In today’s world, the topic of using technology in the classroom can be intimidating. In this monthly column, join one teacher on a quest to discover the best way to meet the needs of her digital-age learners…moving beyond the technology tools to focusing on supporting each student’s learning.
With the adoption of Common Core, teachers have been inundated with the phrases like “career readiness” and “preparing students for their future.” Although these goals are lofty, they really are not new to the world of education. John Dewey stated, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” These words still ring true today.
What has changed is the world in which our students live. As teachers, it is our obligation to adapt to meet the needs of our digital age learners.
How do we do that when many of us were not educated in a time when technology was an embedded part of our everyday lives like it is for our students? Many teachers express to me feeling overwhelmed and fearful, not just by the sheer quantity of tools we have at our fingertips, but in knowing how to educate our students in a way that is effective and safe.
Where do we begin?
When tackling those trepidations, like with any other teaching practice, I believe it is crucial to begin with setting the foundation upon which all other digital practices will rest. That first step to preparing our students for the digital world is establishing safe practices that become lifelong habits for our students, inside and outside of the classroom walls. The fact is that students are already a part of a global, digital community. Our responsibility is to help them develop these habits within the safety and guidance of our classrooms.
When teachers mention to me the challenges that they face with students making wise and safe choices online, I always inquire about the basic groundwork that was laid before the students every touched a device. No educator would expect their student to build a skyscraper without first giving them the knowledge and skills to use the basic tools. We cannot do that with our digital tools either. They must learn how to safely use them before embarking on their learning journey supported with these digital tools.
I spend the first couple of weeks laying this foundation for my students. There are several practices that I would like to share with you, that I hope will enhance the conversations you are having with your students at the beginning of this new school year.
Student survey: On the first day of school my students take an interest survey where I can glean all types of information about them as learners and as overall individuals. One part of the survey asks them about their use of online tools, their devices, their perceptions, and their knowledge of digital safety. This gives me an inside peek into what they already know and gives be a jumping off point when we begin our conversation.
A student interest survey can easily been done on paper or through a digital tool. I use Google Forms (in Google Drive), as it is a very user-friendly way to create a survey that collects the data into a spreadsheet for the user. To begin, one only needs to have a Google account. Your account does not even need to be a Gmail account; you can use an existing email account.
Creating the survey only takes a few minutes to design and a few minutes for the students to complete, yet I get a wealth of knowledge on my students. (I also have a parent survey that the parents take the first week of school where I can gather crucial information from them regarding any of their trepidations and their input on digital practices at home and online expectations at school.)
Conversations: After knowing what my students’ (and their parents) level of knowledge is on digital practices, then we begin the conversation. I start with a strategy called a Brain Drain. This is an activity where students each have a sticky note. They are given three minutes to write down everything that they know on a topic (in this case, safe digital practices). Then after three minutes, the students do a turn and talk with a partner for three minutes sharing their ideas. After those three minutes conclude, the pairs share their ideas with the entire class and stick their ideas on our Brain Drain board.
This sharing time is where many topics about cyberbullying, netiquette, digital safety, and effective practices emerge. Some students have never thought about the ramifications of a Facebook post, Twitter tweet, or blog comment made in anger or frustration. Other students have had discussions about safety before. By pulling together our collective set of knowledge, the students get to explore the choices they have made and evaluate how they could have done better in the past.
My role in these conversations is one of moderator. I probe for clarification or justification of the statements that they make in order to guide students into thinking beyond the “what” they are saying into the “why” and “how.” This makes the conversation personal for the students. Does this take time? Absolutely! However, these conversations pay large dividends in the future because this topic rarely has to be revisited because the foundation has been firmly grounded.
Role play: Before architects build a building, they have plenty of time to practice and refine their skills with the guidance and support of mentors. We need to do the same for our students. Now that they have an understanding of basic practices that will enhance and support their learning, they need time to practice. I introduce examples of previous blogs, tweets, or projects that other students have created. As small groups they analyze these examples and then write a paper version of a blog post or tweet in response to the choices that the student made. By giving them opportunity to objectively look at posts, whether the writer made wise choices or not, instills in students the importance of looking at it from an audience’s point of view. Could their words be misinterpreted? Would someone be offended by what was said or feel intimidated? Does that post support the learning of the author and the audience? Would that post improve someone else’s life in a positive way?
Giving students the ability to synthesize what we have discussed, then analyze and evaluate other’s work helps them to see the power of their choices.
Expectations: After the conversations and the role-playing, students work together to form our class expectations for online behavior. Just like the conversations, it is important that students have the opportunity to make their practices their own. Our role is one of facilitator to ensure that the students think about every aspect of online behavior, from safety practices to learning expectations. Because this is the students’ list, they have ownership of it. They designed it. Therefore, they hold everyone in our online community to those standards. If a student makes a poor choice, their peers take the time to kindly remind them to make some corrections.
Before I began allowing students to set these expectations, I spent much of my time “policing” and redirecting their choices. However, since I have been given students the power to set their own expectations, I do not have to do any “policing” or enforcing. The students do that, leaving me the important task of focusing on their individual learning.
So although tackling preparing our students for their lives is not a new concept, the reality is that their lives are different than the ones that many of us have had. But by beginning with a strong foundation in digital practices with our guidance and support, our students will be building skyscrapers before we know it. Julie D. Ramsay is a Nationally Board Certified educator and the author of “CAN WE SKIP LUNCH AND KEEP WRITING?”: COLLABORATING IN CLASS & ONLINE, GRADES 3-8 (Stenhouse, 2011). She teaches ELA to sixth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She also travels the country to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog at juliedramsay.blogspot.com.
© 2013 Julie D. Ramsay. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.