Project Members

Lauren Crooke


This project describes and includes materials for a 5-day mini unit taught in November, 2011, in a grant-funded after school program at a local public upper-elementary school. The focus of the unit is on supporting students’ informative science writing through the use of technology. The unit incorporates online media, visual learning tools, and an online animated avatar application as well as hands-on experiments to encourage high-interest participation and learning. This document will describe the program expectations as determined by the grant as well as the structure and student make-up of the after-school program. Additionally, it will address the challenges and opportunities that arise due to these programmatic considerations.

The Topic & Standards

Maryland Common Core Language Arts Standards/ Writing (4th grade level standards)
  • W2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content
    • W2.a Introduce a topic clearly and group related information in paragraphs and sections; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension
      • Apply the prewriting stage of the writing process: gather information on a topic; synthesize information from within and across sources
    • W2.b Develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic
      • Differentiate between a concrete detail and a more general or abstract idea
    • W2.c Link ideas within categories of information using words and phrases
      • Apply domain-specific vocabulary to clarify information

As determined by the parameters of the state-funded 21st Century Learning Grant and the grant partners, the mini-unit's main purpose was to support and enhance students' informative writing skills (specifically in regard to science content) while using technology as a high-interest learning tool.

The unit writing goals stem from the Maryland Common Core Language Arts standards for fourth grade informative writing as well as the grant partners' required use of the Six Traits Rubric for Informative Writing. However, given the time constraints of the program and the expansive nature of both the standards and the rubric, it was necessary to limit the focus. Therefore, the unit only specifically addresses objectives regarding the use of precise language including domain-specific vocabulary and the inclusion of facts and details which support the main idea. The fourth grade level standards were chosen because it is a mix of third, fourth, and fifth graders in attendance. Although the above-mentioned standards are the only ones addressed specifically by unit objectives, the collective informative writing standards have been carefully considered in the building of the unit.

The main goals of the grant itself are both math and science related, but the goals most closely related to this unit are: 1) Raise students science scores school wide by getting students excited about and engaged in science and 2) Encourage positive core values. Additionally, the funding agency (the state of Maryland) strongly stresses student voice, choice and engagement.

Prior to the start of the writing class, students had completed six weeks of a science session in which they built toys based on simple machines and basic physics concepts (provided by another grant partner). The writing class was intended to complement this science learning and give students an opportunity to write informatively about the science content. Based on this information, students would create an informative writing/technology project about their favorite toy they made, the materials/steps required to make it and the scientific concepts which made the toy work. However, the first days of the writing sessions abundantly showed that students had retained very little of the necessary knowledge and had not been required to take any notes during the science sessions to which they could refer. Because two of the student projects incorporated levers, levers was chosen as the writing focus. Unfortunately, students just did not retain what they’d learned and without any ability to reference the science program, the writing session had to focus on information gathering so students would have something to write about.

The students were presented with a purpose, audience and a task for the project through a Wix website. Their task was to learn more about levers so that they could create a Voki, or talking avatar, that could be shown via the web to first graders studying the new science curriculum who were having difficulty understanding what levers are and what they can do. After gathering the information, students wrote informative scripts, recorded their scripts and created a Voki.

The NETS standards were secondary to the writing focus and not required by the grant partners. However, in an effort to align the use of technology with the current standards, two were chosen from the NETS for Students focusing on students' skills in applying existing knowledge to both the generation of new products (1a) and the use of new technologies (6d).

The Setting and Context

The Academy program takes place from 3:30 to 4:30 after school at a public upper-elementary (grades 3-5) school in an urban/suburban area of a local county. The students do not attend voluntarily but are selected for the program by school personnel based on their current level of achievement both in school and on standardized tests (including MSA). They are organized into two classes of twenty students with each class meeting twice a week. Each group has approximately equal numbers of third, fourth and fifth grade students. Many of these students struggle with writing and about a quarter of them have repeated behavior problems. Of the forty students, twenty are African American, seventeen are Hispanic, two are White, and one is Asian. All of the Hispanic students are currently in ESOL or just recently exited and still in the REL program. Four of the students receive special education services. There are fifteen girls and twenty-five boys. Although I don't have specific data about these students' FARMS status, about 68% of the students at the school receive or have received Free And Reduced Meals.

