Using Technology with Young Learners when Working with Limited Resources
A Yearlong Project Unfolds
Throughout the sixteen years I have taught, I have gone from not having a computer in my classroom to now teaching my own students how to successfully use different technology tools. As a second grade teacher, I have seen a wide variety of technology skills with incoming students, but I’ve been interested in discovering the impact of creating digital media with my second grade students to see if it fosters their writing abilities and impacts their motivation to write. I was excited to implement a worthwhile project with my students as I knew they would be able to use the computer skills I taught them throughout their schooling. That excitement was shadowed by a fear of the computers working well enough to implement this plan. Regardless of that possibility, with my students, I created a yearlong project to study and share my findings.
Many classrooms across the nation are well equipped with technology. Walk into an elementary classroom and you might see teachers and students manipulating objects on smart boards, creating movies on laptops, and viewing lessons projected with document cameras to enhance their learning. Where I teach, in a small university town in central Maine, technology is introduced slowly and the hardware support for our current computer system is not consistent or timely. In 2010, teachers in my K-5 school had just received hand-me-down laptops from the high school teachers. Other than the laptop, most classrooms are equipped with 3 or 4 computers, an overhead projector, and a media center so children can listen to books on tape and CD. If it’s not on loan, a teacher can borrow a document camera, a digital camera, a Flip camera, and a digital projector from our school library. Fortunately, in the last two years I applied for, and received, several grants so I can keep a document camera and a digital projector in my classroom and use it on a daily basis. It’s easy to manipulate objects for math, science, or any subject so students can see them large and “real.” We also use it to project student writing; my students love having their writing on Elmo. It’s a great way to showcase students’ attempts at lessons taught. It’s immediate and it leaves an impact on other writers and I find more students using writing craft and skills when they see what it looks like in their peers’ writing. I also hook my computer up to the projector often to show movies we’ve created or slide shows for new learning. I highly recommend pursuing any grant opportunities that become available. One source for grants many teachers are having great success with is Donorschoose.org.
I’ve always been interested in computers and have taught myself many skills using different programs. When the opportunity came up to take a year-long course where I could implement a technology inquiry study with my students, I jumped at the chance, because I knew it would encourage me to stick to a technology plan. In the past, I had great ideas about how I would implement technology, but the plans were never implemented fully and I never accomplished what I had set out to do. At the same time I was designing this project I was also reading Because Digital Writing Matters, a publication of the National Writing Project. I wanted to emulate how Kevin Hodgson (p. 90) set up his project by teaching technology skills across a whole year, rather than isolated skills for one project. Originally, I admit our timeline project was a bit too technical for the kids as they had to learn many steps before they could begin composing, but we kept at it and they were able to do this easily after some practice.
About two years before implementing my project, students had entered my second grade classroom with knowledge of logging onto computers, opening programs and navigating around them, and working independently on different tasks they were instructed to do. When we began working with new thin clients in the classroom, a minimalist workstation that is connected to a server and operating with the Linux operating system, as well as enough in the computer lab so each child can have their own, students were not as computer savvy as they had been in the past due to lack of exposure to the computers. The problem had been our server. Most lessons I prepared at home to teach during computer lab left everyone a bit frustrated as programs would freeze or the likelihood of even logging onto the computer was impossible. By December of that year, I, along with many other teachers, stopped going to the computer lab and we rarely turned our classroom computers on. That left many kids lacking the necessary computer skills they usually possessed in order to do some independent second grade work that is usually expected of them to access information for various classroom projects. We were promised that by 2010, the year my inquiry project would start, the server would be upgraded and we would see improvements. I remained hopeful and planned a meaningful project I wanted the class to be involved in that wouldn’t take the place of other important tasks they needed to accomplish on a daily basis, but would give them the exposure they needed with computers to become independent. I resigned myself to do the best I could with the materials we had.
Throughout the project, there were frustrations every single week. Most often the computers were operating very slowly and students had to wait for the cursor to appear or their text to move to the next line. Several months, the Impress program (a presentation program in Linux) appeared to have glitches as the text box would move up and down and all around. Students would have to wait for it to settle in the middle of the screen again before they could type. The kids were patient, so I was too. It would have been easy to log off and go back to our classroom on several occasions, but I kept telling myself, we’ll do the best we can with what we have.
