Taking a Detour – from Sketchnoting to Google Keep

My COETAIL journey has been quite the adventure. When I originally started out, I thought that it would be ‘smooth sailing’ through the courses – yes it would be challenging, but using tech to impact student learning was what I was looking to do, so I figured that I would be able to figure this whole COETAIL thing out pretty easily. Reality Check. I have realized that my COETAIL reality is quite a far cry from the fantasy.

Photo Credit: trafficus Flickr via Compfight cc


Ever since Course 3, I was so excited by visual literacy, and by sketchnoting in particular. I just knew it had to be part of my final project. I think it could have been, had I taken more time to explicitly teach the concept to my students and give them lots of time to analyze and create sketchnotes, before I asked them to use this skill as part of a major project.

Photo Credit: Kathy Schrock 

In my planner, I had a week dedicated to learning sketchnoting. The students tried it a few times, but never really seemed to get ‘the bug’, the way I was hoping for. COETAIL is all about ‘not using tech for tech’s sake’, but to use it in a way that will impact student learning. I felt like I was ‘using sketchnoting for sketchnoting’s sake’. I quickly realized that this may not be the meaningful avenue my students would use to document their research on a nonfiction topic. But now I was out of ideas.

On my morning motorbike commute to school, I was geeking out with the Google Teacher Tribe Podcast #gttribe.  Matt Miller (@jmattmiller) and Kasey Bell (@shakeuplearning) give informative podcasts on what is happening in the Google for Education realm, and I often come away with meaningful, practical ideas to use in class that day.

Logos used with permission by Matt Miller & Kasey Bell

During the podcast, Kasey and Matt talked about upgrades to Google Slides and it was one of the minor updates that caught my attention. The Google Keep notepad has been added as a tool in Slides, meaning that you can take your notes from Keep and drag & drop them directly into Slides. About a hundred light bulbs went off in my head (ironic seeing as the Keep logo is also a lightbulb) – this is how I was going to get my students to document their research.

Photo Credit: gadgets.ndtv.com

After my ride through the rice fields to get to school, I had my students add the Keep chrome extension to their chromebooks. One student remarked,

“But Mrs. Snider, I thought you told us we couldn’t have chrome extensions on our computers?”

“Ah yes, I did say that. Let me clarify. This extension is going to help you research more effectively and save you time when drafting anything from a writing piece to a slideshow. The spinning hamster wheel extension is unnecessary for school, but this one is vital.”

I gave the students a quick tutorial on what Google Keep is and how we can use it for digital notetaking. By using the extension, they can literally add their thinking to any website they are using. GKeep copies the URL into a new note and then you can add your own notes and ideas underneath.

The 4th Graders were pretty excited about this and got started right away testing out Keep with their own research topics. Once they started using this, I really felt that I could ‘let them run with it’. One student added her Table of Contents as a note and then added checkboxes. She turned her Contents into a checklist that she used to keep track of which subsections she had information on, and which ones she still needed to research. She was so excited when she discovered the checkboxes and asked if she could show it to the rest of the class. Suffice it to say, that by the end of Writer’s Workshop, everyone had a Table of Contents that was doubling as a digital checklist! And as the teacher, I could easily see where my students were at in their research process – a win-win!

Now that the research period is complete, the students are moving into Drafting. They are using Slides to create e-books. Using the Keep Notepad tool, has made things so much easier. Students don’t have to worry about taking notes on paper and then typing them later (a real time-consuming roadblock for 9 and 10 year olds). They are taking their notes from Keep and dropping them right into Slides. This gives them a starting point for that section of the book.

Before, students would get stuck when it came to drafting. They liked to do the research and take notes, but they didn’t know how to turn that information into a section of a nonfiction book. Now, by dragging over their notes, they have the information right there. They can add to it, rearrange it, add text features like images, captions, headings and bold words. I cannot believe what a game-changer this has been for my students. They are doing research, digitally organizing their information and then applying it to a task.

