Oakland Beach School uses social network to propel class projects

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Last week, Oakland Beach Elementary School began using digital media to expand students’ skills inside and outside the classroom.

With equipment donated by the New Learning Institute, a company that offers project-based digital media programs to young scholars and their educators, sixth graders are figuring out how to operate their own personal profiles on a safe, private educational social network program.

“These kids are really buzzing,” said art teacher Catherine Davis-Hayes, who won the 2007 state teacher of the year award and ultimately helped earn the opportunity for students to be part of the program. “They are on fire.”

Because Davis-Hayes is a recipient of the award, she and other winners were invited to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. last summer to participate in a workshop by the New Learning Institute. There, teachers tested various mobile learning tools. She then incorporated ideas she learned into a lesson plan using social studies, music and language arts, and the Smithsonian selected her students to be the model class for the curriculum she designed.

“This is relatively new, and as the model class they know they are representing Oakland Beach School,” she said. “We hope it will help raise their own expectations.”

The main objective is for students to increase social interactions with one another while learning more about topics they are studying in school, through 21st century tools such as the Internet and smart phones.

“There is a huge level of excitement, but technology isn’t the end goal,” said Davis-Hayes. “We are hoping the technology functions like a carrot or a motivator for driving the work because they know they get to see themselves on the Internet. They are doing the unit on a zillion other things; they are just using technology as a tool. It’s a support.”

The children are learning how to share their assignments and ideas with one another by uploading images and videos to their profiles. The network is a closed group, with only students and educators as members. Each student has an access code and they are required to “friend” or add everyone in the class to their network. They are not able to conduct private conversations, as the focus is on the group.

“We’re also teaching social network etiquette and communication skills,” she said. “They are getting to know one another and are learning how they want people to perceive them.”

Currently, the children are doing an in-depth study called “Cultural Vibrations.” They are studying artifacts from the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian through the website.

“They look at the iconography that suggests the instruments have cultural significance, and we ask them to apply what they’ve learned to their own lives,” Davis-Hayes said. “We might ask them to comment on another student’s video.”

The children will also build their own instruments, including artwork from their heritage or interests, on their creations. They then will get the opportunity to compose and perform songs in music class.

“They are studying African rhythm and will break into groups and write their own pieces of music,” said Davis-Hayes. “They are documenting the whole process inside the social network-type classroom. They don’t have to stop when the bell rings. They can reflect on it at home on the social network.”

Davis-Hayes, along with sixth grade teacher Mary Chisholm, are grateful for the assistance of Brian H. Burnett, who specializes in educational technology and communication integration for the New Learning Institute and the Pearson Foundation. A resident of New York, Burnett visited the school to teach the children and teachers how to use the equipment.

“Technology is kind of like the air they breathe,” said Burnett, who first met Davis-Hayes at the technology workshop in Washington. “It’s very engaging and it’s really a foundation to make them better learners. Social networks are becoming a mainstay. We’re trying to leverage it so the students are learning how to create and collaborate in this medium, but also using mobile and visual technology. It would be really great if other educators became interested in this program and they could check it out.”

Davis-Hayes said this method of teaching has been beneficial to students. She believes it is an “amazing opportunity” for teachers as well, and said it will make it easier for them to identify what students understand certain projects because the information is all saved on the network.

“We’re learning as much as the kids are,” she said. “The evidence is right there, so we will know if the foundation of this whole process was valid. We’ll have examples of the students’ writing, their thinking and concrete video of what they did. They are having fun, but they are learning a lot more than what meets the eye. It keeps getting richer and richer in all aspects of the educational process, and it’s exciting to know I work with people who are willing to explore new things.”

Amy Lynne Budd, who is a theater artist-in-residence at the school, is using technology to teach students how to present themselves in a professional manner. They have been doing visual research by watching footage of performance films on YouTube and are in the process of inventing their own dance steps they will perform in their own videos.

“We want them to have a variety of models to look at, so they are going to be looking at how performers use their bodies and visual elements of costumes to enhance their projects,” said Budd. “It provides transferable skills that make it easier for them to speak in front of large groups and prepares them for job interviews. What I think is brilliant about it is the children perceive they are having a great time and picking up skills in the process.”

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