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 One may be able to get away with outdated teaching practices using a tech-free lesson, but any flaws or faulty methodology become enhanced when technology enters the picture.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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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.

The Serious Business of Classroom Fun

The text from my SmartBrief article on April 13, 2015

I’ll admit it: I enjoy being known as one of the “fun” teachers in school. I get a little lift when they walk in and the first thing they say is, “I heard English was fun today. I’m excited.” It gives me great satisfaction to know that my students enjoy coming to class and that they often share what we do with their parents when they get home. This doesn’t happen by accident. I consciously work to present material in ways that are not only effective, but also enjoyable. It gives me infinite pleasure to hear their giggles in the middle of an activity. It’s one of the reasons I continue to love my job even after all of these years.

Unfortunately, not every teacher shares my philosophy. Some are under the misconception that students enjoy a class because it is fun and no real learning is involved. They don’t believe that students can possibly be engaged in rigorous educational endeavors if they are laughing, moving and talking. This is absolutely not the case. Just because it’s fun doesn’t mean it’s easy.

To some teachers, rigor — by the way, I hate that word when applied to education — just means hard. It means worksheet packets or excessive problems assigned every night, including weekends and vacations. It means the teacher drones on and on while requiring students to take copious amounts of notes. It means rote learning and very little critical thinking. It means they are not allowed to “help” each other learn. It means the child’s interest in or connection to the material is irrelevant. It means assignments that might be beyond the reach of their students. It means that many students fail their tests. This is why so many education writers speak of “grit.” It would take real fortitude to tough it out in the classroom described above. Children wouldn’t need grit if the task weren’t such drudgery. The bottom line is this: If many students dislike a class, they are not learning as much as they could be.

I strongly believe in what two of my edu-heroes say about rigor. Both Kylene Beers and Harvey Daniels say that there can be rigor without rigor mortis. The first time I heard each of them say that, I wrote it down in my notebook with a huge exclamation point next to it, and I’ve never forgotten it. It truly speaks to the essence of my teaching.

How do I achieve a high level of rigor without killing the love of learning? Simple. I put myself in my students’ shoes. I figure that if I am bored while designing learning opportunities, they will surely tune out. Every time I sit through a mind-numbing professional development day, I vow to keep this at the forefront when outlining a unit. I think about how I would want to learn and what keeps me interested.

In my experience, there are several facets to “edutainment” and the best lessons incorporate as many as possible.

  • Humor: No one is asking teachers to become Jon Stewart, but he does present challenging material on a nightly basis in an entertaining way, albeit on an adult level. By finding the humor in what the students consider mundane, teachers will be able to engage as well as inform. While humor cannot be found in every topic we teach, the more often we can find the fun, the more effective our instruction.
  • Novelty: It is true that children thrive on structure. In my class, that translates to our sacred 10 minutes of silent reading at the beginning of every class. Beyond that, I rarely do the same thing two days in a row. Students get a little thrill in not knowing exactly what comes next. I’m not the only one who believes this. When I read Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess, I was invigorated by the various “hooks” he presented as methods to engage students and ignite passion in both the teacher and the kids. Similar to Howard Gardner’s Entry Points, Burgess provides techniques for incorporating art, drama, story, and movement to introduce new material and keep the students on the edge of their seats wondering what the teacher will do next.
  • Ownership: Earlier this year, I had tremendous success with student-designed Passion Projects. These self-directed research and design projects held their attention for several months. In the feedback I received from students, many said it was one of the most enjoyable things they had ever done in school. It took very little preparation on my part. All I had to do was give them the opportunity and time. They had a blast and learned valuable skills in the process. It was such a hit that we are beginning round two next week. It doesn’t only apply to something as a long-term endeavor. To the greatest extent possible, I incorporate choice into every lesson we do.
  • Relevance: Provide some sort of real-world connection to the material. This works especially well if the examples are bizarre, hilarious or shocking. When the students see how the concepts they are learning have application to their daily lives or are evident in the world around them, they get much more excited to complete the necessary work to be successful.
  • Collaboration: I teach adolescents. That means I would constantly be fighting a losing battle by forcing them to keep to themselves and remain quiet every day. Human beings are social by nature, and none more so than teens and tweens. By incorporating “legal” opportunities for them to chat, I find that, when they do talk in class, they are mostly on task. Between small group and whole class discussion, they talk much more than I do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
  • Activity: The school days when I am most miserable are the days when no students are present– professional development days. It is not that I don’t enjoy the learning; I do. It is the act of being forced to sit in a hard, unforgiving chair for 8 hours with very few breaks that makes me want to act out and be disruptive. Imagine how awful it is when we ask beings with the metabolism of rabbits to sit still, be silent and avoid playing with things at their desk. I’m not saying we need to incorporate a calisthenics program, but allowing them to move from station to station, cross the room to look at a display, use hand movements to reinforce concepts, or even just rotate seats, will go a long way toward releasing some of the pent-up need for movement. On the days when sitting still is required, at least provide some sort of fidget toy for them to expend some of that energy.
  • Critical thinking: Some of the most enjoyable times I have in class are the days when we do collaborative inquiry lessons. Students work together, using inductive and deductive reasoning, to determine solutions to the task at hand. An added bonus to this type of learning is that the material is more cemented in their minds because they were active participants in the learning.