But what about sketchnoting? No I have not thrown it by the wayside. Oddly enough, I found a more natural fit for it – in Social Studies. We just began a new unit on economy, and to understand where money came from, we watched a Brainpop video about Money. There was A LOT of information packed into 3 minutes and 44 seconds. After we watched the video together as a class, I put the students into groups, which were responsible for teaching one section of the video. They had some guiding questions, but the task was to take the information from the video, and turn it into a sketchnote which became part of a timeline about the history of money. Then each group presented one section, explaining their sketchnote. Afterwards, we put them up together as a timeline, so that everyone could see where money came from and how it has changed over time.

Through this experience, I have learned another valuable lesson – flexibility. When things are not going as planned, it’s important to find another way to guide students towards achieving the goal. Because as we all know, it’s not the tool that measures student success, it’s the learning that takes place.

My Unplugged & Online PLNs

Facebook and Instagram – the 2 social media sites I use most frequently, yet post the least to.

Twitter – I have come to realize the massive potential that it has professionally. I have gotten so many great ideas and resources from people I follow on Twitter; yet again, I have been more of a consumer than producer of Twitter content. Yes, even after 5 COETAIL courses, I still feel like a lurker.

This is a day and age where my 4th Graders (if given the opportunity), could probably build a PLN faster than they can finish their Math homework. They are ensconced with talking about how many likes and subscribers people have on their YouTube channels, and how they connected with other gamers while playing… (insert whatever the newest online games are now). They are growing PLNs without even realizing it. How can I, as their teacher, be so ‘behind the times’?

Photo Credit: Pixel2013 via Pixabay

Then I realized that I am going about creating my own PLN in a different way. Here is my PLN Journey.

When I began Course 5, I knew that I wanted to have a global collaboration component to my project. I wanted my students to actually be able to work with other kids around the world. After all, isn’t that at the essence of international schools? Being able to collaborate, respect and work with people who are different from you?

I figured that Twitter was the logical place to start looking for partner classes. I had heard and read about so many people who just posted a question to Twitter and in 15 minutes were amazed at the responses they got. “Wow!”, I thought, “Let me give it a try! The worst that can happen is that my tweet won’t get any response.” So I bravely posted this tweet:

I anxiously kept checking Twitter to see what kind of buzz I had drummed up. “Oh it’s because of the time difference,” I told myself. “Maybe there’s something wrong with my internet,” I thought after a couple of days of no reply. As you can see from the comment, retweet, like and stats icons, I never got a response from this tweet.

Bound and determined not to let Twitter get the best of me, I decided that I needed a new approach. I really like infographics and I wanted visual literacy to be a big part of my project. So what better way to entice potential partners than with an eye-catching infographic? Thanks to Tony Vincent (@tonyvincent) and his online Google Drawings course that I was taking at the time, I created this infographic. And low and behold, I got some responses!

I was literally jumping for joy when I got a reply from Tara Barth (@teachertara) saying that she wanted to collaborate! Once I had a partner, we switched communication platforms from Twitter to Gmail. We kept in constant contact to share ideas about how to move forward with the project.

Slideshow best viewed in full screen.

While I was teaching my final COETAIl unit, I started to intentionally document student content to post to Twitter to share what we were working on. I tried to post things not only related to the writing unit, but also to other projects.



I also went out on a limb and reached out to Matt Miller (@jmattmiller) and Kasey Bell (@shakeuplearning) to ask their permission to use the Google Teacher Tribe logo in my final video, because I was referencing an idea I got from listening to their podcast.

(Slideshow best viewed in full screen).

Not only did Matt reply with a yes, he also commented on my Final Project tweet!

While I wish that I was able to connect more meaningfully with people on Twitter, I feel that by tweeting more often, I am starting to build a base for my Twitter PLN. I’m making a concerted effort to comment and follow other educators. The next steps are to connect and collaborate meaningfully with other professionals.

