Creating Community – A Schoolwide Project

All 270(ish) students in my elementary school collaborating on one big project over the course of a month, each part of the project relying heavily on another group doing their part.  That was my goal.  My principal had mentioned a collaborative project, and it had grabbed my interest.  I had no idea what to do from there.

One morning a few weeks later, while in the shower (where all amazing ideas are born), I had a fleeting thought about my oldest daughter’s upcoming field trip to a fire station.  This sparked a little genius hour project of my own to see the scope and sequence of the study of community helpers through elementary school.  It turns out that every grade level has some mention of community helpers/citizens woven into the North Carolina Essential Standards for Social Studies (K-2, 3-5).

So I wrote a DonorsChoose project for a Community Helper Lego Construction set and an Ozobot.  The majority of the project was funded by our friends at Paradise Games, a local gaming store in our community.  (A HUGE thank you to these guys!)  The idea?  To use Lego bricks to build a community and have an Ozobot programmed to move through it using codes created by markers.

Here was the plan:

PreK, Cross-categorical class, and Kindergarten: Research various community helpers using PebbleGo  and create a list of community helpers they would like to see in our own community

1st grade: Use the list created by PreK, CC, and Kinder to determine where those community helpers worked.  For example: Kindergarten said we need a doctor.  1st grade decided that doctors work in a hospital and a doctor’s office.  They also mentioned dentists, so we included those as well.  These buildings were compiled into a list for 2nd grade.

2nd grade: Create a blueprint for the community.  Use the Lego blocks to begin building the workplaces of the community helpers.  *This was where I saw real engineering and the STEM element of the project begin to emerge.  My students did not understand the proper way to build with the Lego blocks; they didn’t get the purpose of the overlapping of bricks to create an interlocking wall.  The walls would crumble when moved. Lots of devastated kids and a few tears, but they figured it out and created some excellent building foundations.

3rd grade: Put the finishing touches on the Lego buildings and review the blueprints for the community with a suggestion prepare for 4th grade.  This group also laid the foundation of the community (white bulletin board paper) onto two large rectangle tables in the media center.

4th grade: Place buildings throughout the community.  Heated conversation ensued about the location of the church (which was insisted upon by my 2nd grade students), the proximity of the school to the police station/jailhouse, and the ability to move from the doctor’s office to the hospital quickly.  These students also created the “sidewalks” to signify road spacing on which the Ozobot would travel.

5th grade: Using the open road spaces for the Ozobot, the 5th graders designed a color-coded roadway that allowed the Ozobot to visit all of the buildings in our community.  It started in the entrance to the community and went to every single building performing various tricks, tasks, and moving at different speeds along the way.


The project took only one class period (45 minutes) for each class in the school.  There are 14 classes.  With snow delays and my media schedule switching each week, this schoolwide STEM project took nearly 6 weeks to complete.  Overall, all students in the school worked toward a common goal, collaborating each step of the way.  The younger students took delight in seeing their community helpers and the buildings come to fruition on the tables in the media center.  The workspace was out front and center where everyone could see it as they entered the learning space.  During the creation of the community, the workspace was organized chaos.  Students left it, as is, when their class time was over.  Our faculty still held meetings here, students still circulated books, and we still held media classes and small group instruction.

It is my hope that this project continues to push forward a change in school culture.  For me, this project was never about the materials (which were an awesome addition to our makerspace collection).  It was the idea of my entire school working together to make something really cool.  I almost cringe to call it a STEM project because STEM seems to be becoming another “buzzword”, a label to put on something to make it sound educational.  Truly, this project was an adventure.  This project allowed my students, in all grade levels, to see a long-term goal met with research, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.  It was a mess throughout much of the process, none of us knew what we were doing, and we pushed through and made a masterpiece.  Our students’ future is not about coloring in bubbles on an answer sheet, sitting in desks taking notes, and listening quietly to an adult talk all day.  Their future is about engagement, empowerment, and enthusiasm.  Through this schoolwide project, these students were all engaged, they were empowered by creating a community of their own, and they were more enthusiastic than ever before.

*Video on YouTube.

Using MinecraftEdu to Create NC Map

Fourth grade students in North Carolina study North Carolina’s geography and history.  One of my favorite parts of my job as media coordinator is collaboration with classroom teachers to bring lessons to life.  Fourth graders in my school have been learning about the three regions of North Carolina, the coastal plain, the Piedmont, and the mountain region.  Students spent several days in class researching industry, geography, and major landmarks in each region.  In the past, students have created a map on cardboard paper using various materials.  They have even created Live Museums where each pair of students showcased their learning by sharing with other grade levels waiting in the lunch line.  Fourth grade teachers at my school wanted to take it to a new level this year and allow students to create a map of the regions of North Carolina using MinecraftEdu.

