In Western Civilization class at The John Carroll School, freshmen grab plastic chairs from a stack against the wall, gather around the room in different areas and jump online with their tablet PCs.
Using a class hashtag, they respond to questions that teacher Shelly Blake-Plock posts on Twitter. He projects their discussions on the classroom wall so that everyone can easily track what's going on.
Then, instead of pulling out textbooks to study ancient Rome, the students check out primary sources online such as BBC's interactive history section or the Metropolitan Museum of Art timelines that integrate text and artwork. As jazz music plays in the background, they pull up a document and use Diigo to annotate the text as well as share annotations.
They'll keep scouring the web for sites on ancient Rome and share the links they find on Twitter, then pick the best ones to post on their class wiki. Afterward, students look for correlations between the history they're studying and current events that media sources post on Twitter.
At the end of the 45-minute class, Blake-Plock throws out another question on Twitter that the students use as a guide to write a post on their personal blogs that night. The next day, they read and comment on their classmates' blogs and start the process all over again.
These students are learning through technology and directing their own learning in the process. Here's how educators around the country are empowering their students to do the same.
Focus on education
At Charlotte Country Day School in North Carolina, Technology Integration Specialist Tim Moxley works with teachers to incorporate smartboards, document cameras and netbook computers into their lessons. To successfully blend tech tools into their instruction, teachers need to have a combination of technological, pedagogical and content knowledge (TPACK), which is a model that Punya Mishra and Matthew J. Koehler of Michigan State University researched.
Educators took on the job of providing a quality education, and a piece of that quality education is teaching kids how to use and become comfortable with tech tools.
"When you work in education, the end goal is what’s best for the student," Moxley said. "If using a piece of technology is gonna improve the student outcome in some way, then it’s worth it.”
Students are turned on 24 hours a day, whether they're surfing the web, watching TV or playing the Nintendo Wii, said Technology Integration Specialist Susan Jenkins, and they need to be engaged in order to learn. Engaging students often means using technology to teach, if it can help meet a learning goal.
“We don’t want to put it out there just because it’s a cool thing to have," said Jenkins, who works in Bullitt County Public Schools in Shepherdsville, Ky. " We want a purpose for it.”
Learn about the tools
Jenkins helps teachers find that purpose by providing in-service training once a month as well as meeting with them on an appointment basis. While she does show them how new tools work, she also gives them ideas about how they can use them to help students learn.
“As we’re training them to use the tool, we try to train them with the integration side mixed in," Jenkins said.
In addition to learning from other people in their school district, teachers can learn from people they're connected to on Twitter, said Kyle Pace, an instructional/consumer technology specialist with Lee's Summit School District in Missouri. He finds plenty of resources from educators, particularly those who use the hashtag edchat, and shares them with co-workers and teachers in his area.
“If you start to think, ‘Well, I’ve seen all there is to see with this kind of tool,’ something new comes out or the next day you learn about something new,” Pace said. “We’re fortunate in our district that instructional technology is a huge focus, and I think it just has to remain a huge professional development focus at the district and at the building level.”
Back in North Carolina, some teachers tell Moxley that they are computer-illiterate and are horrible with technology. He reminds them that they wouldn't accept that response from a child who tells them he isn't good at math, so he won't accept that as a response for them. When he puts it in those terms, they are more receptive to learning about new tools.
He sits in on grade-level planning meetings, and based on what he hears, he looks for resources that might work with the lessons that teachers have coming up.
“I try to deemphasize the technology itself and just try to get them to see it as a tool that hopefully will enhance the lesson in some way,” Moxley said.
Mix tech into lessons
When language arts teacher Heather Mason plans a lesson, she starts by figuring out what she wants her students to learn in her class at Jefferson Middle School in Merritt Island, Fla. Then she thinks about what tools could help accomplish her goal.
And as she wrote on her blog, the technology doesn't have to be new to work. She uses tools such as Post-it notes, highlighters and personal whiteboards to engage her students.
