Is Your Tech Integration Mostly a Garnish?

My MiddleWeb article from 5/17/15

During my college years, I worked as a server at several restaurants to pay my rent. At the swankiest of these, I recall the chef once telling his sous chefs to take their time plating neatly and to remember the garnish. He was fond of saying, “Do you know the difference between a ten-dollar dinner and a fifteen? Parsley.”

In the current educational climate, where any lesson that utilizes technology is considered superior, I can’t help but notice that a lot of what is being done is just adding parsley.

chef hat parsley 330Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way anti-technology. I am as hooked on my devices and what they can do as the next user. What I am is anti-bad pedagogy. One may be able to get away with outdated teaching practices using a tech-free lesson, but any flaws or faulty methodology become enhanced when technology enters the picture. No amount of parsley can compensate for a tasteless sauce.

The limits of “cool”

Exposed to decades of modern education research, teachers are well aware of best practices. We know that modern classrooms should incorporate 21st century skills, be student-centered and brain-based, strive to reach all learners, and provide authentic learning opportunities. My fear stems from what I have observed happening in the last several years.

Whereas during the NCLB years instruction was driven by what was on the state test (much of it rote learning), now curriculum is influenced heavily by what app we want to use just because it’s “cool.” The problem with this thinking is that cool fades—learning sticks. No one ever fondly recalls the delicious taste of the garnish.

computer tablet etc with app cloud 310All too often, I see teachers get excited about a new, fun app or device and immediately start to think about how they can incorporate it into their classroom.

They are more concerned with the trimmings than the entrée. Teachers need to determine what is to be taught before they decide what technology to use. The task at hand should influence the choice of technology and not vice-versa.

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating, that technology, whether in the form of a device or an application, is but a tool in our teaching toolbox. It needs to be an integral and vital part of the lesson, and must truly improve the instruction.

You want students to be able to answer the question, “What are you learning?” and not, “What are you playing with?”

New fangled drill-and-kill

Another issue is that a great deal of the incorporation of technology occurs at the most superficial level and only serves to replace current practice rather than improve upon it. Teachers should be focusing on what students can do with the addition of technology that they could not do without it before. Too many apps are just animated drill-and-kill exercises.

While some rote memorization is necessary in school, especially as one is developing the foundation for more advanced skills, if the only thing you do is replace one monotonous practice with another, you are not getting much bang for your technology buck. Research shows that focusing solely on rote tasks does not promote understanding or long-term retention of information. A digital worksheet is still just a worksheet.

hands swiping talblets or phonesI have also seen brilliant uses of flipped classrooms, but many times flipping classrooms is nothing more than putting some digital garnish on an ineffective lecture or confusing homework and sending it out the door.

“Sit and get” at home is not better than “sit and get” in class. We know that active rather than passive learning is a worthy goal. It is imperative to keep in mind that teaching should be brain based, not screen based. We know that too much screen time can lead to isolation, when what we should be encouraging is collaboration and higher-order thinking. Screens should only be an addition to our lessons if they are truly enhancing students’ learning.

Why tech motivation is extrinsic

Good middle school teachers strive to keep their students engaged and productive. They want to make the best use of their precious few minutes of time with the kids. However, using technology for the sole purpose of increasing engagement is a very short-sighted goal. Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink have devoted considerable effort to sharing the science of what motivates us. If we’ve paid attention, we know that by focusing only on engagement without purpose, we will never achieve true mastery of content.

Being engaged with the fun aspect of technology is a form of extrinsic motivation, and outside rewards do not lead to internal desire to learn material. Educators must not trade a true wish to make meaning of information for a short-term distraction to keep students occupied.

cameras etc 300 1Years ago, education was primarily dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge, but needs have shifted and today’s students must be more focused on the application of knowledge. They must go beyond what they can memorize and replicate.

As the saying goes, we are preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, and so we need to prioritize the 21st century skills of creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.

Our classrooms need to be student-centered and incorporate authentic learning tasks. We don’t need to make the same old entrée look better; we need to reinvent it or prepare it in a completely new and improved way.

1:1 equals student to teacher

Students need to reflect on what they are learning, be able to demonstrate it in myriad ways, and share what they have learned with others. All of this will never happen by just swiping a screen.