I have been running a MinecraftEdu club every Friday afternoon to test out ways to use MinecraftEdu in the classroom.  My MinecraftEdu club has been exploring various lessons in the MinecraftEdu World Library and I have really seen the value in using MinecraftEdu to teach various concepts in the classroom.  When fourth grade teachers approached me about the possibility of using MinecraftEdu in this lesson, I was ecstatic.

The first thing I did to prepare for this lesson was look for a map with the North Carolina border already created in MinecraftEdu.  I could not find a single one.  So, I used the Flat World (Original Style) Map from the World Library as a starting point.  Using a North Carolina map with latitude and longitude lines, I began to block off my image to transfer into MinecraftEdu.  Basically, each latitude and longitude line would be separated by 20 MinecraftEdu blocks.  This allowed me to keep the integrity of North Carolina’s shape while keeping the area of the state manageable for my students to cover in the limited amount of time they would have in MinecraftEdu.


Once the latitude and longitude lines were in, I started outlining the state using the paper copy of the map I had blocked off.  I started on the east coast because I knew it would be difficult to do.  I would place a few blocks, then fly to see if it looked right.  Then I would place a few more blocks, and fly to see how they looked.  It was basically trial and error.  I abandoned the idea of creating the islands of the Outer Banks due to constraints in the area I had given myself.  After a few hours of work, I am pretty proud of the final product that will be uploaded into the World Library soon.

ncmap outline

From this point on, it was up to the students!  The teachers and I decided to start with the coastal region and build from east to west.  Each region was given 45 minutes to work collaboratively to create symbols of what they had learned about their region.  Students had various levels of experience in MinecraftEdu; some are in my MinecraftEdu club and some have never played before this project.  Because the coastal region was first, we ran into some quick problems with the ocean (specifically the flooding of what would be South Carolina and Virginia) and had to start completely over at one point.  Another problem we faced: I began by allowing students to remove lines of latitude and longitude if needed and upon seeing the black border of the state disappear, we started over and I told students they could not remove any pink or black blocks and they must contain the ocean in the blocks provided.  After about an hour of working (including having to restart), the seven students assigned the coastal region were finished.  They included a shark, a pirate ship, beach houses, seafood restaurants, sand for beaches, tourists tanning on the beach, and palm trees.  The ocean even had a strong current in it to represent the movement of the waves!


You can see they were very particular about keeping the Piedmont region out of their coastal plain, so they went as far as to create a visible division between the two regions.  The Piedmont was next and within their 45 minutes, they created Bank of America stadium (Go Panthers!), McDonald’s, and skyscrapers.  They also created a forest of “apple” trees using oak seeds, but the oak trees overtook the skyscraper, so we had to cut down an entire forest.  This led to an spontaneous discussion about deforestation and a debate about cutting down trees vs industry, which was an excellent unexpected learning opportunity!  The seven students who studied the Piedmont also took it upon themselves to make a border so the mountain region would not build in their area.  The students were very territorial about their regions!


The last region to build was the mountain region.  They discussed where the foothills would be and decided as a group (with my permission) to move the border created by the Piedmont so they could have ample room to build the mountains and have a section for the foothills.  They were adamant about having the foothills represented as that’s where our school is located.  After 45 minutes, the mountain region had created a good-sized mountain range and the Mount Airy Granite Rock Quarry.


Once all students in the class had the opportunity to add something to the map, the MinecraftEdu club members put on the finishing touches.  They dubbed themselves “experts” and made everything come together nicely!  They also added a lighthouse to the North Carolina coast, the Krispy Kreme headquarters (with a donut on the top, HA), a race track to represent North Carolina’s role in the creation of professional racing, and the Biltmore House in the mountains.  The final touch was a beacon to show where our school is located in the foothills.

minecraft (1)

As I watched the students work, I was amazed at the level of knowledge they had about North Carolina’s geography, industry, and landmarks!  These students came with an idea about what they could add to the map to represent North Carolina and they worked together so well to create what I consider to be a masterpiece.  I posted several times on Twitter with updates on this project, which were shared and liked many times (thank you for that).  Each day I would remind the students that their work was being shared globally and many people were waiting to see the finished product.  The students gave everything they had to this project and far surpassed any expectations I had for this project.  Their learning is evident in ways that a standardized test could never showcase.  I am a firm believe in the power of MinecraftEdu in school and I can’t wait to work with my fifth grade teachers to create biomes in MinecraftEdu in the coming weeks!