I had big plans for my year long project and quickly learned the Linux operating system would not allow me to do what I intended. Each year, I create two or three movies with my students. That means the kids write the scripts or poems and I do all the computer work to create the movie. Originally, I wanted to involve my students more in the digital writing component as the technology skills I had taught students previously seemed to be isolated skills that were disconnected. I originally envisioned children creating a timeline movie of their school year so they could learn to use a movie program, but more importantly document their year through a multimedia project. Because we didn’t have that capability on our Thin Clients, I revised my original plan. My second plan was to have them create a timeline in Impress and have them share their digital timeline with their family at the end of the year. I envisioned a monthly entry where students would write about something memorable that happened in school. It’s important for learners to reflect and this project allowed students to look back at their own learning after its already taken place. I was an OpenOffice newbie and had to do a lot of research on the program before I could proceed with my students. OpenOffice is a free open source software application we were operating with.
My overarching inquiry question was: How does the use of digital media foster students’ writing and motivation as they work to create a yearlong timeline of their learning? As soon as I began my project, many other questions arose to reshape my question:
- Would students be able to accomplish a monthly entry given the nature of our slow computers?
- How do I create a template for students to access quickly when they log on to their computers?
- What can I do to make this project appealing to my students?
- What is the best way to download pictures so students can access them quickly when they are ready to begin adding pictures to their work?
- Will students be more successful if they prewrite or compose directly on the computer?
- Will this be a worthwhile project to implement and study?
Implementing the Plan
I didn’t get started on the project as soon as I had anticipated due to state testing tying up the computer lab for four weeks. However, I was able to complete a lot of the background work that needed to happen before my students could even begin their work in the lab. In the classroom, I feared it might be difficult to entice young students into such a lengthy project as their world revolves around immediacy, but I quickly hooked them by connecting this to their current passion: The Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. Many children had seen the movie over the summer and several were reading the books. I bought the books for the classroom library and they were the first books to go off the shelf! I also had two children writing their own “Diary of a…” during writing workshop. As soon as I told them we’d be creating our own digital diaries, a yearlong one, they were eager to begin!
I learned a lot the first month implementing the project. The end of September, during writing workshop, I asked my students to think about their timeline, what they liked the best about September and what they learned from it. I told them their sentence starter and had them turn to a partner and talk about their plan. No one was talking! I began checking in with students and the first group I sat with said, “I just can’t remember what we did.” The whole table agreed. We all gathered back on the rug and discussed September as I made a bulleted list on the easel. After this, they were ready to talk again and all decided on a topic they would write about. Since I wanted to try out different strategies each month to see which created the best writing, I did not have them write on paper prior to computer lab. We went to the lab with their writing in their head. That first session was a disaster. The day began with an email warning from the librarian alerting us that the computers were experiencing extreme difficulties (again). I decided to take my class regardless, as I was sticking to my plan! I had previously modeled the whole process in the classroom and thought it seemed easy enough. I repeated the same lesson in the computer lab using the digital projector so everyone could see the computer screen as they would see it. I modeled with a student account and even typed an entry. While doing it in front of them, it seemed like a lot of directions and perhaps I should have made a tutorial sheet for them to take back to their computer. Back at their stations, students logged onto their computer with their username and password, then worked through the necessary steps they would have to master before they could begin composing each month:
- Locate home box and double click (I found many are not able to double click)
- Go to my handout box and double click
- Double click on September (or current month) timeline
- Go to file-save as
- Click in front of timeline and type name
- Save in student folder
- Begin typing on timeline template
Many students were successful in completing all the steps in order to begin their typing and got right to work. While I was helping students double click, others didn’t follow directions and went ahead and began calling out, “What do we do now?” I had to stop everyone and have them put their hands in their lap if they had logged on and opened up their templates. I had to go back through the process step by step with the digital projector. Once everyone was ready to type, we had 5 minutes left in our 50-minute lab time! I then showed them all how to save their work and drag it to my drop box. As promised, the computers did work extremely slowly, but I don’t think it mattered because my students worked slow, too! The slowness would be an issue later in the year as they get more proficient. The Technology Integrator, Deborah White, was not in the lab with me that day and it was difficult working with 17 students who all needed my constant help. I learned I’d need to create an instruction sheet for them to have at their computer spot, to have them follow along with me the first few times we work with any new technology program, and realize it will take twice as long as you think it will to implement something new. I was hopeful that as they got more proficient with the technical aspects of the project, I could teach them more about word processing, special features of the program and I could be available for conferencing with them while they type. On that first day, not one student was able to type a complete sentence and I was wondering if this project was too much to expect from a second grade student.
