Friday, April 9, 2010

A Tool that Really Works

I'm excited. I found a tool that really works. Not only does the tool work really well for what I need it to do, it comes with spectacular directions. (Guys do use directions, sometimes; I tried figuring it out on my own first, of course.)

The tool that I'm talking about is the Database Module ; it's a special tool in the very big toolbox called, Moodle. I've discovered that the database module works really well as a reader's response journal for my 3rd and 4th grade students. I use it in place of the spiral notebook or three-ring binder or composition book method. In previous years I've tried both the Workshop Module and the famous Moodle Forum activity module. The Workshop Module is overkill for 3rd and 4th graders; it's like using a cam/cad computer to sketch an elementary illustration. The very flexible Forum can be made to work, but it doesn't have enough of the built-in structure to be really useful for what is needed for my 3rd and 4th grade students. (Although, a couple of them are approaching the level of being able to benefit from the more complex Workshop Module. That's the trouble with teaching; once you teach them something; they want to learn more.)

I learned how to use the Database Module by watching the fabulous short tutorial that Tomaz Lasic created a while ago. I set up the database so students could easily log in the title, author, main characters, settings, plot problems, and plot solutions. The directions at the top of the database input screen directs students to use complete sentences and as much descriptive detail as possible.

The comments feature of the database allows other students or me, the teacher, to make comments on each entry. In that way, it is much like a discussion forum. I was pleasantly surprised when I found that three of the students had discovered the comments feature on their own and had already started commenting on each other's entries. If you use technology in a classroom, you gotta get used to students showing you how to do new things. When I showed the whole class how to use comments, the whole class eagerly took to writing on each others entries. My job as the teacher then became to coach students to expand, clarify, punctuate, relate, etc. - all of the things writing teachers do.

Except that I had one problem. The way that I had set up the database didn't include an easy way to go from the 'list view' to the comments. It was easy enough to search for a particular student or title, but then I or the students had to go back to single view and tab through all of the entries until the desired entry was reached. The students didn't mind as much as I did, mostly because they aren't as familiar with databases in general and didn't sense that there must be an easier way - tabbing through to see what others had written is still new and intriguing.

When I showed my A.E. what was happening, she was as impressed as I was about how eagerly the students took to writing about books. I mentioned that I was frustrated about not being able to go to the comments directly from the list view and said, "I think I'll do a search of the Moodle Forums and post a query if I don't find the answer right away." I'd had a great experience a year and half ago when I was trying to add a pdf file to an online text assignment. That was my first experience with the power of the Moodle user community. It happened again. After about 15 minutes of browsing through the Database Discussions I just posted the question to the forum. It took less than 3 hours to get a detailed response about how to do what I needed to do. Itamar Tzadok from Toronto, confirmed my hope and explained how to do it. I hadn't had time to check on the forum until a few days later, so I didn't actually see his response for a few days. In the meantime, Ivan Dobrovolskij from Moscow, had asked a clarifying question. Itamar explained Ivan's question, too. Talk about collaborating and connecting ! I feel renewed hope for our profession. When students and teachers work together, we both learn how to use great new tools.

My students convinced me today to let them do a literature circle on Jeff Smith's Bone series of graphic novels. I haven't read them yet, but have lately seen noses buried in one of the nine different titles all around the room. The Bone series literature circle will use the refined database with links to comments, and I'll be learning about Fone, Phoney and Smiley.


  1. Fantastic! Isn't it great to find something that works for you in the classroom, and even better, works for students? I love when my students discover features before I have a chance to teach them about it.

  2. Some 15 years ago I was trying to do this kind of cataloging and sorting with student independent reading books much like you are doing. It worked (at the time I was using the database in Appleworks), but was a bit cumbersome back in the stand alone days. I think I ended up having students enter the data on one computer and then I distributed that file to computers so they could sort and search.

    I hadn't really thought about this in Moodle--what a great idea!

    By the way, I have a copy of a Bone book on bedside table if you want to borrow it. I bought when I was helping with the middle school summer school reading--wanted to see what a graphic novel might offer a reluctant non-reader!

  3. Dan, did you wind up using Bone with your students? I really enjoyed reading it myself and I'm sure you'd get a lot of interaction with that. I think there are even curriculum guides for it online. I'll see what I can dig up.


  4. Thanks, Jon; I did use Bone with a group. As with most things in a classroom, there was some things that worked and things that didn't. The major positive was that the kids got to do the choosing and control most of where they went with the reading.