Saturday, April 13, 2013

Stop Fighting Technology

As teachers, schools, or districts we often have developed policies around the idea of eliminating cell phones or other devices. The idea is to eliminate educational distractions. Now, I am aware that there is plenty of research out there on the benefits of technology in the classroom, but I would like to offer a little of my own perspective.

I have a student who we will call Pete (because I name everything Pete). This particular kid has been struggling with his parents' recent divorce and is a typical distracted, social 6th grade boy. Did I mention he struggles with dyslexia and has handwriting that can be near on impossible to read, mimicking the size and stylings of a preschool or kindergartner? Pete also has me for both Social Studies and Science. All year he has squeaked by in these two classes (and most of his others) - and the squeaking has taken a lot of support from his mom and I.

Now, Pete has had access to some "educational" technology as part of his 504 plan; things his peers aren't allowed to use. The first thing we tried was an iPad. That was a disorganized mess due to lack of file folders. I would also like to point out that Pete would start a new document rather than reopening and adding to older assignments and if something got deleted, it was gone for good. Science labs would come to me in disjointed sentences with multiple pieces missing. It was a battle every time to make sure everything was part of one document and that the full document was sent to me.

Next on Pete's educational technology list was the laptop. He broke that within a week. Now, in addition to the iPad which he was using poorly and eventually stopped using, we had a laptop, which he couldn't use. However, that's giving Pete a little too much credit because before it broke and after it was fixed, he didn't use it for the intended purpose. You see, the whole idea was that we could use these items to de-emphasize reading and writing, to use the words of Johnathon Mooney. Pete was supposed to use Dragon so he could record his voice, rather than pecking away with his fingers. He was supposed to let the computer read class documents to him. This didn't happen.

Frustrated, Mom asked for another meeting (note that another means this is not the first). The big topic was about how we could get Pete to do 2 things: 1) feel like he could succeed and 2) use his technology without shame. You see, Pete didn't want to use Dragon because it makes him feel different and weird. He wants to do things the way everyone else does. So I, boldly, asked if I could pilot letting everyone use cell phones and other devices in the two classes I have Pete. This was bold because my principal and the parent were in the meeting with me - so there was no going back and I didn't really leave an out. Thankfully, they were both on board. No students were present, including Pete.

Going back to my masters program and a traumatic brain injury conference for educators that I attended, I used what I know about research on planners to start with getting kids more organized. I no longer address technology with Pete individually, but talk to my whole class about ways to use their devices. Would it be a good time to mention that my pilot social studies class frequently has fewer missing assignments than my other classes and sometimes none at all? You see, I had known for the three years I  have taught following my masters program, that planners are ineffective. However, I still push them, because they are what we use at my school. The research on alternatives to planners says a list is better. However, 6th graders lose lists. They are infinitely less likely to lose a cell phone, however.

Here's ways to use a device to keep track of work:

Option 1: Homework Note
  1. Create a "homework" document on the device (phone, iPad, kindle) - most of a notebook where this can be done
  2. Look over and grab the stuff needed before heading home
  3. Update this same document daily
    • In class: type in the new assignments
    • At home: delete things as you do them
    • fill in the assignments again the next day and repeat cycle
Option 2: Camera
  1. Photograph the teacher's agenda using a phone
  2.  Look over that at night and complete
Option 3: Google Drive
  1. Have kids start a google drive document for homework
  2. they can update it with homework just like in the notepad function 
  3. The benefit here is that they can keep a running list of things and the document can't get lost amidst all other stuff on their device (should they be a kid who puts everything on notepad) 
Option 4: Events and Alarms
  1. If a student has homework, they can set it as an "event" in their phone with a time for the alarm to go off.
  2. This way, when they get home, the alarm will remind them to do their homework!
 I have also let kids take notes, make voice recordings, do research, and even do their actual homework on phones. Once, I assigned for kids to go home and find a news article. We had a few minutes in class, so I let some boys "prove to me" that they could do it on their phones. They found their articles and turned them in with their phones. That was in a class where I was not piloting using devices. Still, 15 kids were able to pull out their devices (half the class!) and get this done. Why fight it? Kids keep their cell phones with them, whether they are allowed to or not.

We have a grade level cart of chrome books - only 20 and not enough for every kid. So, some kids supplement the supply with their iPads and other devices. I teach in an inquiry school - so when a kid asks me something I don't know - I no longer write it down to look up or run to my computer during work time so I can tell them. Now, I can say "Great question! See if you can find it with your phone."

Back to Pete. Pete is still struggling, and still does not use technology in a way that de-emphasizes literacy for him. However, he is more comfortable having technology and so hopefully we can build him up to feeling safe using it in a way that helps him. In the mean time, I have shared a Johnathon Mooney video with his mother, hoping to inspire him into believing that he can succeed and it shouldn't matter if he can do it in the same way everyone else does. On another note: Pete calls himself "my favorite student" and I have never disagreed. We have a great relationship - even though I am the only teacher whose class he has failed (science). I will continue to expect his best and someday, I hope he gives it and realizes that his best is just as good, if not better, than others' - it just takes different methods to get him there.

Update: My students and I had a little debrief about their technology. They shared with me that there are some great apps for phones and iPads that are for tracking homework. Some even let them check off the assignments when they turn them in. See what's out there!

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