Monthly Archives: April 2009

Wiki Informal Evaluation

Harambee Library Wiki

I told my students that they were writing for a world audience and to prove it I embedded the ClustrMap into the navigation bar.  Please visit our wiki, keeping in mind that it is definitely a work in progress.

Fortunately I do not have to provide report card grades for the 400+ students I see each week.  However, the wiki project is crying out for an evaluation of some sort.  To be honest, I’ve sort of been putting it off, not that I haven’t thought about it.  This evaluation is observational and I plan on a more formal assessment next quarter.

Needs Improvement

  • Since I don’t usually teach writing skills, I have done a poor job of scaffolding the writing that the students are doing.  Fortunately, one of the teachers working with me suggested using a book review template.  I think this helped quite a bit but I still need to work on this aspect of the project more.  They need to see more examples of quality reviews and practice more before actually writing the piece that they will post.  I’m not sure how to fit this into a schedule that includes lessons on how to use the library, research skills, website evaluation, etc.
  • On several levels, the quality of some of the reviews is not what I would like to see.  Basic capitalization, punctuation, glaring spelling errors, and missing words are all signs that students have not been concentrating when proofreading.  They are so eager to play with the editor functions, which I’ve encouraged, that they rush through the typing.

What’s Working

  • Most of the students are very interested in the project.  I seldom have discipline issues during class since they listen closely to instructions and go to work.  I think this is an important point.  Computers are a powerful incentive that can make a lesson more accessible and interesting to students.  Our principal told me that recently when she had to suspend a student, their biggest concern was the fact that they would not be able to post on the wiki.
  • They’re having fun.  I told the students to make that page their own.  Each one is very individual with various fonts and colored text almost exploding off the pages.  It might not necessarily be easy to read but that’s not always the point:

Scream School Goosebumps series

R.L. Stine

  • Some students have asked if they can continue to post reviews even after they leave for middle school.  Whether this will actually happen or not is not clear but the fact that they expressed an interest is exciting.

Future Plans

  • Next week students will be peer editing.  It’s much easier for students to notice the errors on their friends’ pages than it is to notice the ones on their own.
  • Some students are still writing and haven’t had a chance to post their reviews.  I hope that everyone at least gets started by the end of the quarter.
  • I need to work on my part of the wiki.  The pictures and links on the home page need to be completed.  Each individual genre page has the name of the students writing reviews and I have to link to their pages.  At some point I want to teach students how to do this and show them how to put a picture on the page.
  • A more formal assessment needs to be done.  For a big project like this, I’ve found that after I see what worked and what didn’t I can prepare a more useful rubric.

Taste Test Update

Four classes took the test this quarter and there were some interesting results:

  • Fourth and Fifth grade class voted for Cub brand Frosted Fruit Rings but only by one vote.  Tootie Fruities and Froot Loops tied for second place.
  • K-1 class Tootie Fruities won by a convincing margin.  Froot Loops only got 3 votes out of 21.
  • K-1 class Frosted Fruit Rings won.  Froot Loops took last again with only 5 votes out of 23.
  • Second and third grade class Tootie Fruities won by a wide margin but Froot Loops took 2nd place with 5 votes out of 22.

Taste Test Results

These results were different from the first half of the year.  Froot Loops took second place twice (although one was a tie).  We’re not sure why.  Obviously this test is far from scientific so there could be any number of reasons.  We wondered if the 4/5 students were affected by peer pressure since we did not attempt to separate students who sat with friends.  However, the results overall were basically the same as the last two quarters.

Froot Loops cost about twice as much as the other two cereals and is well known by the students.  After showing some commercials to the first K-1 class I asked them if they would go out and buy some Froot Loops and they all said they would.  It was practically a cheer.  How ironic is it that this group was the one with the least votes for Froot Loops?  When we told them the outcome they were very quiet and clearly surprised.

I wonder what I am buying that costs two times more than comparable products.  It makes you think, and that is exactly what I want my students to learn how to do.

Media Awareness

Tomorrow my students will be eating fruit colored cereal in my class.  It’s our Media Awareness lesson for the week!

Fruit cereal

How do you teach kids to be aware of the messages that are thrown at them from all sides?  One of the Minnesota Educational Media Organization (MEMO) standards for reading and media literacy is “Students will critically evaluate films, recordings, and other multimedia formats.”  I am fortunate to be collaborating with our Community Cultures teacher to deliver these lessons to my K-5 students.

We started by using the book Media Alert! 200 Activities to Create Media-Savvy Kids by Sue Lockwood Summers as a basic guide.  In our first session we defined media, including the messages on t-shirts.  The next week students viewed a tabloid news article and determined whether the information was reliable or not.  Later lessons include student discussion of such concepts as reality or make-believe, point of view, and gatekeepers.  We showed them images of celebrities and heroes found online and talked about who they knew more about, how many images popped up in searches, and why.  We explored tv and music genres, but the lesson with the fruity cereal is my personal favorite.

It’s a blind taste test!

At our local Cub food store (right next to the school) there are three very similar cereals on the shelf: Kellogs Froot Loops, Malt-O-Meal Tootie Fruities, and Cub brand Frosted Fruit Rings.  We prepare dixie cups with stickers on the bottom with samples of each brand.  While my colleague is setting the stage in her room, the students are in the media center with me.