The program operates independently from the school although many school employees work for it and the school principal sits on the leadership committee. It is significantly less formal than school and the level of expectations for student behavior seem to be lower. The program, materials, discipline policy and rewards system are chosen and provided primarily by the organization serving as the state of Maryland’s Local Management Board which is the coordinator of the grant.
All instruction for this unit occurs in the computer lab, a large, square room with no sound absorption material or carpet, where there are 25 PCs and a Promethean Board. This room also has two empty tables where small groups can meet as large open floor space in front of the Promethean Board. The space is actually very adequate, as are the computers with the only minor complication being that students must log in to the computers and several of them do not know their login by heart.

A teacher who works at the school serves as a liaison to the program. To get any additional materials--like pencils and paper and clipboards--they must be requested from her. Although this teacher is very responsive, this requesting process (usually done through email) adds a both time and effort to the planning process. Additionally, asking for items at the last minute is unlikely to be successful because she is teaching during the school day and the students in her classroom are not dismissed until around the time the program starts.

In addition to myself, there is one assistant teacher for the Monday/Wednesday class and one for the Tuesday/Thursday class. Both teach fourth grade at the school, and one is a special educator. Because there are several classes at each grade level, neither teacher was familiar with all of the students prior to the beginning of the session. They are both able and willing to take small groups of students and work with them, but neither of them uses educational technology in their classroom (due to too little time). One of them seems to be pick up technology quickly. However the other claims to know very little about technology. In addition to the assistant teacher, a young, male para-educator (school employee) comes with the students to the computer lab.

Mitigating the Challenges

  • Working within given parameters
From the start, the grant parameters were very restricting as they required that the writing instruction be based on science content that I had neither taught nor witnessed being taught. Additionally, the partner not-for-profit in charge of science was unwilling to share the curriculum with me for proprietary reasons and provided only a very basic outline . Students were not required to do any writing during the science activities, and therefore had nothing to look back to for reference. When I discovered how little the students knew of the science content they had supposedly learned, I had to re-plan the session to incorporate the learning of some new content in the quickest possible way so that students would have some science to write informatively about. I set aside one day for students to experience hands-on learning activities. To supplement these, I preselected YouTube videos and websites which could both answer specific questions and provide general background knowledge on levers.

I should note that the requirement to work on informative writing skills was another challenging parameter--even though I knew about it long before I started. Informative writing is what these kids have to work on every day in school. It is the least exciting of the writing domains and the one I’d be least likely to choose in an effort to make a program highly engaging (another grant requirement). For this reason, I tried to focus students’ attention on the fact that they were writing a script for their Voki--one that had to be interesting and include important vocabulary and details about levers. Also, the writing requirements meant that I had to start off the session with a pre-assessment. I used a Google Form for the pre-assessment hoping that students would be more interested in completing it since they would be using the computer. (Unfortunately, this wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped since several students did not press “submit” even after repeated reminders).

Time was yet another limitation that had to be worked around. This group would only meet for five hours total. Additionally, after the first three sessions, we had a week’s break before the final two sessions. Knowing how students’ memories work, it was therefore important to complete the research and the script writing before the week’s break, so we had to move through the data-gathering, information organizing and writing sessions very quickly. In addition to frontloading the sessions, it became clear that students could not use the computer for every task as I had initially intended in part because each activity then took at least twice as long and in part because of their behavior (more about that to come). Therefore, some tasks had to be completed using paper and pencil.

