This year, I launched a new website I created – FrenchQuest.ca. It is a course management system/blended learning platform for my grade four Core French classes. It allows students to set goals, find resources they may need, submit work, receive feedback, and earn badges to recognize their contributions.
The Idea’s Inception
Last year, I had great success with introducing inquiry into my classroom. I provided books, games, activities, materials and tools and told my students they could explore whatever they wanted, as long as they remained focused on learning French. Each Friday, we held a “show and tell” session where students could present what they had learned or created to their peers. These sessions often fuelled further learning as students were inspired by each other.
French Quest takes the success of that experiment and attempts to refine it. I’m not yet sure if it is a huge improvement over completely open-ended inquiry; however, it has helped me document students’ progress and it has done a better job at extending the classroom to a digital space that can be accessed anywhere.
I wanted to begin French Quest on the first day of school in September and spent a week of the summer getting it ready. It is built on a WordPress website, with a theme from Theme Forest. The community aspect of the site is built through the plugin BuddyPress and the badging aspect was created with the plugin BadgeOS (which integrates with Credly.com).
Unfortunately, though it tested fine with just me using it, getting 30 students online at once caused it to crash. After troubleshooting for several weeks, I ultimately had to switch web hosts and rebuild the site on a more powerful server. It was December before I was ready to relaunch and try again. Thankfully, it has worked well ever since.
I’ve classified the badges students can earn into different categories. Missions are a group of defined challenges on a set theme. Quests are open-ended tasks focused on creation. Awards provide recognition for accomplishments in games or other online activities. Community badges allow students to nominate other students who have demonstrated character attributes. Students earn points for missions, quests and awards and can then progress through levels.
Each day, my students enter the classroom and immediately begin conversing with their friends in French. There is a set of model questions posted in the classroom and students are encouraged to modify and extend the models to have spontaneous conversations. After this, there is occasionally a mini-lesson or an announcement from me; however, I make a point of keeping it incredibly short. The remainder of our 40-minute periods are turned over to the students to work on whatever badges they wish.
My students have freedom to choose where in the classroom they work, who they work with, and what tools to use to accomplish their goals. As the teacher, I spend the majority of class time conferencing with small groups of students – often to provide feedback on drafts of their work.
Students’ Reflections on the Journey So Far
I recently asked my students to reflect on our method of learning. I know how I think things are going, but I wanted to get their perspective. Here is some of their feedback:
- It is a fun way of learning. They love using technology.
- They can explore more content and through doing what they want, can chose harder work. They appreciate not being bored or being stuck on something easy when they’re ready for a challenge.
- They like being able to create (books, movies, songs, etc) and share their work (YouTube, French Quest Hall of Fame).
- They appreciate choice and freedom. They feel respected.
- They like that they don’t have to ask permission to move around the room. They pointed out that this lets them get help from each other more easily.
- They feel comfortable in the space (seating options, ability to wiggle on stools).
- They like having helpful and appealing visuals on the walls (model sentences, word walls).
- They like earning badges because they feel like their hard work is being valued (didn’t do it for nothing) and it makes them feel special.
- They enjoy that they can speak French at home and do work at home.
- Students are upset if French class is cancelled due to an assembly or other event.
- Students ask if they’re allowed to take work home to finish it. (I never assign homework and encourage students to leave work at school, but some insist!)
- Quality work inspires quality work. If students see someone else doing a great job or enjoying something, they are more eager to try it. It’s contagious.
- Students are becoming increasingly adept at using resources efficiently to increase their productivity (e.g., using a shared collaborative online document to plan tasks out, create drafts, etc.).
- Classroom management issues are incredibly rare in comparison to when I taught in a teacher-centric manner. I strongly believe this is directly tied to control, motivation and achieving success. Formerly, I was constantly fighting for control. Students needed to listen and pay attention to me. Students needed to follow my lead. I was in control. Now, while I still have influence and there are still boundaries, students are completely in control. All my students are motivated and all are achieving their own level of success.
- Students are never given tests and their work is not graded. They receive descriptive feedback throughout their creative processes, are encouraged to reflect on what they can improve and earn a badge when standards are met or exceeded. Anything that doesn’t meet expectations doesn’t get a bad grade – it simply isn’t finished yet. Not once have the students asked for tests or grades and I don’t need them to assess their achievement.
- I need a better process for scheduling student conferences. I want them to happen as students need them, so I don’t want a fixed schedule, but currently, I always have a student or two “in line” while I’m helping another student. This is a waste of their time. I need to have some kind of sign up system so they can reserve time with me but still be able to be productive while waiting.
- I need to continue to expand the range of badges available. My goal is variety. Students shouldn’t be collecting them all but instead collecting according to their interests.
- I want to develop a way to easily duplicate the system so that other teachers can use it (for French or any subject). Right now, it’s not technically possible but I have a few options that may work that I need to try. It will be my summer project.
Update – August 2015
FrenchQuest.ca is now open and available for other classes to use! Teachers get a clone of my class website which gives them a variety of badges – more than enough to get started – but is also completely customizable so they can edit, delete or add badges to suit their students’ needs and interests.
For teachers not familiar with WordPress, it does come with a learning curve. WordPress is first and foremost used for creating websites – it’s not specifically an “education” tool and as such, can have an overwhelming effect at first. I’ve mitigated this by introducing an “easy mode” dashboard, which helps reduce the clutter of unnecessary options – but it can still take some time to get used to. This style of planning and teaching also has an upfront investment of time and energy. My hope is that teachers will push through the initial efforts and really enjoy the benefits of giving students ownership of their learning. The initial feedback form those who have already started is wonderful.
My next goal is continuing to develop support and training materials to make using French Quest easier. I have started by creating several video tutorials that walk teachers through the initial steps of setting up and using their site. From here, I want to continue to add more videos to show off a fuller range of features as well as develop some written directions and a support forum. In the meantime, I’ve been doing lots of email, video chat and in person support to help keen early adopters get rolling. It’s exciting to see so many people enthusiastic to try something different in their classes.