Pencils are also effective tools, and they're the focus of John Spencer's blog Adventures in Pencil Integration. Set in 1897, the blog posts tell the story of a fictional character named Tom Johnson, whose small school district starts paper and pencil integration initiatives to prepare students for the 20th century.
Through satire, he paints a picture of the hype and the paranoia that comes with new technology. Back in his classroom at Raúl Castro Middle School in Phoenix, he teaches his students to identify with both extremes.
“I want them to be both absolute critics of technology and also people who absolutely embrace it," Spencer said. "And I know that’s a really idealistic kind of view to have, but I want them to be both.”
He helps them become both by starting conversations in his multimedia authoring/publishing class that force students to think critically about what they're doing and why they're doing it.
For about four years, he has been teaching tech-integrated classes with tools including desktop computers and has seen a difference in students who struggle to read. When they came to his reading intervention class and started reading online, their fluency improved dramatically, which Spencer attributes to their comfort level online and their positive experiences with computers.
In both of his classes, technology is embedded with what he's teaching; he doesn't make it a separate unit.
Neither does Blake-Plock. Instead of standing up in front of a group of 15-year-olds and teaching them how to use tools such as Twitter or Facebook, he believes that educators should create a classroom environment where technology merges in an almost casual, obvious, every day sort of way.
“The worst thing that teachers or admins can do is have like ‘tech lessons' or go out of their way to organize tech into their teaching,” Blake-Plock said. "It has to be much more natural.”
Improve instruction and engagement
He has also seen a difference in the students in his Latin, fine arts and history classes. Before he made his classroom paperless, he would give them tons of homework, but now, he tells them not to do more than 15 minutes of homework for him a day. And what they're producing in those 15 minutes is much more useful.
When his school moved to a 1-1 program, teachers were initially concerned that they might have more problems with cheating and plagiarism, but the more Blake-Plock had them use blogs and bookmark sites, the less problems he had because the kids were empowered in the classroom.
On an evaluation, one of his students said he liked the class because he didn't have to write too much. But when Blake-Plock pulled a year's worth of text from his blog, he found that the student wrote over 215 pages worth of a Word document over the course of the year. He doesn't quite know what to make of that and said that if he told any student he was going to have to write more than 200 pages for him, the student would probably try to change his schedule.
Most of his students study on Skype with their friends now, and one of their parents thanked him for teaching her child how to use the software.
“Her point was that this was the first time that her kid actually was excited to come home and do homework because he was doing homework with three or four of his friends," Blake-Plock said, "they just happened to be on Skype doing it, and they were getting stuff done.”
Once teachers work with these methods, they gain more time and can instruct students individually. In one of his Latin classes, students read extended pieces of poetry in Latin and try to translate them. Out of maybe 100 lines, each of them takes 10 to 15 lines and translates them within a Google Doc.
“I can actually watch all of the kids translating at the same time as they’re doing it live on Google and help them as they’re in the process rather than waiting until later and then telling them that they screwed something up,” Blake-Plock said.
As the students work, they use Twitter as a lifeline to ask their classmates questions, and he follows the hashtag to see what problems they're having. In real-time, tools such as Twitter and Google Docs show Blake-Plock which kids are having trouble and which kids are doing well. They also give him a legitimate record of each of their formative experiences.
Remember the goal
The technology itself does not make the education experience more profound than it's ever been, but it opens up possibilities in ways that teachers in the past would have died for, Blake-Plock said.
Technology is a great tool for certain things, but it's not a magic tool for everything, which is why the TPACK framework emphasizes a combination of technology, content and pedagogy, Moxley said.
“A good education comes from a good teacher," he said. "The technology is not going to suddenly make you a better teacher.”
Educators can easily become enamored of the technology, Mason said, but they need to realize that it's just a tool. Whether the tool is a computer or a pencil and piece of paper, they should use it to help their students learn.
“It’s not all about what the newest and latest and greatest is," Mason said. "It’s all about you have what you want the students to know, and you just have to find the best way to get there with what you have.”
Photo courtesy of Shelly Blake-Plock