Prospecting For Treasure

Always prospecting for the next treasure of an idea.

Using a WebQuest

These students are learning about the American Revolution.

I have always done research projects with my fourth graders, so when I learned about webquests, it seemed like a very good fit.  Our school is a Core Knowledge school, and my  4th graders learn about world geography, the American Revolution, and the middle ages, along with our regular school district curriculum.   Webquests are another one of those things I learned about in the technology class that I took last summer.  One of our assignments was to create a webquest. 

A webquest is an inquiry based lesson plan that teaches students through use of the internet.  It was developed by Bernie Dodge at San  Diego State University.  A webquest has sequential steps that guide the student through the lesson, with a required outcome at the end.  I like the fact that it introduces children to using the internet to find information, but it controls where they  go.  It minimizes the possibility of finding inappropriate websites, but it does not eliminate it, so students still need to be supervised closely.  You can learn more about webquests at WebQuest.Org.

My first webquest was about mountains.  I used Quest Garden, which takes you step by step through the development of your webquest, even coaching you as you go along.  Quest Garden has a 30 day free trial, and after that, costs only $20 for two years.  The advantage of Quest Garden is that you can use webquests created by other people, and even adapt them to the needs of your own students. Quest Garden has thousands of webquests on file, so it’s a great way to learn about the possibilities.  Check it out at   Another source for webquests is the University of Richmond.  You can check those out at   You  can also create a webquest using a wiki or website.  There are many options.

Our school does not have a computer lab, but I have been able to patchwork a classroom lab with 3 older Dell desktops, an old Dell laptop, and 5 new HP Laptops, that are shared, but live in my room most of the time.  We had a new wireless internet installed last summer, which is what makes this possible.

The first time our class did a webquest, we all worked on it at the same time, and we worked in teams.    They worked as a team to do the research, but had to create their own Mountain Field Guide.  I found it challenging to find websites that were at my students reading levels, and that provided them with all the information they needed, so I also brought in library books, and they were required to use at least one book as an additional source.  I want them to learn to use multiple sources.

The kids were so excited!  This was the first time that several of my kids had ever used the internet.  In fact, some of our families do not have computers in their homes.  They loved clicking on the links to open up a new website, and I had some problems moving them on from exploration to actually using and thinking about the information.  I created a document to use to gather their information.  My kids need this additional structure. We also had some days when we put the computers away and took time to process our information, and utilize the books in the room,  In the end, I was pleased with the Mountain Field Guides created by the class.  Here is my first webquest, Mountain Trek.   

Since that time, members of my class have done two other webquests.  I have a group of advanced readers, who read the book The Sign of the Beaver.  This is one of my all time favorite books.  For this  webquest, I used one that was already created by Emily Fraser at the University of Portland.  She did all of the hard work, and I just modified it.    This group of students was able to work much more independently. But again, I had some problems transitioning them from research to completing the tasks.  Check out The Sign of The Beaver WebQuest.

Our webquest notebooks are 3 prong pocket folders with notebook paper and a graphic organizer.

Right now we are doing a webquest about the American Revolution.  Students are working on it, a few at a time,  when they are at the computer center (which consists of the old Dells).  This is usually during our small group reading time.  This one was created by by Carole Birdsong, at Asbury Elementary School, and modified by me.  So far things are going well.  Again, I created a form for them to take notes, to help them gather the information in one place. It does seem that no matter how academic my intentions are, my clever students always find the links to games and activities that are less academic in nature.  This one is called “A Revolution is Coming.  Which side will you be on?” 

Are you using webquests?  What has worked best for you?  Please share your ideas in the comments below.  I am always looking for ways to keep our time more focused and productive.

January 31, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

Encouraging Kids to Write

The Writing Can rules are: draw a slip of paper out of the can without looking, glue it in your writer's notebook, and write about it.

I have learned so much about using technology in my classroom from others on Twitter, and I am doing many more things with technology than I ever did before.  Even so, the majority of our class time is spent on things that don’t directly involve technology.  I am still “Prospecting for Treasure,” so I would really like to learn more about what others are doing in their classrooms for writing, reading, and math instruction.  In this post, I will share some of the things I do to encourage kids to write, with the hope that you will share some of your secrets.  Then I will promptly steal those gems and use them.

