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I want my 8th-grade students to learn more than just the standards – I want them to learn strategies to learn, and how to utilize the best tools to show their learning. I remind them that in high school, college and careers they will be responsible for making decisions about how they create projects, and a key to success is to learn how to put together information and show what they know. We talked about how 21st-century students find information – they were quick to bring up Google, You Tube, and asking friends. By now they’re quite familiar with my catch phrases like, “Figure it out” and “I don’t know – where can you find that information” so it came as no surprise that our next unit would involve some sort of unknown use of technology.

But trying to fit our next required text, John Steinbeck’s novella, The Pearl, into a class designed around American Literature, is at best a stretch. Sure, Steinbeck was one of most prolific and talented American writers, sharing stories of the working class, the migrant, the American family in the early 1900s. But a novella set in Mexico? Hmmm….

Steinbeck, on one of his many travels to the Sea of Cortez, heard the story of a Mexican pearl diver who discovers ‘the pearl of the world’, just in time to attempt to save his baby son from the sting of a deadly scorpion. It’s a terrific tale, actually, full of symbolism and deep meaning. It’s just a bit out of historical sequence with the growth of America from 1600 to now. And not so relevant to my suburban raised students from California.

Enter technology to save the day.

This week we are diving into a mini-research project designed to spark their curiosity and offer some context for reading the book. I designed an inquiry-based presentation using six elements from the story: pearls, pearl diving, scorpions, John Steinbeck, The Sea of Cortez and La Paz, Mexico. To offer my students another tool, I began by giving a mini lesson on Prezi – a cloud-based presentation platform that combines elements of Google Presentation and Powerpoint into a super cool, interactive tool. I showed them a completed Prezi, we watched a few minutes of a Prezi tutorial I found on YouTube, and that was enough.

They were hooked in five minutes. And like any good salesman, I stopped the class and told them, “Just wait til tomorrow…”.

That’s all it took. I assigned each student a topic, with the understanding they could partner up with one other person or work solo. We talked about the pros and cons, and I was surprised to see how many kids, once they got onto, chose the solo route. I gave them a few general questions to start their inquiry, and the rest was up to them. I didn’t walk them through creating an account – they figured it out. I didn’t tell them where to start – some created templates and started dropping research in as they went. Some watched more Prezi tutorials on  YouTube. Some just played around with the website for an entire period before they decided where to begin.

The one thing they had in common? Every single student – and my class size averages 35 – was working. They were concentrating, taking notes, laughing, and completely engaged. They were delighted to show my a tarantula consuming a scorpion, and then immediately added statistics about a scorpion’s size and venom strength. They figured out how to ‘share’ their Prezis with their partners, and what to do when they accidentally deleted a frame. They amazed me with their ability to create backgrounds, to connect the frames and organize their thinking – all in the first 30 minutes of work time. Even one of my lowest readers wouldn’t stop working and came to class the next day with his presentation half-way done!

And what did I do? I gave them a starting place, I gave them a goal, and I gave them the freedom to figure it out.

And I guarantee not one presentation will look the same.

And I guarantee not one child will leave without learning something every single day.

I’d say that’s a pretty successful lesson, wouldn’t you?


Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments...

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  1. I am about to teach The Pearl for the first time, and would love to give this assignment to students to allow them to construct the necessary background knowledge. Can you email me the guidelines and questions you have students to launch this project? Thanks!

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