Saturday, November 14, 2009

NETS Activity - Dipping Into Digital

Activity sheet

I dipped a toe into the digital ocean and found out I could dog paddle. I decided to try something VERY technologically manageable with my first grade class last week, which was just an extension of a lesson I had done with my students in the past. Historically, as I wrap up a science unit on Air and Weather and prepare to move into a social studies unit on Philanthropy, I always read an appealing book to my students called Knut - How One Little Polar Bear Captivated the World (see my Shelfari). It provides a nice bridge between the two, seemingly diverse, topics in that we take what we've learned about air and weather, extend that to the topic of how we, as people, can have an effect on the weather through our actions (global warming), and how that can then have an effect on other species (shrinking habitat). This book, featuring the world's cutest polar bear cub, simply brings attention to the species as a whole and makes the survival of this endangered species more personal for the kids. In the past, after reading this book to my students, they were always hungry for more information about polar bears, their habitat and what they could do to make a difference. What a great segue into the topic of philanthropy, which is, after all, just an extension of our on-going first grade study of community and how we are all part of a whole, working together for the greater good. All that being did technology help out with that, you ask?

After passing by my school's LCD projector in the tech room many times, I thought to myself, "Self, you really ought to learn how to use that thing so you can share interesting websites with your class." The words of a sage educator came to smarter, not harder. So, as stated earlier, I dipped my toe into the digital ocean, went into school on a Sunday, dragged that scary piece of machinery into my classroom, figured out how to hook it up and gave it a test run. It was embarrassingly easy. On Monday morning, my kids got to meet Knut through a book. By afternoon, thanks to, 17 children had fallen completely in love with him as they watched him on a screen, drinking from a bottle, wrestling with a boot, and learning how to swim. By the end of the day, we had learned how to sing a song about him in German and had visited a polar bear habitat. On Tuesday, we learned a bit more about how polar bears live in the wild and then saw an animation about how the WWF tracks polar bears to see if their habitat is shrinking and their numbers are dropping.

The most challenging aspect of introducing technology into this lesson was figuring out how to STOP! I had designated only a couple of days to this and now realize that we could easily have pursued SO many links to SO many cool sites and activities that we could have continued linking and learning about this subject matter until June. As with all things web, it's difficult to cull through the volumes of information accessed, then decide what to keep and what to cut. At least now that I've seen the tip of the iceberg (pun intended), I have a million ideas about how I'll further incorporate this discipline-bridging activity next year.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

World Without Walls: Learning Well With Others

The title of this article warmed my first grade teacher heart. So much of what I read about incorporating technology in the classroom seems geared toward the middle or high school population - you know, those big-time tech users. Though I agree that opening the door to the world is clearly a beneficial endeavor, even for my young charges, I sometimes question how relevant all of this wonderful world-wide information is to someone just learning how to play well with others. Well, there you have it. When children first enter school, they begin to expand their understanding of community as a collection of individuals bound together by some common element. They begin to learn that they are members of many different communities - their families, neighborhoods, school, clubs, and so on. They learn that, as a member of a community, you share a common purpose as well as a responsibility to be a contributing member of that community. When technology brings a world of learners into their personal sphere, children begin to develop an understanding of themselves as contributing members of the MOTHER of all communities - the whole world. Talk about playing well with others.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Turning on the Lights

Prensky's article, Turning on the Lights, fulfilled every writer's goal of provoking the reader to think. At least it provoked this reader to think. Reflecting on the following questions helped me to fine-tune my thinking around Prensky's approach to the subject of integrating kids' outside use of technology inside the school.
  • Do you agree with Prensky's notion that requiring students to "power down" in school actually impedes their learning? How might allowing students to use technological devices in class help or hinder their learning?
First and foremost, I believe that the key to student engagement is meaningful content. If the student has no meaningful connection to the subject matter, he/she is unlikely to embrace it. "How am I ever going to use this?", isn't just a question elicited by a boring Trigonometry class. Even our youngest students benefit from having a schema connection to the subject matter, helping them develop a meaningful connection from that which they know to that which they don't yet know. Whenever something can be related to the self, it is inherently more interesting. The place where I see "powering down" in the classroom as an impediment to learning is in the severing of that schema connection. When approaching something that initially holds no real meaning for the student, perhaps the mode of interaction with that subject may be the only thing that connects it to the student. If there is a way that technological devices used outside the classroom help bridge the gap and create connections for the students to access material inside the classroom, then there is greater meaning in the subject matter for that student.
  • What place do you see in the classroom for laptops, cell phones, mp3 players, social networking sites, Wikipedia, and other technologies?
Though my mind went immediately to the middle and high school age student when first pondering this question, that is not where my own connection lies, so I thought it through again in relation to the elementary school aged child - MY little peeps. Though some of these devices don't readily apply to the younger child, the general principal of what I stated earlier still does. If a technological device used outside of the classroom helps create a connection to the subject matter in the classroom, then it may very well have a place there. I see this coming into play most readily with students' writing. What to write about is the biggest challenge for many of my students. Though we may cringe when a student shares about "reaching level 12" on such and such a video game over the weekend because WE would have preferred that he was out playing soccer, we've severed a meaningful connection for that student by dis-allowing it. What might happen if we allowed occasional blocks for "tech devices" in the classroom? Little folks need things concrete and tangible. How better to elicit rich word choice for describing your game character than to write about him while you're playing the game? How better to describe how a piece of music makes you feel than to write about it while you're listening to it on your mp3 player? How better to practice written communication skills than to instant message with a friend from laptop to laptop? Might a math or social studies concept become more clear in the context of a well known game? As teachers, we are always working toward strengthening home-school connections for optimal learning, so why do we feel compelled to overlook this connection?
  • What is your school's policy regarding technology in school? Do you believe your policy meets the needs of your students? If so, why? If not, what changes would you make?
Currently, our elementary school does not allow any "electronic devices" to be brought from home. As a general rule for our age group, that policy is sound, as we would much prefer kids to be running and playing with friends on the playground than sitting on a bench playing a hand-held video game. For the above stated argument, however, I see room to improve the language around that, at least.
  • How can teachers and administrators balance the desire to stay up-to-date with the need to always make sure that teachers can use the techniques and technologies that best suit their students? (1)
Marc Prensky's bullet points for "Turning on the Lights" were terrific in this regard:
  • Give students the opportunity to use technology in school.
  • Find out how students want to be taught.
  • Connect students to the world.
  • Understand where kids are going—that is, into the future—and help them get there.
Perhaps my favorite quote from Prensky's article was this:

Teachers would no longer be the providers of information but instead would be the explainers, the context providers, the meaning makers, and the evaluators of information that kids find on their own.

Sometimes I think we, as teachers, need to get out of our own way. We are HUGE sources of light for these children, but we're hardly the only source. I celebrate the fact that children are now able to sponge up information from so very many resources and I see my role as a teacher as being even more critical in helping them disseminate it, draw meaning from it, and evaluate it critcally.