In January 2017, my school implemented a Digital Learning Day protocol during a three-day closure due to an unusual snow and ice storm. It was an act of quick thinking combined with a dollop of desperation and a dash of hope.
Overall, the protocol was even more successful than we could have hoped. Students and teachers used digital tools in smart, effective ways to continue the momentum of learning and review. But as snow day after snow day passed and finals week quickly approached, some students who were unhappy with grades or policies resorted to sending grouchy emails to faculty and administrators and posting snarky messages on class Schoology pages. While only a small group of students engaged in this behavior, it sparked questions from faculty directed my way.
"Who teaches email etiquette? Isn't that something students are supposed to learn in Digital Literacy?"
I was a bit taken aback, and then it got me thinking. Even though every faculty member in my school would agree that digital responsibility is an important skill for 21st century learners, not all of them actively think to incorporate the idea into their curriculum. Why?
The answer is simple. The term "digital responsibility" has become a catch phrase that many educators assume belongs only in a technology class. This is not surprising--most current educators did not grow up using technology or communicating online like our current students do. It often does not occur to them that digital etiquette and behavior could belong in a humanities or math or science class. And those educators who already feel uncomfortable with technology worry about looking incompetent in front of students.
But the reality is that online communication is an integral part of life for our young people. In 2015, PEW reported that nearly 75 percent of teens owned or had access to smartphones and 92 percent went online daily, especially to use texting and social media services. Those numbers have likely increased since then. And it's not just young people anymore--according to a January 12 PEW report, 77 percent of American adults own a smartphone, which is more than double than in 2011, and 69 percent of American adults use social media. The new norms of written communication are much shorter and less formal, and often less cognizant of audience reaction.
So does that mean we should just give up and accept those short snarky emails from students? Absolutely not. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Students need us to set expectations for good communication and smart online choices, just as we set expectations for good communication and social behavior in our classrooms. This can be as simple as having a frank class conversation at the beginning of a term about concrete strategies for good communication, such as:
--Beginning an email or post with polite address: "Dear Ms. Tormala" or "Hi friends!" or "Hello classmates."
--Asking polite questions rather than making demands.
--Using "please" and "thank you."
--Ending an email with "sincerely" or "warmly", etc.
Teachers can take this even further by having more in-depth conversations with students about audience, purpose, and tone--concepts that apply to every form of communication--and offering real examples and comparisons. And when a student inevitably makes a mistake, we can seize that meaningful opportunity to help her learn. If every teacher and administrator in a school consistently applied this strategy, I'm almost certain we would see immediate, noticeable improvement in student communication overall.
After all, as George Couros so succinctly puts it, it's up to us to help our students be digital leaders.
Denver was a blast. And this time around, I had four fabulous colleagues from St. Mary's Academy attending ISTE2016 with me. Between the five of us, we represented a wide range of content areas, experience levels, and tech-comfort, and as we discussed the highly positive learning that all of us were experiencing at the conference, a question arose.
How can we bring this amazing work home?
A daunting prospect, to say the least. We all knew it would be next to impossible to remember and/or summarize everything we learned over the five intensive days of Denver sun and fun.
So instead of trying to bring it all back, we decided to each create an artifact of some kind that answers four questions. And during our inservice week, we will engage in a speed-geeking activity where the five of us, plus two other colleagues who attended MasteryCon with me this month, will share our artifacts and offer a few inspirational highlights about what we learned.
My artifact is still in progress since I'm attempting to make it a bit more organic and visual, but here's a sneak peak at what I've got so far. Enjoy!
Who knew that upcycling could be so fun? And create an ideal opportunity for assessment of presentation skills to boot?
This semester I challenged my Speech students to design a product for an audience of their choice, which they would then pitch live at the end of the semester. But here was the catch--they had to upcycle materials from around the school to do it. (Shout out to local middle school art teacher and design expert, Beth Rogers Bundy, for the brilliant idea!)
The faculty and staff who joined us were highly impressed by the students' presentations--in fact, several of them commented that they hope the students' products actually get created.
If nothing else, this unit solidified for me the benefits of hands-on learning and design thinking for high school students. They saw the concept as relevant, and therefore spent significant effort on their products and pitches--quite the feat during the final month of the school year!
For more ideas for bringing design thinking and challenges into your classroom, check out the following resources.