The last way that I have grown my PLN is in an unplugged format. Last year after moving to Hanoi, Michelle Beard  (@michelleb) introduced me to the Hanoi EdTech group. It’s a monthly meeting open any interested educators and EdTech people. A different school hosts each meeting, and it is a place to share ideas about what we are all doing to deepen student learning through the tools of tech.

After attending the first meeting, I was hooked! Listening to other teachers, right in my own city, sharing ideas for tech-infused learning was awesome. I have become an active member of our Hanoi EdTech group, and even volunteered to present a digital way of recording and using anecdotal notes, as evidence of student learning, at our last meeting.

(Best viewed in full screen)

In addition, I volunteered (just submitted the proposal on Friday!) to co-present a workshop at the Vietnam Technology Conference 2018 on how to start a Maker Space from scratch. This opportunity came via the Hanoi EdTech group.

My biggest push out of my comfort zone, is that I will give a ‘Lightening Talk’ (similar to a mini-TED talk) about leadership during the VTC Conference as well.

Being an active member of Hanoi EdTech is pushing me away from my ‘lurker’ tendencies and helping me join the conversation, share and connect with others right in my own backyard. I think that this also gives me the confidence to branch out and share more on social media.

Through this process, I have learned that I am building my PLN differently than I had originally thought.  I have been building face-to-face relationships through the Hanoi EdTEch community, and starting to make online connections via Twitter. The value in making and keeping these connections is paramount. We learn better together; and thanks to online and unplugged opportunities I’m excited to to continue to grow my PLN.


Course 5 Final Project Video

Here we are! At the finish line for Course 5…or is it? After leaving COETAIL at the beginning of Course 5 in Cohort 4, I honestly thought this post would never come to be. But with the continued support of my family and colleagues, I rejoined Cohort 7 and am so proud to write this post. It is with great enthusiasm (and a huge sigh of relief!) that I post my final project into the blogosphere!

The unit I re-designed was a 4th Grade writing unit on informational picture books. Students would write their books for a Second Grade audience. When I first taught it last year, I scheduled a day for the 4th Graders to share their books with the 2nd Graders at school. The 2nd Graders offered comments and their feedback was beneficial. But I felt like something was missing. So when it came time to choose a unit to re-design for the final project, this one jumped out at me.

I will let the video speak for itself.

If you would like to know more about the project I am happy to connect and share resources and ideas!


Now that I can momentarily take a step back and enjoy being ‘done’ with this part of the project, I know that COETAIL is just the beginning. This exciting journey ahead of blending technology & curriculum, connecting & collaborating with people around the globe is an awesome one; because the end result is that students are learning. To quote my former Superintendent, Dr. Norma Hudson, “It’s all about kids…learning!”



Sketchnoting & Teaching Through Picture Books – My Final Project Plan

So here it is. My Course 5 UBD planner for my final project. After putting myself out there several times on Twitter, asking for classes interested in collaborating with me on this project, I kept coming up short. I started to wonder if something was wrong with my internet connection, since I wasn’t getting any response. Finally, after creating an infographic explaining my project ideas, I received some retweets and a few tweets of interest from some teachers. I have to say that this was very exciting for me!

My idea for my project is to connect sketchnoting with informational writing. My 4th Graders just started a unit on Informational Writing. The goal of the project is for students to write informational picture books that are geared towards 2nd Graders. The students will collaborate with a partner class and get feedback from them about informational topics of interest to them.

Using that information, the 4th Graders will set to work researching topics to learn more about them. They need to be able to understand the content well enough to teach it to their  2nd Grade partner through their picture book.

At the beginning of the unit, the 4th Graders will also be introduced to sketchnoting – what is is and why it can be a useful tool to use while researching. After the students are familiar with sketchnotes and have tried making a few, they will use sketchnotes to document their understanding of the topic and subtopics for their picture book. They will use their sketchnotes to help guide them when drafting the picture book.

Throughout the process, the 4th Graders will share their sketchnotes and drafts of their books with the partner class – getting feedback on parts that are clear, and parts that are not. Then they will revise these sections. Finally, we will share out informational e-books with our partner class.

