Fighting the Good Fight with Technology in the Classroom

Last Monday I had  a chance to present and talk with teachers at our local writing project site; the Chippewa River Writing Project. There were many great sessions where I took a ton of valuable information and resources away from the two sessions I attended. In addition, we had a spectacular Keynote speaker, Jim Fredricksen who is the author of  So, What’s the Story?: Teaching Narrative to Understand Ourselves, Others, and the World (Exceeding the Common Core State Standards). His ideas and thoughts on narrative are very thought provoking and have made me realize that it isn’t easy for students to write narratives.

My own presentation gave the teachers and pre-service teachers a sneak peek into the book I co-authored with Troy Hicks titled: Create, Compose, Connect: Reading, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools due out March 6th. As I discussed with the participants some of the digital tools I use in my own classroom, a very interesting question was brought to my attention.

  • What do we do when the technology director blocks sites that are useful to students and won’t open them?

It is a great question and though I don’t have the answer, I can offer some suggestions that may help with your argument for implementing certain sites or apps withing your everyday lessons.

  1. Access and read your school’s acceptable use policy.
  2. Have face-to-face conversations with your principal.
  3. Discuss with colleagues what you would like to do and see what they are thinking – perhaps they can add support for you.
  4. Analyze your current technology situation at school. Will students have access to computers, iPads, cell phones, tablets, etc.?
  5. Why? Why are you using the app or site for your given lesson?

It occurred to me after the teacher asked the question that if the time is taken to thoroughly read the acceptable use policy it can work to a teacher’s advantage when it comes to trying to implement technology.  I hear teachers from time to time stating that the acceptable use policy is what was their demise when it came to their idea to implement some type of technology.  Though there is no doubt this may be true, I would approach it is how can it help my case.

After looking over the acceptable use policy, I feel it is vital to have a well prepared conversation with your principal and other administration.  Thankfully, I have a principal and a superintendent that sees the benefit of technology and they both understand how students are learning today.  Remember this too, Technology directors aren’t the final line of trying to open up a digital too.  I have overwhelming respect for Tech directors and the very reason they may not be allowing a site or app to be available is because the school may not have the capacity. However, administration should have the final say and it should be a collaborative conversation between administration and the director. It shouldn’t be left up to just the director. Thankfully, I also have a great tech director at our school which makes it easy where I teach.

The final point I would like to elaborate on is the why.  Why are you using the tool?  How does it benefit the students? Furthermore, I want to direct you to the info-graphic below.

Technology Purpose2

I want to give credit where credit is due for this take on using tech in the classroom. However, because I have seen it on Google + and Twitter several times…I have lost where it originated. I want to go out on a limb and say this is NOT mine and I did NOT create it.  The point of the info-graphic is to not turn people off to Prezi, blogs, or Wordles.  I perceive it as something for us to think about and remind us that we shouldn’t use these tools for just the sake of using them because they are cool or the students think they are cool.

Student engagement is something we all want, but we should also keep the student at the center of our lessons and ask the question: How are my students going to benefit from using this tool and how is it going to be used to further their education?

Just some thoughts to consider when trying to fight the good fight on using technology in the classroom.

Cheers!


Teachers Reflecting

I was a basketball coach for almost 12 years at all levels and as a coach I always reflected after each practice, game, and season how I could be better individually and how I could get my programs better.  I think that same principle applies to teaching.  After every class, lesson, day, week, year, etc. I am constantly trying to find ways to get better and help my students to be more successful. 

There are plenty of high quality teachers that reflect continuously on their practices and make adjustments from hour to hour, day to day, and year to year. But as I continue to wrap my brain around the idea of reflecting, I wonder if it is possible and how it can be possible to have teachers reflect on their own teaching to better serve students. In other words, how does a principal or fellow teacher establish a routine where reflecting on one’s own teaching should be done without it coming across harshly?  How do we get colleagues to step outside of their comfort boxes to try new instructional practices where they may have a more substantial impact on student learning?  Even though reflecting may be part of my professional routine, it may not be the routine of a few teachers down the hall (just speaking in generalities here, this does not necessarily reflect my own school or work environment).

 Students should be at the center of our lessons and units and we should start with them in mind when we create our lessons and units. Education is changing and has changed over the years. It should come as no surprise to any educator. We have the Common Core, new teacher evaluation, and the introduction of more technology into the classroom just to name a few.  Myself being in the mix of it all, I feel it is imperative that every educator takes time to reflect on what they are doing in their own classroom and make adjustments.  Don’t be afraid to try new lessons, teaching strategies, approaches, technologies, etc.  We need to have open minds to how our students learn and constantly think about what we can do to make our students better! They don’t learn the same way they did 20 or even 10 years ago. If we as educators can model for our students that we take the time to reflect, it can help our students to embrace that life skill that can be applied in all situations.