I like to keep kids writing all the time in my classroom.  Sometimes, we do big projects, working through the writing process: prewriting, drafting, revising and editing, and finally publishing. But we do lots of little things as well.  Several years ago, my school district embraced a writer’s workshop model, where students were to continually be working on topics of their own choosing, from prewriting to publishing.  When one piece was completed, they were to move to the next piece.  In reality, I found that most kids finished one piece, and then pretty much stalled out.  Most adults have difficulty thinking of things to write about, so I’m not sure why we assume it will come more easily to kids.  Also going through the entire writing process on every piece is overwhelming and frustrating to most 4th graders.  It has worked better for me to have lots of options available for young writers. We do editing and revising on our special projects, but most days we just write.

My school  is a public school, but it is also a traditional school.  We have a dress code, mandatory homework on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursdays, and great parent support.  I can usually count on 95-100% attendance at parent/teacher conferences.  We also teach a Core Knowledge curriculum, in addition to the regular school district curriculum.  In 4th grade, we study the American Revolution, the Middle Ages, and lots of other exciting topics.  We do several research projects.  In a later post I will talk about how I do research with 4th graders, but today I want to tell you about our monthly writing topics. 

I started thinking about this, because it’s time for me to put the February Writing Calendar together.     The monthly writing topics are a collection of 20+ story starters that students can choose from during the month.  An example is in the file cabinet to the right (assuming I got it to work right.)  I didn’t come up with these topics on my own.  I have collected them from several sources, but most are from the book, 730 Journal Prompts:  Two for Every Day of the Year from The Mailbox.  And just recently I picked up another, Daily Journal Prompts: Two Prompts for Every Day of the Year, also from The Mailbox.  I select those that I think will invite more thought and longer writing pieces, and reword them to remove very date specific references.  When an idea talks about “your school” or “your principal”, I insert names, which seems to catch the kids’ interest.  This month, I also printed off a chart of Mind Movers from Mind Movers & Brain Teasers , which is a Frank Schaffer Publication. My goal is to provide students with lots of ideas to choose from.

 One of the 20 choices on the writing calendar is “Pick your own topic.” and another is “Draw a topic from the writing can.”  Picking a topic from the writing can is very popular in my room.  I’m not sure why.  The writing can is full of more than 100 other story starters.  The rules are:  draw a slip of paper out without looking.  Glue it in your writer’s notebook, and write about it.    Check out the Story Starters File in the “File Cabinet” in the sidebar.  This year we are using notebook paper in a 3 prong pocket folder for our writer’s notebooks, but they are not holding up well.  I prefer using composition notebooks.  Pages don’t fall out like they do in spiral notebooks, and the pages are smaller, which I think is less intimidating for reluctant writers.

Writing and independent reading are the main assignments for seatwork  time.  We take time to share some of what we have written about once a week, either with the whole class or in a small group situation.  Students also self evaluate their writing with a rubric each month.  My original rubric came from Teachnology,  which I adapted to meet my own needs.    A copy of the rubric for February is in the file cabinet.

  So how do you keep your kids writing?  What works best for you?  Please share some of your gems in your comments below.

Books for Journal Prompts

The Journal Prompt books I use for ideas.

