Janis Friesler's 8th Grade at Frank Lloyd Wright Middle School
West Allis, WI
In 1997, language arts teacher Janis Friesler was given an opportunity that changed her teaching—and her students' learning—dramatically. Friesler's principal at the time, Conrad Farner, believed that if his school's technology labs were put in academic classrooms, the technology would be used on a daily basis. Friesler and two other teachers at Frank Lloyd Wright Middle School in West Allis, Wisconsin, volunteered to test his theory . In recent years, Friesler had developed an interest in educational technology, so having a computer lab as a classroom was a dream come true.
But Friesler's classroom transformation came with three major challenges. She had used technology in the classroom before, but in fairly superficial ways; her first challenge, then, was to integrate it more deeply into her curriculum to further support her instructional goals and state and national standards. Second, she suspected that her students would need to become more adept at cooperative learning in order to reap the full benefits of educational technology. Finally, she wanted to determine how the new technology in her classroom could support her efforts to improve her students' writing skills—a central goal of the district.
Before her classroom became a computer lab, Friesler had already begun participating in an extensive staff development program focused on project-based learning. However, when she and two colleagues had their classrooms transformed into high-tech learning centers, they decided to transform the curriculum accordingly. These three teachers agreed that their labs should be used to complete technology-infused, project-based units planned with their team colleagues in social studies, science, math, and language arts. The house structure of the school and the teachers' common preparation times facilitated the design and implementation of these multidisciplinary units. Therefore, in a remarkably short period of time, the teachers had their structure in place.
After brainstorming with her colleagues, Friesler decided to begin this curriculum transformation by expanding an old social studies and language arts project into a six-week multidisciplinary unit heavily supported by technology. The old project had given students a glimpse of the horrors of the Holocaust and allowed them to discover how some seemingly ordinary individuals had behaved heroically during this time. Small groups of students were given pictures of Holocaust survivors and rescuers with corresponding stories cut up into sections and put in five envelopes. Each day, they would read part of the story and write reflections in a journal. As a culminating activity, the groups browsed the Internet for information on the person's life and were asked to make the person famous through a presentation and a poster.
Friesler was pleased with the original project, but she wanted to expand it in order to deepen her students' understanding of the issues it raised, to connect these issues more directly to their own community and concerns, and to address more language arts and social studies standards in the process. She saw technology as a valuable tool in this expansion and also as a means of developing the research and presentation skills her students would need in their later studies and in the workforce. Friesler explains that before creating this expanded unit, "I had always done projects [that used technology], but they did not have the structure that they have now, and they weren't as in-depth. They were more superficial, and the organization wasn't as real-life oriented. Now I look for ways to give kids deep skills."
In the new version of the unit, An Investigation of Heroism through the Holocaust and Underground Railroad, Friesler provided her students with the time and the resources to consider carefully the questions "How do the events of history turn ordinary people into heroes?" and "In what ways is our community today being shaped by unsung heroes?" After reading the play The Diary of Anne Frank and the biography Harriet Tubman: Guide to Freedom, Friesler's students used computer technology to support their investigation of the unsung heroes of the Underground Railroad, the Holocaust, and the current age.
Although Friesler's students were expected to perform a number of traditional social studies and language arts tasks during this unit—reading and responding to primary and secondary source materials, writing clearly and effectively to share information, collecting data and using statistics to define an issue, speaking clearly and effectively—they also became Internet researchers, e-mail collaborators, sound editors, and PowerPoint presenters. Each time she asked them to use a particular technology tool, however, Friesler provided a careful introduction and plenty of ongoing support.
For example, to aid the students in their online research, Friesler showed them a short film entitled "Internet Searching Skills" and had them work through an online tutorial on Internet searching strategies. She also adapted activities from Purdue University's Online Writing Lab http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/research/r_paraphr.html to help students learn the difference between paraphrasing and plagiarism. Finally, she developed a guide laying out specific research tasks for the unit and a page on the school Web site with helpful links.
While Friesler's own clear expectations and ongoing support for technology use were critical to the success of the new unit, she knew that her students should not rely solely on her. They could learn a great deal about the issues raised in the unit—and the technology skills required by the unit—from and with each other. Friesler also knew that effective cooperative learning was not simply a matter of putting students into groups. "I don't believe in just sitting groups of students in front of a computer and letting them take turns on a task. That leads to lots of off-task behavior," Friesler explains. "Students need to learn how to divide up a project and work cooperatively."
To build their students' cooperation skills, Friesler and her teaching team began taking them on an overnight trip to an outdoor learning center each fall. There, the students participated in team-building activities and began to develop relationships with peers and teachers based on trust and cooperation. They learned strategies for enhancing communication, improving decision making and problem solving, and leading and collaborating effectively. These strategies were later applied to group work and conflict resolution within their cooperative groups in the classroom.