The next week, students were able to do all the necessary steps in order to get back to their September template. Several had not saved the previous week so they had to start at the beginning, but they have not forgotten to save again! Everyone was successful finishing their work and after two lab sessions they all completed their September entries. I still saw the need for helping those that were having difficulty double clicking and logging in and getting to the template. Before the next lab time, I had them practice those skills in the classroom as we have three computers available.
Throughout this resource, I will share two students’ work. One student is Franc, a reluctant writer who was a new student in our classroom that fall. He was a very pleasant, shy boy who told me the first week of school he didn’t like to write. For the first few weeks of school, he wrote one sentence and each day he would trace over the letters or get a new piece of paper and write the same thing. I was gentle with him and praised him for each new letter or picture he added and always ended my conferences with him by saying, “Wow, look at you…That’s just what writers do!” Franc also didn’t like to share, but over the months, he became more comfortable sharing his writing. In December, he told me he likes to write and he is very proud when he tries something new that I’ve taught.
Students’ September Writing
Franc’s September Timeline Writing: I can’t believe September is over already! The best thing about September in Room 14 was my favorite thing was the puffball because I could step on it. (The italics indicate my sentence starter)
My second writer is Ana. She enjoyed writing and was a very proficient writer, but didn’t enjoy sharing her writing. Initially her fear of sharing impacted what she’d write.
Ana’s September Timeline Writing: I can’t believe September is over already! The best thing about September in Room 14 was writing stories because I started publishing one of my stories.
In October, kids were able to decide on their topic a lot easier with the use of the chart we created on a daily basis.
I had them turn and talk and tell a friend what they were going to write about. Some asked if they could write about something that wasn’t on the chart. Franc was one of them. That month, they wrote their learning on a large sticky note. I asked them to write their thought and told them they could elaborate on it while composing on the computer and later in the day, they took their sticky notes to the computer lab.
Franc wrote: The pencil thing and the apple.
Ana wrote: Harvest party.
The computers all worked at once since the servers were upgraded that day. Because they get weekly practice in the computer lab, they were all able to log on quickly and get right to work. Most were able to complete their timeline typing, except for a few students who wrote so much, they were not able to finish. They were quite excited to know they could finish it the next day in the classroom during writer’s workshop.
Students’ October Writing
Franc’s October Timeline Writing: October was such a busy month and I learned so much. Did you know I got an apple and I got a pencil for tying Cameron’s shoe and his shoes are cool because they are blue?
Ana’s October Timeline Writing: October was such a busy month and I learned so much. Did you know that we had a harvest party? The food was great! We made yarn pumpkins and apples. We also made fall bookmarks.
I wasn’t sure what the kids would produce based on their sticky note thought, but I was quite pleased with what they all wrote. Most wrote a topic sentence with at least one detail. What I learned that month was, due to practice, students were able to log on and open up the program quickly. They were more fluent at typing and beginning to know where many of letters were on the keyboard. I also learned I’d need to do some lessons with punctuation and creating capital letters on the computer as many were asking how to do it.
The kids were very motivated to do this work, even though they were not seeing the whole picture yet. I didn’t have a sample to share with them and wondered if I should have made one to share when I introduced the project. Something else exciting occurred in the classroom that surprised me as I didn’t really think they thought of their timeline other than when they worked on it. They actually thought about the timeline during work times! On occasion, I would hear whispers around the room of, “I’m so writing about this for my timeline this month.” That was exciting for me to hear second grade students planning their writing for the future.
Again, in November kids were able to easily choose their topic for their timeline writing.
This was the first time they wrote their complete entry on paper first. They were very excited to use the stand up clip boards in the lab they had been wanting to use since the first week they went to the lab.
Franc’s November Timeline Writing: November was a fun month because we did the best part of me. I like the best part of me. (The Best Part of Me was a poetry project we completed. The class worked diligently to create poems about their best body part and we created a movie you can view below.)
