Kids as Catalysts of Change

Have you ever gotten so caught up in doing something that you forget to look up and see what is around you?  I have been guilty of that this year as I have attempted to make my classroom a blended learning environment.  The challenge of changing how I create and present content to my students has been overwhelming at times and I have frequently forgotten about a rich resource I have right in front of me all day long: my students!

My middle school students are, I have realized, the key to my success.  Of course there are many days when I am sure they are also going to drive me into an early retirement!  In previous years I have used their enthusiasm to help foster inquiry and engagement about what we were learning.  This was an integral part of how I taught and it worked well for me.  This year, however, I lost sight of that important facet of my teaching.  I was focusing on the “how” and not the “why” of  what I was doing in my classes and content areas.  Becoming so caught up in finding new and slicker resources and managing the inconsistent availability of technology resources became my number one consideration and I have often felt like I was just barely keeping my head above water.  It has not been a happy time for me as an educator.  I have often felt lost and inept this year; feelings no one ever enjoys.

Now that I have more of a feeling of control over the technology end of things and a more thorough understanding of the how and why of the apps that are out there to use, I can lift my head and take a look around me a bit.  My students are still there and still have so much to offer.  

I have started a list of ways I can capitalize on their innate enthusiasm in a blended learning environment.  While some of these techniques are very similar to what happened in a more traditional model, some take on an new twist in the area of technology, some are new, and all will make a big difference in my outcomes with blended learning.

  • Student as “guide on the side” – I have begun to leverage the knowledge and aptitude some of my students have shown in the area of technology (both hardware and software) to expand the amount of guidance there is available to struggling students.  I clearly cannot be everywhere at once and it is very likely that a student isn’t “ready” for some information until they are at that step in the process.  As much as I try to front load my instructions, that is not always helpful to everyone.  In order to have help available at the right time for learning, my students who find technology pretty straightforward and understandable have become my trusted co-guiders!  This is good for both the helper and the helpee because in order to be respected as a helper, they need to display certain behaviors and trustworthiness.  This role has proven to be important to some of my students improved self-image.  They appreciate the level of trust I have placed in them and they like helping their fellow students.  I plan to work on formalizing the skills and characteristics I want to celebrate with the class so this becomes a coveted designation.
  • Student as expert – I cannot know everything all of time – no one can.  We are very hard on ourselves as teachers and often hold ourselves to an impossibly high standard.  How wonderful it has been to periodically hand over the role of expert to my students!  I have seen them step up to take on this challenge for some portion of content and the pride they have in themselves when they provide the class with something they all need.  While this is not practical for everything we study, I am incorporating it more and more and even see students seeking this opportunity.  What an opportunity for growth!  Again, I need to build some further structure around this, but so far so good.
  • Making learning public – Technology is a huge asset here and there are countless options for how students can show what they know, reflect on their process and what they have learned.  This can take the form of a quick-write on a shared class Padlet or similar app, the creation of a new product like a PowToon, or a video or podcast.  There are so many options, the biggest problem is deciding which one to use!  The real power of asking students to make their learning public is the increase in the accountability and engagement – I have seen a huge increase in both of these.  I love seeing pride on their faces.
  • Creating classroom lists of “go-to” apps and tools – We are compiling a list of our favorites with reasons and this is sort of evolving into a list of “look for’s” in new apps.  It is a very backwards, organic process but the creating as we go nature of it has grabbed their attention and the fact that they have true input is powerful.  I would like to try using apps to collect some of this data through polling and google forms but I have not formalized it to that point yet.  I have info in a few different places and need to pull that together – add that to the to-do list!

This has been a year of tremendous learning and growth for me as a professional and I owe so much to my students who have put up with all of the changes and experimentation and changes in direction I have thrown at them.  I love my kids!

Plan A Becomes Plan B

Have you heard the one about the teacher who decides to create a blended learning classroom with 22 kids and 6 Chromebooks?  She ended up in the funny farm!  Yep, that teacher would be me and the Chromebooks started out as a promise of a class set, then were reduced to 15, then 8 were delivered later than expected, and now 2 are off being repaired.  What was I thinking????