A fun classroom does not mean that students aren’t learning. It means that they are learning in the ways that meet their needs. It also doesn’t mean that only natural comedians will be successful teachers. It merely means designing lessons with the kids in mind. The side effect is that kids have a great time and maybe even learn something in the process — no grit required. So the next time you hear laughter coming from the classroom of the teacher next door, please don’t assume the students are goofing around. Mine aren’t.

5 Ways to Make Kids Hate Your Class

The text of my article for Middleweb from March 24, 2105

We’ve all read the rhetoric from self-styled school reformers perpetuating the myth of schools full of bad teachers. This has not been my experience. Most teachers I know are consummate professionals constantly striving to improve their practice.

Nevertheless, there are some ways that even the most talented teachers can undermine their own effectiveness. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to slip into these bad habits that make kids hate coming into your class. The best defense is a good offense, so it pays to be mindful of these ineffective teaching behaviors and avoid them when you can.

teacher-giving-orders1. Kids hate it when you over-control them

Because teachers are the dominant force in sole charge of a classroom of children, it is easy to become controlling. Furthermore, when so much else in our day feels out of control, we tend to clamp down on the things we can manage. However, leading with a heavy hand causes resentment among students because they feel helpless.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • deny them access to the restroom or a drink of water
  • keep them after class causing them to be tardy for the next one
  • get into power struggles with them in front of their peers
  • yell at or punish the entire class when not all of them were causing a problem

2. Kids hate it when you neglect or ignore them

boy-left-outTeachers are human beings, so it is only natural that we are drawn to certain students more than others. That being said, it is never appropriate for this to be known by the students. Even if you think you are treating children equally, they are very sensitive to real or perceived slights.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • give preferential treatment to obvious “favorites”
  • don’t bother to learn a child’s name or how to pronounce it
  • call on the same children all the time without giving others a chance
  • spend class time on your phone or computer rather than teaching

3. Kids hate it when you teach them badly

boy-puzzledTeaching in an all-consuming, exhausting profession. At any given time, there are a million other things we could be doing rather than getting our teaching just right. However, there is no excuse for forgetting the reason you are there—to teach the children to the best of your ability. Every time.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • impose a strict deadline, yet take an inordinate amount of time to grade or return their work
  • be easily distracted and go off on an irrelevant tangent instead of covering the material for which they will be responsible
  • come to class unprepared and disorganized
  • don’t accept responsibility for poor teaching and blame them for not studying
  • give grades with little to no feedback or explanation
  • use the same materials for years on end, regardless of the needs of the current class

4. Kids hate it when you blindside them

boy-hard-at-workThere are already so many times in a child’s life when they feel powerless. School should not be one of them. There is no place in school for “gotcha” teaching and grading practices. Think about how you as a teacher would feel if an administrator did equivalent things to you.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • put trick questions on a test to “separate the As from the Bs”
  • include material on a test that you did not cover or mention in class
  • take points off of their work for minor infractions such as forgetting their name or a spelling error
  • call on them when they appear to be off-task
  • single them out in front of everyone

5. Kids hate it when you damage them

cartoon illustration of a boy talking with his mom isolated on whiteThis is the single most important thing to remember about teaching:You are trusted with the ultimate treasure – a child’s heart and soul. It is your solemn duty to protect this gift. Too many times, we forget that these are just children with fragile egos, and they can be severely damaged by something that seems insignificant to an adult.