Cheers!


Welcome Back

Well, my summer break was officially over this past week as I trudged through my mornings with my coffee in hand trying to fall back into a routine that will be a part of my daily life starting Tuesday.  To those teachers and administrators that have been back for awhile, I hope all is going well. Welcome back everyone!

It has been a busy summer and one of the best I have had since going through the summer writing institute in 2010. With that being said, I went back to school Monday with an open mind and an understanding that things were going to be different again. It seems over the past 5 years that I have been teaching at the middle school level, there has been some type of change; whether it has been teaching assignments, new staff, or even new administrators. The week was interesting, but also very trying.

I applaud my principal for keeping an open mind to the use of technology in the classroom. We had a two hour segment titled 21st century learning and there were three staff members who presented, including myself.  My principal wanted us to share what we were doing in our classroom to engage today’s learner.  Three different digital tools were presented to the staff:

  1. Moodle
  2. Celly
  3. Schoology

I of course being the big Celly user introduced this to my colleagues.

The middle school science teacher discussed Moodle, which I do not use and do not really care for.  I find it difficult to navigate and not very user friendly for the students.

Finally, one of our high school language arts teachers showed Schoology. All 7th-11th graders will be using Schoology this year as a way to communicate, get access to assignments, and collaborate. Parents can even see what is happening in class.

One of the bigger issues at the helm was student growth.  Our beloved politicians in my state want teachers to be able prove they are doing their job by displaying there was student growth.  What is this supposed to look like?  Well, that is superb question.  One way our principal wants us to show student growth is by giving a pre and post test.  In addition, we were to discuss other ways within our departments how we could potentially show student growth.  The language arts department discussed writing portfolios and the possibilities digital portfolios bring.  With students from grades 7-11 using Schoology, it would be easy to pass their digital portfolios from year to year.  Schoology syncs well with Google Docs, so students can create folders within Google docs and put their writing samples in it.  The more important question is what is the definition of student growth? If a student scores one more right on the post-test than what they did on the pre-test, is that considered student growth? What is classified as being proficient? 75%. 80%. It was a conversation that quite frankly literally gave me a headache.

I deem myself as a hard working teacher and I know my students get better by the end of the year, but what truly is an accurate way to measure student growth.  I am curious if there is anyone who has suggestions.

I am blessed to have a job and I love being a teacher. I know I will have another successful year based on the mere fact I will engage my students each and every day.  I want my students begging me to keep reading and writing.  That is my measure for student growth.

Keep reading and spread the word.  I want to write everyday during the school year.  I want to use it as a reflective time to help me form my thoughts for the book I am working on.

Cheers!


Mobile Devices: A Teachers Responsibility

Getting closer to the school year is dangerous for me.  I tend to have thought after thought going through my head and I get all of these ideas to do things in the classroom and I never make the conscious effort to write them down anywhere.  Well, today, I am.  Those that follow me and others who know me understand and know my passion for using cell phones and other mobile devices in the classroom.  Today, I started examining and thinking about using these devices from a different angle. An angle where I honestly feel it is my responsibility to help my students use these devices in the classroom and to teach them how to use them responsibly.

I can hear teachers screaming now saying, “Not me, it isn’t my responsibility!”  Yes, there are many skeptical teachers out there who believe these types of devices have no place in the classroom.  Others, already feel overwhelmed with the Common Core Standards and don’t want to add one more thing to their plate.  Though teaching students how to use mobile devices may have its challenges, it doesn’t add to my existing curriculum, it enhances it.   My passion for using mobile devices goes deeper than just being excited about the latest and greatest flashy items that can be used in the classroom.

1. Students Learn Differently – I have mentioned before how students grow up with technology in their hands.  From cell phones, Ipads, Kindles, and Nooks, it is easily accessible to students.  Think for a moment if a middle schooler has a question about anything in general.  Where do you think they look for that answer?  You got it, the internet!  In addition, according to Pew Internet Studies about 75% of students ages 12-17 possess cell phones. Those cell phones are used for texting (hmm, I smell writing opportunities here), emailing, surfing the internet and accessing social media outlets.  Our language arts department adopted Schoology for the upcoming school year ( a social media site for teachers and their students).  The bottom line is we can’t shove text books in front of our kids day after day or even have them do drill and kill exercises.  The best teachers I ever had from elementary to college were the ones that kept the class or students engaged.  Mobile devices can help me as a teacher to keep my students engaged.

