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The Sunflower Project

One of the requirements of being a Google Certified Teacher, is to develop a "personal action plan." The idea for mine came during a discussion with our middle school language arts teacher, Deb Kuhr. Deb told me that she had been reading and discussing Simon Wiesenthal's book, The Sunflower, with her 8th graders. The Sunflower recounts Wiesenthal's personal dilemma (whether partially fiction or entirely non-fiction is apparently the source of some debate) around "the possibilities and limits of forgiveness."

The Sunflower is a book in two parts. Part one is the story of Wiesenthal's experience in a concentration camp as well as a request for forgiveness from a dying Nazi soldier. Part two is a symposium of responses."

"Among respondents to the question are theologians, political leaders, writers, jurists, psychiatrists, human rights activists, Holocaust survivors, former Nazis and victims of attempted genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia, China and Tibet. " (Wikipedia)

In our meeting I learned that the students, moved by the deathbed scene, wanted to create a video re-enactment of that part of the story. I thought it would be interesting to crowdsource the symposium, also through video. We shared the idea with the students, showing them the It Gets Better Project as an example.


Next we created the "Would You Forgive?" Google site as a home for the project. The students worked on writing the descriptions for the various pages of the site. They continued working, as part of their language arts class, on the script for the reenactment which was filmed after school and edited by one of the students over spring break. The students also wrote essays articulating their personal responses to the dilemma. Additionally, they video- reflected on the meaning of the entire project.


The Sunflower- Student Reflections from MJGDS Classrooms on Vimeo.

At the recent edJEWcon conference Mrs. Kuhr and the 8th graders shared the project and the re-enactment with educators from other Jewish schools, requesting that these teachers show the video to their students and solicit video responses. It was impressive to hear the students speak so articulately about their work.



From my perspective, working with a small class of "seniors" has had its highs and lows. There have been some real "blah" moments, some confusion around project management and productivity, even some questions as to "why are we bothering to do this?"

The edJEWcon session was a high point. The students watched others watch their video. They were able to see and hear outside appreciation for their quality work. This had an impact that surpassed any amount of teacher feedback.

 We still have a lot left to do and not much time left in the school year. The students are excited to promote the site and the re-enactment, to receive and review responses. It is our hope that this work will reach people, touch them and inspire them to think.




The Possibilities of Student Blogging

Andrea, Silvia and some students reflect on student blogging.

This video will be used as part of a free, online course for teachers.


Making the Connection: Pioneers of the “New World” and “Digital World”


Fifth grade students are getting ready to read the book "Jamestown" by Gail Garwoski.

A stirring story of survival set against the backdrop of the founding of the first permanent English settlement in the New World.
In 1606, King James I granted a charter to a group of London businessmen known as the Virginia Company to establish an English settlement in North America. In 1607, 104 men set sail aboard three tiny ships on a voyage to a new land. What they found became the first permanent English settlement in the New World-Jamestown.
Among the brave adventurers who made the journey was a young boy named Samuel Collier, the page of famed Captain John Smith.

How could we move away from assigning the traditional reading of the book (chapter by chapter), then writing a book report and possibly give an oral presentation in front of the class? How could we tie the lessons, delivery, supported skills and objectives NOT only to curriculum, but also to our Learning Target (based on and adapted from )


We are looking to move towards competency in five categories:

  • Learning Environment
    • Learning is engaging
    • Students are self-directed
    • physical environment conducive to learning
    • resources meet learning needs
    • learning is social and interconnected
  • Assessment
    • comprehensive
    • using a variety of techniques and resources
    • authentic learning experience designed, developed and evaluated
    • criteria are established for assessment
  • Role of Teacher
    • teacher as a learner
    • teachers as a cognitive coach and guide
    • teacher has strong instructional repertoire
  • Amplification
    • classroom is open & public
    • Teacher actively connects to larger global audience
  • Task
    • authentic
    • produces deep meaning

With that in mind, we had a brainstorming session with our 10 year olds. What did they know about the early settlers? What did they want to know?


What do we know?

We started with the traditional KWL concept and upgraded to KWHLAQ.

