Creating Neural Pathways
Last year, the city of Encinitas passed a bond initiative that would infuse the district with $44 million. This meant that the schools would be able to purchase much needed technology for all nine elementary schools. Furthermore, each school would select a grade level for an “iPad deployment.” At the end of the 2010-2011 school year, my principal announced that I was one of the lucky ones: Every student in my sixth-grade class would have access to an iPad.
To me this meant no more jockeying for time in the computer lab. I would no longer have to worry if the computer lab would be occupied with twenty second-graders, eager to practice their computer skills when my students needed to finish an essay. Most importantly, my students would be able to easily access computers for research and compositions. All of the students would have a level playing field, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
To prepare for this new learning environment, and armed with ideas from the Writing Project, I began researching best practices and strategies for teaching writing through technology and started reading various professional journals on digital writing. These included iWrite by Dana Wilber (Heinemann, 2010), The Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks (Heinemann, 2009), and Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments by Danielle Nicole DeVoss, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Troy Hicks (John Wiley& Sons, Inc., 2010) With a million ideas swirling in my head, I knew I had to narrow my teaching focus. I concluded that if my goal was to incorporate technology into my writing instruction, I could start with three manageable applications: Google Documents, blogging, and digital media.
Complementing these texts, I also had the opportunity to explore technology-based learning strategies during four Saturday study groups at the San Diego Area Writing Project. My group read and discussed the book Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform The Way We Live, Work, and Learn by Cathy N. Davidson (Viking, 2011.) During these monthly meetings, I met with teachers throughout San Diego County to discuss possible technology writing applications. Sometimes we watched videos of schools where technology is embraced and students are experimenting with digital writing. At one meeting, we watched a Ted Talk featuring Thomas Suarez, a twelve-year-old wunderkind, who had developed popular applications for iPads. He encouraged teachers to facilitate technology learning and to release the role of expert. Several of us commented on how old we felt.
At other times in our study group, we explored our fears and hopes for implementing these twenty-first century skills. We shared these feelings on chart paper and included our favorite quotes from Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform The Way We Live, Work, and Learn. For example, we considered the implications of Davidson’s assertion that “the skill of the twenty-first century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Moreover, we discussed the implications of current brain research that suggests that humans create neural pathways when a new skill is learned, and we had to throw out old learning in order to assimilate the new knowledge. The implications for our teaching were that we too would have to toss out some of our old strategies.
We also analyzed a chart for reading, literature, writing, speaking and listening that listed common core technology standards with grade specific descriptions. We talked about the natural progression of these standards throughout the kindergarten, fourth, eighth and twelfth grade curricula. We discussed the strands of technology requirements for these areas, along with the requirements in the various content areas.
Armed with the knowledge of these future obligations, I began to change my method of instruction. Because my sixth-graders had ready access to iPads, I was able to purposefully weave technology into the established curriculum. Every day, I approached my lessons with the thought of incorporating this wonderful opportunity. The inclusion of the iPad was seamless and natural.
In August, my first plan of attack in my classroom was to establish Google Document accounts for all my students. During social studies, since all of the sixth-graders had accounts, I was able to have the students create wikis through Google Sites. The students focused on particular hominid groups and became experts on their topics by answering essential questions. While studying prehistoric humans, each group chose a hominid, conducted research, divided tasks, and jointly wrote informational text about their topic.
As a class, we visited other wiki sites for mentor text. I asked the students what they noticed about the professional wiki sites. They commented on the relevancy of the graphics and the page organization. We discussed their plans for creating cohesive pages. In order to control the content, I started the sites through my Google account.
The students were eager to tackle the assignment. They divided the jobs and worked collaboratively on their sites. Some of them asked to come in during their recesses and lunches to work. Most of them seemed motivated to work in this new medium.
On presentation day, I had mixed success. Some groups were fully functional, while others struggled with the differences in technology and academic proficiencies. Several of the groups were able to rise to the occasion and present polished wikis. Others, however, presented wikis that were unedited and sloppy. Overall, groups benefited if they included students whose families owned computers and had access to technology.