  • Engaging a challenging group of students

Knowing only limited information about the students prior to starting made planning difficult. Inquiry did lead to some general data about students’ instructional levels, their technological skill and their use of technology in school. A class list was provided which indicated each student’s grade level, ESOL level, and whether or not they receive special education services (although not the specific needs those services are addressing). Teachers (who work with the Academy) reported that students rarely get to use the computers in school--only once every other week and that most of their exposure is to word processing rather than other programs owned by the school system like Kidspiration or to web 2.0 tools. Additionally, students were said to be easily engaged by computer activities. No behavioral issues were shared with me, and I did not think about the impact of whether students are or are not voluntarily part of the program.

As it turned out, the single most important attribute of these students appeared to be their behavior at this after-school program. They somehow had the impression they were coming to the computer lab just to play games and many were therefore disappointed to find otherwise. Additionally, after a long day at school, which is difficult for most of them anyway, students were tired of academics, loud and chatty and wavered in their attention. Some students were even more challenging and downright rude at first.

The students don’t have a very long break between ending their school day and coming to the class. In fact, prior to coming to the computer lab, students are released from their classrooms and have 10 minutes of recreational time and 10 minutes of snack time. At times, we did physical exercises together to give them an additional opportunity to move around. I also tried to not keep students too long at the front of the room where they would have to sit on the floor. I had to backpedal to set down some clear behavior expectations and find out more about the incentive program (which no one had told me about). I also, at least at first, tried to maximize student time spent on the computer and aimed for a final product that was motivational and involved a high degree of choice. Because of personalities who did not get along with each other, it became clear that the students worked far better when divided into two or even three smaller groups.

  • Meeting the needs of reluctant writers

Many of the students have a great deal of difficulty with writing and require a lot of scaffolding. I intended to have students complete more activities in Kidspiration both as a precursor to writing and for the script writing itself. However, given students’ critical writing needs, behavior concerns, and time limitations it made more sense to do these activities as a group and/or with pencil and paper. The writing was heavily supported with all students working from a graphic organizer that held the same information in order to create their scripts. Even with this support and small-group guidance, some students were still frustrated.

Students typed their short scripts using Microsoft Word after a mini-lesson about what “the red lines and green lines” (spell check and grammar check) mean. This use of the word processor made it easier for students to check their conventions and also seemed to focus them (perhaps because here was finally a technology task they are familiar with).

  • Working with students and teachers who have a range of technological knowledge

Although they do not have much time on computers at school, at least half of the students, particularly the older ones, seem to be avid users at home. They are fast on the computer and eager to do as they wish. If they are not monitored, several of them could be scrolling through YouTube before you know it. Additionally, the older students have more experience with the word processor. The third graders particularly are not familiar with the computers and are significantly slower with navigating and following directions. This is one area which I will deal with better for the next session by seating the third graders (and any other slower users) close to each other and assigning either the assistant teacher or the para-educator to help them specifically.
It’s not just the knowledge of the students that matters. The assistant teacher, Ms. L does not use technology in the classroom while working with students and is unfamiliar with many of the programs and materials used in this unit. Therefore she is more comfortable helping students when the task is not related to technology and though she tries, is not much help with technological troubleshooting. The para-educator, Mr. J, seems fairly conversant with technology but his familiarity with the students can lead them off track. Additionally, he has a hard time following directions. In an effort to make it so both assistants could be helpful with the technology, I used Jing to create screen capture directions. Mr. J picked up the technology and Ms. L didn’t look at the directions.

  • Being unfamiliar with available resources

Although this is fairly easily remedied, it is a challenge to know all the resources available in the school system. Not only is it important to know what programs are provided for student use on the PCs, but also it’s vital to know what technology is blocked. This lesson was learned the hard way when I created a tumblr as a repository for all the preselected websites and videos I wanted students to be able to easily access only to find that tumblr is blocked. It is important to check each technology before planning to use it!