Critical thinking requires significant mental effort, but this is the only way we can make meaning of the tremendous amount of information available at our fingertips. Students must have a sincere motivation to master the material, and that begins with relationships to the teacher and purposeful action, not just deciding which app they get to play at school today.

large parsley 320Every generation believes they will discover that one revolutionary tool to change education as we know it. But if the use of these tools is not supported by sound pedagogy, then we will never achieve the desired result: students becoming self-directed, lifelong learners.

I’m not saying don’t use technology. Please use it! But incorporate it mindfully and purposefully in order to reap all the potential benefits. Try to make sure your dinner is truly worth $15 and not just the same old $10 dish with a pretty, yet unmemorable, throwaway.

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Channeling Goldilocks, Revisited

Smartbrief published a modified version of my Goldilocks post on June 8, 2015

As a naturally reflective person and educator, I am on a never-ending quest to design the “just right” English class experience for my students. Unfortunately, I am becoming convinced that no such animal exists, as I realize that it is the end of the school year, and I haven’t accomplished everything I had planned. Worse, I am growing weary of striving for perfection. I’ve been trying for several years and have not yet found the magic formula that will allow me to address everything. I wish to teach it in a mere 45 minutes per day. I have tried every new idea that sounds exciting to me, but it is always at the expense of something else I’ve loved teaching in the past. Is the “just right” class a reality or a fairy tale?
Here’s my problem: I am addicted to professional literature and development. I want my students to love literature like Penny Kittle’s do, to write as much as Kelly Gallagher’s, become life-long pleasure readers like Donalyn Miller’s, and to enjoy active engagement strategies from Dave Burgess and Jeff Wilhelm. I have read all of their work and had the pleasure of meeting most in person. I am simultaneously inspired by their ideas and insecure that I will never be able to measure up.
I also attempt to go to at least one national literacy conference per year. I consider these endeavors successful if I can gather one new strategy, concept, or resource from each session. This doesn’t even include the fantastic ideas I get from weekly Twitter chats. Trouble is, these add up. Every single experience yields at least one great technique I want to implement the very next day. At this point, I have an extensive list of approaches I’ve tried — all of which produced great results. The problem is that I struggle to incorporate all of them in one school year, and have never once done so.
Here are some of the things I learned from the greats and loved doing with my students:
Genius Hour
PBL
Reading/writing workshop
Book clubs
Article of the Week
Independent, choice reading
Whole-class novel study
Student blogging
Book talks
Read alouds
Debates
TED-style talks
Author visits
Community service
and many more
The difficulty is that I haven’t found a way to do everything in the short amount of time I am given, but I don’t know how to prioritize what to eliminate. I get frustrated because I know all of these add value, but whole-class novels (the foundation for my school’s curriculum), choice reading, and writing workshop are my non-negotiables, so I have to cut things that are not part of this trifecta such as read alouds. I know this is not good, especially when I hear experts I respect tell me how they could not imagine an English class without read alouds. I nod because I know the research backs up this practice, and I would love to share this experience with my students, so I try to find a way to put it back in the mix. Unfortunately, it means I must forgo something else. Thus begins the cycle of beating myself up for not being able to do everything I want and need to do in my class.
Whenever I get down on myself, I pull one of my favorite books out of my professional library and sit down hoping for some sort of magical inspiration. This never works. I usually end up becoming more discouraged because I want my class to look like that in the text — every single day. Yet, it doesn’t, and probably never will. I, like all teachers, have to function under the parameters of my current teaching situation. For me, my limitation is that I have 45 minutes per day with my students to teach them reading, writing, speaking and listening. No small feat, indeed.
In an effort to cheer myself up, I remind myself that we all have challenging teaching situations. Many middle-school teachers have much longer classes than mine — some are even double in length. True, they have their own constraints and obstacles, but I know that I could do so much more just going from 45 to just 60 minute class periods. I can’t foresee a time in the near future when I will miraculously have all the time in the world with my students, so I keep trying to get the porridge to just the right temperature.
Logic then enters and also helps ease my mind. I tell myself that most of the authors I read focus primarily on the topic in their writing and often don’t wish to include every other great idea out there because they have been incredibly successful with their own methods. They have one passion and they are great at it. Sure, I would love to be Penny Kittle and do equal justice to both reading and writing in my classroom, but I am not her, nor do I have her situation. The best I can do is to incorporate the portions of her brilliance that I can, and forgive myself for what I cannot. I guess that is the key. I have to be okay with being the best teacher possible within the parameters I am given. And I have a pretty fabulous teaching situation right now. The only thing that would allow me to make it “just right” would be having more time.
I eventually find solace in the fact that many of the other great teachers I know are in the same boat and also fret over not being able to squeeze in every great idea. Many of us communicate on Twitter and try to put our brains together and figure it out. We haven’t yet, but I am relieved that I am not the only teacher who loses sleep over trying to be better. So, while comforted, I remain frustrated searching for the perfect balance of activities. I may never achieve Goldilocks status in my classes, but I will continue to try. In the interim, I will keep utilizing the wisdom of others and refining my own practice. I may eventually get to the point where I have a structure with which I am completely satisfied — but I doubt it. It’s part of the quest for the classroom fairy tale.