2. Collaboration – One of the biggest reasons I love using mobile devices in my classroom is for collaboration. Literature circles are an easy way for teachers to expose their students to numerous novels and at the same time teach the students responsibility by assigning roles to each group member.  Keeping the spirit of the Common Core in mind, I add cell phones into the mix and my students not only collaborating with technology, but now the conversation can take place beyond the walls of the classroom and students start discussing the book without any prompting by me the teacher. Social media sites like Schoology also allows the students who don’t have mobile devices, to still interact via desktop computer.  In another instance, my students can collaborate on their writing via Google Docs.  For the past two years my students have been amazed at how Google Docs works and what it can provide.  Students instantly become connected learners when they collaborate on a piece of writing by their peers.  Google Docs was awesome for the writing group my colleague and I put together this past school year.  Watching students’ writing transform and go through the entire writing process is amazing.  The finished product is no doubt better with Google Docs because of the collaboration amongst students.

3. Digital Citizenship – To me this one term brings everything into focus for me. Part of me almost thinks as teachers we all have a duty to discuss and model this for our students. Again, some teachers may give the proverbial eye roll and bark out, “What about the parents?”  I know it may sound funny, but the parents are in just as much need to learn about digital citizenship.  Last week I proposed to my principal an “Ed Tech night” where parents get to engage themselves in what their child may do during a school day with technology.  In addition, I want to discuss with parents digital citizenship and what that means.  I want to talk to them about how students are using their cell phones in inappropriate and why it is inappropriate. Furthermore, discussing with parents what cyber bullying looks like and what affects it can have on another student.  Hopefully by engaging the parent as well as the student, some issues can be eliminated and parents will have a better grasp on why I use mobile devices in my classroom.  Needless to say, my principal is embracing the idea and we are meeting about it next week.

I am not sure if my reasoning is reasonable or even understandable, but I do know I am passionate about my job, my students, and the reasons it is important to implement mobile devices into my classroom.  When I hear in the hallway how much my students love my class because of how I use cell phones, I get pumped. After all, you don’t hear students say they enjoy language arts class.

Cheers!


Cell Phone Policies

Okay now that I have somewhat of a routine down with our newest family member, it is time to empty this brain of mine. For those of you who read my blog, prepare for a wave of blog posts this week and next. My brain needs some major dumping and blogging is where it is at!

Recently my principal asked me for my input on our districts cell phone policy. Since the second half of last year, I have been using cell phones in my classroom from time to time as a digital writing tool. This year it has really taken off with the use of Celly. As a result of engaging my 21st century learners and knowing that today’s “screenagers” are “wired”, my principal is looking to make a change. On the other hand, the misuse of cell phones is another cause for my principal to re-examine our policy. It is not just misuse by the students either, it is misuse by the adults, the so called professionals. Now, I am just as guilty as the next person when it comes to checking my phone to see who texted me or emailed me. However, to check my phone and to be on it for an extended amount of time, is different. Just sayin!

Though I have not sent anything in writing to my principal, I have been diligintly thinking about how a school district can find a perfect balance between discipline and usage in the classroom when drafting a cell phone use policy. Some questions to ponder are: Does a school district involve parents when trying to determine a policy? If it takes a community to raise a child, shouldn’t we at least consider what parents have to say with the clear understanding that the school board, administrators, and teachers have the final say? Second, what about the student’s input? In my opinion, students are going to abide by a policy if they are the ones that helped construct it. Obvisously you can’t have every student participate. I think starting with a small survery for students about the use of cell phones in a school setting would be an excellent start. On the other side of the coin, consulting teachers and support staff about changing the policy will provide any district with a substantial number of people who can help develop and draft a policy.

With the help of many different people, I believe it is vital to think about appropriate times students can use a cell phones. In addition, we need to consider the appropriate times adults can use cell phones. Composing a list of safe digital sites associated with cell phone use can help ensure teachers such as myself that cell phones can continue to be used in the classroom as a digital tool. Then, there is the issue of consequences for those students and teachers who do not abide by the rules. Many schools confiscate phones for a day or contact parents. Whatever the punishment, it should be enforced and students, as well as teachers, should clearly understand their boundries.

With all this being written, I may be leaving some things out. I am certain that I am. However, I just want to make everyone think about the current policies in place at their school/district. I strongly believe that a policy, like a piece of writing, is never finished. It will continue to be a work in progress and should be revisted before the start of every school year to be revised. I am confident a majority of schools will be revising their cell phone policies in the future for the good of the cause. If your school doesn’t have a policy and you don’t know where to start, consult school districts around you to see what they have in place and use theirs as a stepping stone.

