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The Right Tool at the Right Time

by Julie D. Ramsay
 | Jan 22, 2014

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.

pinterest boardRecently, I was in a professional meeting and an administrator mentioned that the teachers who he considers experts in using technology to support student learning will not be the teachers who you will always witness using technology with students when you enter the classroom. He went on to explain that the key element in someone being an expert is knowing when and how to use digital tools to foster and promote student learning.

Upon further reflection, I have to say that I wholeheartedly agree with these statements. Teaching in today’s digital world provides us with a plethora of opportunities and tools. However, our focus should still remain upon our students and what they need. The assertion that “good teaching is good teaching” still rings true today; just because we have more options does not mean that those options are intrinsically better than practices we have used in the past.

With that thought in mind, I wanted to share some strategies used with one tool that has proven to be very effective in promoting the learning of my diverse learners.

The Writing on the Wall

This year, I moved to a new school. Since I had the opportunity to totally re-think the classroom learning space, I did a lot of research about how to design an environment that promoted creative and reflective thinking. I wanted a space that would establish balance and calm while still sparking conversation and meaningful learning. (You can check out my Learning Spaces Pinterest board.)

One idea that continued to pop up in different posts was to create spaces where students could collaborate and notate. This needs to be a space that is readily available, but also can adapt based on the needs of the learners. I came to the conclusion that I needed to have an “idea wall.” This would be an entire wall in my classroom that I can paint any color and then put a top coat over it that turns the entire wall into a dry erase board. We chose to use Idea Paint, but there are other choices available to you in different price ranges.

Now I have this blank canvas that literally stretches from floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall. The first time I “accidentally” wrote on the wall, the students had a massive, collective gasp. Once they realized that it was a dry erase board, they cheered and ideas of ways to use it erupted.

Of course, like with any novelty, students need an opportunity to play with any new tool. We began by having students share their knowledge of different punctuation practices that can impact the successful conveyance of meaning in one’s writing to an audience. Students eagerly gathered around, dry erase pens in hand to add their bits of knowledge into one collective bank of information. As we discussed their choices, students began adding to one another’s ideas and justifying the choices that they made in adding to the wall.

A Fly on the Wall

When we participated in the Global Read Aloud, I added “Quotes That Speak to Me” onto the wall. I wanted students to think deeply about the text that they were reading in OUT OF MY MIND, by Sharon Draper, and WONDER, by R. J. Palacio. My goal was for them to consciously look at a text in the greater framework of their lives, making connections, drawing conclusions, and analyzing how an author writes to share others voices to teach all of us about different perspectives. 

The choices that they made in sharing quotes from each book throughout this project gave me insight into how each learner viewed the world and how they were changing as not only readers, but also as individuals in their perspective of the world around them and their role within it. One student commented at the end of the Global Read Aloud that she was sad to see us erase the wall because it seemed to be living and growing alongside us as we read those two amazing books. Immediately, students broke out their devices to shoot photos and videos to document that learning experience. It became very personal to each of them.

While involved in a mystery unit, we used our wall in two different ways. We were reading THE LONDON EYE MYSTERY, by Sioban Dowd, which included many British phrases and colloquialisms unfamiliar to my students.  The wall became a collaborative, evolving glossary to serve a resource while reading. Students became experts at using context clues to determine meaning. The other way we used it was as a “motherboard” in analyzing the text structure of a mystery. Students determined suspects, clues, and red herrings and wrote them on the wall. They learned to dissect the text critically to make valid predictions that could be supported by citing text evidence. The sharing of their independent ideas on our wall sparked many discussions amongst small groups of students. The wall was making their thinking visible to their peers, thus deepening the learning of all.

The Thunderous Silence

Yet another way that our idea wall had played an important part in our learning environment was when I facilitated a Chalk Talk. This is a strategy that asks students to respond to a quote, idea, text, or open ended-question, using only their written words. There must be complete silence while they reflect, respond, and generate new ideas. Students must actively read not only the text, but also one another’s comments and respond accordingly.

I wrote a poem up on our wall. It was one that included much imagery, figurative language, and some deep meaning. Like most poetry, much is left up to an individual’s interpretation. I explained Chalk Talk procedures with my learners, handed each of them a dry erase marker and stepped back to let them proceed. Initially, I anticipated that this learning activity would have the duration of ten to fifteen minutes. 

After thirty minutes of complete silence and active written conversations on the idea wall, they were still going strong. At the conclusion, my students demonstrated the ability to analyze a poem, identify elements, make connections with other pieces of literature, apply lines to personal experience, and value one another’s ideas, and empathize on a level many believe middle level students are incapable.

Wall to Wall

Could some of these activities have been done digitally? Yes, I will admit there are tools that provide students with similar abilities. However, what is missing with those tools that the idea wall provides is the human element. With our idea wall, every student had a voice. Having our idea wall strengthened the climate of our learning environment; everyone had a crucial role to play by sharing on the wall.  Without everyone sharing, the students realized their learning would not be as great. This wall facilitated thinking in a way I had not experienced using technology. It promoted the importance of each individual’s voice while fostering face-to-face conversation that some middle school students shy away from in class.

Does this mean we will stop using digital tools? Absolutely not. We use many different technology tools to support learning. However, one of the first things that my learners share with visitors to our classroom in person or when we Skype with others is the fact that “we get to write on the wall.”  It’s become an integral part of their learning and their learning space. Every student has different needs. That is why as a teacher, we must take time to find the right tool at the right time, whether it’s digital or not.

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

© 2014 Julie D. Ramsay. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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