Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Figure it out!

I teach in 4 computer labs as a traveling teacher, and on all of my classroom walls, I have a hand-written poster that says "Figure it out!" in giant letters. I realize that it sounds a little rude, however I think it is one of the most critical skills we can teach students, because it is something that has caused so many adults to struggle with technology.

Older generations did not grow up with technology, so it is a bit of a miraculous mystery to them. While they like the things technology can do for them, how it works is a total mystery to some. And here's where the key problem comes in. They are terrified to poke around on the computer to try to find an answer to a technology question. I have met so many adults who are literally afraid (whether or not they'd admit it out loud) that the whole device will go up in flames in front of their eyes. They lack the confidence and basic knowledge to explore what the possible solutions are on a digital device.

Students these days don't harbor the same fear of technology going up in flames in front of them. They have the necessary background knowledge to look around in an app until they "figure it out" without much assistance. The problem is that they are rarely pushed to the point that they need to figure something out.

Here's the rub: When people (students or adults) don't have to try new digital environments, they won't notice patterns and be able to apply those to other things. It reminds me of why it's so important to teach conceptual math along with the algorithms. If all students ever get in terms of math instruction is an algorithm, they'll only be able to solve problems that look exactly like the examples. This is exactly what happens to people with technology. They get really good at the 3 tools they use every day, but once a new digital environment is in front of them, they are completely lost. I try to teach my students the rationale for technology things, like why menus exist (for example, in any program if you want to modify a toolbar, go to View, because it relates to how things appear; File always relates to the entire document itself, etc.) Then, when they want to accomplish a similar task in another program, they have a structure in their head for how to go about accessing that information.

So, these days in my computer labs, I work very hard to not answer every question students come up with, not to be mean or rude, but because I want them to practice using the resources available to them, like:

  • exploring in the digital environment (clicking around)
  • asking a friend
  • using Google to help them find answers to questions (a crucial skill that I teach very intentionally)
I have been frequenting some forums lately for some of my commonly used digital tools, and I'm constantly amazed at how many questions people ask that could be answered with a simple Google query. I generally go with the theory that if I have this technology question, someone else probably did too, so there must be an answer somewhere.

While some motivated students will figure out the things they need, most are perfectly happy to just sit where they're already at, until they are prompted into something new. I believe it is one of our duties as educators to (kindly) force students out of their comfort zone enough to have to practice the art of figuring it out on their own. There is a necessary time and a place for teaching new skills obviously, but this can't our only mode of operating. When students figure out a tech problem on their own, not only does it answer their question, it empowers them to pursue further learning, which should always be a primary goal of education.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Technology: No longer optional

The scene: A room crammed with 40 eight-year-old desktops, and an equal number of cramped 8th graders, literally elbow-to-elbow as they begin taking the AzMERIT test, the first fully online, standardized test they've ever taken. It's late April and they are beginning the first section of the test, the writing section. Their classroom teacher has just left the room, and I, the special area teacher, am covering while the teacher takes her prep. 

The comment that reminded me why tech can't just be a shiny, fancy thing we use as a reward: 
The students have just started, and a girl raises her hand, points to the text box on the screen, and asks, "Is this where we write our rough draft, do our proofreading, or our final draft?" I was dumbstruck, but slowly responded, "That's where you do all of it, all in that box."

Folks, that moment right there, communicated to me that we have done our students a massive disservice by allowing teachers to use technology as an option. The world our students live in is saturated by technology. It's not optional, it's simply the way the world works. When we exclude technology from school, not only do we not move students ahead, we are crippling them. 

In terms of writing, we need to teach students to write digitally, because it is fundamentally different. Would you write differently if you literally had to hand-write every word? For me, absolutely yes. (This blog post would be much shorter!) Would you edit differently? Yes. For students, it means, they correct 1 misspelled word, and put a comma in somewhere and call it a day. Then they start the arduous process of either re-hand-writing it, or the painstaking process of looking up and down after every word as they type it out, one letter at a time. We need to teach students how to write with their keyboards and with some speed. Typing quickly is exactly the same thing as one's reading fluency. It allows your brain to keep up with your comprehension. 

But that is not the only basic skill that kids don't have. Knowing how to locate and attach a file is essential to knowing how to fill out a job application. Saving things in different file formats is a critical skill as well, if a company requires a pdf resume and not a document, and the list of imperative skills goes on. That doesn't even begin to touch on the necessity of being able to evaluate online information. 