If you want to make sure kids dread your class:

  • use sarcasm regularly
  • participate in any kind of shaming (e.g., stapling fast food restaurant applications to a low-scoring test)
  • compare them to other students, classes, or siblings
  • reveal confidential personal information in front of their peers
  • publicly berate them for small infractions such as not having a pencil
  • tease them over sensitive issues

I can’t imagine that teachers do any of these things to their students intentionally, but they do happen. We are not perfect, but we can be cognizant of our own behavior. None of us wants to be the teacher kids hate.

When we chose teaching as a profession, we did so with the implicit understanding that we would not only teach but protect and nurture the hearts and minds of our students. Keeping our classroom practices positive and supportive will go a long way in achieving that life-long goal.

Finding the Gift in Every Student

ID-100281002My SmartBlog on Education article from 02.19.15

While scrolling through my Twitter feed, I saw a Rick Wormeli slide someone shared about “What Doesn’t Motivate?” posted from his presentation at the 2013 National Conference on Differentiated Instruction. The last bullet point on the slide struck a chord with me: “Students spending the majority of their day working on their weak areas, being reminded of their deficiencies.” As a former special education teacher, this is a practice I have fought against my entire career. Sadly, with the added emphasis on standardized testing, this soul-crushing practice has become even more common. Is it any wonder that many students are disenfranchised? There has to be a better way. I believe one large piece of the motivation puzzle lies in emphasizing children’s strengths — not dwelling on deficits.
Educational researchers have extensively studied how students learn best. Many of the best techniques we know of are now primarily used with students identified as gifted. Herein lies my frustration. If these are our best teaching practices, why are they not used with all of our students?
I am known to say that I teach all of my students as they are gifted with learning differences. While this is meant to be facetious, it is somewhat based in my truth. I believe that all students can be successful in a classroom designed with them in mind. I saw how students who were all but written off by their general education teachers because they could not memorize basic multiplication tables could perform incredibly well on complex problem-solving tasks in algebra with some basic scaffolding. We do our most challenged learners a great disservice when we leave them mired in the depths of repeatedly failing at rote learning tasks. They may never be able to memorize those facts, but they are more than capable of rising to the challenge with proper support. By not providing critical thinking and problem solving opportunities for all students, we are holding them back and we may never discover their unique intellectual gifts.
In Carol Ann Tomlinson’s 1997 article, What it Means to Teach Gifted Learners Well, she states,
“What it takes to teach gifted learners well is actually a little common sense. It begins with the premise that each child should come to school to stretch and grow daily. It includes the expectation that the measure of progress and growth is competition with oneself rather than competition against others. It resides in the notion that educators understand key concepts, principles and skills of subject domains, and present those in ways that cause highly able students to wonder and grasp, and extend their reach. And it envisions schooling as an escalator on which students continually progress, rather than a series of stairs, with landings on which advanced learners consistently wait.”
In short, this is a student-centered classroom that addresses individual needs. Although this article is nearly 20 years old, its core premise still rings true. My philosophy of teaching encompasses all of the above criteria, but I believe it is common sense to get all of my students onto that escalator instead of leaving any waiting on the landing.There are no easy solutions to providing needed support to struggling students while not simultaneously killing their love of learning, but there are better ones. My educational goal is lofty. I want to develop the “just right” Goldilocks class for my students and myself. I want to reach every student where they are and take them to new heights. I constantly strive to uncover the giftedness in all my students, regardless of labels. Providing rigorous, engaging instruction to all students, I believe I can achieve this goal.

http://smartblogs.com/education/2015/02/19/finding-the-gift-in-every-student/

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Low-Tech Learning as a Novel Concept

Today’s students have never known a time when computers didn’t exist. What’s more, they have the ability to carry a ridiculously powerful computer in their jeans pocket. Funny enough, even while having an electronic appendage with instant access to the world, I am noticing more and more that students appreciate being exposed to low-tech experiences.

I introduced the concept of Genius Hour (which I call Passion Projects) to my sixth grade students last month. They were given the option to learn a skill, create something new, or find a way to help others. I was quite surprised that, when given completely free reign, less than 15% of my students chose anything that involved technology. Instead, they wanted to learn how to do handicrafts such as knitting, cooking, cake decorating, and sewing. Also popular were model building, designing, and creative writing. Over a quarter of them are designing fundraisers to help charities close to their hearts. I did not expect that they would eschew technology. When I thought about this a little more, I realized it is because technology isn’t new for them. It is completely integrated into their daily lives so when given the task of choosing something new to learn, they opted to stray from their beloved technology.

Then it happened again. The middle school where I teach has an advisory period and a couple of days a month, this time is devoted to teacher-led clubs from which the students may choose. As each of the teachers introduced his or her club, the ear-splitting cheers were for clubs such as board games, knitting, eco-art, brainteasers, and the like. Although there were several clubs involving technology that will no doubt be equally as popular, I was again struck that students were also excited to learn hands-on skills or participate is low or no-tech activities.

The following week, at an assembly on the history of our school, the presenter showed pictures of girls in home economics classes cooking and sewing. This led to a classroom discussion about the “olden days” when students were required to take either home economic or shop classes. As I described these classes to students (because I took them), they were full of questions as to why we don’t still offer this kind of education because it sounded so “cool.” They were clamoring for the opportunity to cook and sew. Who knew this old-fashioned class would sound so interested to today’s students?

As a PD junkie, I come across dozens of articles each month lauding the use of technology in the classroom and detailing the myriad ways that technology can replace the old-fashioned classroom assignments. Don’t get me wrong—I am in no way anti-technology. I am as addicted to my devices as the next girl. However, I don’t find that students are nearly as engaged in most educational uses of technology as adults would hope. I’ve even heard students complain about too much screen time in school. Perhaps this is because some of the crafty, not necessarily pedagogically sound, projects that teachers are enamored of have merely been replaced by digital versions of equally dubious merit.

I think that perhaps one of the reasons so many teachers of all ages have jumped on the digital bandwagon is that we feel it is something that defines us as current or means we are teaching 21st Century Skills. It could also be that the use of technology in school is exciting for the teachers themselves because many weren’t exposed to much when they were in school. I know that I am often excited when I see the classroom possibilities of a new app or program. My point is not that technology doesn’t belong in the classroom, it does. It is that we may be overestimating the amount of engagement bang for our buck that tech provides. Not everything in our classrooms needs to be digitized and our students will appreciate the chance to experience the excitement of analog learning in a digital world. Excuse me while I go read my book (on paper, of course.)

Collaborative Constructivism in Language Arts Class

At several professional development sessions I attended this year, the speaker reminded us, “The person doing the talking is the one doing the learning.” This hits home for me because I am a constructivist at heart. It is one of my core beliefs that adolescents need social interaction in order to engage with the material and discovery to cement the learning. To that end, one of the instructional techniques I use nearly daily is that of Gradual Release of Responsibility (“I do, We do, You do” process), but I usually begin with the step: “You do together.” I find that the students are very motivated by the challenge of “figuring things out” and end up retaining the material better.

An example of how I use collaborative inquiry is with grammar, usage, and mechanics (G.U.M.) instruction. We are studying the characteristics of a personal narrative so today’s lesson was on dialogue punctuation rules. Rather than going through a book, worksheet, or power point, I had the students open up their choice reading books to a page with dialogue. Working as a group, they determined the rules of how to use commas, quotation marks, capital letters, paragraph breaks, and dialogue tags and wrote their responses in a chart. After they finished, we shared and they all added any missing information to their chart. Finally, I gave them the actual rules for punctuating dialogue and they determined which ones they had gotten correct (resulting in lots of cheering) and which ones they had overlooked. The culminating practice assignment was to write a properly punctuated conversation between themselves and another person (real or fantasy/positive or negative) with each person speaking at least three times. The feedback from the students was that the assignment was great fun and all were fully engaged in writing their conversations.

This same process works well with other topics such as capital letter or comma use, but I also use this technique for lessons beyond G.U.M.. For example, last week, I distributed a stack of eight brief memoir mentor texts to each group. Working together, they each read a couple and then attempted to determine the commonalities between the texts. I was pleasantly surprised at their rich discussion and the resulting list of qualities and characteristics of personal narratives they compiled. They hit the nail on the head and I didn’t have to lecture once. I am excited to read what they write as a result.