Cheers!


Project-Based Learning for 21st Century Learners

Though I wanted to blog about my second day at the MACUL conference in Michigan, I couldn’t really bring myself to write anything worthy of posting. So, I began to think about the morning session I attended on project-based learning this morning. It reminded of the conversation I was a part of last night with my writing group. My writing group colleague wrote a piece about how students today are just settling for being average. If you don’t know already, being average is not going to cut it in today’s society. I share my colleagues frustration. To many times I see students just settling for “good enough”. I have often thought of altering my grading scale so if students met the requirements of the assignment, they only earned a “C” grade. It would only be when the learner went above and beyond those requirements would they earn an “A” grade. Anyways, it seems no matter how high our expectations are within our classroom, the students still aren’t pushing there thinking outside of the box.

I wonder if there could be something said about project-based learning with our 21st century learners. Now, let me be honest, I am just beginning to dabble into the realm of project-based learning. At best, I know very little. I do, however, understand the idea behind it and I have seen it work. In addition, my mother-in-law taught project-based learning in alternative education and had success. From what I understand it allows the students to collaborate, inquire, be challenged, think critically, and have the opportunity to have real world connections. Yes, I like all of these and if this is what is going to help my 21st century learners become a better global citizen and more competitive for the job market, I want to at least try it. I did like how the presenters warned this is not the shoe box project at the end of a unit and I can see where that misconception happens. They also shared a Creative Commons video that stated we do operate in a world of projects. To me, that does make sense.

I am seriously considering doing a trial run of project-based learning in my classroom next year. I still need to get my feet wet. I do see the potential for project-based learning being way to do thematic units across the curriculum. Furthermore, integrating technology could enhance students learning within their projects. Having a laptop to use within their groups and composing through Google Docs. Also, they can collaborate about websites through Diigo. I think there are numerous possibilities with incorporating technology.

I am not certain project-based learning is the total answer to getting our students to do more critical thinking or even go beyond “average”. However, I do feel it has real world application and can be implemented into a 21st century classroom where rigor needs to be ramped up.

Cheers!


Not Too Much: Slowly Approaching the 21st Century Classroom

Moodle, Google Docs, Glogster, Edmodo, WordPress, Blogger, Vimeo, Diigo, and Wikis. Are you out of breath yet? If your not, you are one of the 21st century educators who are implementing digital tools into their classrooms. If you are just laying foot to path and beginning your journey into all of the wonderful digital tools that have the potential to transform your classroom, the choices can be a bit overwhelming. This is just one of the many thoughts I had yesterday attending the pre-conference sessions at MACUL. As I sat through a moodle and a web publishing session, I began to wonder what my prospective would have been if I was new to all of this. Rocking in the corner with my arms wrapped around my legs came to mind. It wasn’t that long ago when I went through the summer writing institute and our director Troy Hicks gave us a plethora of digital tools to use. There were days I had anxiety, but everything in the end worked out. I get excited about challenges and persevered through it all. I honestly believe teachers can transform their classrooms into 21st century portals where the students can once again be excited about learning.

So, how do you begin with this barrage of digital tools being thrown at you? First, simply start by picking just one tool to implement into your classroom. A great colleague of mine Kevin Hodgson commented to me about students and technology users alike are leaving “digital debris”, meaning we try new things out and think it is great, but then we never use that tool again. Students and users have created accounts, used it one time, then never go back. I know I am guilty of doing this very thing this year with Edmodo. By choosing just one tool, you can use it over and over during the school year. Essentially, by the end of the year, your students and you will be become an expert on that tool. Furthermore, you as the leader in the classroom, won’t feel so overwhelmed. Then, the following year you can stretch your zone again and try something new.

Next, after you have chosen the digital tool you want to implement, ask yourself two questions. First, why am I using this in my classroom? Second, why is this tool valuable to my students? The first question was an eye opener for me. I have to thank Troy Hicks again for pushing me in this thinking. Now, I am passing it on to you. Simply using a digital tool because it looks fun or the students like it, aren’t the most important issues here. Some tools are geared towards a language arts classroom, where another one might be more science oriented. In addition, some schools may not have up-to-date technology capabilities that support the tool you want to use. More importantly, with increased rigor and higher order thinking wrapped around the Common Core, it is essential to stop and think about how the tools we are using are helping to develop these very traits within our students.

I leave you with the the advice to go slow, find what is easy and works well for you and your students. We all have to shift our learning styles and our minds to the 21st century and how our classrooms are going to look.

Cheers!