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Oh, the Places They Can Go: Sharing the Journey to Destinations Unknown

by Julie D. Ramsay
December 19, 2012
In today’s world, the topic of using technology in the classroom can be intimidating. In this monthly column, join one teacher on a quest to discover the best way to meet the needs of her digital-age learners…moving beyond the technology tools to focusing on supporting each student’s learning.

As classroom teachers, we are faced with the challenge to meet the needs of each of our very diverse learners. If your students are like my students, many of them have a large deficit in the background knowledge that many adults take for granted. When students read a text or begin to write, they depend on their background knowledge to build meaning and create high-quality pieces of writing.

Many of my fifth grade learners have very little life experience. Many of them have never been out of the state; some have never been out of our town. So when we are reading a piece of literature or nonfiction text and it involves travel, adventure, or different geographical locations, they have almost no schema to build their comprehension upon. Think of all of the literature and nonfiction texts that involve a journey or a geographical location. Also, I must take into consideration that I, like most of you, have students for whom English is a second language, who have exceptional needs, and who are struggling readers and writers.

How do we give our students the opportunity to understand the inferred implications of the characters, plot or setting, whether real or imaginary, so that they can make those connections that are crucial to getting immersed into these magical places? Is there a way that we can take them on a journey similar to the characters without leaving the classroom?

On the Right Path

A couple of years ago, my students were involved in a collaborative writing project with students from all across the United States. All of these students were interested in understanding what made citizens of each state unique. They wondered, “What would it be like to be a citizen of a state that is not Alabama?” The challenge was that everything that they were writing was just basic recall of facts. There was no depth of understanding of the content they were reading or writing. There were no connections, no cause and effect, no conclusions, no synthesizing.

As we were working with a class of third graders within our school building, the other teacher and I began brainstorming how we could give our students some background experience so that they could really understand what they were reading, researching, and writing about in regard to our state. We wanted them to dig beyond the facts and gain a deep understanding of the past and how it impacts the present.

We discovered that there was going to be a Native American festival at an archaeological park within an hour’s drive from our school. We felt like this would be a wonderful opportunity for our students to build that background knowledge, experience hands-on activities, and be able to draw comparisons, contrasts, and conclusions that they could include in the pieces that they were composing.

The day before we left on our trip, a student approached me and asked, “Mrs. Ramsay, I really think we should share our trip with our collaborative partners. It would be awesome if they could go with us.” She continued, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could create a virtual trip while we are on the actual trip?” The rest of the students eagerly chimed in with her. So the question became how could we not only build background experience for our students, but how could we do that for all three hundred students from across the country involved in this project?

Trip Wow!

The answer came to us in a free tool called TripWow, sponsored by the travel website TripAdvisor. This intuitive tool leads users through the basic steps of creating a simple travel documentary using the photos, or images, that they have. It guides the user in pinpointing a starting destination and an ending destination. When it is published, it begins with a map that shows the journey and tells how many miles have been travelled. Captions can be added, music selected, and it can easily be shared through social media outlets, emails, or embedded into websites, wikis, or blogs.

As we began our trip to the archaeological park, the students were looking at it as not only a learning experience for themselves, but for all of their peers who would view this virtual field trip that they would be creating. They really listened, jumped into activities, took notes, and asked really thought-provoking questions. Knowing that they would be publishing their learning for an audience gave the entire trip a much deeper meaning and enjoyment. It was no longer a day off from school. It was a quest.

As soon as we returned from school, my learners began asking if they could call home to get permission to stay after school to work on their TripWow (as a side note, this was a Friday afternoon). Several of them stayed and took all the notes and ideas from their classmates as they began publishing their own virtual field trip.

The final project turned out to be the highlight for all of the three hundred students. The discussions that it spurred helped students to dig deeper into their state’s background to answer the questions from my students. All of these students now have that scaffolding that they need to help strengthen their reading comprehension and their writing.

School Bound? No problem!

So what if you are in a school district where field trips are almost nonexistent? I face that challenge many years myself. Does that mean we cannot give our students a similar experience? Absolutely not!

One book that we try to read each year is Christopher Paul Curtis’ BUD, NOT BUDDY. The book centers on a boy, Bud, who is taking a journey in Michigan during the Great Depression to find the father that he has never met. My students struggled to understand not just the time period, but also how far Bud had to actually travel and the challenges that he would face along the way.

One student casually commented, I wonder how it looks in Michigan (can you tell that I get a lot of inspiration from my amazing students?). That’s when I realized that by creating a TripWow, the students would gain some experience about the location and be able to “see” what Bud would have seen. It would allow them to activate their mind’s eye for not only this book, but also future books and writing as well.

Within a short amount of time students were able to locate photos and create a literary field trip following the journey of a character. I have employed this tool many times to support my learners’ needs in building understanding. It has been especially effective in meeting the challenges with my Exceptional Education students.

One More Time…This Time with (More) Meaning

On occasion a piece of literature connects with a group of students and speaks to who they are as individuals. This year, Katherine Applegate’s THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN did that for my class. THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN was selected for the Global Read Aloud, so before that I hadn’t read this book with students (but it definitely won’t be the last time). In addition to being told from the point of view of a silverback gorilla (which is based on the life of a real gorilla), and using some of the most amazing figurative language, it challenges the reader to evaluate his/her stance on serious issues and deals with deeply moving themes.

My learners were immediately hooked. My tech-savvy students quickly realized that the real-life Ivan lived at the Atlanta Zoo, which is only two hours away from us. They were having book chats and exchanges via Twitter, our class blog, their individual blogs, and Skype with students from all over the world. Their global peers could not believe that we were so close to the true one and only Ivan. Their global peers asked them if there was any way that they could go and visit Ivan for them and send them photos and updates so that they could experience it too.

The three other teachers in our school participating in the Global Read Aloud and I got permission to take our students to the Atlanta Zoo to visit the final home of Ivan. Just like in our trip to the archeological park, our students entered this trip with a sense of purpose and determination to bring their experiences to the over 24,000 students who were depending on them to share their experiences.

They tweeted throughout the day, took photos, and shot video. Upon returning, they debated about which photos actually would best teach their audience and enhance their understanding of the book. They actually discovered that they couldn’t say everything that they wanted to say to their peers because the captions only allowed so many characters, and so they took to their blogs to share more details. They searched for other books with similar themes and plot outlines to share with their global peers. Their reading and writing drastically improved because they had this experience and they felt the need to give back to the Global Read Aloud community of learners.

Through the writing and publishing with TripWow, they not only grew as readers, writers, and ultimately learners, but they impacted the learning of thousands of other students worldwide. Although this was a physical trip for my students and virtual one for their peers, the true journey was one of discovery where they deeply evaluated and synthesized the relevance of content and literature on their lives today. That is truly an accomplishment worth stepping back and saying, “Wow!”

Click here to see the TripWow project, and read a blog post Julie’s students wrote about their pilgrimage to the Atlanta Zoo.

Julie D. Ramsay is a Nationally Board Certified educator, a fifth grade teacher in a student-driven classroom, and the author of “CAN WE SKIP LUNCH AND KEEP WRITING?”: COLLABORATING IN CLASS & ONLINE, GRADES 3-8 (Stenhouse, 2011). She travels the country to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog at juliedramsay.blogspot.com.
© 2012 Julie D. Ramsay. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.
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