How to Become a Tween-Centered Teacher

My Middleweb Post from 7.07.15

Teaching middle school is unlike any other level of education. Early adolescents are not just large elementary school children, nor are they small adults. They are a unique animal with their own quirks and characteristics. Psychologists and educators realized this and it is for this reason that junior highs were abolished in favor of the middle school concept. For those of us who are able to appreciate the distinct nature of what the job requires, teaching middle school is a true Magical Mystery Tour (no offense to the Beatles).

As teachers use their summers to plan for the following school year, it is important to keep in mind that early adolescents need classrooms tailored to their specific needs and aligned to their developmental stage in order to be successful in school. The challenge for middle school teachers is that the changes in their students occur rapidly and are widely varied. Dealing with these changes can feel overwhelming, but it can also be exciting. One key to help students achieve is to design your classroom and instruction with tweens in mind. The benefits of designing a tween-centered learning environment are students who are actively engaged and invested, are responsible for their own understanding of material, have learned strategies to become lifelong learners, and are proficient in social interactions.

Middle school is a time of tremendous growth and development—more so than any time since infancy. Students are struggling with the expectations of adults, in addition to the confusing changes in their own bodies and emotions. The child who begins in sixth grade is almost unrecognizable as the one who enters high school. If teachers can meet the physical, intellectual, social, and emotional needs of their students, they will provide a great service in helping these tweens become fully functional young adults ready to succeed in high school.

PHYSICAL

Teachers have all been through the puberty process and I don’t want to stir up any horrible memories, but I hope they keep in mind how truly out of control they felt most of this time. Tweens are acutely aware of their physical growth and changes, and how they respond to this can change day-to-day, sometimes minute-to-minute. Teachers can help students deal with these changes by providing learning experiences that help students feel more comfortable in their own skin.

  • Provide ample opportunities for students to move about the room freely, without having to ask permission (although you can discuss with them appropriate times to do so). Sometimes getting up to grab a tissue, sharpen a pencil, or throw something away can dissipate their excess energy.
  • Allow them to go to the bathroom or get a drink more often than you may feel is necessary. As you well know, the point of these trips is not to use the restroom or hydrate. If their minds are distracted by some new sensation or a comment about their appearance by a peer, they are not going to be able to fully attend to instruction anyway, so let them go without too much of a fight.
  • Incorporate emotionally safe ways for students to use their new bodies. For example, don’t single out one student to come to the front of room, but rather allow students to do so in groups or ask all students to stand up and perform a movement. Additionally, use physical body movements as part of learning a topic.
  • Even though we tend to think of them as something primarily for younger children, incorporating brain breaks can be extremely useful in regaining their attention.
  • Over the course of a unit of study, students will learn and remember more if lessons include using all five senses. Music is especially motivating for young adolescents.

INTELLECTUAL:

While scientists once thought of our brains as fully developed by this age, they now know this is not the case. Growth and changes abound and exciting things are happening. The best teachers take advantage of these changes.