As of right now, I’m thinking of using Google Sites to create a website for the project to “live”. I’d like to include either a Flipgrid or Padlet page, as a place for students to leave message and feedback for each other. But a lot of that will depend on how much tech our partner class has access to.


I’m Back, Baby!

Photo Credit: quickmeme.com

Hello everyone! I am ‘new’ to this cohort and I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Alexis Snider and I teach 4th Grade at Concordia International School Hanoi in Hanoi, Vietnam. I work together in a grade band team with Michelle Beard @michelleb, also a member of this Cohort. As you may have already guessed, I am a Seinfeld fan. While my post title and opening photo are a bit cheesy, I feel like it’s the perfect way for me to begin this final course.

A year and a half ago, I was right where we all are right now – beginning Course 5 (in Online Cohort 4), busily planning out my final COETAIL project. As the project due date was looming closer, it co-insided with another due date – the arrival of my 3rd daughter. However, being the organized teacher that I am (try to be), I had it all ‘under control’, or so I thought. My thinking was that as long as I could teach my final project unit before I went on maternity leave, I could create the video and finish up blogging while on maternity leave, and I would be all set. All of that being contingent, of course, on the fact that my newborn would be the ‘perfect baby’ and just sleep all day and all night until I finished everything that I needed to do. Parents, and anyone who has ever interacted with a baby for at least 5 minutes, feel free to laugh audibly.

Well, little Amelia had other plans. She decided to arrive early, and my lofty plans crumbled. I knew that I couldn’t be the mom of a newborn and finish COETAIL at the same time. And so, I bowed out of the program.

Photo Credit: Alexis Snider

When I thought about all that COETAIL had taught me, I knew that I would continue to use what I had learned in the past year in my teaching. Even though I hadn’t technically finished the program, I would take what I had learned and apply it in the classroom. And I was satisfied with that. Again, or so I thought….

Now fast forward to last August (2016) – my family and I moved to Hanoi and I got involved in the Hanoi Ed Tech community. I realized that my passion in education is within the realm of tech and I decided that I really needed to finish COETAIL. Luckily, both Jeff Utecht @jutecht and Brandon Hoover @brandonhoover were understanding and welcoming, and now I am back in Cohort 7!

Even though I have had lots of time to think about my final project, I have found myself lacking that ‘spark’ that I was looking for; like when I come up with that great idea for the project, I’ll just know. That spark has been lacking for sure. I had several ideas, but nothing seemed like the ‘perfect idea’, but time was also running out. Course 3 really struck a chord with me, as I’m drawn to graphic literacy, but I just couldn’t quite figure out how this would play into my final project.

I turned to Kasey Bell’s @shakeuplearning blog, and low and behold, there was an announcement about an online class called, Classy Graphics, hosted by Tony Vincent. The class teaches educators how to use Google Drawings to make professional looking infographics. This caught my attention and I knew what my plan would be.


Image Credit: Tony Vincent

I immediately signed up for the course (which started last Tuesday). It’s run through Google Classroom, so it’s been interesting to use Classroom from the student perspective. I thought that I would be able to get some great insight into teaching students how to create infographics and sketchnotes in a meaningful way. I am absolutely loving this class. I had always thought that Google Drawings was a simple program, Google’s version of Microsoft Paint, if you will, but that it was too simplistic for higher quality graphics. Well, I was wrong! And this blogpost from PC World, supports my claim.

I thought it might be a good idea to poll some of my Classy Graphics classmates to see if anyone might be interested in collaborating with me on my final project. At first, I was going to draft an Announcement post in our Classroom. As I sat down to draft my blurb, I realized that I still hadn’t thought through what my project will be.

I started sketchnoting my ideas, and my scribbles on paper (yes, actual paper!), morphed into this infographic.

My sketchnote start


Credit: COETAIL Logo, www.coetail.com; icons from www.thenounproject.com

Obviously this is not the UBD planner, this is my first draft of my idea with that ‘spark’. After creating the infographic, and thinking about my content, I have decided to go in the direction of Informational Writing.

