Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Using Wikis with the Youngest Elementary Students

From what I have read, wikis seemed to have found their place in today’s modern classroom.  I can see so many advantages for older student using them, though I understand the disadvantages that have been discussed.  While I see them being used often in the upper grades, it seems to be more difficult to implement at the lower levels.  Students in elementary school, especially the youngest ones, have the least amount of experience with computers and the internet.  Often, most of their exposure has been playing games under the supervision of parents or teachers. 

But I stumbled upon Patrick Ledesma’s blog post about using wikis to help students strengthen their vocabulary skills in content-specific classes.  While the article does not name the specific age level Patrick is writing about, usually students have content-specific classes starting in upper middle school.  But this technique can still apply to elementary school classes. 

A major focus of elementary curriculum is developing language and vocabulary skills.  Students can do exactly what Patrick describes:
  1. Restate the definition.
  2. Create a non-linguistic representation.
  3. Cite examples and non-examples.
  4. Edit or add to other entries.
  5. Use the pages in regular activities, or for studying.

This is a great way for students to have instant access to exactly what they have been learning about in school.  It can combine the traditional vocabulary study (lists of 10-20 “new” words focused on weekly) with the content-specific words (Math and Science terms, story elements, historical events and people, etc). 

Once students have an understanding of how the wiki functions, they can begin to expand beyond just vocabulary.  Rather than doing the traditional book report, students can create a wiki page or series of pages about books they’ve read.  And then if another student reads the same book, he/she can add to what the previous student wrote about it.  When students study a new Math concept, they can create wiki pages to help their classmates who are having difficulty understanding the concept.

Another help to elementary students is that they can see previous class’ wikis.  Personally, I would create a new wiki for each class year, but I would be sure to save the previous ones.  This would enable previous students to continue adding to or editing their work as well as having it available for them to show new teachers, friends, and relatives what they’ve accomplished together at a young age.  Perhaps this year my class is going to study the life cycle of ladybugs instead of butterflies.  They can still have access to last year’s class’ wiki pages on butterfly life cycles anyway.  This would add to their knowledge of life cycles in general while expanding beyond what we are focusing on in class. 

This also has another benefit to students.  By continuing to allow students access to their work and the work of previous students, new students will see value in the work they are adding to the wikis.  I believe that this would teach students several valuable lessons:
  1. The work they do in my class is valuable.  It is so valuable to me that I save it to show my following classes.
  2. What they put out on the internet is permanent!  It is out there for good, whether it displays good work or not so good work.  My hope is that this would help mold their ideas about the internet in general, especially when it comes to social media.  They might not participate in social media sites in the younger grades (though my 2nd grade cousin has a Facebook page so you never know), but it would be an idea that stays with them to that age and beyond.
  3. It's ok to make mistakes.  If you make a mistake on your wiki entries, someone else will come along and edit it for you.  My one wish is that there was a way to let those students see the corrected mistakes so they know what they did wrong (spelling/grammar error, wrong formatting, etc.) and learn from it.

Before reading Patrick’s post, I was definitely skeptical about using wikis with young children.  I wasn’t sure exactly how they would best be implemented with these kids.  Would they do just a single project on it?  Would it be me entering information for them?  How much time would we devote to developing a wiki?  All these questions ran through my mind while thinking about it.  But I honestly think this is the best way to use them with young students.  It’s an ongoing project that would need to be taught and reinforced at the beginning of the school year, but students would eventually be capable of doing it on their own.  It allows students to use computers without needing direct instruction or supervision from the teacher.  It allows them to work together, though not necessarily at the same time, on creating a final product.  It gives them the opportunity to take ownership of a big project without assistance from teachers (at least after they really learn to use it) or parents.  After teaching preschool for two years, I was amazed that one of my 3-year-olds knew how to get on his parents’ laptop, open an internet browser, and go straight to YouTube to watch pre-searched Thomas the Train videos.  At 3!  His parents actually assumed I taught him this, but our classroom didn’t have internet access.  Don’t underestimate what your students are capable of doing!  I always have high expectations of my students (even when they’re 3), but even then sometimes they will surprise you with how fast they learn.

You can find Patrick's article here.  I definitely recommend you go read it!

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