Oakland Beach students learn teamwork through technology

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Oakland Beach Elementary School sixth graders spent the last two months working on a project using the Internet and smart phones to expand their education. In the process, they discovered what it means to be a team.

“We learned to work together and listen to other peoples’ ideas,” said Zach Garvey. “We also learned a lot about other people, too.”

In addition, they found out there is much more to the Internet than just “meeting people.” Through a private scholastic social network, the children realized they are able to study online.

“Social networks are somewhere you can do actual work,” said Aidan Mochel. “You can talk about what you do and other people can tell you their thoughts.”

Mochel’s classmate, Tannor O’Connor, agreed. He said he was happy he got the chance to share information with his peers.

“I learned how to embed pictures and videos to the Internet,” O’Connor said. “I also learned how to make a website.”

“We uploaded stuff on the social network and commented on it,” said Damien Gleavey. “I think the project was very fun.”

But the students also said it wasn’t all smooth sailing. In fact, it took some effort at times.

“Towards the middle, we had some problems,” said O’Connor. “Our group wasn’t working well together at first and we had some obstacles. But we learned that we can never give up. You always have to try hard and in the end it will all pay off.”

For their assignment, the students did an in-depth study called “Cultural Vibrations.” They examined artifacts from the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian via the Internet and built their own instruments.

They formed small groups of four or five and chose a cultural theme to decorate their creations. Then, each group composed a production that highlighted the cultural elements of the theme they selected. As a finale, they performed for their classmates.

“Now, they are reflecting on the musical instruments from the museum collection and the instruments they made,” said art teacher Catherine Davis-Hayes, who crafted the lesson plan. “They get to compare and contrast what they’ve learned about what defines a culture.”

Davis-Hayes said she hoped the students would notice that there are similarities and differences within all cultures. To her delight, she got her wish when one group who focused on “Hip-hop” as a topic discussed their findings.

“It’s not just music,” said Matt Johnson. “It’s in their styles. It’s in their hats, their shirts, and the kind of jewelry that they wear.”

His classmate Robert Thomas agreed. He said, “It’s about what they do and what they wear. Cultures aren’t just about language.”

“The hip-hop culture is a lot about their dance style,” said Chris Morales. “I think it also has to do with their background,” said Mallory Liebermann. “We learned how hip-hop started and how it is what it is today.”

Another team, who coined themselves the “Muscle Men,” based their topic on sports. Like the hip-hop group, their conclusions were similar.

“We decided that sports had all the elements it takes to be a culture,” said O’Connor. “It has government, traditions, innovations, and common values.”

“We each have our own sub-cultures,” said Garvey. “One of us has baseball, another has football, and I have hockey.”

Davis-Hayes said she is thrilled with the outcome. She feels that using the Internet and social networks can be great new ways to encourage children to learn efficiently.

“I think we have concrete, visible evidence that these kids really understood the content deeply,” she said.

As the 2007 State Teacher of the Year, Davis-Hayes ultimately helped her students earn the opportunity to serve as the model classroom for the project.

Because she is a recipient of the award, she and other winners were invited to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. last summer and participated in a workshop that was presented by the New Learning Institute. She and the other teachers tested various mobile learning tools. She then incorporated ideas she learned into a lesson plan using social studies, music and language arts. Soon after, the Smithsonian selected her students.

The New Learning Institute, a company that offers project-based digital media programs to young scholars and their educators, donated the equipment the children used. Brian Burnett, of the Pearson Foundation, visited the class and introduced the students to the electronic tools.

The most important factor Davis-Hayes believes the children learned from the project was the importance of teamwork. She said she was impressed when she noticed them showing one another how to explore the Internet, upload a photo, or embed a video.

“We saw amazing levels of cooperation,” she said. “We saw really positive ways where the kids were helping the ones who were struggling. We saw them rallying and supporting each other.”

At first, Derek Cote said he was unsure about how to perform certain tasks within the project. But after he learned, be began teaching other students.

“They were paying attention and trying to figure out how to do it,” Cote said.

Further, Davis-Hayes said she was happy to see students who are typically less engaged excel. In fact, she said they were some of the best workers.

“Sometimes they think it’s easier to get sent to the office and not participate,” she said. “But in this case, the assignment encouraged them to be social and taught them how to problem solve.”

Davis-Hayes said she is proud her students served as the model class. She believes they absorbed vital new skills and can act as guides at neighboring schools, as she hopes other educators will implement the project.

“Using a social network was an experiment for us and I think it was a huge learning process,” she said. “In the end, I think we can be great coaches and help other people learn how to utilize that tool. Think about Facebook as a classroom and the potential for it to be a new way to teach.”

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