Ana’s November Timeline Writing: November was a lot of fun! I loved going to Germany. We learned how to say good morning in German-Guten Tak! Did you know that gummy bears, Christmas trees, and wristwatches were invented in Germany? I knew that the capital of Germany is Berlin. (During November and December, we studied different countries.)
In December, I had previously taught the class a few lessons during our regular lab time as many had been asking how to make uppercase letters, how to make question marks, exclamation marks, and how to make the words bigger. I taught them how to do all these things as well as change the font and color. Many had also been asking what the squiggly line is for under words. Now, they are much more aware of misspelled words and they want all their spelling to be correct! Some students are even backspacing and attempting the spelling a different way. They are also learning correct hand formation and do amazingly well keeping their index fingers on the “J” and “F” keys. While the lessons may sound quite simplistic, they are another step in the digital writing process for young learners.
When it came time for December timeline writing, I was happy to see the content of the students’ writing. It was also refreshing to witness most kids keeping their fingers on “F” and “J”, using one space between words instead of 12, using punctuation at the end of sentences, and some even used internal punctuation as we had been doing an inquiry study on punctuation during writer’s workshop. The transference of daily writing skills to digital writing has been amazing to witness. Overall, it was a good day in the computer lab, even though the computers worked slowly again. The class had not yet caught up to the speed of the computers!
Franc’s December Timeline Writing: Even though we only had 15 days of school in December my favorite was pajama day because the classroom got to watch the Polar Express movie and we got to drink hot cocoa.
Ana’s December Timeline Writing: Even though we only had 15 days of school in December I had a lot of fun. My favorite thing was the Polar Express. I loved the hot cocoa, the doughnuts and the movie. Yum!
For January, I first had students sit with a partner and talk about their plan for their timeline writing. For that month, I told them I would not provide a sentence starter and they would have to be sure to communicate to their audience they were writing about January. After they discussed their plan with their partner, they wrote in their writer’s notebooks. When they were finished they conferenced with their partner to praise what they heard and ask questions. Based on the questions, they each went back and revised.
Over half the students wrote about penguins, as they had been working diligently to adopt a penguin species. They had been keeping an adoption journal where they researched what their species would need in order to survive so they could learn how to take care of it. They were very motivated with the penguin writing as when they learned all they could, their penguin (a plaster penguin I made and painted for each student) would come to live with them. In January, both Ana and Franc chose to write about their penguin.
Franc’s Notebook writing for January:
On the computer, Franc typed: I’m adopting a penguin in January and my penguin is an emperor penguin. My penguin can dive off a cliff from 70 feet up. My penguin is a emperor penguin.
(Watch the penguin movie we created below. Using their penguin research, students were able to create a “How To Be a ____ Penguin” based on the species they studied.)
Ana’s Notebook writing for January:
On her timeline, Ana wrote the same thing she had in her journal: In January I adopted the Macaroni Penguin. It weighs about 10 lbs and is 20-24in. The Macaroni penguin eats krill and fish and it has a bunch of orange feathers. My penguin lives on subantarctic islands. Leopard seals, skuas, fur seals, sheathbills, and petrels all think a macaroni penguin would make a good snack. I’ll keep my penguin away from them!
In the lab in February, I tried something new and wished I had done it sooner. I invited our fourth grade care buddies (Carebuddies meet biweekly, usually to read together) to the computer lab and modeled what I wanted them to accomplish. Because their fourth grade teacher, Sara Kreutz, had been working on peer conferencing, I knew they had the language needed to help their buddy. We stressed the importance of revision-not editing as it would be tempting to correct second graders spelling! My students were able open up any template they were interested in revising. Then they read their work to their fourth grade buddy. Their buddy would praise their work, then ask them a question about it. The second graders then told their buddy what they would add. I was impressed with what they were all able to accomplish and in the end, the fourth graders said, “That was fun.” And now they want to share their writing with us. As a result, Mrs. Kreutz and I plan to have them do some buddy revision with their writing workshop folders and notebooks. This process was really amazing. All students were on task and really listening to each other. The fourth grade students asked great questions to elicit more writing and the second graders were more than willing to add it to their existing text. While working with Franc’s group, Franc’s buddy asked him what happened when he stepped on the puffball. Franc said, “Oh, smoke came flying out of it.” His buddy said, “You could write that!” And he did, kind of!
