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Education Opinion

A Symbaloo for Gifted Education

By Tamara Fisher — October 26, 2011 6 min read
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The bulletin board above my desk was getting a wee bit cluttered.

I’ve mentioned here before the “independent project” class I teach for my middle and high school gifted students. Advanced Studies is basically a “blank slate” on which they can pursue studies, topics, and projects of their own choosing. No, it’s not a free-for-all. Whatever they do/learn must be school-appropriate, have academic value, and be connected to our state standards. Within that range, though, they have tackled a wide variety of topics over the years, and they frequently come up with ideas I never would have thought of. They also frequently prove to me just how much they are capable of when given a chance to “break free” of the type of teaching where the teacher tells them everything to do and how to do it. For example, over the years I have had students write novels, learn computer programming languages (such as Python), learn complex graphics programs (such as Blender), build computers, learn how to develop film (“the old fashioned way”), create movies, design apps, study specific topics (such as how different cultures view and deal with death, corporate law, electromagnetism, and others), conduct science experiments (one learned how to use an electrophoresis machine), learn languages (such as Latin and Navajo), and building things, such as the boy one year who designed and built an electric guitar from scratch:

(Interesting side note: About 2/3 of my students go into a future college major and career that is somehow related to at least one of the independent projects that they did through Advanced Studies.)

Over the fifteen years I’ve taught this class, I have been collecting useful websites for the kids to use for their various projects. It started gradually when the internet was still young. At first it was just a helpful site or two that I knew from memory and would suggest to a student as a resource. Then the internet grew and I began scratching the addresses of a growing number of sites down on scraps of paper and thumb-tacking them to my bulletin board. And then the internet really took off and my students were helping me discover all sorts of great places they could use and my bulletin board looked a bit ridiculous.

Then this summer at Edufest when I attended a session by Brian Housand, I learned of Symbaloo. A symbaloo (also called “webmix”) is a place where you can collect a plethora of links on various topics and organize them however you want. So I began creating a symbaloo of all these wonderful online places that have been or could be great resources for my students to use while pursuing their independent projects. Yes, I’ve been working on this for months! It’s still not done (it never will be because there will always be great links to add), but it’s finally “done enough” that it’s at a point I feel comfortable sharing it with the world now - so you and your students can make use of it, too, if you want. Here is a screenshot of what mine looks like (so far):

I have organized it by verb, so the students click on a link (blue box) that says what it is they want to do (such as “Compose” or “Create Graphics” or “Program” or “Collect & Show Data”). Clicking a blue box link then takes them to a new symbaloo containing links of sites that fit that topic or task. At that level, when they click a box, it will open that site in a new web browser. Clicking the red “HOME” box at a sub-page will take them back to my symbaloo homepage.

A few highlights from my symbaloo for you... The “Share” box will take you to a collection of links to places where students can share their creations with others. (I require them all to have a “real-world” audience in some form.) Some of these are online places to share (such as Instructables), and some of them link to tools that students can use (such as Prezi) when sharing with a face-to-face audience. The “Learn” box contains links to mostly-online learning opportunities, such as MIT Open Courseware and Omega Math. The “Write, Blog, Publish” box links to a collection of sites where students can self-publish their writing (such as my students’ favorite, Blurb), learn writing tips (such as the Snowflake Method), and blog (such as Posterous). The “Organize Information” section contains links to sites that help (yes, it’s obvious) organize information, such as LiveBinders and SpiderScribe.

And the green “Gifted Education” box will take you to my still-growing collection of favorite Gifted Ed links.

When you go to a symbaloo, a white box appears above the link boxes that asks you to “Add this webmix.” If you click that (you don’t have to to use the symbaloo), it might pop up a “create a symbaloo account” box, but just click cancel or the red X (unless you actually want to create a symbaloo account). It’s entirely possible to use the webmixes without having an account. Clicking the “Add this webmix” box will eliminate the big white box at the top. It will then give you a version of the webmix with tabs to other webmixes, such as “News Highlights” and “Major News” and “Webmix Collection.” I have NOT created those other webmixes and I haven’t yet figured out how to eliminate those tabs from showing up on my own webmix. (Symbaloo is a relatively new thing and it seems its creators are still working out some kinks. Minus those kinks, I love it - and so do my students.)

Before you click the “Add this webmix” box, note the new webmix’s url (address) at the top. You can jot that down to directly link to it again in the future, or to help point someone directly to that specific webmix. The direct address for my symbaloo is www.symbaloo.com/mix/thethinkteacher.

I have done my best to make sure that the places I’m linking the kids to are kid- and school-appropriate; however, the internet can change fast and I haven’t had time to explore every last sub-page within each site. I’m about 98% confident that all of these are safe places, but because some are places where people can post their own content, I make no guarantees. (And actually, our school’s filter will block those sub-pages anyway.) So when I showed this to the kids, I told them that there are dark alleys on the internet, too, and that if at any of the sites they discover a dark alley, to let me know and I will “unlink” it from my symbaloo. So far that hasn’t happened.

Access to some of these sites is blocked to all students within our district. (As many of you know at your own schools, even reasonable places are sometimes blocked!) But I have been able to secure getting individual sites unblocked for individual students if they need that site for their project. (This is possible because in our district every middle and high school student has a unique login and profile).

Some of the sites I’ve linked to (such as Scratch and others) are good resources for elementary level students, too, but if your child/student is younger than 5th or 6th grade, you may want to explore this symbaloo yourself first and see what it’s like before sending them there (or you can use it to find sites to then recommend to them). Again, I’m nearly totally confident that it’s all just fine, but I have to make this caveat just in case.

Do you have suggestions of great sites I could add? Please let me know!

Happy link exploring :o)

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.