting for learning. Reading skills such as decoding and fluency were continuously practiced and improved as the students read from teleprompts while on camera. They suddenly had a real reason to improve because not only could they see how they were doing on TV, but the entire school saw them too. During taping and then the next day while watching the broadcasts the students critiqued and praised each other saying things like, “You stumbled a bit there, maybe we should have practiced first”, “I like how you put expression into that!”, or even “Give us some attitude”. Research and interview skills were learned through tasks as simple as finding the week’s weather forecasts online to creating news stories for the show. Problem solving, critical thinking, and teamwork came into play when planning the broadcasts and shots and even assembling the broadcasts on the video editing software.
Another benefit I found through this project, and one I found as critical, is that the students found a solid place in the school. Feeling secure and confident in your environment is critical in learning as we know from Maslow and now no longer was school a place to fear for my students. A place where previously they felt failure now they felt like a celebrity. Everyone from Kindergarteners to faculty members came to know each of my students – in a good way. They were recognized in the hallway, given compliments, and the privilege of moving around the school independently in order to interview and tape for the broadcast. They were even given the honors of producing a special news broadcast that told about our school for our School Board and Superintendent and of sharing how they make the broadcast at a technology showcase at the local university, Valdosta State. Simply finding them a positive place in the school, opened them up to all the other learning that needed to happen during the year.
To be honest, making sure to find the time for the broadcast each day amidst the normal schedule that needed to be followed was a struggle, especially in the beginning of the year. The students did not yet have the technology skills, confidence, and speed they would later gain, and I was leading them with no journalism or film editing experience myself beyond the simple digital stories I had done in the past. We were all in the dark and made many mistakes (such as don’t make the broadcast to complicated in the beginning – start off simple!). In addition, I had to squeeze time in for the broadcast throughout the day and spent many nights compiling and editing the final film. If you entered my classroom you might see a group filming the anchors, another researching the weather on the computer, and yet others with their reading books, and me running everywhere in between. There was definitely a level of stress and many times I asked myself why in the world I took on this project. Was I doing the right thing? There were even a couple (or maybe more than a couple) of moments where I had to step out and take deep breaths in the hallway. But as the year progressed, I found the students didn’t need me guiding them through the steps in the broadcast nearly as much anymore. I was able to work with a student or a small group while the broadcast was being produced around me. That day when that finally happened and I sat back and watched the buzz around me, I wore a cheesy grin of pride the whole day.
The second year-long project we took on went with the Howdy Dewar News. It was a mentorship with a group of students also broadcasting for their school, the Lowndes High School Journalism class. Each of my students was paired with a couple of high school mentors that worked with them on writing and creating news stories. Throughout the year, the groups met in person, wrote back and forth on their group page on our Wiki, and held video conferences through Skype. The students were seeing how their role models used writing and framed out stories and became excited to do the same, an excitement that could never have been inspired by me, simply their teacher in their eyes who has to make them write. Less formally, they also now had a reason and a want to use writing through our Wiki so that they could see what had been written to them and to ‘text’ their friends back. Without them realizing it, they were essentially asking ME to write rather than the other way around.
Saying Goodbye and Welcoming a New Crew
Throughout the year, I saw my vision of a class of below level students taking on the personality and abilities of a gifted class emerge. Yes, the digital projects were not without stress, doubt, mistakes and a real constant struggle with time but I fully attribute them to the huge academic leaps I saw in my students. Together, all of the students reached the goal of being on or above grade level by May, and I think more importantly they found their own confidence and voice in the classroom that they can take with them to fourth grade. That makes all of it worth it. Next year, I will again be teaching a self-contained third grade class of below grade level students, and I will not be doing what I did last year. I plan on doing more.
A Smattering of Digital Storytelling
In addition to the news broadcasts, we were also putting together some digital stories whenever the curriculum warranted it. We started off the year with a simple Photo Story project to introduce them to digital projects and progressed from there. That first project those first weeks of class was our I AM poems. The purpose of this project was twofold. First it was a way for the students to introduce themselves to each other, and second it was to force the students to begin finding their voice in their writing and the classroom. As it was our first dive into technology in the classroom, we started off structured with the students simply telling in ten lines who they are and setting it to pictures of themselves. The push was to describe themselves with unique and strong words and phrases. I wanted to get their attitudes out in the open and show them it was safe to express their individuality in our classroom. It took encouragement and strong arming, but the end pieces definitely showed the true characters of my crew. During the showing of the final pieces to each other, the safety factor of the classroom was cemented and they had their first final product to feel real pride.
Another one of our digital stories had a different purpose in my mind. I simply gave it to them for the deeper understanding they would gain. We were in the process of studying the five regions of Georgia, and the students had been asking me for another digital project. So, I came up with the Georgia Habitats movies. For this project, the students worked in small groups and were assigned one of the five habitats. Together they were to decide a way to deliver to the rest of the class important information about their habitat such as climate, animals and plants that live there, and special features. I also wanted them to tell these facts from the point of view of an animal of their choosing in their habitat. Following those directions, they had creative freedom on the type of text. This project came farther into the school year, but I couldn’t help but be amazed again at the power of digital projects in my classroom. The creative stories the students came up with amazed me and the level of thinking taking place made it more than worth the time I took for the project. Through their snakes slithering through the Piedmont region, Bobcats and Bears interviewing each other, crabs meeting each other on the coast, alligators in the swamp, and a bobcat getting hot in the Coastal Plains they came to own each of the regions. From that point on in my classroom whenever one of the regions were discussed, they were discussed with the tag of the video made on it. I would mention maybe the Mountain region and suddenly a student would pipe up with “oh, you mean Mrs. Bobcat and Mr. Bear’s place.” They had an association, a visual, and a direct memory of each of the regions now that could never had been made by just filling out a worksheet or even watching a movie made by someone outside of our walls.