I ask them what they think about ads they see on tv or hear on the radio.  I’ve gotten some very interesting answers.  One student said, “How would my parents know what to buy if there were no ads?”  Another wondered how they would know what they wanted if there were no ads.  I also ask them if they think ads affect what they buy.  Most recognize that they do and we talk about how much companies spend on ads.  I ask them if they can name cartoon type characters that represent different cereals.  Needless to say, they come up with a long list.  I show them three different Froot Loops ads and then explain how we are going to do the taste test.

The results?  In every single class so far, Froot Loops has been the least popular cereal.  The students are always surprised by this result but it’s an excellent proof of the power of advertising.  We point out to them that Froot Loops is the most expensive of the three cereals and that the winner has more sugar.  There’s so much to discuss with these observations however we usually run out of time.  Students love this activity and they get it.  What’s more, parents also like the media awareness lessons.

In a later lesson we take a look at the gimmicks that companies use to sell their products.  Students then can design their own ads for the cereal that doesn’t spend a ton on advertising, using the gimmicks we discussed.  They can either design a magazine page ad or do a storyboard for a commercial.  I would like to figure out how to present these online but we’ve never had the time or available computers, but that’s fodder for another post.

Image from

Mrs. Watson’s Search Engine

When one of our third grade teachers told me her students would be researching athletes or celebrities for biography reports I blanched.  If I had unlimited funds (not to mention space) I would be happy to provide books about people currently in the news, but let’s face it, sometimes they’re in the limelight for such a short period of time that it’s a waste of insufficient funds to buy a book about them.  The obvious solution is to search for free information on the internet.

We used to say that elementary students should not be using Google.  Anyone who’s ever come across something gross, embarrassing, scary, sickening, disgusting, etc. can easily explain why.  It’s a whole new world now, not that all those things aren’t still out there.  Google has made great strides in their attempts to make general searching safer for kids.  I link Google Safe Search for Kids on the Search Engines page of my Harambee Elementary School Website.  This provides elementary students with a vastly improved search experience.  The ads on the Google results page provide another sort of learning experience for my students.  This year I’ve been collaborating with the Community Cultures teacher to teach a unit on media awareness.  I tell students to ignore those Google ads (sorry Google).  However, while students may not get a million hits for a topic, they still can get several hundred thousand.  Another problem can be readability.  Personal search engines to the rescue!

The third grade teacher gave me a list of names and I found sites that had readily available information that kids could read.  Sites that had mostly performance statistics or super long biographies were screened out.  This process did take up a couple hours of time at home and I wondered if it was going to be worth it.  I can now say that Mrs. Watson’s Search Engine was a success in more ways than expected.  Students typically had a couple sites to look at.  Some of them did have to learn to ignore those sites that were about another person but merely mentioned the one they were researching.  This is a good skill to learn and how much easier is it when the number of sites is so limited?  Students learned to look for a print option on a site so they could read the article later.  I also wanted students to learn how to copy and paste the information they wanted to read later into a Word document if there was no print option.  Students saved a lot of paper doing this.

In the end, every student left with a book (yes we did have books for about 1/3 of those requested) or a printed page about the person they were researching.  My past experiences did not achieve a result anything like this.  The time and energy it took to prepare the search engine was well spent.  A personal search engine provides more teaching opportunities while providing an unprecendent ability to control the content to which students are exposed.  I will definitely be making more use of mine.

With a Little Help from the Teacher

When a librarian and a classroom teacher work together, the student library experience is immeasurably enhanced.  The attitude of the teacher directly affects the attitude of the students.  I’m not saying that a media specialist can’t teach effectively without the classroom teacher in the room.  I am saying that they get more out of the lesson if the classroom teacher is there and is engaged in what is being taught.  Unfortunately, this just isn’t always an option.

Today one of my fifth grade classes started posting their reviews on the wiki.  The class went very well, primarily because we had 5 adults in the room helping about 27 students.  I met briefly with the teacher this morning so she would be prepared to help.  I showed all the students together how to create a new page on the wiki. The class was then divided into 3 groups.

  • In one group students had taken a few notes but had not started writing their reviews.  They were able to work with a pre-student teacher.
  • The second group had written reviews that needed editing.  The classroom teacher sat at the big oval table with these students, helping individuals as needed.
  • I took the third group to the computers to start posting reviews.
  • In addition, an educational assistant worked one-on-one with students.
  • My wonderful, indispensable parent volunteer (whose student doesn’t even go to our school anymore) was available to help students find books or check out.

Everyone was actively engaged and I think we accomplished a great deal.

This kind of support is rare.  I’m nervous about two of the classes that will be coming at the end of the week because I will be the only teacher available to help them.  If I’m especially unlucky my parent volunteer (who has definitely earned a place in the highest heaven) will not be able to come and I’ll be completely swamped.  One person cannot do everything.  I may be able to supervise and help those posting while advising those who are editing their work but I can’t do that AND help students check out AND help them find the books they want.  My hope is that these students learn to write a good review and present the information in a wiki.  I think they will enjoy the experience but they won’t learn as much as those who are in a better supported class.  Worst case scenario will leave some of them angry or frustrated because I am unable to get to them when they need help.