I cannot blame our IT people.  Those poor souls are straight out trying to service way too many people and machines.  They are miracle workers as far as I am concerned.  Between the shirt tugs in the hallway from desperate teachers with tech problems and the school committee breathing down their necks for estimates of how much money they will need next year, you couldn’t pay me enough money to do that job!  

I really blame myself for opening my big mouth and saying I would pilot a blended learning classroom in a district that has not defined what they believe blended learning is yet.  That is a detail they really need to spend some time on!  On the other hand, my administration was nice enough to be flexible and let me think outside the box and supported my initiative.  They didn’t have to, but they did.  I do appreciate their good intentions.  The execution………….well, not so much.

All of these factors have conspired to create a situation where I am sometimes planning for one reality – Plan A, but come into school and realize my reality that day will be much different which means I have to pull out Plan B.  Teachers learn early on to have a backup plan because a school can be an unpredictable place.  Interruptions like fire drills, sick kids, office announcements, impromptu assemblies, etc. can make it impossible to complete the lesson you had planned on for the day.  This year and my new attempt at a blended classroom have added more potential interruptions to the mix.  The problem is Plan A is taking so long to create, Plan B is often nonexistent!

Let me explain.  Every lesson this year is new for me.  No, I am not a new teacher, just a teacher using new tools.  Really exciting and interesting tools but new nonetheless.  I am taking what I have taught in previous years and trying to turn it into digital content, at least in part.  I love doing this, and I think it is really worthwhile, but it takes a tremendous amount of time.  

Each night I look at what we are learning and try to create lessons that are interactive, engaging, have choice built in and allow students to work at their own pace.  I can’t always include all of that, but I am trying.  This means I spend hours at night trying to find just the right mix of apps and tools for my content and for the kids to use.  By the time I have it ready, creating a Plan B ain’t happening!  Of course I could just fall back on what I did last year, but the pacing is different and it doesn’t always work well to do that.  

My school day starts with me hoping the technology will work and the resources I am counting on will run correctly.  Many days, it all goes very well.  Unfortunately, there have been far too many days lately where a major problem has occurred and we can’t get online or I have no working equipment for the kids to use.  Honestly, there have been days where I have considered just giving up on this whole thing and waiting until we, as a district, are more ready.  

My kids have been so great about all of this.  They have stepped up and learned to use technology to learn and it has not always been easy for them.  They have also had to regroup when they have started an assignment online and then found out that they cannot finish in school.  They have had to put up with me changing things on the fly when our internet is down.  They have endured some not so engaging lessons because Plan B was needed and I didn’t have time to create any bells and whistles after having created the Plan A we had to scrap.  They are real troopers!

We are in the middle of the year now and have come so far together in using this technology to learn.  A big part of me is really questioning why I am putting myself through this.  It is all made worthwhile however when one of my kids creates something they didn’t know they could a few months ago.  They are growing and learning and that makes it all worthwhile.  Plan A or Plan B – we are a team and will keep moving forward!

Google Classroom – A Blessing and a Curse

Google Classroom is the both the best thing and the most frustrating thing to happen to my teaching in a long time.  My district “went Google” and the most logical thing for me to do was to try to leverage all of what was available to me to try to maximize the effectiveness of my teaching.  My newly blended classroom was the perfect place to experiment and learn about this new tool.  

While Classroom has given me some absolutely wonderful functionality, it is far from perfect.  Google readily admits that and has a wonderfully flexible outlook on its own product.  They are very upfront about how they are always working on it and are very receptive to input.  I really cannot ask for more than that from them, although sometimes the much-desired features seem like they will never take shape.  Thankfully, many features have been added, and each time a new one is introduced, I jump on board to try it.  So far, I have not been disappointed.  We may have to wait, but what they have added is high quality.