During our Lucy Calkins’ Unit of Study on Informational Writing, students will create pictures books about an informational topic. Sketchnoting can be a tool for students to use to gather ideas, to plan out their book or to organize the different sections. Infographics just seem to naturally fit because students will create them to explain an important concept in the content of the picture book.

Where the collaboration comes into play, is that the 4th Graders are writing for a younger audience. So I would like to partner with a younger Elementary class (ideally Grades 2 or 3) and have the class give my students feedback on their picture books, during different stages of the writing process. Some ideas I have for this is creating a Google Site with places for video feedback, or linking a Flipgrid page to the website. The website would be where the 4th Graders publish their books, so that others can read them and offer feedback. Not only will my students have an authentic audience, they will also be getting authentic feedback from the actual ‘readers’ of their books. For the final publication party, it would be fantastic if our classes could meet via Google Hangouts to share their work (if time zones allow).

Photo Credit: www.pixabay.com

I have been searching for a way to make tech the ‘tool’ by which students are authentically learning, not the star of the project; and I think I am now moving forward in the right direction. The tech will connect the students with each other so that they can learn from one another; while at the same time giving them a chance to practice responsible digital citizenship skills.

I am working on completing the UBD planner now, and I would love some critical feedback on my idea. And if anyone is a Primary Elementary teacher or knows one who might be interested in collaborating in a project like this, please let me know! I’ve also tweeted my infographic out to see if I can drum up some interest there as well. After writing this first post, I feel like I am back on track, or as Frank Costanza would say, “I’m back, Baby!”

Course 4 Final Project – Genius Hour vs. Human Body

Photo Credit: stevenkamenar via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: stevenkamenar via Compfight cc

At the beginning of Course 4, I felt overwhelmed because the first thing I did was read the final project requirements. And the second thing I did was read the Course 5 expectations. And then I started to freak out.

As it so happens, I am set to welcome Baby Snider #3 to our family at the beginning of March. So as I was reading through the remaining  COETAIL course requirements, I started to imagine myself trying to complete everything with a newborn in tow…and that’s when panic set in.

However, after taking some time to think about it calmly and rationally, I know I can make it work. It will just require a carefully mapped out plan on my part. Originally, I thought I would have to do Option #1 and choose my project for Course 5 now, so that I could get started right away in the new year. However, as I went through Course 4, there were so many things that interested me, I had a hard time picturing what kind of project I would come up with.So I went back and looked at my curriculum map for the rest of the school year, and found two units that I have done previously, but that definitely need a change. I’m still in the “figuring out phase” of this process.

Then, I remembered one of the most important facets of COETAIL – feedback and sharing. I stopped worrying for a minute and realized that it’s ok to not have the entire Course 5 project mapped out yet. Through my experiences with COETAIL, I have learned the most, not from posts I have made, but the comments and feedback I have received from my instructor and peers.

So I am putting these two units out there in online world and hoping that my fellow COETAILers will give me some honest feedback on these project ideas. Also, if anyone teaches or knows of a 4th Grade class who would be interested in collaborating on either of these ideas, I’d be most grateful if you could leave that in the comments as well.


The first unit is Genius Hour. This will be our first Genius Hour project of the school year. Although I’m starting it later than I did last year, I have two good reasons.

First, after testing out Genius Hour last year, I found that the projects and learning had been less impressive than what I was expecting. After attending a session on Genius Hour by Jeff Heil at the GAFE Summit my school put on in November, I felt that I had a new direction in which to take Genius Hour. However, it would require more deliberate planning, first on my part, and also on the students’ part. I want to have a clear plan of action in place before introducing it to my class, so that they can develop a clear plan to map out and create their project.

Second, my class as a whole thrives in their learning when a delicate balance of structure, freedom and creativity is present in the lessons and projects we do. But it has been a challenge for me to find this balance with this group this year. There is quite a wide range of learning styles, motivations and personalities in my class, and figuring out how to reach each learner is still a work in progress for me. However, in taking time to really plan out this project, I can make sure that I am striking this balance, especially with something as opened ended as creating a passion project.

