What Can Third Graders Do With Technology?

Note from Cathie Norris (CN) & Elliot Soloway (ES): In this week’s blog, a third grade teacher in a public school provides a clear example of what our blog, "Reinventing Curriculum" is all about. Gabriel DellaVecchia has used 1-to-1 in an imaginative, productive and effective manner. What the children in his class accomplished is absolutely inspiring!

For the past three years, I was honored to teach third grade at Sabin World Elementary School in Denver, CO. Although it is a public school, Sabin follows the International Baccalaureate (IB) philosophy, a mindset that gave me the freedom to craft demanding tasks and to provide meaningful ways for my students both to learn and to communicate their learning. Technology was a key support for my students. Each student has his/her own Chromebook to use every day in class. So, what can be expected from third graders in a 1-to-1 classroom?

What artifacts did the students produce?

Our year was divided into six six-week interdisciplinary units, each planned around the creation of artifacts that reflect the world beyond school:

  • To speak in character as a figure from history who changed the world in a positive way.
  • To construct bee houses in collaboration with volunteers from the community, handmade objects which were then sold by a local nonprofit to raise funds.
  • To write and illustrate a non-fiction book to add to our classroom library.
  • To create a virtual fossil museum in which each student appeared as the guide.
  • To debate students from other classes on the pros and cons of various energy sources.
  • To create a display, physical or digital, to compare the lives of two types of organisms.
  • To create an e-book incorporating the life cycle of a butterfly.
  • To write a rap to help other students remember their multiplication facts.

What instructional strategies did I use to help students create these types of artifacts?

  • Provide realistic, relevant learning experiences: By providing my students with a clear end goal, like a book, a debate or a gallery display, they always knew what they were working for. They also wanted to create the artifacts, as making books, singing songs, building things, and even arguing a point are creative activities that 8-year-olds are already inclined to do.
  • Allow ample time for practice and feedback: Teacher preparation programs often provide lesson plans that include the template: I Do, We Do, You Do. This "release of responsibility" pattern happens within the context of a single lesson or two. In my classroom, our pattern was We Research, We Try, We Share stretched over the length of the entire unit.
    • We Research: For each six-week unit, we would spend about the first two weeks reading and discussing the context of our given problem. At this point, students might take notes, but the majority of the time was spent in conversations.
    • We Try: With a foundation built, the students would spend the next two to three weeks trying to make sense of what they were learning and figuring out the best way to communicate it. This often took the forms of drafts of a speech or a story, but also involved rearranging graphical elements in a slideshow or coordinating roles within a speech or a song.
    • We Share: From the earliest part of the unit, when students would still be reading and note-taking, the sharing would begin. Usually twice a day, students would share their works in progress. Examples of both above-average and below-average work were analyzed, not only helping the student under review, but providing living exemplars to the class as a whole for pieces to emulate and pitfalls to avoid.
  • Use tools that allow for self-expression: While internet research and Google Docs were a constant, other uses of technology flowed from the needs of the project. Our biography unit was much improved during my second year when I shifted from cut-and-paste physical timelines to a Timeline Editor created by Google Slides was indispensable for the creation of both the virtual fossil museum and the butterfly e-books. Using the website was a game-changer in allowing the students to record their own songs. In each case, technology was a tool, not the goal.

Why is it important to ask students to communicate instead of demonstrate?

Near the end of the year, my students sat down with their parents for student-led conferences. As we did a lot of digital work, their artifacts from their third-grade year were all stored within Google Drive. With the thumbnails neatly lined up, the evidence of what the student had accomplished over the course of the year was immediately apparent. What was also apparent was the pride the students took in their work: explaining how they were able to construct their virtual fossil museum using Google Slides, or their nerves when going up on stage to debate. Having spent multiple weeks crafting an artifact, the students had multiple stories to tell about each project, spoken about with pride. That is a level of personal investment that I have never witnessed from any standardized test.  

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