So, let’s look at the good:

  • The distribution of assignments and resources – this process is so much simpler using Google Classroom.  Please note that I am not doing any product comparison here other than comparing using Google Classroom to physically passing out papers!  The biggest win for me as a teacher in using this feature is the ability to hold my students accountable – they can’t lose anything or say they didn’t get a copy.  Organization, particularly in middle school students, is a rare thing. I have to say, some of them are speechless when they realize that old excuse has no validity anymore.  I kind of love that………………..
  • The ability for kids to have a classroom for each teacher they work with – again, organization rules!  My students can sign in and see all of their classes in one place.  This is invaluable when working with kids who have 5 different major subject teachers with 5 different lists of assignments.  I have seen a real difference in my kids’ ability to pull their organizational skills together.  We aren’t talking miracles here, but there has been far fewer meltdowns.
  • The ability for teams of teachers to use Google Classroom in a purposeful, planned way – the potential here is huge, although there is room for growth feature-wise on Google’s part.  Not only can we make each other teachers in each other’s classrooms, but what I create can serve as an example for another teacher on the team trying something for the first time.  Built in PD!
  • All of the add-ons created for Google Apps for Education and Chrome that work with Classroom – Holy Toledo!  The number of add-ons is growing every day.  Clearly, the quality is not all equal, but the ability to have so many to pick and choose from and the fact that they are available to the kids too is terrific.  The biggest issue is choosing which to use.  Some of my students have even become “product testers” and recommend certain ones to the class or to me.  Who doesn’t like free shopping??

With all good comes some bad.  Let’s take a look:

  • The grading situation – I cannot get my head wrapped around this flow – it seems unnecessarily cumbersome to me and involves way too much clicking.  There is vast room for improvement here and, if Google can figure out how to smooth this out and streamline it, they will have a huge win on their hands.  And a big fan!

 

  • The stream – it could just be that I am not a Facebook user or a fan of social media, but I don’t like this interface.  Visually, I would love the ability to change the layout – the timeline is just not working for me and many of my students struggle with this view as well.  The ability to display the assignments/announcements/questions in multiple ways – user choice – would be a very welcome change and would make this tool so much more user-friendly for many of my students.

 

In the end, I am much happier with Google Classroom than I was without it.  I do believe it will get better with time and user input.  I appreciate Google’s commitment to making Classroom function better for both teachers and students.  If you haven’t given it a try yet, what are you waiting for?  Dive in.

Tech Savvy is a Relative Term

Have any of you been told just how tech savvy this generation is?  I certainly have.  As a teacher I am told all the time to just hand hardware to my kids and let them figure it out because surely they know more than I do.  WRONG!

I am completely amazed at my students’ struggles with technology.  Let’s break this down:

We have two big issues here: hardware and software.

  • Hardware
    • iPads
    • phones
    • Chromebooks
    • desktops
    • laptops
    • tablets
  • Software
    • complete computer software programs
    • task specific apps
    • extensions

I might agree that the kids can take an actual piece of hardware and make it work.  They can usually play around with the physical design of the thing and make it turn on and manage the controls – they have probably played with something with similar features before.

Software, on the other hand, is a whole different story!  I can’t help but be surprised each and every time they quickly give up and ask for help when presented with a new app or extension.  Where is their adventurous spirit?  Whether having to register, navigate the pages on the site, or somehow submit or share their work, I am deluged with requests for help and reassurance.  Unfortunately, this makes me cranky.  Very cranky.

I mean, really, how hard is it to click a few times and see what happens?  Why won’t they do that?  I think we have pretty solid evidence that nothing is going to explode and no alarms will go off.  Where is the hesitation coming from?

From where I sit, it is a refusal to risk being wrong.  They are afraid to make a move that could be wrong and they might not be able to fix.  What if they can’t destroy the evidence that they made a wrong choice?  What would their peers think?  What would their parents think?  Oh no!