Franc chose his September timeline. His initial writing said: I can’t believe September is over already. The best thing about September in Room 14 was my favorite thing was the puffball because I could step on it. With his buddy’s suggestions, he revised it to read: I can’t believe September is over already. The best thing about September in room 14 was the puffball because I could step on it. Smoke came out of the puffball! His buddy also helped him realize his original first sentence didn’t make sense, so he helped him revise that sentence as well.
Ana chose to revise her October timeline. Her initial writing said: October was such a busy month and I learned so much. Did you know we had a harvest party? The food was great! We made yarn pumpkins and apples. We also made fall book marks. She added: We made them with glue and paper.
For February, students wrote a weekly entry in their writer’s notebooks about something they learned during the week. At the end of the month, they would have two to three entries to choose from and they might choose to combine some of their entries. I also told them to think about writing in their notebooks whenever they have one of those, “I’m so writing about this on my timeline” moments.
Ana’s February Notebook Writing:
Ana’s timeline typing as it looks on her computer screen:
Franc’s February Notebook Writing:
Franc’s February timeline writing as it appears on his computer screen
(Notice he added more text as he typed):
An interesting question was asked while saving February’s work that reminded me I am working with second grade and they need reminders of “the big picture.” Donte was getting ready to drag his saved timeline work to my dropbox and he asked me, “What happens to my writing once I put it in your dropbox? Will it ever come back?” I asked the whole class if they remembered what we were doing with all this writing and only a few knew. After discussing the project and reflecting on the day, I was quite taken aback with their motivation and excitement to work on this each month without even remembering what we were creating! This is quite a group.
Listen to Ana’s interview about the timeline project:
Franc talks about his experience with the timeline project:
In March, all the students had generated a few ideas for their timeline writing and recorded them in their writer’s notebooks. The comments of, “I’m so writing about this in my timeline,” continued to be voiced as the students were engaged in various activities in the classroom. While the project seemed to come to a completion for the Digital Is website, it was far from over in Room 14. We were going to see this project through to the end of the year. For me, this project was the biggest and most exciting change I made all year. It made my focus more clear during computer time by teaching lessons that connected from week to week and it also kept me motivated to carry a project through to completion.
Because the students all entered second grade with various levels of computer skills, they all learned a great deal from a consistent project such as this. They have all mastered logging on to the computer and locating the various folders they need to navigate through in order to do their work. They can now easily get their timeline transfered to their template from their notebook in one computer session. They are all able to save their work to their own folder when they are finished for the day. Many have mastered keeping their index fingers on the “f” and “j” key and begin to locate the letters easily. They all know to put only one space after a word and two spaces after ending punctuation (this was a huge accomplishment as they were accustomed to putting at least 10 spaces after every word). Most importantly, their writing has improved a great deal. They all needed a sentence starter in September, October and November. Now they are creating their own. Many started out in September completing one sentence. Now, they are writing several details to support their ideas and some are writing so much they have to change the font size to assure it all fits on their template page. That has been quite exciting to observe. In September, students were not thinking about spelling and punctuation. Now they are very critical of the red squiggly line and want all their writing to “look right.” Initially, I set out to try something different each month to see which strategy would elicit the best writing. I discovered they all do their best writing when they prewrite in their writer’s notebook. The kids have all agreed this works best for them and you’ll hear about that in the interviews with Ana and Franc. We’ll continue to add to our project through the month of May and will then prepare it to share with parents.
June: The Timeline Ends – The Learning Continues
In May, my students logged on and entered their last timeline entry. Lots of moans and groans were heard when I told them this was their last entry. Several students said, “But it’s only May.” I explained in June they would each need to create an introduction slide and the need for me to go into all of their accounts and compile their individual slides into a slide show format. That was one lesson I learned the hard way. The technology Integrator and I “thought” it would be easier to have me create a new template each month for students to log into and type on. It turns out, I should have continued from each previous month so all their slides were in the same presentation, saving me hours and hours of dragging. As a result, I had to do endless searching to locate several students’ months as they had renamed them by their nicknames or just the month or they had been erased completely! That part was time consuming but once it was complete, enthusiasm was high as students saw their whole project together for the first time.