When the students in Friesler’s classroom began working on their main project for the Investigation of Heroism unit, they quickly discovered the necessity of collaboration; there was simply too much work for one student to do in the allotted time frame. In addition to their individual work—journal entries, a biographical poem, and a film review—students were expected to create a group PowerPoint presentation based on their research about unsung heroes.
Generally, Friesler's students work in small groups of no more than three. For large projects like the PowerPoint presentation, students are allowed to pick their own groups, but they must participate in a different group for each project. According to Friesler, when students choose their own groups, their work improves. “I find peer pressure is greater when the students are comfortable with each other," she says. "The students are not afraid to light a fire under a friend. However, to help with disagreements, I select one person in the group as the coordinator and tie breaker.”
For the PowerPoint presentation, Friesler put a few other supports in place to assist students with the cooperative learning process. First, she reinforced her expectation of full-group participation by instructing her students to initial each of the slides for which they were responsible. Second, she instructed the designated coordinator of the group to e-mail her if someone in the group was having trouble completing a task. Friesler could then talk one-on-one with this student and have the special education teacher, aide, or a student who had completed the work provide help. (Friesler notes that this arrangement has been effective for both English language learners and students with a history of poor performance).
These safeguards to support cooperative learning seem to work well for Friesler's students. “I don’t have a lot of trouble with collaboration," Friesler explains. "Once the project starts taking shape, the students...feel a sense of accomplishment because the finished products—especially PowerPoint presentations—look so polished." In fact, Friesler sees a commitment to group work even in students whose individual work is consistently weak. This commitment has contributed to steady improvements in the cooperative learning process in Friesler's classroom. “The more practice the students have at collaborating,” she says, “the better they do at it.”
While project-based learning was a key component of Friesler's unit, individual written work also played an important role. A major focus of Frank Lloyd Wright Middle School is on teaching students how to apply what the district has identified as six traits of effective writing in every content area: ideas and content, organization, voice, sentence fluency, word choice, and conventions. Friesler sought to incorporate most of these traits into the assignments for the Investigation of Heroism unit.
The first trait–ideas and content–was addressed in the unit's initial lessons on Internet research, described earlier. In order to teach the second trait–organization–Friesler designed a graphic organizer using Inspiration software to help students evaluate a movie about the Holocaust or the Underground Railroad. After watching Life is Beautiful, Schindler's List, or Follow the Drinking Gourd, students used these graphic organizers to help them write movie reviews, honing their persuasive writing skills.
Friesler finds that including required writing in a project is more relevant and meaningful to students than assigning the writing as an isolated task. “There is so much you can do with projects in the classroom,” she says. “Teachers just need to be comfortable making [assignments] standards-based, and students can learn things they don't even realize they are learning. I look for how much curriculum I can get into a project so that learning is fun but meaningful.”
To address the last three writing traits—sentence fluency, word choice, and conventions—and to revisit the second trait (organization), Friesler enlisted the help of some computer software and a group revision process that her students use throughout the year. Before completing their first drafts, students review sentence structure using a computer program provided with their Prentice Hall writing book. The program introduces different types of sentences and lets the students practice writing them.
When students are done with their first drafts, each paper makes its way through a series of revision groups. In the first group, students read the paper aloud to catch run-ons and fragments. Then they evaluate the introduction, transitions, main ideas, and supporting details for clarity and consistency. After this stage, the author gets the paper back and makes corrections on the computer. In the next group, students evaluate the author’s word choice and sentence fluency. Again, the author is given the feedback and makes appropriate changes. Finally, the last group looks at the body of the paper in terms of the specific type of writing and suggests any further revisions. “I believe in taking a lot of time with revision,” Friesler says, “because that is where students learn the most about writing and collaboration.”
This revision process is repeated from the first writing assignment of the year to the last. The use of technology makes the process more efficient, because students can easily enter changes using a word processing program. Technology also adds an extra incentive to revise well, because Friesler always chooses a few exemplary papers from each assignment to post on the school's intranet or the Internet.
Friesler's integration of technology with her writing program has proved very successful. Since her classroom became a computer lab, Friesler's students have made steady improvements in the organization and clarity of their writing–improvements borne out by strong scores on the Terra Nova writing test. (See the Results section for more details.)
To Friesler, applying project-based learning in a computer lab setting was a natural extension of her previous experience. She was able to expand the Holocaust project into a six-week unit that used technology to support students' exploration of unsung heroes in three different historical periods. Through units like this, Friesler's students gained a set of practical technology skills and an aptitude and appreciation for cooperative learning; they also improved as writers and thinkers. According to Friesler, the technology available to her students helped to “deepen the learning process,” allowing them to explore topics from a variety of perspectives and through a variety of methods. Carefully structured use of the Internet has “opened up a bigger world” for Friesler's students; as they explore this world, tools like Inspiration and PowerPoint help them to organize and present their thoughts about it.
To view Friesler's unit plan for An Investigation of Heroism through the Holocaust and Underground Railroad, click here.