January 23, 2010 Posted by | Education, Uncategorized | , | 2 Comments

School District Finance 101– As Understood By Me

We had a very disturbing staff meeting after school on Friday.  We had already been hearing rumblings of things to come.  During the past few months, state budgets have been slashed by 10%.  This has resulted in cuts to every government agency in the State of Iowa, including unpaid furloughs and layoffs.  With the trickle down effect, it also meant a 10% budget cut for local school districts.  That 10% cut was for the 2009/2010 school year.  Contracts were already in place, so there were no layoffs in our school district.  The cuts have come from other places, and some reserves have been dipped into to ease the pain.
The outlook for the 2010/2011 school year is much more dismal.  We were informed on Friday that there would be a $33,000,000 shortfall.  This time there will be layoffs, to the tune of a 15% across the board staff cut.  This means 450 positions in all, including 302 teachers.  I am a veteran teacher, I know I’ll have a job, but none of us will go unscathed, if in fact, this really comes to pass.  I felt terrible for my student teacher who will graduate in May.  It was a very discouraging meeting for a young teacher just entering the workforce.  I worry for my colleagues who are in their early years of teaching.  If this happens, the biggest losers of all, will be the kids.  It will mean larger class sizes and the loss of great teaching talent, not to mention an educational environment with substandard technology, equipment, books, and supplies, since all budgets are already frozen.
Our meeting was orchestrated by the top administration in the district.  Our principal presented a prepared powerpoint to us, outlining the funding for the district, and budget concerns, and the fact that 85% of the budget goes to salaries.  We learned that this same powerpoint was presented the previous evening to DMEA, our teacher’s union.  It was stressed several times that the final outcome was dependent on many factors, including funding and negotiations.  It was suggested that we contact our legislators and DMEA.
Later in the evening, I watched the local news, where this situation was described as “worst case scenario.”  It was at this point that my skepticism began to set in.  I can’t help but think of the last time we had teacher layoffs in our district.  That was six years ago.  I remember the tears and grief after two of the teachers in my building received layoff notices.  Loyal to our school, they were left with no choice but to seek employment elsewhere.
Funny thing was, that by the end of the school year, and after negotiations were completed, somehow district administration discovered money in the budget, and those layoff notices were rescinded.   In the mean time, our very talented kindergarten teacher, who had received notice, was offered a better job in another school district, for more money and closer to her home.  So, ultimately, our kids lost out. They lost a great teacher.
As expected, our staff left the meeting and school extremely upset.  This is a different time, with a far worse world economy, than the last time.  We are surrounded by both state and local budget shortfalls.  I believe that our school district is in financial trouble, but I certainly hope these dire  predictions  are not  a part of posturing for a better position in negotiations.

January 16, 2010 Posted by | Education | , , | 2 Comments

Teach Your Conscience: Keeping Integrity and the Basics in Education

Earlier this week a few of the teachers in my building were chatting, after the kids left.  I stopped to talk, and in the course of the conversation, it came out that these teachers aren’t really teaching spelling, grammar, or handwriting anymore, and they weren’t really sure what to do with writer’s workshop, because these things aren’t on “the test”.  I really kind of lost it at this point and reminded them they need to be teaching what the kids need, not teaching to a test.  I know where this came from, because I too sat in meetings last year, where my principal questioned whether teaching spelling was a good use of our time.  She wants to have students spend more time on writing.  My reaction was to explain to her exactly why it is a good use of our time.  It is the only area with our reading series that word study and word attack skills are taught in third through fifth grades.  Words are selected based on a particular spelling or phonics pattern.  Our list this week was spelling patterns for words with –ing or –ed endings, other weeks it might be certain vowel sounds, or prefixes and suffixes.  Understanding spelling patterns helps children to learn decoding skills, so they can read words that are unfamiliar to them.  It also adds to their understanding of word meanings.  Without the mechanics, it is difficult for students to be good writers or readers.  After presenting my arguments, the subject was dropped, and to be honest, it had never occurred to me that anyone had actually stopped teaching spelling. 

In the past year, I have also been told not to spend time on teaching handwriting, and about a month ago, it was suggested to my grade level colleague and I,  that we shouldn’t worry when kids don’t know their basic math facts.  We should just hand them a multiplication chart.  At this point I erupted with a firm “No!” (Let me say that if I didn’t have the great principal that I do, this might have caused problems for me, but she continues to welcome my opinions.) 

I do not understand what is going on in education here, but I am not going to give these kids less than I have given others.  I am not going to give up on them and just hand them a fact chart instead or doing my job and helping them to master those facts!  How can you have any kind of math sense if you don’t know the basics?  How can you ever look at an answer and have any idea whether it is logical or not, if you have to look at a chart to know your math facts?  How can I send them into the world without having done my best to teach them how to write a complete sentence with words spelled correctly?

You may be thinking, well she’s just an older teacher who doesn’t want to let go of the way she’s always done things.  I am an older teacher, but I’m not boasting when I say that I am also the most innovative teacher in my building.  I am the only one using technology to any extent in instruction. Teaching basic skills and using technology are not mutually exclusive.  The more we use technology, the more I see the need to help my students develop stronger basic skills in reading, writing and math.  It is when my kids are writing on our blog or for Wallwisher that it becomes apparent that we need to take time to talk about grammar, sentence structure, capitalization, punctuation, spelling, usage, and so many other very basic skills. 