Students are excited about posting on the wiki.  I’ve had more than one ask if they could work on their review at home.  That’s the kind of excitement about a library activity that I don’t always see.  Teachers who are able to accompany their students and participate in the class learn themselves.  The teacher who helped today is planning on blogging with her students and is able to get some ideas from our work together in the library.  Teachers can also link library activities to current classroom work so that students better understand the reason for the library activities.  The skills these students learn in the library will follow them throughout their lives.  That’s worth the investment of time and energy spent in collaboration.

Dark Libraries

The custodian has been trying to save money by turning off lights.  The first time he turned off the lights in the library I was at lunch and flipped out when I came back.  Most of the time now about half my library (the part with the tables and 12 computers) is in the dark.  I’ve been told that if we need lights on we should turn them on, but I’ve also seen the lights turned off or turned down when people were working there.  The intent is certainly admirable and I’m very happy that we’re saving money.

However, it depresses me to see the library in the dark.  I can’t help thinking that it’s a metaphor for libraries in our schools.  How many schools these days have dark libraries because there’s no staff to run them?  How many are dark for large parts of the day as a result of understaffing?  This darkness I speak of could be physical, but the metaphor runs deeper. There’s an academic darkness that can settle on a library run by clerical staff if weeding is nonexistent and ordering haphazard.  The darkness could be the result of chaos in situations where no staff was hired so students and teachers take items at will and nothing new is ordered.  Darkness like a lingering illness can hang over a library when a librarian or support staff are required to spread themselves thin at more than one building, or to spend large chunks of time at tasks unrelated to the running of the library.

I’m tired of hearing that we “want what’s best for kids”.  How can a dark library be good for kids?  In an age when information is exploding, how can we imagine that the librarian, an information broker, is expendable?  Will classroom teachers, who must prepare students for those all important tests, teach students how to navigate the internet safely, or evaluate websites for unbiased content?  Will they have time to show students how to use a library catalog or do effective searches?

When something is extremely well done it looks easy.  Apparently librarians have been doing their job so well, and it looks so easy, that the decision makers think that anyone can do it.  I can teach my students how to find the books they want and how to check them out but how can I provide reader advisory assistance when there’s no clerical staff at the circulation desk?  How can I find the time to teach students, collaborate with teachers, or provide staff development when I also have to order, catalog, check in, check out, shelve, weed, mend, etc.?  These are basic library operations that take a lot of time.  Librarians are not superhuman beings.  No matter how hard we try, we can’t do it all by ourselves.

Will this pernicious darkness follow our students throughout their education?  I fear that in the current economy more and more libraries will have the light sucked out of them.  I dread the day when I’m happy to be working in a half-dark, poorly supported library because the alternative is a closed, totally dark library.

Making the Space Work: Another Wiki Evaluation

I am extremely fortunate to have an excellent library space.  The library is located in the middle of the school just inside the front door.  It has three major exits, which would be a problem if we had a security system, but provides ready access to other parts of the school.

Circulation Desk

The round circulation desk allows us to check out students from both sides.  And there is a computer nearby for older students to check out themselves.


The tables provide meeting or work space.

Story Center

I can teach in the Story Center while another group is meeting at the round tables.

The computers are in three separate sections.  There are two search stations, one has six computers in a circle and the other has four computers near a very long meeting table.

Computer Circle Long Table

Computer Circle                                Long table, 4 computers near doors

12 computers

This set of 12 computers is easy for a teacher to monitor, even from a distance.

I’ve gone into this in some detail because the shape of the room and the way the space is used has affected the way I teach. I have class sizes that range between 16 and 30.  We don’t have enough computers for 30 students to be on computers all at once.  There are enough for a class as large as 22, however, I have to circulate between the three computer stations to help all the students.  When I began planning the wiki project I decided that the 12 computers above would be the ones we would use when posting on the wiki.  This way I would be helping a group of no more than 12 students at a time, and possibly fewer.  That meant that students who were not working on the wiki would have to be able to work relatively independently in other parts of the library.  Classroom teachers accompany two of the classes, two classes come without teachers, and one class comes with two Special Education teachers.

After I explained the procedures to the first class, which came with a teacher, each row of students (sitting in 3 rows in the Story Center) knew where to start.  One row was at the computers with me, one row was working on a vocabulary sheet with the classroom teacher, and one row was looking for books to check out.  There is a student check out station and  I have the most wonderful parent volunteer who was helping students check out.  We rotated during the course of the 45 minute class so each student was able to do everything.  The first class to follow this routine worked beautifully.

The second class was another matter.  That was the subject of the “Some Days are Like That” post.  It was a class that came without a teacher and my wonderful parent volunteer was sick that day.  Fortunately my tech support person saw that I was trying to be in three places at once and came out to help.  In the end, many of the students returned to class late which was not a good advertisement for the library program and especially did not promote the use of technology in the classroom.  For this to be an effective demonstration of technology integration I must be very mindful of the time available and not try to get too much done in one session.