Friday, January 28, 2011

Third Graders Searching the Web

At this time of the year, third grade students are working on an exciting non-fiction writing unit in which they do research using the school’s library books. The difference this year is that Internet research is now included in the project.  This gave us, tech teachers, a great opportunity to teach a lesson on safe and useful web searches. In past years, they had only done research using specific websites, so this was actually the first timthey were instructed to surf the Internet looking for useful information. Research topics ranged from certain sports to animals, biographies, world cities, space, and even current events.

The tech team came up with the following six different options for students’ research. The options, listed below, were also posted on the Schoolworld website.

Google – Basic Results
Students who used Google were initially sent to the Spanish version of the website, probably because it detected the IP address coming from Mexico.  Since we wanted the students to work and look for information in English, we asked them to click on the bottom in English. This way, all text and buttons were in English and needed no translation.

The lesson taught students how to use two Google Search features: Safe-search and Basic Reading Level. Third graders followed the next steps to set these up.

Safe Search in Google
Students entered and clicked on the top-right-side button: Search Settings. A new page appeared and they clicked on the option: Use Strict Filtering under the section SafeSearch Filtering. Then, at the bottom, they clicked on the Save Preferencesbutton.

Basic Reading Level. Students went back to and clicked on the middle right-side option: Advanced Search. They scrolled down and found the section: Reading level. In there, they selected: show only basic results and then clicked on the button:Advanced Search. Students were then given results they could really understand, but still had the option to move to intermediate and advanced levels if necessary.

Students loved using Google. In most cases, it gave them a variety of websites to research at their own reading level.

Twurdy was another favorite.  The results of the search were displayed with different background colors so that students could identify the reading level.  Light backgrounds were the easiest to read and dark backgrounds, the hardest.

Boolify was quite popular. Students took its puzzle pieces and filled them in with keywords.  The search engine would give results depending on the ANDs and NOTs they used. This was a great opportunity for them to visually understand how Boolean operators such as AND, OR, and NOT work.

Quintura Kids
Quintura kids was another websearch engine that helped students in more specific searches. Students would type the keyword in the boxprovided, and the site would then display a word cloud with words related to their search.  By clicking on any of those words, the search changed and different results appeared.

Kidrex was also a good option. Most of the results that were displayed were at their grade level.

Sweet Search
Sweet search has a special section for elementary students (SweetSites) organized by subject and academic level. Another useful section was SweetSearch Biographies, which could be used by categories or by names of people.

Students walked away that day knowing some tools to get to useful websites, being aware that some of those websites may or may not be at their reading level, and no longer believing that the best place to find information in the Internet was Wikipedia.

There might be other websearch engines that you are using that may be useful for elementary students. If you would like to share them, please add them as a comment. I would love to extend this list of search engines!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Our Brain's Right-Side Skills and our Digital World

The end-of-the-year holidays gave me the opportunity to relax, unwind and then catch-up as much as possible with what is new. I enjoyed reading Daniel Pink’s thought-provoking book, “A Whole New Mind” which discussed the ideal skills that need to be taught in schools to prepare students for work and life these days. Through the chapters, the author explained the way our existence is affected more and more by three forces: 1) Material abundance generating a need for products that are not only unique but attractive and meaningful; 2) Asian workers taking over routine jobs at a very low cost; and 3) Automated jobs such as software programming, medical diagnosis and legal advice, being performed by computers. All these current factors require changes in what is being taught in schools. Kids now need to develop artistic and emotional abilities, as well as a capacity to detect patterns, behaviors and opportunities, and an overall vision that can drive them toward innovation. In addition, students nowadays have a need to acquire skills that will make them empathetic, understand human interactions, and find meaning in the things they do.
It was interesting to read how some schools are starting to direct their attention and time to art.  An example given in the book is a high school that uses design to teach core academic subjects giving students a daily art or design class period. This institution aims for students to develop empathy, detect patterns, and acquire a holistic understanding of the context through design. Hopefully, these students will be able to apply these design skills further on in their lives.
Throughout the book, the author clearly shows that to be successful in these times, students require a whole new mind where the left and right sides of the brain work hand-in-hand having the left side taking care of the sequential, logical, and analytical chores and the right side being in charge of inventions, empathy, happiness, and meaning. As a result, schools need be teaching in a way that helps students develop abilities not just from the left side, but from both sides of the brain.
My perspective of students who are artists but have a difficult time with their academic work has changed.  They are already strong in aptitudes that are needed for the 21st century and I can see that there is a lot to learn from them. For students who are not there yet, technology that is available in the school’s lab as well as in the Internet can offer students many tools to develop the skills that are needed. Students can use them to create videos, pictures, songs, slide shows, podcasts, collages, storybooks, etc. The possibilities are unlimited. One thing I could do in class, is encourage students to be more creative adding art, music, animations, videos, sounds, etc,  to their assignments. Students need to know that attractiveness does make a difference. It’s no longer a matter of just entering information.  The way information is presented and the way it gets to people is relevant.

If you have any ideas or lessons that could help develop right-side skills using technology, please share them in a comment. I would love to read them.