Why did I think that a digital learning library would be better than a textbook?

This past week I was helping my 4th grade daughter with her social studies homework  and I noticed that her textbook, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill textbook, North Carolina, was published in 2003. She was working on Chapter 11 which covers the state, local and national governments. Now, it doesn’t matter much that the general and historic information is from 2003, but the book shows photos of the then senators, Elizabeth Dole and John Edwards. The publishers are probably happy when people like Donnie Harrison, Wake County Sheriff (his photo is in the book as well), are re-elected. It really got to me that one of the mini activities was to have the students read a pie graph showing “Where Each State Tax Dollar Goes”, from 2001.

So, what would it be like for a teacher to not pick up books from the book room at the beginning of the year? What if he/she just said, “I’m going to use the book as a guide and use current resources and tools to wing it”? It may be liberating. It will likely be difficult because ‘winging it’ will require providing students with access to technology and the web.

Fortunately (so I thought), a couple of days after our homework session I noticed through eSchoolNews that Pennsylvannia had started a Digital Learning Library. I searched in the 4th grade curriculum for activities/resources on government. I was a bit dissapointed to find the following:

  • A link to an assignment where students create a mobile showing the 3 branches of government using paper, yarn and colored pencils.

Click the link at the bottom of each page

While these materials are linked to the state standards and benchmarks and they are easily accessible, they are very similar to what the text offers. The information is dated and, in terms of thinking skills, these are low level thinking skills. It appears to be more of the same.

I can see that it is going to be some serious work to provide students with meaningful learning experiences without using the textbook. What about these options.

  • Create a Resource on Local, State and National Governments for the PublicTake the structure of the textbook and the digital library resources and have the students create a wiki that can be viewed/edited by the rest of the world. This would guarantee that the information would be current.

Include:

  • Covering the Primary Elections – At the time of the unit there were primary elections going on in North Carolina. What if the students embarked on a project to cover the primaries with a focus on local, state and federal governments? The early voting polls were open for 10 days and the site was very close to school. What if the kids went and taped interviewed of volunteers, voters and candidates during this election period? The audio or video clips could then be edited and compiled to share with other 4th grade students around the world. The students could have researched the candidates, just like voters did, to learn more about the issues.
  • Analyzing State Budget Figures – Turns out that the it’s a bit more difficult than I thought to find out details on current state of North Carolina government budget figures. Maybe that is a good thing. With help, the students could locate the information, compile it into a spreadsheet and then present it in the same type of pie chart that the book uses.
  • Web Resources – Look for links to news reports, videos and other media that relates to the topic.

If I was a 4th grader, I know which I would prefer. Too bad that the teachers and the students don’t have the tools to provide these types of learning experiences on a daily basis.

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The Type of Collaborative Experiences that Our Students Require

Over the past few weeks I have been working with David Sinclair from Taipei American School on a presentation that we will be giving at the EARCOS Administrator’s Conference in Manila. The presentation it titled, Leadership for 1:1 Laptop Initiatives. Google DocsDuring this time we have been using Google Docs to share information, ideas, links to sites and blogs, and photos. On several occasions we have skype_logoskyped to talk through ideas and we are using PreziPrezi as our presentation tool. All of these provide us with access to real time changes 24/7.

OK, so none of this sounds that earth shattering these days, but there was a moment the other night when I realized that this is so COOL. I was out sitting on my deck working on the presentation with my mini laptop, listening to the sounds of crickets chirping and the waves rolling onto the sand. In the middle of my work David skypes me to discuss the presentation. We are both reviewing our notes and the presentation online and making changes as we go. Meanwhile, my wife, who is helping us with the presentation design, is in another room on another mini editing the presentation. All three of us were collaborating and we weren’t even in the same room. David was even thousands of miles away. When we were talking he said, “what’s that noise?” so I told him about the crickets and the waves. Not a bad location to get some work done.

In today’s world there is no reason why our students should not have these experiences frequently. Our job as educators is to create the opportunities for them to collaborate with students and/or experts from around the world. Aside from the cost for the machines and access to the internet, the rest of the tools are free.