Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Lights, Camera, Take Action: The Planners

Check here if you missed the intro post.

It's All in the Planning

The planners are key to creating a meaningful learning experience for the students. Too often, we see the project and technology as the focus--they're going to create video documentaries--rather than seeing the documentary skills as merely an appropriate tool to enhance student learning. As I posted earlier, I was guilty of this myself when I first started doing these. I wanted a lesson to integrate technology; the focus on persuasion was secondary. After watching students create these for a couple years now, I understand the power lies in the planning, in guiding students to generate inquiry-based essential questions during the planning process that will engage them in real research.


This sets the overall vision for the documentary, the "Big Idea." Students begin thinking about audience and the best ways to convey their message visually and verbally. They also start building their argument, considering why their issue is important and developing a call to action. They're going to need help with this, especially in focusing their topic and making it specific enough to cover thoroughly in 10 minutes. So plan at least one day to work on these in class.

After that, if you want them working on their own, Thinkature provides a great place for online collaboration and brainstorming (no more "It's too hard to get together" excuses!). Students can work together in real time, with options to either voice chat or IM. After students have received their planners with your comments/suggestions, you're ready to move on to the heavy stuff!

The Research Planner

If you haven't already booked planning time with your Library Media Specialist, do so now. I can't stress this strongly enough! This may seem like a no-brainer to you; if it does, pat yourself on the back! If it doesn't, or if you've never collaborated with your LMS before, take this occasion to learn what a phenomenal resource you have, whose main job is to make YOUR job easier and more effective!

This assignment isn't like researching the causes of the Civil War. Students will need hard to find data and primary sources, much of it on the Invisible Web. This is a great opportunity for students to improve and hone their information literacy and advanced searching skills, one of the best methods for developing independent, life-long learners. Moreover, the LMS can help students frame their essential questions, generate search terms and plan their search strategies.

Essential Questions

This is the crux of the project. If students haven't been introduced to essential questions before, you'll need to spend considerable time teaching the concept and creating several together as a class. Here are a few excellent resources: Jamie McKenzie and David Jakes.

As Wiggins and McTighe explain in Understanding by Design,
These are questions that are not answerable with finality in a brief sentence--and that's the point. Their aim is to stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry and to spark more questions...They are broad, full of transfer possibilities. ..We need to go beyond questions answerable by unit facts to questions that burst through the boundaries of the topic. Deep and transferable understandings depend upon framing work around such questions.

Students created topics in their planner, e.g. pollution, which, through your guidance, they narrowed to 'garbage in Pittsburgh.'

Now they need to turn this into an essential question to guide their research. A normal research question might be "How is garbage managed in Pittsburgh?" This just begs to be plagiarized, as students cut and paste information from point A to point B and simply regurgitate information.

Reframe this as an essential question, "How can we improve garbage management in Pittsburgh in ways that are both environmentally sound and economically viable?"

You can see the difference immediately, the second question requires all those upper level thinking skills in Bloom's--analysis, evaluation, creativity, and there's not one pat, easily available answer. In fact, if students start arguing about the answer before they've even started researching, you know they have a great question!

To quote Wiggins and McTighe again, "The [essential question] signals that education is not just about learning 'the answer,' but about learning how to learn." It's about process as much as (but not excluding) product, about requiring students to consider options, weigh the evidence, support their ideas, draw conclusions and justify their response. It's about helping students make personal connections with their learning as they gain new and meaningful understanding of the questions.

The rest of the Research Planner guides students through planning their research. Specifically, they will generate Foundation Questions, which are the fact-based questions to support their argument, and determine the most likely sources to find information. (Again, think Library Media Specialist here, who can not only suggest sources, but also teach search strategies and appropriate citation.)

Collaboration Tools

I usually give students 4-6 weeks to complete their research. I schedule a few days in the library for them to find text-based resources, but the bulk of it they do on their own, with twice weekly "I have a problem" sessions before the end of class.

A few tools to help them collaborate:

Wikis: Wikis provide an excellent spot to gather and organize their findings, images, etc. If you don't already have a wiki space set up, PBWiki is an easy to use option that provides ad-free sites for educators. WikiSpaces has a slightly higher learning curve, but more functions. Currently, they also offer a free upgrade to the Plus Plan for teachers.

Diigo: I LOVE Diigo. It's a browser add-on (Firefox and IE) that allows users to highlight text directly on a website, then add a sticky-note for comments, which can be published to a group. This would be an excellent way for students to share/discuss websites as they research. Highlighting text creates an archive on the Diigo site, essentially saving all the information (including a shot of the page) and comments in one place. From there students can add additional comments on all the pages, avoiding doing a WWW treasure hunt.

BackPack and Zoho: Both of these sites provide students a space to create to-do lists, calendars, and write collaboratively (which they'll need for their script). Zoho is a one-stop shop for collaboration, BackPack syncs with WriteBoard, and may be more easy/fun for students.

(Access planners and handouts here.)

Next Post: Let the Filming Begin!

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