What would you do if you had a second-grade child reading at a high school level?
What if you were a teacher of a Talented and Gifted (TAG) student in a small rural district where there were no other children of similar cognitive abilities with whom to collaborate?
These were some of the questions pondered by a Professional Learning Community (PLC) at Northwest Area Education Agency (AEA). Every professional staff person at Northwest AEA is participating in a PLC this year for personal professional development.
AEA employees Debby Berthelsen, media technology specialist; Judy Sweetman, instructional coach; and Jeff Sypersma, technology support supervisor, together tackled Alan November’s book, Critical Thinking and Critical Literacy. In doing so, they learned about constructivism and its role in student achievement.
“The theory behind differentiated instruction and problem-based learning is constructivism, which is the belief that learning occurs when learners, presented with higher order thinking tasks and held primarily responsible for their learning, become active participants in their learning, and thus make meaning out of their experiences,” Judy explained.
Each of the PLC participants thought of second-grade students they had worked with who have higher order thinking skills for their age group. Then they factored in another important element November talks about in his book: the role of technology. The PLC participants connected students they help at Nodland Elementary in Sioux City with a student at Whiting Elementary through Skype.
To bring their idea to fruition, each school had Skype accounts set up, along with cameras and monitors. Debby attends the Skype sessions with the Nodland students and Judy attends with the student from Whiting. They are meeting weekly, and they hope to eventually use Skype to visit with students from Belgium, Taiwan or Great Britain. If Skype doesn’t work (because of time differences), the PLC is also going to have the students start a Word Press blog so they can communicate that way, too.
“Educators need to use available technology and approach it through constructiveness learning by doing and thinking,” said Judy.
Many are involved and supportive of this collaborative effort created by the Northwest AEA team, from the administrators to a TAG teacher to librarians.
The instructors asked the students to choose a common topic they wanted to explore. They decided to look at the game of soccer on an international level. Their conversations, collaboration and assignments are all soccer-related.
"I'm going to use several of the activities in my enrichment program," said Diane Owens, TAG teacher at Whiting Elementary.
Jacque Eldal, second-grade teacher at Nodland Elementary said she is so happy that her students are able to experience technology with a capable instructor.
“This is an excellent opportunity for these advanced students to collaborate online with a student in another school district,” Jacque stated. “Every week my students look forward to sharing insights and new knowledge via Skype and the soccer blog.”
The PLC team is using differentiated instruction techniques like Know, Understand, Do; graphic organizers; and the Six Facets of Learning to guide the students so that they can reach critical thinking in the subjects they approach.
What do the kids think of this project? One had this to say, "This has been very interesting so far because I didn't realize all I could do on a computer. I have only used a computer to play games or practice skills at school. Now I know that I can talk to kids in other schools and learn new things. It's pretty neat!"
In between critical thinking and literacy exercises, the kids are gaining a few social skills, too. One of the students wanted to know if the others had Zhu Zhu Pets, and if so, which ones?
Somewhere in the middle of this PLC, constructivism techniques, technology and Zhu Zhu Pets, gifted students are challenging each other, educators are learning new strategies and AEA staff are growing in their own professional development.
Sounds like a win-win-win!