Baby Steps

I recently attended a technology workshop for teachers where a number of online tools were introduced. The teachers left inspired and definitely overwhelmed.

My role at the workshop was to help out where needed – help teachers get places, troubleshoot, etc. I was surprised that I spent the first hour or so of the workshop helping with really basic things: how to send a text message, the concept of different browsers (IE, Chrome, Firefox,) and how to get on the wireless connection.

It does highlight – loudly – the real need for professional development time for teachers. They have too much on their plates to spend time getting comfortable with technology. And yes, it is essential that teachers become more comfortable with technology. It just isn’t an option for them to ignore technology.

Perhaps baby steps are one way to get started. A recent posting in Edutopia by Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Twenty Everyday Ways to Model Technology Use for Students, offers some great ways to take those first baby steps. Read the whole post, but here are some of the easiest ways any teacher, regardless of comfort level, could get started:

  • Post a list of norms for online and offline behavior
    There are great resources for this type of list, or talk to the school media specialist. They should have access to good lists. Common sense is a great resource. Include things like never give a real name, never give your phone number or address, and never put anything online that you wouldn’t want the whole world to see.
  • Create a “tech crew” of students
    We all know that some students are far more comfortable with technology than teachers. Take advantage of this, and give those students a chance to get you set up for the day with whatever technology you’re going to use. Or, take it a step further and ask students for ideas of what to do!
  • Be transparent with your Google searches
    Research is showing that students are not able to perform good searches or make decisions about valid sources. Model this for them. If you’ll be using some sources in your teaching, show the students how you found it. Do the whole search in front of the class. Talk about how you phrased the search terms and why you didn’t always just pick the first thing that came up.

Lessons Learned

My Uncle Bub passed away earlier this month.  As we’ve been remembering him, we’ve talked about all sorts of things he taught us all. He was a natural teacher. If he took my son fishing, he’d patiently show a 10-year-old how to clean the fish, even if it would’ve taken Bub 1/10th the time to do it himself.

One time, I had a flat tire. As Bub made his living as a mechanic, patching the tire was a very simple task — for him. Not so for me. But did he just do it for me? Nope. He made me patch it myself, so I knew how to fix it myself next time.

Uncle Bub and I were from different worlds. Me: urban, “professional”, over-educated, tech/gadget geek. Bub: rural, mechanical, high-school, never sent an email or browsed the web.

Although Bub wasn’t big on 21st century technology,  one of the best stories I heard about him during the funeral was a great illustration of why we need to be teaching critical thinking skills. The story was told by one of the many locals who hung out at Moe’s Garage:

One time, this guy brought his Cadillac in for Bub to fix. Something wasn’t working right. Bub checked the car’s computer, and told the guy the computer said it needed to be checked at the dealer. So he did. The dealer told him the problem was one of a couple things, all expensive. The guy told him he needed to check with Bub.

Bub checked the car, listened to it run, and said he didn’t think these other things were the problem. He suggested checking a couple of wires. Of course, he didn’t do it – he showed the guy how to do it. So, the guy replaced a couple of wires, and voila, the car worked fine.

Moral of the story – just because the computer said something is so, doesn’t mean it is. Exactly why students need to be taught critical thinking skills when using technology!

Biggest Impact

Interesting post from Emerging EdTech about a survey of educators about what technologies have the biggest impact on teachers.

The three were:

  1. Teacher professional development
  2. Providing a computer and internet access for every student
  3. Mobile Technologies

These aren’t a surprise and it is definitely worth paying attention!

I sit on a district curriculum committee as a parent rep. This week, the Media Specialists made their presentation about curriculum plans for the next seven years. (OK, just that is totally unfair. How can a group who deals with technology plan out seven years?)

The media specialists got it. They knew why technology and digital literacy are so important. It was very clear to me that they are often speaking to people who don’t understand – to the teachers in the district. They did a survey of the teachers. Comments on the survey made it clear that teachers don’t feel it is their responsibility to teach the concepts of digital literacy, critical thinking about sources, etc.

Professional development is key. It is essential. Don’t forget it! Without it, those other two (which are also incredibly important) are worthless.

The Whole Story

Once again, Matt Richtel of the New York Times has penned a one-sided article about technology in schools. What is his problem?

This time, he’s accusing Apple execs of influencing school decision makers. It’s true – Apple does pay for trips for teachers, superintendents, tech folks. Not being in the education field I can’t comment on what textbooks publishers, furniture suppliers, etc., do. Is this right? Not if it unjustly influences the decision and causes them to buy an inferior product.

But, really, what else is there to buy right now besides Apple? In a few years, it’ll be something else, but why would you go with another product?

My biggest beef with this article, however, is that it focuses on the Little Falls district implying that the decision makers were “bought out” by Apple executives. There is no mention of any pedagogy, teaching, or any other rationale for the purchases except for the trips from Apple.

Last spring, I had the good fortune of spending a few days talking to the staff, teachers, superintendent, school board, and yes, students in the Little Falls district.  For one session, there were Apple reps there. But they said only a few words at the beginning. It was the teachers and the students who won me over.

One of the teachers pictured in the NYT article, Shawn Aholm, talked to us. He is a 5th grade teacher who piloted iPads in his classroom last year. Not once did he mention being wined and dined by Apple. Nope, he talked the students. He talked about what he and his students did during the year. He talked about engagement – excited students who were learning, sharing, collaborating. He talked about how much he learned from the students. He talked about how empowered the students were to take charge of their learning.

His students came in to talk to us. It was no big deal to them. They zipped around the iPads, showing us how they used Google Earth, how they wrote assignments and saved them to their folder (Google Docs, I believe). They showed us a tool they use for spelling, games they are allowed to play when they are done with their assignments, books they read on iBooks. They were so excited by looking up vocabulary words, taking notes in the margins, and sharing those notes.  They taught me quite a bit.

The entire district has made a paradigm shift. Curt Tryggestad, superintendent, talked about why they’ve made this shift. It had nothing to do with dinners and trips. It had everything to do with preparing students for the future and taking responsibility for teaching students to deal with this fast-changing world.

I told Mr. Tryggestad that I wished my kids could attend school in Little Falls. Take that, Mr. Richtel.