My second option for Course 5 is a Science unit on the human body systems. This is a FOSS unit that Grade 4 has done for several years. It focuses mainly on the skeletal and muscular systems. I feel that the unit only scratches the surface of these two systems, and think that revamping this unit with a COETAIL twist is just what is needed to make it meaningful for the students.

The students will learn how the systems of the human body work together to make the body function.



The Technology EnRICHED Classroom

As I sat down to brainstorm a list of thoughts for this blogpost, my mind immediately started thinking in pictures. So I stopped what I was writing and created the above infographic to depict how technology has enriched my classroom in the past 5 years.

Several of these changes were obviously instituted by the “powers that be”, and the fact that the  school’s tech budget in the last 5 years has certainly swelled. The amount of student and teacher devices, plus bandwidth and infrastructure upgrades has been huge. While these are key factors in the 21st Century learning environment,  I think the biggest change has been in the role of the teachers and students.

As I reflect on how I have tried to use all of these devices, I realize how overwhelming it was (and sometimes still is). After a lot of trial and error, I decided to use this driving question when planning to use tech in my instruction, “Is using this tech going to positively impact student learning, and how can I make sure?”

What I have found, is that when students use tech in a deliberate way, they make stronger connections. They connect with the content; they connect and collaborate with each other. They care about what they are learning because they know they will share it with their classmates, teachers and parents on their blogs.

When students have some freedom to choose how they will show their learning, the buy -in is even higher, and the quality of their work elevates. As an example, we just finished a realistic fiction novel study. Different groups read different realistic fiction novels, focusing on character development.

For the final project, they were given 3 choices to show how one of the characters in their book had changed throughout the novel. They planned “offline” first, drafting graphics and text for the project. Then they had the freedom to choose how to “digitize” their final drafts. I had anticipated spending a couple periods doing mini-workshops together with our tech integrationist on how to create a slideshow, Doc, infographic that fit the purpose of the project. But as it turned out, I didn’t have to.

Students started playing with different apps, and the creativity let loose. A few students asked me for help, but most turned to their classmates for advice. It was amazing to watch students who were usually too shy to participate in class, leading 2 or 3 classmates in how to make an “eye-appealing” slideshow. They used their projects on their Chromebooks as a tutorial guide to show other students. It was truly awesome!

I was also pleasantly surprised that for the first time (it seemed), students were focused the majority of the time either with their own project or working together with a few classmates. The buzz in the room wasn’t one of chaos with kids off task when they should be working; but instead it was filled with the hum of discussions and positive digital creations. I actually sat back for a moment and thought, “Wait a minute, what should I do now?”

In my opinion and experience thus far, I think that the tech tools that students and teachers have access to are helping us make meaningful connections to learning. It’s about learning from each other, both online and in person. This is how technology enriches the classroom.




To Change the Future…Change your Thinking

Will classrooms in the future change because of technology? Absolutely. But how? Now there’s the real question. With digital tools being fairly commonplace in most schools, the way teachers find ways to use the technology will naturally change the way teachers teach. I’m not talking about using the tech for tech’s sake, but using the tech to transform learning.

To be perfectly honest, I often cringe when I hear the term “transform learning”, because it reminds me of my own former definition. As an example:

I used to think that if my students researched a topic and then created a slideshow to show what they have learned, their learning was transformed. After all, the students were the ones doing the research and learning about a topic, instead of me frontloading it for them. So naturally they were in charge of their own learning and transforming it…right?

But after doing several projects like this, I always felt that the projects fell short. Students had a hard time doing research properly, and often just copy/pasted text into a slideshow. There wasn’t much deep understanding or even a basic understanding of the content. And transformation of learning? Definitely not. So I came up with a new question: How do you actually use tech to transform learning? I’ve got lots of fancy tech at my and my students’ fingertips, now how do I actually use it to open up learning for my kids? This question was the driving force behind me joining the COETAIL community.

As I think back now about how my teaching style has changed in the past 10 months, I know that I’m still not transforming learning the way I have always envisioned it, but I’m making progress in that direction. And it’s more of a shift for myself than for my students.

In order to do this properly, the teacher’s plans and activities must be deliberate and purposeful. Thinking about new ways to help students make meaningful connections to content is really tough. But, it’s not impossible.

One idea that comes to mind is global collaboration. So often, especially in Science or Social Studies, students come up with really great questions – questions that I do not have the answers to. But when I say, “Hey great question, why don’t you do some research and find out”, I find their interest and motivation dwindle. But what about instead, saying, “Hey, great question. Let’s see if we can do some research and find an expert who might be able to help us understand; or maybe there is a video out there that might explain your question.” Then as a teacher, it would be my job to show students how to find and connect with experts in a particular field, or how to sift through the world of YouTube to find an informative video.

Designed by Freepik
Designed by Freepik

Maybe instead of learning about another country or culture by Googling information, we could connect with another classroom in that country and learn firsthand from students who are experiencing the country and culture.

Designed by Freepik
Designed by Freepik

Although these are not new ideas, (Google+ and Twitter are chock full of teachers wanting to connect their classes globally), they are certainly ways that technology is used to give students an authentic learning experience. In addition, students are learning new ways to access and connect with meaningful content.

I think the change in the future of education is driven by the teachers – the ways we are rethinking and redesigning units and lessons so that students are making meaningful connections, will create learners with a 21st century skillset. And as I am continuing to learn on a daily basis, it’s not the tech you have that’s important, it’s how you use the tech purposeful ways to achieve learning.

My Present – Sketchnoting in Social Studies

Week 3’s topic is “The Present” and after reading almost every reference link about the flipped classroom, game-based learning and learning through play, I was still stuck. I didn’t feel inspired. While I find all three of these topics relevant to my class, I couldn’t figure out a direction to blog about. So, instead, I thought about something that I am doing “presently” in my class this year:

Copyright: dacascas
Copyright: dacascas

As I have mentioned and blogged about before, I am getting into the world of sketchnoting – both for myself and for my students. Back in Course 3,  @cbmilone wrote a great post about using sketchnoting in Middle School Social Studies. While I had tried sketchnoting with my 4th Graders, we had only tried it out while listening to a read aloud. The kids were sketchnoting about how the main character changed throughout the book.

Photo Credit: ISG Jubail 4th Grade Student                                           One of my students sketchnoting about how the main character in a Judy Blume book changes
Photo Credit: ISG Jubail 4th Grade Student – One of my students sketchnoting about how the main character in a Judy Blume book changes

But really, sketchnoting is a visual way of traditional notetaking, so it makes sense to use it in the content areas.  When I think back on my Middle School Social Studies classes, I learned how to take and organize notes related to the content in my Social Studies textbook. Admittedly it was boring at times, but I learned how to read through a piece of text, pull out the main idea and create a bulleted outline in my notebook that I could use to study from.

So, I decided to try out sketchnoting with Social Studies with my 4th graders. Our first part of our Social Studies unit this year was on geography and mapping skills. Our school has a Social Studies textbook to use as a resource, and after looking through it, it explained things like cardinal directions, symbols, legends, longitude and latitude in a straightforward manner. But I knew my students wouldn’t want to just read the pages in the book and try to take notes on them. So we tried sketchnoting instead.

Photo Credit: ISG Jubail 4th Grade Student – a snapshot of a sketchnoted understanding of location, and how globes and maps help us determine location

At first, we read together – with me reading one section of the textbook aloud while the students followed along. Then, I read the same section again and had them only sketch pictures of things they thought were important. After sharing these sketches, I modeled how to caption the sketches and give them titles.

I was actually quite surprised how well this first attempt went. I found it especially helpful for students who are not reading on grade level, because they would have really struggled to figure out what the text was saying if we had done the assignment in the “traditional note-taking way”. But through sketching, they were right along with everyone else, listening for something important and recording it through drawings. Then they wrote captions and titles that made sense to them – which explained what their drawings were about.

Of course, after looking over their notebooks, I could see that some students didn’t quite get the main idea of the section; perhaps their drawings weren’t directly related to the text. But after meeting with them for clarification, I could see how they were thinking. And, it was easier for them to explain their thinking to me by using their own drawings as a guide.

While our first content area sketchnoting session was not perfect by any means, it did provide some valuable insight for me.

My biggest takeaway was that everyone was engaged in the activity and everyone’s sketches and captions were unique to the student creating them.

No one copied down notes from the board, no one’s sketches were exactly the same. I was looking at 20 notebooks about the same topic, but presented in 20 different ways; all reflecting the various levels of understanding. With that data in hand, I could use it to plan out the rest of the mapping section of the unit, to make sure that with continued practice and review of these concepts, students would be working toward mastery of them.

So, thank you Corey Milone for giving me the idea to try out sketchnoting in Social Studies!




Thoughts on Project-Based Learning & Challenge-Based Learning

This past weekend, my school’s district hosted the first GAFE Summit in Saudi Arabia and it was an amazing conference. A lot of the takeaways from various presentations fit with so many aspects of COETAIL. It was great to be able to talk to people and see how they are authentically using Google Apps in the classroom.

Project-Based Learning reminds me a lot of Backwards Design. See infographic below. (Thanks to Course 3, I’m addicted to infographics and sketchnoting!)

Personal Infographic
Personal Infographic

I’ve always preferred doing projects over tests when it comes to assessment, but I used to use the project as a substitute for the test. For example, “at the end of the unit on the history of Saudi Arabia, you will create a slideshow explaining these important aspects of Saudi history…” Yes, it was a project, but it wasn’t project-based learning.

Now, when I set out to plan a unit, I need to think about what do the students need to know by the end. What driving questions or lines of inquiry will I use to guide them? How will I assess this? And then, I can design the project tailored to these questions.

An example that I think works well is “Genius Hour” or “20% Time”. I had tried it last year with my class, but we had a lot of hiccups and I have been looking for ways to improve upon what I did last year. During the GAFE Summit, Jeffery Heil gave a great breakout session on “20Time”. As he told his story, it sounded a lot like mine,

“Students had a semester to complete a project they were passionate about, but I wasn’t seeing the results that I wanted.”

That sounded familiar! Then he talked about the importance of the process, over the final product. Yes students need to create a project to demonstrate what they have learned, but the main focus should be on the process of learning.  And by providing solid structures, students were able to more clearly portray how they were learning.

I am excited to revamp my version of Genius Hour, adding more structure to how my students will work through learning and creating their projects. Structures like modeling how to break down your big idea into manageable pieces, and how to create a plan for learning more about each piece. Reflection is another important part of what Jeff talked about, so I plan to have students reflecting on their blogs after each “Genius Hour class”, about what they have learned, what went well today, what problems they faced and possible solutions.

Challenge-Based Learning reminds me of the Science Olympiad. Collaboration is paramount to success in this type of learning. Students must work together to solve a problem.In order to solve the problem, students need to do research, including talking with experts or other teachers to help them learn. It becomes a competition because the groups/teams compete against each other to see who’s project most successfully solves the problem.

Photo by Glen Forde, CC
Photo by Glen Forde, CC

While I haven’t tried this out myself, my husband did this as a piece to one of his Grade 5 Science units. Students had to form teams and work together to build a model raft out of  various materials. The goal of the project was to see which raft held the most “cargo” (metal washers) while staying afloat for 1 minute. They had to apply what they had learned in science class to build the strongest raft.

In both, Project-Based Learning and Challenge-Based Learning, students are challenged to learn something new, do research, including talking to experts in the field, then internalize what they are learning and apply it to an authentic task. What a great way to foster independent learners. It is no easy task to design and implement these types of projects, but the authentic learning that results from it, is well worth the effort.