*A link to a walk-through of the completed NC Region Map will be added soon.

First Genius Hour Attempt

I was in a great session about Problem-Based and Project-Based Learning at NCTIES when the presenters mentioned Genius Hour. So, I go to all these EdCamps and NCTIES conference and participate in Twitter chats and constantly hear about this thing called “Genius Hour”.  I always thought it would be cool to try, but it always seemed so difficult to manage on such a large scale in the media center so I had avoided it.  Well, this session made it sound so incredibly easy that I finally decided to try it out with my 4th and 5th grade students.  My district uses the FINDS method for research in the media center, so I was able to incorporate the research method and plug in NCWiseOwl as a resource, and as a bonus, was able to pull in Google Slides as all students have Gmail accounts in our district.  Here a quick list of my epic wins and epic fails of my first attempt at Genius Hour.

Genius Hour.JPG

Step 1:  Focus – I explained to my students (two 4th grade classes of approximately 25 students each and two 5th grade classes of approximately 15 students each) that Genius Hour was a time for them to research a topic that interested them with (almost) no restrictions.  Each student wrote down 10 things they loved, 10 things they were good at, and 10 things they wondered about.  From those lists, they looked for a common theme and chose a topic to research.  Some students really struggled with listing what they were good at, which was interesting to me.  Those that finished quickly were able to write some questions they had about their topic.  I had to narrow down some of the topics as a few were not really appropriate for school-based research.

Step 2: Investigate & Note-Taking – After allowing the students to choose their own topic (with some redirection in a few cases), I began a teacher research frenzy.  I took to the internet to find diversified, kid-friendly, elementary school appropriate websites with minimal ads on each topic… yes, each… all 75-80 projects.  Luckily a few overlapped, and a few wanted to research their family tree or interview a community member, so I was able to duplicate some sites and rely on personal interviews for others.  Overall, I found 3-4 good websites each for about 65 students.  Students were also able to use NCWiseOwl, PebbleGo, Trueflix and Freedomflix to research.  If I were in a middle or high school, I would have likely let students just run with it, but since I work with elementary students, I felt the need to really narrow down safe sites for them.  Prior to allowing them to access their chosen websites, we discussed the difference between a website with valid information and invalid information.  We talked about verifying sources and plagiarism and copyright laws.  This step took three class periods, which totally about 2 hours of true research time.

Step 3:  Develop – Students have worked this year on accessing Google Drive and using it for collaboration and creation.  My 4th and 5th graders logged into their Google Drive, created a new Google Slides presentation, and organized their information onto the slides as they deemed appropriate.  This allowed for a great discussion on a “good” slide and what is appropriate in a presentation (ie, appropriate font and font size, color selection, amount of words on the slide, etc).  Students input pictures by adding images from our school server that I had previously uploaded.  We discussed the importance of citing our sources and giving credit where it is due.  This step took approximately one hour of class time, and some are still working on their presentations from home.

Step 4:  Share & Score – Finally, students shared their presentation with me for editing and with a friend for viewing.  I feel it is important for the students to understand the difference between the functions of sharing documents in Google; they need to know that ‘can edit’, ‘can comment’, and ‘can view’ mean very different things when sharing through Google.  I scored using a very simple rubric, giving a score of 1-4 (4 being highest) on components such as work ethic, conventions, information given, sources cited, and overall impressions.

I learned so much about my students, their interests and personalities while working with them on their Genius Hour projects.  Chosen research topics ranged from famous people in pop culture, evolution of libraries (one of my personal favorites from a student who wants to be a media coordinator), how the brain works, what animals think about, sports of all varieties, using video games like Minecraft in education (another favorite of mine), family history, and how much sleep we need.  As a media coordinator, I wanted my students to learn how to use Google Drive, to research appropriately, to collect information by note-taking, and to have fun with it.  It took 5-6 sessions to complete these projects.  I think that in a classroom situation, this would be more feasible than in the media center.  I had to be very organized with the students’ notes and websites as I did not let them take home any of their work until the project was completed.  Overall I feel that it was a success, and I will certainly do it again next year.

Example:  Sleep

Example: Walt Disney

Example: Dragons