“I need someone to be the victim.” Laughter echoes through the elementary STEM lab on a frosty Saturday morning in Grand Haven, Michigan. Two girls giggle, surrounded by wrinkly chart paper full of messy writing, as they attempt to recruit actors for their anti-bullying video. A third girl rushes over, and the trio huddles around an iPad. The space is fairly noisy, maybe more so than a typical classroom, with pockets of kids spread out around the room. Looking beyond the mess and the noise, you might notice ten third and fourth grade students all highly engaged in learning. You might also notice a few adults coaching kids and asking questions. What you would have a hard time seeing is who is in charge.
This Saturday morning was an opportunity to pilot the first bit of content designed specifically for elementary students as part of the YouthVoices and LRNG partnership, supported by the NWP. This content, referred to as a playlist, is an initiative to engage students in social and activist writing while bridging formal and informal learning spaces. The playlist is a collection of challenges, rewarded and tracked with badges, the allow students to pursue a personal interest with the support of peers and caring adults in an effort to connect to academics or civic engagement (Garcia, 2014).
The Saturday pilot was the result of months of work with the LRNG team from Red Cedar Writing Project. In addition to weekly meetings via video chat, we collaborated a few times on the campus of Michigan State University. At one point during one of our on-campus meetings, we were struggling through the logistics of using YouthVoices and LRNG to promote activist writing. How do we provide the right amount of scaffolding for students? How do we monitor their progress?
Then it became apparent to me–we were approaching the problem as teachers of traditional spaces, viewing it as a classroom problem. Yet, since this work is an attempt to bridge informal learning with our formal learning spaces, I realized I needed to shift my thinking. Rather than thinking of a classroom project and attempting to almost flip the instruction, or provide it online, I realized I needed to think about creating a learning experience specifically designed to encourage informal learners to seek out learning.
The bridge between the formal and informal learning spaces is the badge. Rather than telling students they must complete lesson modules to earn the badge, the focus is more on the task required to earn the badge, with many opportunities and learning resources that might provide support in completing the task. The task, itself, should be something students are interested in pursuing and completing.
Piloting the Playlist
During the Saturday morning pilot, it was exciting to see the level of excitement kids had. The playlist I had created, Make the Playground a Better Place, started with a video of kids on the playground describing the problems they see. The purpose for the playlist is to make a video or project that might address one of these problems in an effort to make the playground a better place.
One student was working on trying to come up with a solution for the climbing wall. In addition to the need for repairs, he was very concerned about the bees that have built a nest inside the climbing wall. At first, his idea was to get a spray to kill the bees, then to repair the broken parts of the wall. Simple enough. However, once he started digging into the research, he was shocked to find out all of problems associated with using pesticides, specifically how insecticides have been tied to the decline in bee population, which is bad for the planet. We also had fun trying to read ‘dimethylcyclopropanecarboxylate’ aloud.
Taking time to look for information from multiple perspectives, his project took a new approach. His new solution was to repair the parts on the rock climbing wall so bees would find a new home. His project took on the approach of advocating for solutions other than insecticide for the bee problem on the climbing wall:
“I think the rock walls of very hazardous thing because we all know it’s broken and it has bees inside. We should fix it so we can get rid of the bees. I think we should get rid of them by bee spray. Wait a minute bee spray is bad because it kills our honeybees and that’s bad for us! Honey bees pollinate our flowers so we have flowers that make it so we can breathe. So what do we do? We actually fix it. We actually fix the handle and then bees won’t go in it anymore.”
-Noah, Grade 4
Other projects included a heartfelt video that was shown on the school news broadcast, a playground bully box that provided information for a playground bullying heat map, and a group that worked on a PowerPoint presentation to give to the teachers at a staff meeting. Since kids were working simultaneously in the Library STEM lab, kids often partnered up or helped each other on their project.
Moving forward, there were some components of the Playground resource that might need to be reworked. There was not enough support in identifying credible sources. I discovered that kids simply didn’t have enough knowledge about finding resources, and the support in my playlist was not sufficient. The problem can be best illustrated through this real interaction I had with a student about the research component:
Kid: What do you mean? We already found the facts.
Me: But is it a reliable resource?
Me: But, how do you know?
Kid: I looked at it.
Me: But, how does looking at it tell you if the author knows what they are talking about?
Kid: Because it has facts.
In addition, some of the coaching that occurred between adults and students was related to audience. For example, one student was planning on creating a video to convince the principal that kids need to stop bullying each other. I asked, is that really the person that needs convincing? In both of the cases, I wonder how successful this playlist might have been if these students were working outside of the school setting. I’m not sure I have an answer on how the playlist can provide support in these areas without turning it into flipped instruction that kids must complete. I guess the better question is, what am I hoping kids will get from this playlist? Am I delivering content, or providing an opportunity to pursue an interest in a supportive environment?