In our world, technology literally touches everyone. You can't apply for a job anymore without knowing how to use a computer. You can't participate in college without knowing basic technology skills. You can't be a citizen of the world, unless you interact with technology. You may say, "Oh, but students these days know so much about technology already. Do I really need to teach them basic things?" Yes!! 

Students are just like adults. They are really good at getting to the 3 things they use every day (in my students' cases, Snapchat, Youtube, and Minecraft) and that's it. I literally have 13 year olds ask me every single day, "How do I get to the next line in my document?" (hit enter) or who don't know why they don't need to google Google. They have next to no understanding of fundamental concepts of technology, because we think it's just a nice thing to do once in a while to use a bit of technology to let kids play games or type a paper.

By failing to teach kids even fundamental technology skills, we are truly hurting them in both the short and long term. Technology is how our society functions, and we do our students more than just a disservice to treat it like a cool extra when you have time. Technology is Not. An. Option. It is a life skill.

photo credit:

Friday, September 25, 2015

The benefits of reinventing the wheel

"I can't do that. I don't know...this is scary. Really scary! How do you do it?" These are words of productive struggle. From teachers. 

Productive struggle has become the new phrasing of choice for the point where kids have to learn something new, based on something they've already learned. It's when they get pushed farther than what they already know. Other variations on this theme include teaching with scaffolding, and getting students in Vygotsky's zone of proximal development. As teachers, we specialize in getting students to this point, and helping students realizing they really can do what we're helping them accomplish. 

However, as teachers, we're really good at NOT reinventing the wheel. Sometimes the wheel needs to be reinvented though. (In case you haven't noticed, wheels have changed greatly since the stone age. I imagine folks in the tire industry could verify this!) In education, we find something that works, and we stick with it. We save it, file it away for next year, and laminate it. This saves us work and brain power, so it's a good thing, right? Not always. 

I'm in my 6th year of teaching technology, which for 8th grade meant photojournalism. This year, 8th grade has been changed to a STEM course. They already have science and math, so we're working heavily with the robotics/engineering side of STEM. As a technology teacher, who really prefers educational technology in the regular classroom, the technical side of my job is not my forte (i.e., "Why isn't it printing?" ".... I don't know.") but I've muddled my way through. Now, teaching programming with robots, I've been given a significant push out of my comfort zone. However, when push comes to shove, you make it work. So, I've been learning about robots and programming right along with the students. And I tell students this is as new to me as it is to them, and I won't have all the answers for this. 

Every day, I truly feel the productive struggle. As out of my element as it makes me feel, it reminds me that we ask students to do this every day. This empathy reminds me to be patient and as explicit as I can with directions, because it's all they have at the moment. The productive struggle is meaningful for us as teachers because of the empathy it creates, but also because it means we are becoming the lifelong learners we encourage our students to be. By expanding our horizons to something new, even if it's hard, we're gaining valuable knowledge and experience to help us with other things we might attempt. Most importantly, when we admit this learning to students, they witness us modeling trying new things, occasionally failing, and getting back up and trying again. They have to see this if we ever want them to venture out, imagine, and do great things. 

The words at the top of this post are from teachers at a professional development session I taught this week about using social media in the classroom. For some folks, it was an easy transition to say, "I have my own Facebook account, but I'd like to make one for my class to share with parents what we're doing." For others, it was literally scary. But they were willing to take that leap, knowing that there were baby steps they could take and they had a support structure to help them when it was needed. This is what a true productive struggle looks like. 

So as you go through your school year, try something new. It could be something little or something big, but try something that is a little out of your comfort zone; something you're not sure if it'll work yet. You'll understand your students a bit more, learn something new, and model the productive struggle for our students, that they may be inspired to learn as well. 

So go out and reinvent that wheel! :-) 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Teachers Teaching Teachers

Are you an innovative educator? This question was posed to me recently, and of course, my first honest answer was no. But then I thought about it and realized it was a leading question. The answer that a person SHOULD give is yes. Too often as teachers, we assume we have nothing to share with others in education, and that all of our learning should come from administrators, specialists, and consultants. Please don't believe this. It is categorically untrue.

Every teacher, no matter their experience level, has something they can share with others. It may be something little, like a trick they've used to get students back into a lesson after lunch, or something big like using Genius Hour projects to change the world. I have become so passionate about encouraging teachers to share what they know because it so rarely happens, and we are so rarely given forums in which to do this. 

So, I encourage you to find some way to share what you know. Obviously, it will benefit others, but it will benefit you even more. When teachers teach teachers, they gain confidence in what they are sharing and doing in the classroom, which in turn, encourages them to try more new things, and share more. Sharing leads to more sharing. Some ways that teachers can share their knowledge include sharing ideas and links on Twitter, offering to present on a subject for a professional development session at their own school or district, submitting an article to a journal for inclusion, or proposing a session at a workshop or conference. You'll be surprised what you'll be able to do when you ask. 

Another way that I highly recommend is going to an Edcamp unconference. No matter where you are located, there is likely an Edcamp somewhere near you. (I coordinate our local EdcampPHX event, though there are hundreds of Edcamps around the world.) These unique gatherings feature teachers as the sole content source. There is no sponsorship and no presenters determined in advance. When participants show up in the morning, they gather together and make a list of sessions they would like to participate in that day. From there, those sessions become the schedule for the day. Anyone who suggested a session simply agrees to get the discussion going on the chosen topic, and everyone in the circle is encouraged to share their expertise. No consultants, just teachers talking to teachers. At every Edcamp I've been a part of, teachers are floored at how good it feels to be validated for the knowledge that they do have, and to learn from other educators. 

One of the first lessons I learned in teaching is, "Close your door and do what's right for kids." Please do what's right for kids, but the best way to get better at what your doing is NOT to close your door. Share your hard-earned knowledge with others, to save them the sweat and tears. Then listen to them, and learn from their wisdom as well. I want to say, "Next time someone asks you what you can share with other teachers, I hope you have a positive reply." However, unfortunately, our system doesn't often encourage teachers to share with others publicly, so you'll likely have to speak for yourself. So instead, I say, be bold. Your knowledge and insight could change another teacher's (and student's) world. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

EdTech: A Recipe for Success

Have you ever had a colleague suggest a website, digital tool, or app that has worked wonders for them? And then you try it and its a total disaster? And you try it again to give it another chance and it feels like pulling teeth? If so, don’t feel bad. It doesn’t mean you did something wrong, and it definitely doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Using technology in the classroom is a bit like cooking. A flopped recipe doesn’t mean you can’t cook or that you should never make that food again.

A cookbook has many recipes, and we all gravitate toward different things. Naturally, what tastes good to some people won’t necessarily taste good to others.  Some of us like Indian food, but stay away from Korean. Some people prefer Mexican food but run from African foods. Not only that, some recipes are more complex, and others more basic. We tend toward those that match our current skill level best. Additionally, some foods are much easier to “throw things into” rather than meticulously following every step of the recipe. If we all opened the same cookbook, we’d likely all choose a different recipe. And that’s ok.

This is sort of how users of classroom technology are as well. Not every tool is suited for every person. Some people find and stick with one particular app that has worked well for them that is simple and basic. Some people like to try lots of different tools, until they find a handful that work best. Others are more drawn toward full-featured, extensive pieces of software that allow them to do many different things. When we’re allowed to choose our tech tool, we’ll likely all choose a different tool. And that’s ok.

Even though we all have different preferences for digital tools, this isn’t an excuse to just give up and use the same thing you’ve always used. If and when tools don’t work the way we want them to, the activity becomes a waste of time, until we reflect on the experience and assess what didn’t work, why it didn’t work, and whether or not the issues were related to the tool itself. Here are some questions to ask after trying a new tool:

Digital Tool Reflection Questions
  • Key: Was the learning objective met? (or at least on the way to being met)
  • What worked well?
  • What didn’t work well?
If there were problems,
  • Was it because the tool was difficult?
  • Was it because of inexperience with the tool?
  • Will more experience with it make things go more smoothly?
If you use it again,
  • What pieces of information should students have/know BEFORE the tool is in use?
  • What classroom management pieces should be put in place for future uses?
  • What questions do you need answered from someone who has used the tool before?

So when you try a tool that has been successful for someone else, but it doesn’t work for you, try again. And if still seems like it doesn’t fit your purpose and skills, remember, what your mom made well isn’t always going to be the dish you excel at. If that tool doesn’t work, try something else. You never know what tool will spark creativity and critical thinking in your students!