The Spirit of Adventure

Skydiving, bungee jumping, zip lining, these are all things my students tell me they would definitely love to try.  I believe them and encourage them to pursue those opportunities as they grow older.  In the classroom, however, my students don’t all present themselves as such risk takers.  They play it safe over and over again, even when given the opportunity to branch out.  My concern is that overwhelmingly I am asked for neat, well-defined assignments from my kids and from the adults I teach.  Why is that?  What are we afraid of?  And what role have I played in that mindset?

The majority of us came through school receiving these neat, self-contained, easily gradable assignments that checked to see if we read, or memorized, or could explain a concept.  We all turned out fine.  (Well…………mostly.)  Teachers moved us through the curriculum and we all marched in line towards the goal.  That has been the educational model for a very long time.

Many of us are trying to change the way content is delivered, consumed and used in our classrooms.  In implementing a blended learning model in my room this year, I have run into this expectation that assignments will stay the same as they have always been; look the same, require the same level of effort, and be graded the same.  And when students realize that what they are used to is not what they are being asked to do, things can get ugly!

At first I found this a pretty disheartening, considering I am working in what should be a place of experimentation and discovery.  I am not blaming the students and teachers, but where is this attitude coming from?  Is this what the current educational process is communicating to our students and faculty?  Am I?  If we want technology to become an everyday part of learning, we need to make sure we first encourage a love of exploration, experimentation and discovery and a willingness to stick with something even if it is hard.

So back to the sky diving, etc.  How do I make engaging with content and creating new knowledge as appealing to my students as those adventures?  I don’t think the answer is going to be the same for everything we do, but if I try reframing how I look at designing the work, maybe I can get a little closer to exciting my students than I am right now.  There is truly nothing worse for a teacher than the look on students’ faces when you present them with a new unit and they are thinking, “really?”  I hope I can change that!

Am I Overwhelming My Students??

I just presented the list of work required, included deliverables, for our next unit of Geography.  You should have seen my students’ faces!  After some prompting, one girl finally was able to tell me that she felt overwhelmed.  “I feel like it is too much and I can’t do it.” Wow.  I feel that way everyday I work on building this blended learning environment. How could I be so blind to the fact that my kids are feeling that way too?

In an effort to give them a clear picture of how they are expected to show me that they understand the content, I have been building assignments in Google Classroom that take them through the content and require them to create something that shows they are understanding, can combine this new knowledge with what we have already covered, and do some analysis or synthesis.  These are the same goals I had with no Chromebooks in the room, but now there are more options for them and better ways for me to present the information to them.  I front load a great deal of stuff – resources, files, links, etc.  Clearly, some of them are not comfortable with this new model.

Part of the issue could be that they have arrived in this blended classroom having experienced predominately teacher-led learning.  They struggle with independence and having to help themselves as they are conditioned to ask for clarification constantly.  They will ask me a question before even reviewing the content of the assignment instructions.  I am redirecting them but they have such a look of betrayal on their faces – like I am refusing to help them. They are not used to having a choice about what to do during each class period or having a list of to-do’s rather than one assignment at a time.  Choice is really freaking them out!

For my part, I tried to be more explicit about the actual deliverables this time.  I am still seeing a lack of familiarity with the Google Classroom interface and how they can see and track assignments.  In order to help them with that, I created a tracking spreadsheet and posted it in the room.  Each student is listed and there is a column for each assignment. They have been asked to physically “x” out the box next to their name and under each assignment as they complete them and turn them in, whether physically or electonically.  I think this will help all of us to have a better picture of progress and pacing.  It will also up the ante a bit for those who are not particularly motivated to complete anything in a class period.  I plan to keep referring back to it and to remind them to keep it updated.

Today was a wake-up call for me.  I have to slow down a bit and make sure my kids are ready to absorb all of these new procedures and ways of receiving and submitting information.  Although I was trying to be super teacher, it turns out I was making it more difficult for them because I was moving too fast and assuming a comfort level with the model that just doesn’t exist yet.  It is no wonder they are looking at me like I have three heads!  I have been sprinting – it’s time to slow down and make sure everyone is with me.