Five Questions Teachers Should Ask Themselves When Integrating Technology into the Classroom

The following five questions are those I try to take into consideration each time I integrate technology into my lesson plans.  A little hint:  The answer to each question should be yes!5 Tech Questions for Teachers

1.  Do I have a purpose larger than using technology for the sake of using technology?

This question is a biggie.  Technology should not be used simply in order to check off a box or fulfill a requirement.  When integrating technology into a lesson plan, your end goal should not change.  Unless, perhaps, you are a technology teacher, the technology is not the goal.  Technology is a means.  Learning is still your end.  Another way you can ask this question would be:  Does this technology either lead students to critical thinking, help students demonstrate knowledge, or make the learning and working process more efficient?

2.  Have I tried this technology myself?

Please, please let the answer be yes!  You always want to do a test run before introducing students to a new technology.  If possible, try the tool out both from the perspective of the instructor and the students.  Sometimes I like to gather one or two of my teaching peers to act as my “students” before introducing the tool to actual students.

3. Am I willing to have things not go as planned?

It is important that your answer be “yes” here.  Even if you have answered all of the other questions in the affirmative, nothing will guarantee that things will go as planned in the classroom.  Do you have a back up plan?  Do you know how to achieve your goals in a similar but different fashion, if need be?  Is it okay if this takes longer than expected?

4.  Is the input worth the outcome?

Technology is usually pretty great at streamlining a process and making us more efficient.  Some technologies, however, can do really incredible things at the cost of incredible amounts of time or resources.  Make sure you are considering your true learning outcome when deciding if the work and resources required behind the technology is the best way to go about achieving your end.

5. Will this technology respect the security of my students?

The web is a great way to expose students to the wider world around them.  When you test out a new tool, try to ensure that the students, themselves, are not over-exposed.  Use pseudonyms when possible, make sure any location features are deactivated,  and, when using images, do not use pictures of the students, or blur faces if needed.

Side Note:  A few weeks ago I wrote about making my own infographics like the one above.  If this presentation style intrigues you, be sure to check it out!

One More Side Note:  You are welcome to save the infographic for your own use, but please keep the creative commons license below in mind and credit TeacherNextDoor (with a link when possible).  Thank you!

Social Justice, Current Events, Diversity, and Peace for Middle School: Reflections from International Week

Recently, our school celebrated International Week.  Every year, our foreign language department and diversity committee plan a week of programs to help put world cultures and issues surrounding diversity at the forefront of our students minds.  Obviously, such ideas and concepts influence our lives daily, but I also think that it is a good idea to illustrate to our students that we think it is not only worthy of the interruption but important enough to take a break from our regular routine to look at the world around us more closely.  The theme this year was “Peace in a Divided World.”  Many students were astounded to learn that even though the Berlin Wall has fallen, there are many emotional,social walls, and even physical walls all over the world dividing people groups from one another still today.

The view from my classroom window.

The view from my classroom window.

A quick side bar: my classroom windows look out on to a very literal wall that my students frequently bemoan.  I think, though, that it makes us all the more grateful for the light that manages to sneak in around it.  There is potentially a nice extended metaphor here that may bear further exploring another time.

An event from the week that stood out the most to me was when Rafael Romo, the Senior Latin American Affairs Editor of CNN Worldwide, came to speak to our students.  He did an excellent job of engaging with them and was able to bring multiple perspectives on our theme to light for our students. He spoke of his own immigration story and his journey to reaching his current role.  He also spoke of the value of following current events and the importance of understanding the larger world around you.  I am afraid that I was not surprised when he asked an auditorium full of students how many knew the name of the President in France, and only a few could raise their hand.  Hopefully, they now see the value in this type of information and are encouraged to explore it further.

Romo also spoke of how important it was for him in his job to keep an open mind and explore all sides of a story.

One of the most important points I think Romo really drove home for our students was that it is important to understand reality and not to hide it, even if it is harsh, even if it is ugly, even if it is hard to watch.

His job as a journalist helps him to seek justice for those who may not normally receive it.  The danger in not paying attention is that it creates room for injustice.  I think that Romo’s visit helped many students to know only notice and acknowledge the walls in their world but also to envision ways around and beyond them.

It is a difficult thing for schools and teachers to put their regular routines on hold for programs, special schedules, and the like.  I am, however, grateful for this intentional pause we take each year to open our eyes and ears to the larger world around us.

Things ESPN Has Taught Me about Teaching and Coaching: Dean Smith Edition

While I am not a sports fanatic by any stretch of the imagination, ESPN seems to find its way onto our television quite regularly.  Okay, daily. Increasingly, I have found myself overhearing little tid bits of news or commentary that I find incredibly relevant to my classroom.  Many of you likely know by now that UNC’s storied coach Dean Smith passed away this weekend, and Sunday evening I cooked dinner to the tune of a great Smith tribute.  As I cooked, I found myself pausing more than once to jot down a quick note that related to my work as English teacher and lacrosse coach. So, here we go.  Things ESPN taught me about teaching and coaching this weekend.

Lessons from Dean Smith (Really, I can’t come close to doing the man justice, but here are the items I am bringing up with my students and players this week):

  • He helped to integrate a restaurant and neighborhood in Chapel Hill.
  • He took players to a prison each year to scrimmage for the inmates and to illustrate for his players that the world was bigger than the one they normally occupied and the importance of valuing all humans.
  • When coaching Michael Jordan, he told him that if he didn’t pass, he wouldn’t play because teamwork is The Carolina Way.
  • More than 95% of his players earned their degrees.
  • Even the legendary Coach Wooden said of Smith that he was the best basketball teacher he had ever seen.
  • A nice tribute online: Grantland

Education Applications: Any discussions about social justice, the civil rights movement, or teamwork can benefit from the good Coach’s legacy.