I am not advocating that we should sit with a language book and diagram sentences, like I grew up doing.  But we need to be very careful before abandoning necessary and basic skills in order to make more time in our schedule for other things.  We cannot assume that students will just pick these skills up along the way.  They need to be taught explicitly, but in an authentic way.  I have always had my kids doing research, reading great books, and excited about learning.  When students are reading and writing about information they are interested in, they are eager to learn more and to master the skills that make them more successful.

Two of the teachers in the hall are fairly new to teaching, and the other has been at it almost as long as I have.  My message to them and to others is that teachers need to stand up for what is right.  We need to say no, when administrators suggest new directions that defy logic.  These kids are not ours.  We only have them on loan.  What would their parents say if they were privy to some of the conversations taking place in education?  Be open to new ideas, but be selective.  We as teachers, must have integrity.  This is the only shot many of these kids get at an education.

January 8, 2010 Posted by | Education, Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

Everything Looks Better With a Little Glitter!


I finally went into my craft room this morning.  I really have not touched my stamping and scrapbook materials since I began this journey with technology.  The visual creativity of designing a wiki or webquest seems to satisfy those same needs that crafting does.  I thought so anyway.   I am just two days away from returning to school, and I needed to make and write thank you cards for the gifts my students gave me for Christmas.  I told myself I was just going to throw something together quickly, but the ink, the stamps and the glitter worked their magic, and I found myself spending hours in there. 

I looked at the shelves of stamps and paper that go unused most of the time, and I decided again to take some of this to school to share with the kids.  This was something that I was going to do before Thanksgiving.  I had planned to set up a card making center.   It would be a writing center.  In order to use the paper, stamps, and ink, you needed to write a paragraph or poem.  Instead of setting up the card station, however, I got involved in a Wallwisher project with teachers from other states.  This project was exciting and we all enjoyed writing and seeing what kids in other states were writing and doing.  It was a great project, but it took a lot of time, and the card making station went by the wayside.

While I never got around to setting up the card making station, we did make torn paper snowman cards.  The kids had fun, but I was stunned once again when it became apparent that this group of 4th graders, like many of the groups I have had in recent years, do not know how to cut, just as they do not know to fold paper to make something symmetrical.  They do not know how to make a snowflake.  They do not know how to problem solve in order to build something.  Many struggle to put together a 100 piece jigsaw puzzle.  I have to teach them the strategies of sorting the pieces with the straight sides to form the outside frame.  Why is this?  It is because we no longer give kids opportunities to do these things in kindergarten and first grade.  They are reading and we are preparing them for tests by age 5.  A few years from now, most children will not be able to read or write in cursive, because it is no longer being taught.  We no longer permit kids to dress up and pretend.  My school district is pushing teachers to do non-fiction reading instead of reading fiction with children.  Should we be surprised when kids show no imagination or creativity in their work?  Should we be shocked when they don’t understand that they need to cut the heart on the fold, otherwise it will just be two scraps of paper that fall apart?  Should we be concerned when they don’t realize they need to cut the mat larger than the picture that is being matted?

In our rush to be part of the digital age, let us not forget to teach these most basic of skills.  Putting together a jigsaw puzzle builds thinking and problem solving skills.  One would think that the abstract problem solving required for a video game, would transfer to this hands on problem solving situation, but apparently it does not.  Cutting and gluing paper requires hand and eye coordination.  It requires planning, and problem solving.  It teaches us to revise and adjust initial plans, when necessary.  Let us not be so busy preparing kids for the world of the future, that we do not prepare them and let them enjoy the here and now.  Let’s give kids opportunities to cut, paste, build, and use their hands, even if we can’t put it on a test.  Let us not handicap them by teaching them less than previous generations have known.  These activities build necessary skills.  They are also very satisfying to the soul.  Let’s let kids be kids.  Let them indulge and enjoy a world of creativity and imagination.  Let them build and create with their hands.  After all, everything looks better with a little glitter on it!

January 2, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment