Here’s how to make the most of the inevitability of being online in your classroom and beyond.
By Amber Chandler
The Academy of American Pediatrics recommends no screen time for anyone under age 2 and limiting access to all screens to two hours for children. With my daughter Zoey, we were mostly concerned with the negative effects of television on infants and toddlers. We were fairly successful, although eventually we allowed her to watch “educational” television like Sesame Street and Sid the Science Kid.
Then one day my parenting plan was called into question in an unexpected way, and I began teaching 3-year-old Zoey how to hold a mouse.
As the middle school representative of my district’s curriculum alignment committee, I was sitting at the conference table, half listening as the topic of kindergarten screening was discussed.
“We’re going to use an interactive approach this year. This new program adjusts to how the child is answering the questions, and it makes the questions harder or easier, depending on how the student answers them,” the elementary reading representative explained.
She was describing Computer Adaptive Testing (CAT), which is used by major standardized testing organizations throughout the world and impacts performance on tests required by college admissions committees. According to The College Board, ACCUPLACER, an adaptive test, is the most widely used placement assessment, used in 50 states and 19 countries. The results are detailed and can help provide institutions with data for accurate placement, particularly when remediation or language barriers are involved.
The reading teacher had my attention. Zoey would be going through her screening in a year and a half. Good mama and teacher that I am, I raised my hand, leaned in, and asked, “What if a child doesn’t have experience using a computer or a mouse?” The answer to this question changed my view of the digital world forever—and to this day has an impact on how I use technology in my classroom and at home.
“They all know how to use a computer and mouse, or they’ll figure it out. Kids are good at this technology stuff. This is the new direction of things, so we might as well catch the wave.”
Fast-forward eight years, and you’ll find that I’ve most certainly “caught the wave”—I integrate technology into all aspects of my classroom. By second semester last year, my classroom was paperless, with all work submitted via Google Docs. Each child in my mixed-ability eighth-grade class created his or her own site as a digital portfolio. Students were encouraged to bring their devices to class.
Why did I change my opinion so profoundly? Because I had to. The reading teacher was correct: Kids are good at this “technology stuff,” and the digital world is the venue of the future. Digital and computer skills have become essential for nearly 80 percent of middle-skill jobs, according to Capital One Financial Corporation and Burning Glass Technologies.
The middle-skill job segment of the workforce generally includes positions where four-year college degrees are not required, and although estimates vary, these positions account for about 40 percent of all jobs. Clearly I’d be doing my own children and students a disservice if I simply ignored the writing on the wall … I mean, screen.
Embracing technology, though, comes with implicit responsibilities that parents and teachers must accept as necessary components of digital education. Here are three practical do-this-today tips to help make technology in the classroom a positive experience and create a positive digital footprint for your students.
Integrate technology, but don’t burn your plan book
You are a good teacher, and technology doesn’t change that. Don’t view technology as “another thing,” but instead consider the benefits that integrating digital tools will have for you and your students.
Most teachers are using a digital grading system, but there are still some of us who sit with calculator in hand, “doing” grades at the end of a quarter. The change to digital grading has made my feedback to parents and students more accurate and allows for better data. It is now immediately obvious that Johnny struggles with tests or Jenny should turn her homework in.
The first step to integrating technology depends on what you are familiar with yourself and the interests of your students. I first integrated presentation tools like Prezi, Powtoons, Haiku Deck, and Canva because I do lots of professional development and focus a great deal in my classes on speaking and listening standards.
If you are a complete “newb,” start with something you might really enjoy or is guaranteed to catch the attention of your students, such as the gamification of your classroom. (FYI, newb is the gamer term for newbie.) Minecraft, a digital building game, is a math and science teacher’s dream; it’s an example of a game that has a ton of resources to support you. Search MinecraftEdu, and you’ll quickly see that integration can be simple.
One of my favorite stories about gamification is that it was used to improve attendance. Cindy Duncan, an Alaskan school teacher whose student tardiness and absenteeism was abysmal, dedicated the first 30 minutes to what she called “Morning Craft” (a play off the popular game “Minecraft”), referring to the chance that students might have this time for themselves, a random reward. She never committed to having it on a specific day, so students wouldn’t know when it was going to happen. However, students were motivated to be on time, and she saw a 50 percent increase in attendance.
Whenever we give students the opportunity to create and make, we are tapping into a widely ignored reservoir of talents and skills that are both important and in-demand in this economy.
Remember they are digital natives, even if you are not
Imagine your 9th-grade teacher trying to tell you how to appropriately use the telephone. Silly, right? Of course you knew how to use the phone. Now imagine how your students might feel if their 40-something teacher is trying to explain how to use the Internet. Our students are digital natives, so acting as if we know more than they do is useless because, with the rare exception, we don’t.
This paradigm may not be comfortable immediately, but I’ve learned that my students are the best teachers, and when I tap their expertise, a newfound partnership shifts the emphasis from teaching to learning—for all of us.
The first time this phenomenon occurred for me was when Austin, a gamer and noncommittal student, asked if he could use Prezi for his presentation on, you guessed it, gaming. I hesitated for a second, and as he walked away, he muttered, “Never mind.” I called him back and agreed that he could use this tool for his presentation, but I asked to see it ahead of time so he could show me how it worked, since I didn’t know.
From that moment on, Austin was an amazing teacher, to both me and my other students. As soon as my students saw a Prezi (a kind of chronological and interactive Powerpoint that is free at Prezi.com), they all wanted to use it. The next time students presented, 80 percent had “upgraded” to Prezi. If I had tried to stay the only expert in the room, my students would have missed out on this opportunity.
Always stress permanency
So far integrating technology seems easy-breezy, right? However, it is crucial that you don’t forget to emphasize the most important point: Whatever you do online is permanent. There is no going back; there is no erasing; there is no taking something down. If it existed once, it is still “out there.” I demonstrate how a Snapchat photo, which ostensibly disappears, can be captured as a screenshot and lasts forever. I tend to do this in an offhanded way because giving speeches about the “inappropriate” often falls on deaf ears.
Instead, I use events from the media to remind students that their online lives are front and center. For example, I share stories of recruiters who drop student athletes for their Tweets, colleges who rescind scholarships after Facebook pictures show students drinking, and Instagram posts that ruin opportunities. Popular culture references will always hold more weight than a finger-wagging teacher at the front of the room.
In my classroom, I have two essential goals for my students. The first is for students to have a positive digital experience—because the vast majority of jobs will require at least a working knowledge of computers and technology.
Because the world is so reliant, and will become increasingly more so, the second goal is that students create a positive digital footprint. These are twin goals, and intentional, specific instruction makes a world of difference. The world is a complicated place, and we must provide students with the tools and discernment to make sure they project their best selves to that world.
Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified ELA teacher and the author of The Flexible ELA Classroom: Practical Tools for Differentiated Instruction in Grades 4-8.