From there, I printed them all out and had them practice reading them, and also revising/editing at least 2 pieces, but they could do more if they wished. It was interesting to listen to the comments, “Look how I spelled that word in September, I know how to spell that!” or “This does not make sense, I need to fix this.” or “Can I add something to this month?” I had to remind them that whatever revising and editing they did on their papers would need to be done on the computer project, so choose wisely as time was running out! That’s another area I would change: I should have printed their slide out as soon as they wrote it and sometime during the month, they could have revisited it. My initial thought process was to show growth over time, but in the end, I think it would have been more meaningful for them to revise and edit each month.
In June, they were as ready as they were going to be to share their projects with their parents. We had a whole afternoon to celebrate. We began in the classroom with their hardcover nonfiction books they had been working on since February. From there, we transitioned to the computer lab for the timeline sharing. I will add I had 100% parent participation. That is the first time in my teaching career I have had all parents present for an author’s celebration!
In the computer lab, I briefly explained the yearlong project, although parents had heard about it many times throughout my weekly newsletters. I also asked parents to praise their children on content as we had not revised and edited every entry. I asked them to notice growth over time with their child’s thought process and writing skills. Evidence of pride could be seen on all students’ faces as they shared their work with their parents. As I walked around and listened in, several parents stopped me and told me how impressed they were with their child’s ability to reflect on their learning and asked if they could have a copy of their child’s presentation. At the end of the celebration, I asked parents to fill out a feedback form. I told them it was optional and just asked for a comment from them about the timeline project.
Here’s a compilation of parent feedback in their words (14 out of 17 parents filled one out):
- I really enjoyed seeing the hard work that the children do on an everyday basis. It’s nice to see the children working with computers and knowing how to correct their own errors.
- It was clear and wonderful to see the multiple layers of learning objectives within this project. As a parent, I greatly appreciate the effort set forth. As a result of this effort, my child will have a greater appreciation of computer literacy, the discipline of journaling, the ability to extract pertinent information and the ability to self evaluate.
- How great we have second graders using presentation software! Also, a great project for students to reflect on each month.
- My child seemed very comfortable with the technology and extremely involved in the writing project. You could “hear” in his reading the work and the thinking behind it. And it is of course a nice memory of his school year.
- It was a nice recap of the year from the perspective of the student. It is interesting to see what they think is important.
- It was awesome! Great job! A wonderful project for kids to learn constructive computer use.
- Great idea for a project. Each child has a “memory” of her/his year. It’s fun to see differences between the months. My son liked this project.
- I am impressed with my son’s computer skills and writing. Nice project, Ms. O.
- Great seeing what she did throughout the year. The project gave a good overview on her problems with spelling. She did a great job.
- I really enjoyed a recap of the year, given through my son’s eyes. It helped me pause and appreciate him for where he is in his life. I wonder if you could have the students write a final summary of their year with 1 or 2 favorite moments and why they chose them. (I liked this idea and we did this in June in our notebooks-although we were not able to type them on the timelines.) Great job!
- Fantastic idea to chronicle the year through the use of writing and computer technology. I will use this idea during the summer when my kids have “down time”. You are an amazing teacher! I am so happy all of my kids had you!!
- Exciting and interactive project. Great for children to use the computer and imagination. It might be beneficial for some teacher oversight in directing content. At times entries were a stream of consciousness. If there is a way to help harness imagination and focus the ideas-without hindering the creative process. Also-highlighting grammatical and spelling errors.
- I enjoyed seeing the kids work on the computer. Seems this was a unique opportunity for them to use technology to create a paper. As their skills developed they were able to go back and make changes to their work, which are skills needed for future. Great job.
I really felt good reading the parent’s feedback as often times during this project, I questioned what I was doing with all the technology troubles I had. Many parents really captured the essence of the project in their feedback, realizing it was about student self reflection and creating a meaningful project to complete during computer lab time. Even though I had many technology issues each and every week, I found this to be a valuable project to complete and am already working on something for the new school year. I feel I have set a great foundation for this group of students to begin creating more in-depth multimedia projects in the next grade levels. While the students were using a specific program each month, I was not teaching the program, I was teaching children and writing. What they learned can be transferred to any computer program they open. They have all gained confidence in themselves and they are truly proud of the work they have created!
Listen to the interview with our Technology Integrator, Deborah White: