Starting an Elementary Student Helpdesk

Last year (2014-2015) Kim Lynch (a 5th grade teacher) and I started a Student Helpdesk at our elementary school. The idea was to have a group of trained students who could help with tech-related issues in the building. Here’s how the Helpdesk came to be, and how I hope it will change in the future:

The Vision

Helpdesk working in first grade.

Helpdesk students working in first grade.

The vision was to have a group of students who could help teachers, or other students, or even whole classes when they needed a hand with technology. This could mean them joining me working in a classroom, or they could work without me if I was already teaching in another room.

Since elementary students don’t have study hall, or unscheduled, time this would mean taking them out of class to help out. It was always made clear to teachers that if I wanted to borrow a Helpdesk student from their class, I would seek their permission first. Helpdesk was not meant to be a ticket to get out of class. Each time I would make sure each student was okay academically before taking them. (That said, I definitely believe that when a student helps another student or classroom learn a technological skill, the teaching students learns some valuable skills as well.)

Tech Skills

Since our district is 1:1 with iPads, our skill list is pretty iPad-centric. I developed the list and grouped the skills into categories (most of them correspond to the district’s Foundational Apps). Students came to the computer lab during their recess time to practice the skills, and help each other master them. When they felt they had mastered a category, they would sit with me 1:1 and show me that they could do everything on the list. I kept a running list of who had mastered which apps, so if I needed help with iMovie or Book Creator or Google Drive I could quickly see which students had mastered which apps (and who would be a good student to help out).

On missing recess: Coming to Helpdesk was never required. If it was a nice, sunny day after a week of rain it was fine if kids wanted to be outside. Interestingly (but not entirely surprising), if you look at recess as free time or a way for kids to recharge mid-day, most of the Helpdesk students were just as happy to recharge by learning a new app on the iPad than running around outside. Most mornings I was greeted with, “can we come down at recess today?”

Students

In it’s first year, we hand picked about a dozen fifth graders. Most were boys, which initially we were uncomfortable with. But the more we looked at the specific makeup of that year’s 5th grade class, we felt better about it – it was a group that really didn’t have a lot of tech-interested girls. Looking at the class we had the year before, it would have been a more evenly balanced group simply because it would have been a different population to choose from.

Moving Forward

Changes for the upcoming year:

  • I want to develop an application process. I want a questionnaire so students can tell my why they think they’re a good fit for the Helpdesk (Why do you want to be a part of the Helpdesk? Are you willing to give up recess time? How do you feel about helping younger students or teachers? If you miss work in class, are you willing to make it up on your own, possibly as homework?). I don’t want to hand pick the team again.
  • I want to open it up to both 4th and 5th graders. The idea here being in subsequent years I’ll have a crop of kids in the fall who are already trained (trained as 4th graders, now starting 5th grade). They might be able to help train the new students (if their recesses overlap), but more so we’ll be able to start helping classes as soon as the school year starts.

I’m looking forward to a new and better Student Helpdesk this year.

A Better Way to Cite Images

As my students know, I’m big on permissions. If my students want to use an image in a project, they need to pay attention to Creative Commons licensing. Finding an image that is okay to use isn’t hard (you can search through Creative Commons or change the search tools in Google), but citing it properly is a hassle – especially for my younger elementary students.

Enter Photos For Class (www.photosforclass.com)

Photos For Class searches Flickr and does three great things:

  • Keeps the images G-rated using Flicker’s and their filters
  • Only grabs images licensed for school use under Creative Commons
    and, this is the best part
  • The citation is automatically added to the image

Also, it’s super easy! Enter your search term, find the image you want, click download, and you get an image with an embedded citation – like these:

4743036023

137546658

3564909187

And since the citation is part of the image, no matter where students move the image the citation goes with it. Using properly licensed photos is important, but keeping track of citations can be a headache. Photos For Class is a great solution.

Google and Schools

Yesterday I had the opportunity do attend a teacher PD day at the Google offices in Cambridge, MA. At the end of the day there was a panel of Googlers and one of the questions was, “what do you like best about working for Google?”

The answers were much what you would expect from a company that is often rated as one of the best places to work. Things like:

  • Great people
  • Being connected to current events
  • A culture of collaboration
  • A job where you get to use your brain every
  • A place where nobody ever says, “I can’t help you, that’s not my job.”