Could we compare pioneers and explorers who came to the Americas, the "New World" (with respect to the population who called these lands home and "their world" for thousands of years before the European came to "discover" it) and the "Digital World". What were dangers for the early settlers? What are dangers for cyber citizens? Were there double standards for the old and new world? Are there double standards for the analog vs digital world?

By now, students are pretty independent in creating collaborative Google Docs to share with teachers and their classmates to take notes. The concept of the Official Scribe from Alan November's Digital Learning Farm is embedded and works naturally for our students.

Below is the screenshot of the initial brainstorming session.




In our shared Google Doc, we gave students a prompt to expressed their initial thoughts about being an explorer in the Digital World and how it compared to being one in 1600s in Jamestown.

We were not sure, if all student understood. 5th grade teacher, Shelly Zavon, wrote a reflection after our first meeting with the students. I especially like her blunt honesty, that NOT EVERYTHING, not every class or lesson goes as planned nor well. We had to go back to the drawing board, we need to keep meeting every week to debrief after a lesson and tweak for future ones

I am hoping that the Jamestown project will come together soon. The idea is good; I just need to find a way to help the students dig deeper and start thinking on a higher level. For some reason, the students don’t like to be challenged to go to the next level. They want to do everything quickly and get to the fun part, which hopefully in this case will result in a music video.
With both of these projects, the students have had to move to a more advanced level of critical thinking (and accountability). I know this has been good for them, but is has been a grueling process for us teachers. I keep thinking, “learning is messy” and as Dory said in Finding Nemo, “Keep on swimming, swimming, swimming.”

How can we make the learning about Jamestown authentic? How do we connect the learning of the past and make it relevant to their present and future?

It just happened that Google Glass shared a new video with the request for applications to becoming a GOOGLE EXPLORER!


Two ideas came to mind:

  1. What if we were to ask our students to create a video with the same requirements as above (minus the last three points) to apply to become an Explorer , not for Google Glass, but for Jamestown. What would you do to become an explorer and leave for Jamestown?
  2. What if we were to ask our students to time travel with a device like Google Glass and take a video or pictures and they narrate/document what they are witnessing.

Watch us develop, as a 5th grade learning community, the topic further. I wonder what we will create.


Learning in the Modern Classroom

I have seen learning in the 21st Century modern classroom!

The learning just oozes through the cracks of the physical classroom walls.

Learning is amplified by the amount of people who are collaborating, participating, communicating and creating. The learning is NOT about the technology tools, but what students can DO with them to learn in new ways. The learning is about an authentic tasks, that allows students to contribute in a individualized and personalized manner to make them realize that their work matters in the real world.

It all started out with a conversation between Mike Fisher and me. He had written over 40 children poems and was in the process of wondering what to do with them? I was looking for an authentic task for 9-11 year old students. We felt we had a perfect match! How about getting the students Language Arts and Art teacher involved? The initial idea was to make a unit of poetry come alive, study Mike's poems and visualize the poems by creating illustrations.

Great plan... it snowballed from there...

A quick Skype call between Mike and the teachers, helped flesh out each of our expectations and a timeline for the "project". A critical component was the participants' willingness to be flexible and see where the students would take "the project".

What if...

  • ...Mike allowed students to alter his original poems if they felt inspired to remix them, making the creation process fluid and embedding new ways of looking at forms of copyright?
  • ... Mike offered to write a new poem to additionally created illustrations by students, flipping the collaboration roles?
  • ...we published a poetry book on various platforms? (hard cover/eBook)
  • ...we had student run a marketing and advertisement campaign?
  • ...we involved the Math teacher to support students in calculating how much the book should cost, what would the profit be, how would a profit be split?
  • ...allowed the class to handle the entire business venture?
  • ...we incorporated Alan November's concept of the Digital Learning Farm and leaving a legacy?

Each student was "given" a poem from Mike to be responsible for. We set up a first Skype call with Mike, the author, for students to meet him, ask questions about "their" poem.


Part of our job as teachers was to observe students as they were taking on the roles outlined in the Digital Learning Farm. We were/are looking to identify NEW FORMS of assessment, since our "project" was not to be an add-on to traditional assessment tools.