I would highly recommend you check out the short (three-four minute) video clip from ESPN here:  “Dean Smith: Lasting Impact On, Off Court”.

(ESPN provides an embed code for the video, but I can’t seem to get it to work with WordPress.  If you have advice on how to embed the video into the post, I’d be happy to hear it!)

Beyond Classroom Walls: Encouraging Independent Reading and Engaging the Community

Too often, students, at least those in middle school, maintain and apply the skills  and habits we seek to build in our English classroom struggle once they walk out of our doors.  Of particular interest to me today is how we build up students to read for pleasure.  There are many great classroom practices, such as free-choice book units and independent reading time built into the school days.  One of our hopes in these practices is that students will find an appreciation for reading within the school day that they will eventually pursue on their own.  For many students, though, even if they enjoy the practice of selecting their own titles and reading independently at school, it becomes more of a task in the real, often chaotic worlds they live in outside our walls.  Lately the question of turning a reading practice into a reading habit follows me everywhere I go.

Star Wars ShakespeareOne thing I think is key to creating independent readers among young teens, especially, is showing them that they are  surrounded by independent readers and that those independent readers are not only their peers.  I try to keep a book I am reading for pleasure on my desk at school at all times.  It usually takes me a long time to finish these titles since there is not much time for pleasure-reading in my day, but it’s presence and the slow progress of its book mark is still valuable.  Right now, you will find Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope by Ian Doescher presiding over my desk.  Despite my significant lack of Star Wars knowledge, it is clever, funny, and surprisingly well done, but I will provide a review when I finish in a few weeks.  My hope is that they will see that not all reading is assigned and that there is a surprising amount of variety out there.  Star Wars written in the style of Shakespeare? Who would have thought!?!

A screenshot of outrteacher book collage from my class website.

A screenshot of outrteacher book collage from my class website.

Still, I am their English teacher, and of all the adults they know, my students expect me to be one who reads for pleasure.  I needed to expand the picture for them.  I reached out to my fellow 8th grade teachers and asked them what they were reading for pleasure that would also be appropriate for our students.  The response was great!  I created a collage/slideshow on my class website (see screenshot to the right) to illustrate for students that reading for pleasure is not reserved for English teachers alone.  Math teachers read! Science teachers read! History teachers read! And, they read things you may be interested in!  I also wanted to provide these teachers with a new avenue for reaching out to their students by showing the kids what their teachers are reading and hopefully inspiring some new conversations and connections.

So, now students know that there are adults out there who read for pleasure, but you may have noticed by now, that one critical element is missing.  Parents.  Teachers are a unique subset of adults in the minds of teens, and what applies to teachers does not always apply to the world around them.  Teens need to see adults in the world outside their school, and their parents in particular, reading – maybe even reading to them!  On numerous occasions, I have had eighth grade parents share with me that their children used to be readers, but that their enthusiasm has drop as they progressed through middle school.  Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon pattern as students go through dramatic changes that seem to consume their thoughts and more demands are placed on their time.  Just because it is a pattern, though, does not mean it needs to persist.  In communication with parents, I usually give three pieces of common, research-based practices in encouraging a student’s at-home reading practice.  Feel free to share with the parents of your own students:

  • As a family, make sure that reading for pleasure is a visible act from time to time.  If reading for fun is modeled, it will become a more normalized activity that teens are more likely to pursue on their own. 
  • Have casual conversations about what your teen is reading.  These conversations should not feel like work or a quiz.  For instance, I know that [insert student’s name] just started a book for independent reading titled [insert title and author].  This title could be a great jumping off point for some dinner table conversations.
  • When appropriate, recommend something you have read to your teen, or read a book you may both be interested together. 

Hopefully,at least some of these practices are already a part of a family’s environment, but even when they are, I remind parents that being a little more intentional in them can make a difference.

How do you move beyond reading logs and book reviews to help students turn reading independently into a valuable habit?

My Latest Tech Tool Experiment: Piktochart and the Value of Infographics

When time allows, and sometimes even when it doesn’t, I like trying out new technology tools for the classroom.  I am the type of technology user I have deemed the tech-experimenter.  I learn through trial-and-error; I work backwards, forwards, and backwards again; I push all the buttons (only occasionally to the dismay of our tech department).

Recently, at the NCTE National Convention back in November, I heard Penny Kittle speak on the importance of adding infographics into our students’ critical reading repertoire, and perhaps even their writing repertoire.  In response, I decided to try my hand at infographic creation and made it the focus of my next tech-experiment.

Romeo and Juliet Characters InfographicAfter looking around at my options, I selected Piktochart as my tool and Romeo and Juliet characters as my subject.  Piktochart has a great drag-and-drop format, plenty of examples, and a great pre-loaded library of templates, backgrounds, fonts, graphics, etc.  It took me about thirty-forty minutes to make the infographic to my left, but I’m sure I will become a little quicker and creative with repeated use.

Next came integrating the graphic into our lesson.  I did not spend forty minutes creating the image just to have them file it away in their notebooks for future reference.  It was a great chance to practice some close reading of a visual.  Inspired by Kittle’s talk, we asked ourselves the following about the infographic:

Why do the following matter:

  1. Color choice (consider backgrounds, text, and graphics)?
  2. Icon/image selection and placement?
  3. Order in which information is presented and arranged?

These questions can be applied to just about any infographic and really help students engage with this unique form of presenting information.  Can you think of any other general questions you might add to my list?  Eventually, I would like students to be able to create their own infographics.  Perhaps in conjunction with a research project?

Also, feel free to save and use my graphic if it suits your needs, but please do not claim it as your own (See Creative Commons note in footer).  Thanks!

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