Stanford Design School website
Beginner's Guide to Design Thinking in the Classroom by A.J. Juliani
Global Day of Design site
"Learning by Design: The Idea that Moved a District" by ISTE Connects
Eduotopia's resource page on Design Thinking
But the best example of shared learning in my life is my working partnership with Ellie Gilbert, a fellow teacher at SMA. We were lucky enough to begin our working relationship four years ago by teaching English 9 together while sharing a classroom—and did so at the same time our school implemented a 1:1 mobile technology program. We not only planned together, but we watched each other teach on a daily basis and marveled at the way each of us found new ways to learn with our students.
For both of us, this experience blossomed into a deep friendship and partnership that not only made teaching incredibly fun and rewarding, but catalyzed us both to become ten times better than either of us would have been alone.
This year things changed. I moved into our technology department, allowing me to spend more time on instructional tech coaching, but taking me out of English 9 and the shared classroom space. Ellie and I worried about how this would change our partnership—turns out, our worries were unfounded.
Is it different? Certainly. But the foundation we built over three years in English 9 has blossomed into a partnership of a different sort—one between an instructional tech coach and a master teacher who continue to catalyze each other’s growth.
We are better together. So why not take that into the digital world?
So I am thrilled to announce that Ellie and I have joined forces on LearnersTogether—it will continue to be a forum to reflect on learning and share the stories of others, but as usual with the pair of us, it will end up being ten times better than either of us could make happen alone.
"Where are your stories? Where are your students' stories?" I found myself sitting in a bubble of my own frozen silence when Kevin Honeycutt asked these questions during the Keynote this morning at NCCE2016.
I know students' work and stories should be out there. So why am I not doing a better job of making that happen? And as a Tech Coach, it occurred to me that the same could be said for how I share the work of my colleagues.
Of course, we all know the challenges there. Teachers are often the least likely to want to share their own stories. It's as if the profession builds in a misplaced sense of modesty and self-consciousness. Ironic, right? Yet as Honeycutt pointed out, if we don't share those stories, no one will know, and no one can be expected to support the incredible work that happens every day.
I don't have the answers. I really only have some glimmerings of questions.
During the previous two school years, I participated in small action-research groups with colleagues from my school in an effort to better understand my own practice. Expertly led by one of my colleagues, Ellie Gilbert, that experience was invaluable and transformative.
But after two years of that amazing experience, it was time to create space for others to come to that table. And it was time for me to find a new experience to energize my professional life.
Enter the Design Challenge.
Based on the Stanford d.School model, our Design Challenge is being organized by SMA's Director of Innovation, Shawn Daley, and a local art teacher/design model expert, Beth Rogers Bundy. It includes seven of my colleagues plus two students. Our goals are 1) to learn the Stanford d.School model with an eye toward where it could fit into our various curricula, and 2) to develop some ideas for a new library space since we have the chance to expand our campus in the next few years.
It has been another eye-opening, transformative experience, albeit in a completely different way than the teacher-research group. I realized that we as teachers engage in design all the time, but don't really think consciously about how that process functions. And as a result, we often skip the initial essential part of the process--empathy--and jump right to solving whatever problem or tension we see. If our designed solution does not work, we are left with a pile of unanswered questions and frustrations. And it makes it all the harder to try again.
I was so taken with this experience that I talked with my Speech class about it just before the Winter Break. I wondered out loud what students might think about engaging in a similar project as part of a future Speech class. My students met the idea with enthusiasm and energy--they even jumped right into brainstorming topics for a design challenge. I admit I was surprised--sometimes what I as a teacher think would be "awesome!" does not feel the same way to students.
Although I had not originally planned to incorporate a design challenge this semester, I couldn't stop thinking about how their faces lit up and their voices bubbled and surged. So I decided redesign the last two weeks of the semester to become a design challenge, and with trepidation, I presented them with the plan when we returned from break. Would they still be interested in the idea with finals looming? Would they think I was nuts?
I should have given them more credit. They jumped right into the experience. Four teams of students created designs for four different spaces: a cafeteria, a gym, a nurse's station, and a rooftop/outdoor garden space--spaces they chose, even though I encouraged them to consider smaller projects (e.g., a new kind of locker) given the time frame!