The Digital Learning Farm


As I was watching students talk to Mike Fisher via Skype, Will Richardson's call for Thinking Differently About Learning, which includes Learning to Talk to Strangers came to mind. As students interacted, I was watching their body language, paying attention to their vocabulary, ability to articulate an idea, their conversation etiquette and ability to follow a conversation and interaction. Stay tuned for the publication of a Taxonomy of Skype Conversation to facilitate assessment of video conferencing.


As the Skype conversation was happening in the foreground, other students were busy documenting and collaborating in backchannels. A Google Doc was opened and shared among all students, teachers and Mike Fisher. The multi-tasker Mike is, allowed students to Google Chat at the same time as he was talking to students via Skype.


Other students had taken on the task to tweet the Skype call


Take a look at the 4th and 5th grade Twitter feed, documenting the skype call. Students are exhibiting understanding of Twitter grammar, syntax and etiquette. They are showing progression by starting to add value, links, citations and they own thoughts. They are summarizing and articulating thoughts in 140 characters or less. They are directly communicating, disseminating, collaborating and connecting via social networking. We are using Twitter and HOTS as a way to assess these skills.









We had other students use different tools to take notes too. The notes app on their iPad or traditional paper and pen



One student chose to summarize what he heard during the Skype call by mindmap doodling. He was able to re-tell the different poems that were discussed between his classmates and the author.



Take a few minutes to peek into the classroom as students were debriefing from the Skype experience.

Poetry Book Skype from langwitches on Vimeo.

So, where do we go from here? The students are very excited and are taking ownership. There is no talk about what kind of grade they will be receiving for their work. An authentic audience will decide if they were successful. Students will volunteer to take on different roles in the publishing, marketing, finance, communication department. We will allow them to take the lead, consulting, coaching and modeling if needed.

Stay tuned as this "school project" unfolds.




Visualizing Stories

I recently found a video of 1st graders using the iPad to visualize a poem that their teacher read to them. After students drew what they imagined, they got into pairs and explained their drawings to a partner. The teacher also circulated to listen and to ask deeper questions of understanding.

The concept inspired our Kindergarten teacher and me to try something similar with our five and 6 year old students. Learning how to listen or read a story and being able to visualize the setting, characters and storyline is an important skill. Being able to "translate" one media (oral text) to another (an illustration) is a critical literacy skill.

Our librarian helped pick a book "How do Dinosaurs say Happy Chanukah", appropriate for this time of year. The Kindergarten teacher explained to the children, that she would be reading the book to them without showing them the pictures. A gasp was heard around the room: "What? No pictures?". Instead they were asked to use their imagination and draw the pictures in their heads first.

We then handed out the iPads and ask them to draw the picture they had formed in their heads on the iPad with the help of Doodle Buddy. Once finished, we saved the images and emailed them to the teacher.

Dinosaurs And Chanukah from langwitches on Vimeo.


3rd Graders Continue to Learn About Communites Around the World


A Vital Skill? Look For, Find and Learn from Online Guides & Tutorials

I am borrowing the notion of the Leitmotif, a recurring theme, and applying it to learning in the 21st century. For me it always seems to come back to a red thread of self-motivated and self-directed learning that connects all.


Anyone with an internet connection has the capability of accessing courses and lectures from Ivy League universities. Times Magazine published an article titled, Logging on to the Ivy League already in 2009.

Diamond is an esteemed neuroanatomist and one of the most admired professors at the University of California, Berkeley. It would be a privilege for anyone to sit in on her lectures. And, in fact, anyone can. Videos of her popular course are available free online, part of a growing movement by academic institutions worldwide to open their once exclusive halls to all who want to peek inside. Whether you'd like to learn algebra from a mathematician at MIT, watch how to make crawfish étouffée from an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America or study blues guitar with a professor at Berklee College of Music, you can do it all in front of your computer, courtesy of other people's money. Read more:,9171,1891740,00.html#ixzz2Avj9XAHx

Simply google Yale iTunes University or Harvard iTunes University and you are in business to potentially LEARN from the same professors that teach the students who are attending these "very expensive"higher education institutions.

