This week I stepped out of my comfort zone a bit with the idea of Open Network, in terms of how can I get my youngsters to appropriately and effectively communicate with one another in an age-appropriate and fun way that would interest everyone, yet be student-driven. I was inspired by the project that Gail Essler did with her students in terms of writing, uploading photos, and getting shared responses through community members.
My written narrative is going to explain my summertime Flat Stanley project. Many elementary teachers at my school from third to fourth grade use Flat Stanley for summertime homework. For those of you who never heard of Flat Stanley, a brief synopsis is below:
Stanley Lambchop and his younger brother Arthur are given a big bulletin board by their father to display pictures and posters. He hangs it on the wall over Stanley’s bed. During the night the board falls from the wall, flattening Stanley in his sleep. He survives and makes the best of his altered state, and soon he is entering locked rooms by sliding under the door, and playing with his younger brother by being used as a kite. One special advantage is that Flat Stanley can now visit his friends by being mailed in an envelope. Stanley even helps catch some art museum thieves by posing as a painting on the wall. Eventually, Stanley is tired of being flat and Arthur changes him back to his proper shape with a bicycle pump.
The traditional approach that teachers have been doing for years is based around this image:
The basic principle of The Flat Stanley Project is to connect your child, student or classroom with other children or classrooms participating in the Project by sending out “flat” visitors like the one shown above. Kids then talk about, track, and write about their flat character’s journey and adventures. Although similar to a pen-pal activity, Flat Stanley is actually much more enriching-students don’t have to wonder where to begin or what to write about. The sender and the recipient already have a mutual friend, Flat Stanley. Writing and learning becomes easier, flows naturally, and tends to be more creative. This is what teachers call an “authentic” literacy project, in that kids are inspired to write of their own passion and excitement about the project. This can become an even MORE powerful and authentic project when we throw in the element of Open Network. With the use of a laptop, camera, or even a phone, students can take pictures of their adventures and upload them to a platform. Students can be given choice (my students LOVE Comic Life) in terms of how they want to share their experiences. Students could take pictures with Flat Stanley at summer camp, or a vacation to the beach, or to Grandma’s house, or at their favorite restaurant, etc. Then, students can upload these photos and blog about their experience. They can give details, tell about something they learned, or share unique places that many of their viewers may never have a chance to go themselves. This would be a “kid friendly” way to connect to one another using technology. Come the end of summer, students who took part in the project both as posters and as viewers/commenters would have so many interesting topics to bring back to school with them. Imagine, you are a student of working parents who didn’t go on many adventures over the summertime. You did, however, read about a student who posted pictures and facts about the Grand Canyon. You also read about Thailand through a student in another fourth grade at your neighboring district who spent the summer visiting their aunt and uncle. You also contributed, yourself, to the community by posting pictures of yourself at the nearby stream as you and collected soil samples for a science kit that you spent most of the summer using. All of these incredible experiences can be SHARED amongst kids.
Minimal involvement is needed on behalf of a teacher, since other students, teachers, parents, and the community at large could contribute content and compliments over the summer. This would create a type of “pen pal” system for the kids, serving as a way to stay connected even during break. Kids could ask questions to one another, or chime in about a time that they, too, saw the Grand Canyon and inevitably they’d end up writing an entire paragraph about the time that they…
(Think about those reluctant writers, who may not write an entire sentence over summer break if it were dependent upon pencil and paper.)
Each student could be required as summer work to respond to at x amount of other grade level communications. This idea could become even larger, across all elementary schools in the district, or even larger!
Another spin of this project could be to vary the way that kids post. As I said earlier, my kids love Comic Life. Kids could upload their photos into a cartoon-like poster, and create a story board around their adventures. My students, also, are familiar with shared Google Docs and Google Slideshows as a way of collaborating via a digital and interactive forum. As students write they can see their classmates’ answers in real time. This will not only serve to spark new ideas for students who may be struggling with a response, but it also gives students the chance to build off of and comment on the ideas of their classmates. Becoming familiar with all of the awesome tools that Google has to offer has been so beneficial in my classroom, and the kids love the real-time responses. Although this is a “small move” in terms of the slight changes I’m making to an already existing project, I feel like it can have tremendously rewarding effects. Having the open communication between students/adults they know, and perhaps people they don’t know would increase their equity in summertime learning, and also provide them with many creative ways to get their feet wet with fun technology!