  • Students at this age are gaining perspective on their own thoughts and emotions as well as those of others. Use this as an opportunity to incorporate many opportunities for exploring topics from various perspectives as well as those requiring empathy.
  • The thought processes of early adolescents are moving away from the concrete toward the abstract, but will require significant scaffolding to clear this hurdle. When students are learning new material, provide models, visual aids, prompts, templates, and coaching to ensure they understand the information. My students love my graphic organizers and often tell me they are one of the most helpful tools I provide. Many even return in subsequent years to ask for blank copies. As they become more proficient, these supports can gradually fade.
  • One sensational, and often untapped, ability of tween brains is that they are becoming more flexible. They are able to manipulate information so as to understand metaphor, allegory, symbolism, and hypothetical situations. They also enjoy deductive reasoning tasks. I regularly incorporate all of these in my class and am pleasantly surprised with the depths of insight that result.
  • Students at this age are curious and imaginative and enjoy tackling “big ideas.” Middle school is the perfect time to incorporate essential questions and real-world inquiry and problem solving tasks. It is a time ripe with divergent thinking and dissent. Encourage these creative tangents and provide the time, space, and materials for these explorations. Whenever possible, incorporate an authentic issue for them to grapple with. The results they achieve may surprise, or even delight, you (and them).
  • While providing predictability and structure is crucial for this age range, novelty within these parameters is a huge stimulus. A wide variety of learning experiences and techniques enables students of all talents and backgrounds to shine. It also keeps them excited to come to your class every day.
  • Aristotle said, “To find yourself, think for yourself.” At this age, tweens are becoming capable of understanding how their own brains work. This is the ideal time to introduce metacognitive strategies. Model your own thinking in front of them as you work through a problem, have them develop plans and monitor their own learning, show them how to visibly demonstrate their new knowledge, and help them deeply reflect on what they did well and what they can improve upon. Show them when to use the new strategies you’ve taught and what to do if they experience challenges. This is the key to them becoming proficient, lifelong learners.

EMOTIONAL/SOCIAL:

Normally, I would separate these two categories, but they seem to be intertwined at the middle school level. Just as play is the primary job of early childhood, socialization is the duty of early adolescence. For these children, due to biological and environmental influences, emotional growth is heavily influenced by social experiences. The following ideas incorporate both facets of tween development because the curriculum needs to reflect sensitivity to both emotional and social issues.

  • As tweens strive to develop their social identity, they often begin to express self-doubt and teachers will hear a lot of negative self-talk. For this reason, it is important for them to have a sense of self-efficacy, self-determination, and self-worth. It is crucial to help them understand how their actions can directly influence the results, how they are capable of being responsible for their own learning, and that they can experience success somehow. This is the ideal time to teach about a growth mindset and the benefits of failure as a learning tool.
  • It seems as if middle school students need to talk as much as they need to breathe. If you design your classroom to focus on quiet, individual tasks, you will constantly be fighting their natural impulses and the result will be frustration on behalf of all involved. Instead, develop ample and “legal” ways for them to talk to one another and explicitly teach them effective communication skills along the way. Cooperative learning, Socratic seminars, role-playing, simulations, debates, skits, etc. are all valuable learning tools, but also satisfy the urge to talk.
  • Early adolescents are now capable of appreciating multiple perspectives on an issue and to accept those of others. Curricular materials and experiences that allow students to express admiration, feel empathy, or explore morality are very interesting to students at this age because this kind of thinking is so new to them. I tap into their natural altruism whenever possible as well.
  • At the time in their lives when group affiliation is paramount, individual differences can begin to feel most noticeable, divisive, and uncomfortable. It is very important to honor the diversity of your students and encourage them to explore, accept, and be proud of their own cultural identities. I am very careful to use multicultural materials in my classroom, as well as those that reflect the students’ own interests and talents.
  • Even though they may be trying to navigate life themselves without adult intervention, they still greatly need the approval of teachers and they truly want to please. Help them understand that mistakes are part of life, that you forgive them, and that they are worthy in your eyes. Help them reflect on their choices and determine a new course of action for the future.
  • Finally, the concept of fairness is foremost in their minds. Try to administer any consequences (positive or negative) in a fair, consistent manner. Tweens can sniff our favoritism from a mile away, whether it be real or perceived. It will pay off to be hyper vigilant in ensuring that your students feel you have treated them well and fairly.

I am aware that a lot of this sounds like common sense and “just good teaching.” However, I am constantly surprised at how many teachers focus on “preparing kids for high school” and “teaching them how to be adults” without taking into account that they are not developmentally ready for either of these experiences. They treat them as tiny adults and are perplexed by how poorly their students perform. By exploiting the very things that make tweens who they are, you will allow your students to experience the magical journey that is middle school and will save yourself a few headaches along the way.