  • Will you earn a degree from these universities?...No...
  • Will you receive one on one attention from the professors if you have questions about their lecture?... No...
  • Will you meet the right people or be roommates with the children of the right people?.... No....
  • Do you have access to listening and learning from some brilliant minds?.. on your choice of topics?... without having to spend a dime?... Yes!
  • Can you become part of an online learning community, with members watching the same lectures, discussing and learning with and from each other?...Yes

The "education" is there... there for the taking... only the self-directed and self-motivated... will and can take advantage of the offerings and LEARN from it.

I recently published a blog post inspired by Will Richardson's article "Three starting points to think differently about “Learning. I believe we have hit on another point, illustrating how we NEED to think about learning in a different light:

Being able to look for, find, watch, "re-wind" and learn from online lectures, guides and tutorials?

How do we transfer this skill and break it down into different benchmarks for the younger students not ready for Yale or Harvard yet? Thinking of :

  • the highest level of thinking skills (Bloom's Taxonomy) of creating
  • the disputed Learning Pyramid, which claims that learners retain about 90% of what we teach others (Take a look at Darren Kurpatwa's Academe's Dirty Little Secret)
  • Alan November's Digital Learning Farm with Tutorial Designers as one of the roles to empower learners. Give students authentic job responsibility to empower them and become part of a learning community (see Langwitches Posts about The Digital Learning Farm). Alan November recently published a book called "Who owns the Learning", where he goes further into the concept of students leaving a legacy, including creating tutorials for a global audience.

I am taking the route of having our students learn to create quality tutorials for each other or for their younger schoolmates. There is something about kids and wanting to teach what they know to others. Our kids are not only flocking as their first choice for learning to online tutorials, they are also becoming the creators of many (without adult intervention!)

  • Just ask a teenage daughter what she does in order to get make-up instructions if she has a "challenged mother" in that department? What about detailed directions for a complicated French braid?
  • How do you learn to pick a lock, after your niece locks the basement door from the wrong side?
  • What about help in order to upgrade your laptop's memory or install a new hard drive?

Online tutorials to the rescue! Take a look at the thousands of tutorials on youTube, websites, or snapguide, with "instructors" half or more the age of "traditional teachers".

I have written many tutorial posts on Langwitches. They come in forms of info-flyers to help guide teachers step by step in implementing a process or a tool, screenshots (image of my screen), screencasts (video recordings of my screen), infographics, podcasts (audio file), plain texts in blog posts, Word documents or shared with Google Docs.

The above mentioned book Who owns the Learning by Alan November was one of the Summer Reading choices for our faculty. Our 4th and 5th grade teachers have been taken on the task to expose students to the importance of digital tutorials and encourage the to produce their own tutorials.

In Language Arts, students worked on “how to” posts for their blogfolios. They were encouraged to add hyperlinks, video, and/or images to their post to enhance their writing.

Making a Hyperlink! (by Evie M.)

Hyperlinking With Thinking (by Itamar)

Adding an Image to a Blog Post (by Benjamin)

How To Draw A Dragon Head (video) by Julia

5th grade students had a first go at storyboarding and filming a tutorial of "How to create a QR code?". As a class, each video clip /tutorial was critiqued. Students came up with a list of suggestions to make tutorials better. Everyone went back to the drawing board to edit and make the tutorials better according to their list.

See a few video samples from students of "How to Create a QR Code":

What are your thoughts on the skill of learning with and from online tutorials? Important for the present and future of learning?


3rd Graders Explain Avatars

3rd grade students explain what avatars are, why we use them, where we use them and how you can create an avatar.

3rd Grade- What are Avatars? from MJGDS Classrooms on Vimeo.


Kitah Alef Shares Tips to Take Care of the iPads in School

Kitah Alef, will be using our school's iPads regularly during the school year in general and Jewish studies. The first step was to learn how to take care of them. Students were excited to be the actors for the video clip.

First Grade is Taking Care of their iPads from langwitches on Vimeo.


4th Grade Part of International Action Research

An International team of four classrooms partnered to do action research. They asked the questions: Does Blogging support and improve QUALITY student writing?
Our 4th graders, together with their teacher, Mrs. Teitelbaum, are part of this fabulous blogging adventure during the month of March 2012 .


Support their efforts and visit their classroom blogs (with student blog links) and model quality comments for them. '