This poses the most obvious question: isn’t this what schools are supposed to be like? 

Seriously, if someone asks your teachers why they like their job shouldn’t this be part of their answer too? And if it’s not, why? And how do you start changing that?

Looking for 1:1 Success? You Need Ubiquity!

ipad_paperThere are lots of things that will make a 1:1 environment (iPads, Chromebooks, laptops, BYOD, etc.) successful, but without ubiquity you won’t find success. If you’re going to go 1:1 technology can’t be an extra thing, it has to permeate everything.

Think about it like this, the iPad is an educational tool. You wouldn’t hide your constructions paper or scissors or makers away and only get them out for special projects (I hope). If you do, that Social Studies project starts to become a construction paper and scissors project; the project becomes about the tool not the content.

The same is true for technology. If you keep it away and only get it out for a limited number of specific activities, that Science project starts to become a technology project.

If you want students to use technology effectively they need lots of practice. If they’re working in a content area you want them focusing their energy on the content, not how to use the tool (technology).

Sure, there are times when you want to unplug. I’m not suggesting that we go all-technology all-the-time, but if you want success the tool needs to be available as much as possible – like all their other school supplies/tools (construction paper, scissors, markers).

Creating a Google Custom Search Engine

Teaching students how to search effectively is essential. But letting an elementary student loose on Google makes a lot of people nervous (which is okay). School filters are good, but they aren’t perfect (which is also okay, but that’s another post altogether). A Google Custom Search Engine is a great compromise. It allows students to use the Google search engine, but it also allows you to limit the webpages and websites that are used for the results. And best of all, creating a Custom Search Engine is easy.

First, head over to www.google.com/cse.

Look for the blue botton that says, “Create custom search engine.”

Screenshot 2015-01-08 at 10.39.58 AM

If you’re not logged into a Google account, the blue button will ask you to sign in first.

Second, you need to add the websites you want your Custom Search Engine to use. Every time you add a new site, an additional box will appear for you to add another. In my example I’ve added some sites with good information on planets.

Screenshot 2015-01-08 at 10.43.24 AM

Next, you name the search engine.

Screenshot 2015-01-08 at 10.43.40 AM

Finally, find the blue “Create” button.

That’s it! It’s ready to go. You just need to get your students to the search page.

Screenshot 2015-01-08 at 10.44.34 AM

Here Google gives you three options – you can:

  1. Get code – if you want to embed your search engine in a webpage. Google will give you some javascript you can plug into a webpage.
  2. Public URL – if you want to have students navigate to your search engine. It’s a long URL so you’ll want to find a way for students to not type it all in (email it, put the link on a webpage, make a qr code, etc.)
  3. Access the Control Panel – if you want to go back and change the sites that your custom search engine uses.

When I go to the link for my Planets Custom Search Engine (the link is: https://www.google.com/cse/publicurl?cx=017140682098558138880:20oohmnfel4, I wasn’t kidding when I was long), the search page looks like this:

Screenshot 2015-01-08 at 10.46.01 AM

And when I search for neptune atmosphere I get this (only results from the sites I specified):

Screenshot 2015-01-08 at 10.47.36 AM

Note: If a student follows one of the search results, and then follows a link from within that page, they can access the rest of the web. The Custom Search Engine only limits the results of the search; it doesn’t block students from following links to other sites.

Searching is an important skill. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in the first page of your search results, you’re using the wrong search terms. But keeping our students safe while they explore this is important too.

From XKCD

Making Book Trailers Better: Legacy

iMovie-2.0-for-iOS-app-icon-smallMany teachers have used the iMovie Trailer function to make book trailers. But what do we do with them? How do we make sure those trailers last? How do we make sure students, lots of students, see those trailers? How do we make sure students use those trailers to help them choose books they’ll like (because that’s really the point of a trailer)?

QR Codes!

Okay, first, I don’t love QR codes; I know some teachers adore them. I think they have limited use, but this is definitely one of them.

Book QR Code

Our first trailer. The student chose the color.

