Morenci, Onsted students collaborate 2014.02.12


"I see your point, however…."

"I do not understand what you mean in your statement about…. I would be extremely grateful if you could elaborate on this idea."

"I disagree with your statement about children not striving for and thriving in a technology based world…."

"I feel as though your response has strengthened my position…."

And so went the discussion on the topic: "Is increased accessibility to technology detrimental to a child’s developmental growth?"

That was one of nine topics recently discussed by AP English students in Morenci and Onsted during a collaborative project designed to improve critical thinking skills and to teach students how to use discussion boards—an educational format becoming common in college courses.

The project came together when Onsted English teacher Michelle McLemore announced that she was looking for another teacher to join her in a project for a grant opportunity. Morenci teacher Heather Walker answered the call and planning got underway. 

Students in both schools tossed around suggestions for discussion topics and a final list was narrowed to nine, including stem cell research, marijuana legalization, teaching creationism in public schools and the impact of beauty pageants.

Small groups of students in each school chose a topic and began their research. Positions were posted on the discussion board website by each student in the form of an argumentative essay, with evidence to back up the statement.

In the second week, students began responding to others’ positions. This led to agreement in some cases, to disagreement in others, and sometimes to a wavering of a student's original argument. 

"Sometimes they would find holes in another student's statement and sometimes they found a weakness in their own thinking," Ms. Walker said. "It was a good exercise in critical thinking, clarifying ideas and in creating a tight argument."

The project also offered experience in give-and-take and in having a reasonable argument—far different from the rude exchange of comments seen on many websites.

The discussion board shows a running exchange of ideas and opinions among the participants. The general format shows one student copying a portion of someone else’s statement and commenting on that. Eventually, a lengthy series of exchanges develops.

Onsted students had used the discussion board format before, but it was a new experience for Morenci's students and they enjoyed communicating with students they had never met. The process also offered a good conversation avenue for students who aren't as socially active as others.

"They will absolutely have to do this kind of thing in college," Ms. Walker said. "So many classes are at least partially on-line now. This is becoming part of traditional college."

The discussion board talk is full of links to reference sources, along with an occasional video used to support an argument or add another element to the discussion. Ms. Walker appreciates the immediacy that the on-line connection offers. To spice up the conversation in the topic about English as the official U.S. language, she posted a video of the Coca-Cola Super Bowl ad that troubled some people.

During the debate about technology in the classroom, Onsted student Charlotte Coberly pointed out the insightful irony.

"Morenci is nearly 25 miles away from Onsted. Yet here we are, debating the possible detriment technology may have on the growth of students and children. How are we doing this? By using desktops, laptops, tablets, phones, an internet connection, and internet resources to gain information. What are we achieving from this? We have been provided a safe environment to share and form personal opinions; we are using literary skills to persuade, counter, concede, or qualify. These are skills that will impact our lives in the coming years. This is possible because we have trained teachers that are monitoring and encouraging the proper use of such skills in an online forum. Onsted students may never get the chance to physically meet those from Morenci, but through the use of technology it is almost as though we have."

Technology may win out again. There's talk about having a Skype lunch together to finally see the faces behind the messages—from a distance of 25 miles.

• Students talk about project

I think the best part of the project was getting to do something new. Instead of just writing an argumentative paper, we got to argue against a new person.

– Emma Binegar

The collaborative project had a way of bringing me out of my comfort zone. That's when we grow and learn.

– Korin Baumgartner

You weren't just sitting there doing homework like usual. You were actually communicating with others.

– Clayton Bachman

The entire experience to me was distasteful. Argumentation and debates just had no spice to them. I looked at a computer screen instead of passionately discussing my position in person.

– Dustin Kimbrell

Gathering information and finding sites that weren't biased was very difficult.

– Reagan Stowell

When I think of debate, I think of a back-and-forth "I'm right, you're wrong" type of conversation, but this board showed me that a calm, rational argument can be had if you take time to really understand the other side of the argument.

– Kelsie Kuhn

The social aspect was great. I got to meet new people and learn new things about the people I sit in class with every day. Overall, it was an amazing experience in which we got to see different sides of some controversial topics.

– Mariah Gillen

• Grant buys equipment

Morenci English teacher Heather Walker was pleased to take part in a collaborative project with an Onsted teacher, but it wasn't until later that she learned just how beneficial the effort was going to be for her classroom.

She was looking forward to the discussion board activity described above, but then one day early in the summer she heard from the grant coordinator at the Lenawee Intermediate School District informing her that she was holding up the project. She needed to get her grant application submitted.

"I just thought I was doing a collaborative project," she said. "I didn't know I could apply for a grant."

She submitted her application on time, and since hers was the only qualifying project from Morenci, the entire $15,000 was hers to enhance the technological capabilities of her classroom.

"It just fell in my lap," she said. "In the past I've only sought smaller mini-grants from the Morenci Education Foundation. This was a much larger award and offered huge technology upgrades for my classroom. It was a little intimidating to have so much at once, but I'm getting used to everything and can really see the benefits in day-to-day instruction."

What she bought was an interactive white board known as a Smart Board; 31 Surface RT touch-screen tablets; three iPads; and a laptop computer to control the Smart Board.

Funding through the Innovative Secondary School Initiative requires that at least 50 percent of the purchased equipment be used as part of the collaborative project. As long as that requirement is met, the grant recipients are encouraged to make use of the new equipment with as many students, in as many ways, as possible.

"It's awesome," Ms. Walker said. "We're doing more research and multi-media presentations than ever."

There's no longer any need to arrange for time in the school's computer lab—nor the time needed to walk to the lab and get situated. Now it's just a matter of grabbing a tablet and getting back to your seat, she said.

The tablets have been in use for several months and the novelty has still not worn off, Ms. Walker said. The tablets still spark more interest than words on paper. That's just the nature of today's students.

But it's the Smart Board that's changing the way she teaches. She describes the device as a digital chalkboard and computer monitor all in one.

"You can write on it using a digital pen, click "delete" and erase the board, or save it for later—even next year. Anything written on the board can be printed or even e-mailed to an absent student."

The Smart Board is also connected to the internet through a laptop, allowing for immediate viewing of a website, video, PowerPoint, word document or anything else viewable on a computer screen. If something comes up in class discussion, instant access is possible.

"It really enhances 'teachable moments,'" Ms. Walker said. "And it encourages students to incorporate audio-visual aids into their own presentations."

The Smart Board was extremely useful in introducing students to the discussion board concept, giving Ms. Walker the ability to, for example, quickly interact with features of the board through touch-screen capabilities.

The board also acts in dual function as both a surface to write on and a computer monitor, simultaneously. From her laptop or at the board, Ms. Walker can easily circle a few words to point out a metaphor, label an error in punctuation or give correct answers on a quiz.

The new equipment gives students almost daily practice in finding information on the internet, whether it's learning to make the best use of a Google search or honing their skills in using the Michigan Electronic Library (MeL) from the Library of Michigan.

"It really increases the number of times we practice doing good research," Ms. Walker said.