Privately, students approached me with concerns about their fellow group members. I heard complaints like, “ Ms. Bosworth, there are a couple of kids who haven’t done their jobs. Is my grade going to go down?”
I realized that we all needed more time. I eased post-presentation fears by offering the another class session to clean up their documents. The students and I all breathed a sigh of relief.
We had all learned some valuable lessons. My technologically proficient students learned that their success as a group was dependent on the students with the greatest needs. They had to support the students who were not adept at manipulating the technology. Conversely, some of the less technology proficient students learned valuable technology tools. All of the students finally understood that this new technology would support valuable learning opportunities.
In reflection of this assignment, I believe that the students’ technology abilities greatly improved. They collaboratively wrote about their hominids and learned the mechanics of creating an Internet document. They learned to group their ideas by themes and to paraphrase information. If they had struggled, it was because they needed more time to edit and revise, similar to any other writing assignment.
We plowed ahead with our acquisition of technology-based skills, and I sometimes ventured out of my three original commitments. For example, the students used iPad applications such as Sketchbook where they drew symbols to illustrate the gifts of the Nile River. This meant that they sketched rough symbols such as papyrus, sesame seeds, baskets, ropes, and transportation systems on their iPads with their fingers. The drawing assignment was particularly helpful for English language learners who were able to research difficult vocabulary terms and subsequently create meaning through pictures. However, I learned that allotting forty minutes for this activity was woefully inadequate. Instead they needed an hour and a half, way more time than I had planned. And in fact, I began to realize that many of the digital activities often took longer to produce. I would have to carefully choose which apps to use for important subject matter.
Another goal of mine was to create online communication opportunities. Since I had already set up the Google Doc accounts, my team teacher Lisa and I asked the students to develop responses to literature in book club groups. The students chose popular well-written books, like Newbery Award winners, and were assigned groups based on these choices. They were told to complete several standards-based tasks as they read through the novels. They composed these responses collaboratively and simultaneously using the Google Docs sharing feature. They could actually see their own cursors move as another student contributed to the document.
The effect of this collaboration was immediate. Students jointly hunted through the books to find the best ways to support their assertions. They reread and revised their work, collaboratively including academic language. Each student benefited by having immediate responses from their peers.
The students also dove into blogging. After reading a few newspaper articles on the Internet, the students wrote responses during writing class to an Edmodo.com blog prompt. I asked the students to answer four essential questions about newspaper articles: What do you notice about a lead story in a newspaper? How is it written? How much dialogue is used? What do you notice about the title?
I wanted to see if I could use the same strategy that Jeff Anderson uses in his book Everyday Editing (Stenhouse 2007), and I invited the students to notice journalistic writer’s craft. Since the students had been using this strategy to analyze grammar usage and other types of craft from the beginning of the year, I hoped that they would be able to transfer this skill to the newspaper genre.
The format of the blog was exciting for the students. A couple of them were excited because as they told me, “It looks just like Facebook.” I told them that it did indeed, but they would have to remember their audience. I reminded them that this was an academic assignment, and they should use academic language in their responses.
The students’ responses were, for the most part, thoughtful. For instance, one student estimated the amount of dialogue in the article. She guessed that at least eighteen percent of the article was dialogue. Another student wrote, “The lead story has to be something that people would really be interested in hearing about.” One student replied to another student’s comment and told her that she had repeated herself and instead could add details to her response. Many of the students replied to a student with a written pat on the back like, “Well-written!”
Although the iPads have been an incredible supplement to the curriculum, they have not come without glitches. Sometimes, the students were frustrated because they had problems accessing their work on Google Documents; the students would lose their work in cyberspace. Or, the since the students couldn’t see the cursor move when another student wrote on a shared Google Document, they would resign themselves to creating their compositions in the computer lab.
Throughout this technology adventure, I have come to realize that I couldn’t and shouldn’t have all the answers. We now have an established procedure for questions: First, they should ask someone nearby. Next, they should look for what I call an “iPad specialist.” These are students who have immersed themselves in technology and usually can be counted on to have an answer. Their last resort should be the teacher.