Elementary aged students are passionate about significant issues, and are interested in social justice. When given an opportunity, even our youngest students are eager to help. From plugging in a classroom iPad so it will charge to standing up against a bully with a friend, elementary students can change the world and make it a better place.
Writing is often used to bring attention to issues in an effort to bring change. For years, YouthVoices has provided teens with an outlet for writing, leveraging the power of the Internet to connect with others and give purpose for their writing. This rich platform has been available for teachers to use in schools for free. However, so far YouthVoices has been designed with teens in mind.
While there are web-based resources available for elementary classrooms to share student writing with an authentic audience, much of what is available for our youngest writers presupposes writing is nothing more than a skill to be learned. For example, when doing a simple search for elementary writing on the iPad app store, most apps either focus on grammar skills and drills, or are designed to teach handwriting. It is challenging to find online platforms designed to support the sharing of student writing while also promoting connections between students. Challenges include costly memberships, high levels of technical expertise required for setup, or limited audiences for the content once it is posted.
With the success of YouthVoices, and the new partnership between YouthVoices and LRNG, I’m excited to be a part of the conversation of how this powerful resource might be able to bridge this gap in resources. The new YouthVoices is designed with age categories, allowing for content to be categorized as 13 years and older. This content would be hidden to a younger student through login and account restrictions.
A group of Red Cedar TCs agreed begin this work. Our collaboration took place over the fall and into the spring, meeting weekly by video chat, email, and on the vodcast Teachers Teaching Teachers. We also met a few times on the campus of Michigan State University, home of Red Cedar Writing Project. As our Red Cedar cohort collaborated around the use of the new YouthVoices, we explored the logistics of using the new site. We explored LRNG. We discussed purpose. We dabbled in badge building. This time served as a sandbox for us to explore these new tools and determine how they might promote student learning.
I was excited about the affordances of the age restriction settings on the new YouthVoices platform. YouthVoices does, for free, what is so difficult to find for elementary classrooms: It has an authentic audience that gives value to the voices of all learners. I pictured how older students might support and provide feedback that would help grow the youngest students on the site.
As I used YouthVoices to build content and to interact with users, I have gained a better understanding of many of the affordances of the site. Much like LRNG, YouthVoices is a place where you could explore and get lost in what interests you. This gives the site value both from a school perspective, but from a student interest perspective as well. It truly does help facilitate the pursuance of interest-driven learning in a socially supportive environment. I can absolutely understand why middle school and high school teachers would be excited about using it with students. However, I ran into two barriers that, until addressed, makes the site tricky for use with young students–the interface, and the content posted by older students.
The interface of YouthVoices is challenging. YouthVoices is amazing, and it can do so many things. Those of us from RCWP working on this project are pretty tech saavy. We’ve all used technology ourselves and with our students. Yet, it was fairly common for us to need help from each other to figure out why something didn’t post. There are many, many options to choose from. Some are required, like choosing a picture, and some are not. As frustrated as we adults got posting content, I was viewing it through the lens of our young students.
While I could imagine my 3rd graders navigating the YouthVoices interface, it would take a lot of practice. Like, a LOT. Keep in mind, at this age, many kids still believe in Santa and the tooth fairy, are afraid of cooties, and might struggle reading words with irregular spelling patterns. As I struggled with the interface, I had in mind the first grader who burst into tears logging into the state reading test that required him to type his name and a password similar to ‘snow’. I was thinking about the second grade class that struggled using Chromebooks because many had never used a device that wasn’t a touchscreen, and the idea of a mouse was a foreign concept. Many students at this age simply don’t have the necessary technical skills or reading ability to navigate such a complicated, tech-heavy interface.
The other concern that would prevent me from using the YouthVoices site with my elementary students is the content. While there are many important issues on the site, they just might not be appropriate for our youngest users. A quick scan of the site shows topics such as abortion, marital rape, and legalizing marijuana, among others. Elementary students are not prepared to deal with such heavy issues. I can also guarantee most parents would not be okay with their children interacting with this content.
While there is a setting to tag content as age 13 and above, it isn’t the default, and it depends on the author of the content. There is no guarantee that on any given day there could be content featured front and center on the site that is inappropriate for young students. As a site moderator, I know that I have the ability to go and tag inappropriate content as 13 and over. That’s just not realistic. I can’t promise my students and their parents that I will always catch questionable content. The same could be said for the Internet in general. However, if I expect my students to use a site, my district’s acceptable use plan requires content and interactions to follow the same rules and guidelines as would be expected in the physical classroom.
What I would advocate for is a parallel site to YouthVoices. Perhaps it could be called KidVoices. It would ideally contain much of what makes YouthVoices so powerful: a space to honor the written word and provide an outlet for issues that matter to elementary students. It would allow students to pursue topics of interest, in a peer-supported and developmentally appropriate environment. The interface would be greatly simplified, and would rely on universal design elements that would allow for students of all age and reading ability to successfully navigate the site.
Garcia, Antero, ed., 2014. Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom. Irvine, CA:
Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.