The Materials and Technology Tools You will Need

  • For the purposes of being able to create an assignment, design an easy entry point for students and compile and share students’ Voki’s, I purchased Voki classroom. However, when Voki classroom did not work on the day we needed it, we made do with the free Voki--although some students’ Vokis did get lost in the ether. Voki is not technology that requires a high skill level or even much understanding. It is almost too simple to use for a final project presentation. However, given our time constraints and the many parameters of the program (including the encouragement of student choice) Voki was a good option for a presentation tool because even if we had barely any time left for putting our projects together, students would be able to create a Voki quickly and upload their recorded scripts. Or, if they were behind and hadn’t gotten to record their script, students could still copy their text into the text reader.
  • After my tumblr was blocked and I realized that I didn’t know how to prevent YouTube videos from linking directly to YouTube in wikispaces, I created a mini pathfinder in Wix. This pathfinder contains the photos I used to review their science projects from the previous class, the assignment, a tiny summary of information about levers, links to selected websites and videos and a little more. It is easy to make a wix look kid friendly and easy to use.
  • Kidspiration: Although I intended to use Kidspiration more frequently, I did use it to create the graphic organizer for students and I completed the graphic organizer in Kidspiration on the Promethean Board as they completed it with paper and pencil. With a little more time, students could have completed their graphic organizer and their information would have been able to be seen in Writing mode looking almost like a paragraph. Kidspiration has many cool features and is especially good for brainstorming (although we had no need for that this session).
  • Microsoft Word: Students used this to type their short scripts and used spell check and grammar check to find errors.
  • Microphones: Students read and recorded their scripts for their Voki.
  • Audacity: For students who finished early before we were ready to begin Voki, they recorded their scripts using Audacity and later uploaded them to Voki.
  • Google Forms: In order to make the pre-assessment more interesting by having it on the computer, I created a google form. Unfortunately, many students forgot to press submit even after many reminders. Perhaps it’s not a good idea.
  • Jing: I created a screencast in order to describe for students how to make a Voki. Partially I chose to do a screencast due to time constraints (I thought they might pay more attention and interrupt less frequently) and partially because it is cool! “Is that your voice, Ms. Crooke? Did you record this?” I also used Jing to help me made directions for using Audacity to be used by those students who were moving ahead.
  • Google Presentation: Several times in order to review information at the beginning of class or focus discussion, I created a mini presentation to show on the Promethean Board. The main reason I used presentation software rather than any other was because of it's ease with images.
  • Pre-selected websites and YouTube videos about levers
  • Journals and pencils for students
  • Graphic organizers
  • Tools that can be used as levers (screwdriver and paint can, hammer and board with nails in it)

The Implementation & Assignments

Day One: Use Wix site to introduce a Voki and the task, review science projects and scientific concepts from unit students just finished. Have students complete writing pre-assessment on line. Students complete Kidspiration lever sort activity as pre-assessment of what they know about levers.

Day Two: Review of the task, Data Gathering on Levers: use slide-show introduction to levers. Have students go in search of specific answers to specific questions using note-taking form. Divide class into two groups. Group A watches videos and looks at websites through Wix pathfinder while Group B has a hands-on experience with levers at work. Convene all together at the end of class to answer research questions. As a group, revisit lever sort activity.

Day Three: Review information learned about levers by completing graphic organizer (see below) as a group. Present mini lesson about using concrete details and science vocabulary to help your reader understand the concepts in your writing. Divide into two groups to write scripts using graphic organizer as guide. Students finished early begin typing their script in Word. As a group share concrete details from scripts.

Day Four: Review task and information learned about levers. Present mini lesson on using the Word spelling tool and grammar tool to help correct punctuation and spelling mistakes. Complete scripts if not completed and type in Word. Finished students record script in Audacity and save using Audacity guide sheet.

Day Five: Review Voki Checklist (on Wix site). Watch screencast of how to make a Voki. Log in to Voki and create. Upload audio or record script directly to Voki using microphone. Have students complete printed Voki checklist. Share completed Vokis looking for specific, detailed vocabulary and interesting language.

The Lessons

Day Two Materials:
Lesson Plan for Day Two
Wix site
Levers Slide Presentation
Note-taking Sheet

Day Three Materials:
Lesson Plan for Day Three
(need Kidspiration to View)
Day Four Materials:
Lesson Plan for Day Four