After two weeks of learning and following the d.School process, the students' pitches took place yesterday in front of an authentic audience of five adults--three administrators and two staff members--all of whom have some level of influence regarding physical spaces in our school. All of us were impressed with the students' grasp of the design process as well as their thoughtful ideas and prototypes. Some highlights:
--Students had clearly anticipated and answered questions from their audience that I had not even thought of--evidence of excellent critical thinking.
--The students were able to clearly articulate how their users' needs were being addressed.
--Two of the four groups had, of their own volition, used 3D modeling apps on their iPads to create their prototypes. (I tried these apps myself--they are challenging to work with!)
--The students' ideas were well-supported with research; some even estimated costs and offered lists of materials needed. Some had also visited or researched other similar spaces for inspiration.
--The students expanded on how their ideas would have impact in other ways beyond just physical space--for instance, the rooftop garden group discussed how the garden could be used for experiential and entrepreneurial learning about environments and sustainability.
And here's the best part--my students now have the vocabulary and structure regarding design process that they did not possess before. It will guide them in all their future design work, whether they are designing a project for a class or working with a group to solve a problem. And they don't even realize how much they've learned.
Next steps? Any good design process requires post-design data gathering and redesign, so I'll be asking my students for feedback about the process so I can redesign it. But I can say with certainty that a design challenge project will be an integral part of the class next semester.
I am shocked to find that September is nearing its end. It appears that my internal clock decided to take a vacation while the controlled chaos of new students and trainings and coaching meetings washed me into and nearly out of the warm fall days of September. I'm positive that this is a common ailment in our field.
In the past month I have been fortunate enough to work with a wide range of teachers regarding technology integration. And while the beginning of the school year is usually a time of renewal and energy, for many teachers, incorporating technology is still easier said than done. It is often assumed that reluctance to integrate is linked directly to age or lack of experience. But that turns out not to be the case.
I have witnessed a younger teacher blanch at the idea of accepting papers digitally while an older teacher leapt headfirst into creating a paperless environment with a new LMS. I have seen a preservice teacher implode when asked to learn a new app while a veteran teacher changed gears mid-stream in class to try a creative app activity suggested by a student.
So it’s not about age or experience or background knowledge. It’s about vision.
Successful, satisfying technology integration has to be meaningful. It’s not enough to just plop a YouTube video into a lesson plan or ask students to fill out a worksheet in an app instead of on paper. Those might be places to start, but they will never be fully satisfying to either teacher or students.
Teachers who succeed at integrating technology understand that it is simply one tool of many in their kit. Including it has to be part of an overall pedagogical vision for creating a quality learning experience for students. So what does that look like?
--Chemistry students creating and sharing detailed video journals of their experiments, including hypothesis, process, data, results, and conclusions.
--English students practicing grammar through NoRedInk, an interactive online program designed to help each student learn at their own pace while also providing ongoing data to the teacher about progress.
--World language students practicing their conversation skills by talking with students from other countries through Voxer or Skype.
--High school biology students collaborating by Skype and email with kindergarten students from another school to jointly create a book about local animals.
--Social science students using social media tools to design and gather data on social experiments.
--Social justice students developing non-profit organizations with websites and social media accounts
Meaningful technology integration does not mean using technology for everything. It does mean using technology to:
Expand the boundaries of the classroom past the physical walls
Expose students to real-world learning experiences
Enhance equity by offering students more ways to learn and show what they know
Encourage students to dig deeper and think more critically about content
Streamline workflow and communication within a class
Connect students with each other and others outside their class
Engage students in learning to keep them coming back for more
And, most importantly, engaging the teacher as a learner too.
So, what is your vision? How will you make your technology use meaningful this year?
About this blog...
Learners Together is designed as a forum for sharing ideas, experiences and epiphanies about master teaching and technology integration. Comments and sharing are welcome.
"Getting Girls into STEM: The Power of Blended (and All-Female) Instruction". (Tormala) EdSurge, March 21, 2017.
"Confronting the Abominable Snow Day". (Gilbert & Tormala) Edutopia, Feb. 2017.
"Video Interviews with iPads: The Power of Mobile Technology". (Tormala) EdTechTeam, Jan 2017.
"Discomfort, Growth, and Innovation." (Tormala) Edutopia, Oct. 2016.
"5 Epiphanies on Learning in a 1:1 iPad Classroom." (Tormala) Edutopia, July 2014.