Once you make your trailer, put it in a public place on the web. We’re a Google Apps for Education (GAFE) district, so we put them in drive and then made them public to anyone with the link. Then create a QR code for the movie (we used the QRafter app and the QRStuff site). Then head to library and put that QR code on every copy of the book. Now, when students go to the library (we’re a 1:1 iPad district) they can scan the QR code and see a visual trailer for the book created by a student (in addition to the blurb on the back). If books are going to be displayed cover-out, put a copy of the QR code on the front too.

And (this is the best part), the movie file is stored in a stable place in the cloud. So as my elementary school students who created the trailers move through middle and high school the trailer will still be sitting in their Google Drive available for younger students to see it. Five or more years from now, students will be watching the trailers we created this year!

Our students do great work; make sure it isn’t lost when summer arrives. Help them create a legacy.

 

Note: I’ve written about iMovie trailers before. Here is a post with single-page, printable storyboards for all the trailer themes. Here is a post about using trailers as a way for students to introduce themselves to next year’s teacher. And here is a post about moving beyond trailers and getting into iMovie projects.

Elementary Homework, Is It Worth It?

Nearly every teacher has some pretty firm thoughts on homework. Most of it is anecdotal though – something like, I had homework and I turned out okay so students today should have the same experience I did. That sounds all well and good (though one could argue that the world is different today so our students’ experience school should also be different), but what does the research say about homework?

origin_2194119780To the Research:

Whenever anyone talks about research on homework it always seems to come back to a meta-analysis done by Harris Cooper in 2006 (he also did one in 1989). If you don’t have practice reading scholarly articles, it’s always tempting to read the abstract in the beginning and call it a day. Harris notes in the abstract:

“…there was generally consistent evidence or a positive influences of homework on achievement.”

Its tempting to just stop there; homework is a good thing. Though in the abstract he also notes that there is “a stronger correlation existed (a) in Grades 7-12 than in K-6 and (b) when students rather than parents reported time on homework.” So, students do a better job of reporting time spent on homework; that makes sense since students are the ones doing the homework. And homework seems to be more effective with older kids.

Sill, we’re left with the impression that homework is good for everyone.

But, the story isn’t over.

If we dig way down into the paper we find correlations for sub-groups. So, with math homework, there is a statistically significant positive correlation; this means that averaged across all grade levels, math homework makes you better at math. With reading this is also true, though to a slightly lesser extent.

It still feels like homework is a good thing for everyone, right?

But, when you separate the data by grade level, things get interesting. For grades 7-12, there is a positive correlation between homework and academic achievement. But for grades K-6, it gets a little murky.

“A significant, though small, negative relationship was found for elementary school students, using fixed-error assumptions, but a non-significant position relationship was found using random-error assumptions.”

What does that mean? It means depending on how you run the data you either get:

  1. Homework correlates with slightly lower academic achievement (small, but big enough that it’s statistically significant), or
  2. Homework correlates with slightly higher academic achievement (but so slight, that it’s not statistically significant – so it doesn’t count).

Yep, I said it (well, Cooper did). Homework in elementary school doesn’t increase academic achievement and might actually decrease it.

origin_12918347633But I Want to Teach My Students Good Study Habits

If you want your students to get in the habit of bringing school-related stuff home every night and bringing it back, that’s fine. I’ve heard many teachers make that argument and in the past I’ve even made it myself. But if that’s your goal, why not send home a piece of paper for parents to date, initial, and send back. You’re still teaching the bring-it-home-and-bring-it-back skill.

But Why Doesn’t Homework Help in Elementary School ?

Harris goes on to note that “younger children are less able … to ignore irrelevant information or stimulation in their environment” and “appear to have less effective study habits.” This shouldn’t be news to anyone who’s worked with young students; elementary students don’t have strong independent study skills when it comes to learning something new – that’s where good teachers come in.

Data Driven Decision Making

So why are we still doing this?

As schools focus more and more on data-driven decision-making (which is a good thing), why aren’t we looking at the data on homework?

 

Cooper, H., Robinson, C. R., Patel, E. A. “Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research, 1987-2003.” Review of Educational Research. Vol. 76, No. 1 (2006): pp. 1-62. Print.

photo credit: Cayusa via photopin cc
photo credit: davidmulder61 via photopin cc