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Relying on Each Other: Teacher Study Groups Around Digital Technologies

By Alexandra Panos
 | Nov 13, 2015

shutterstock_213310894_x300Why do we, as teachers, find teaching with digital technology scary? In her recent Literacy Daily blog post titled “Offsetting the fear of digital applications in the classroom,” Carolyn Fortuna wrote about “ideas to gain digital proficiency,” often a very real stumbling block in teaching with technology. Technology can also feel alienating because so often it is mandated without attention to the unique needs of our students—our diverse, idiosyncratic, goofy kids. Blended learning, with programs that designate the amount of minutes and number of questions students must work on each week, or top-down choices about integrating iPads with required apps, can make the digital work of the classroom seem very disconnected from what we as teachers know about our students. We understand the complexity of the needs of our students—from their learning needs to their diverse home lives and languages. And we also understand that we can rely on one another to meet our students’ needs.

As teachers, we must push back against alienating mandates to use digital technology in prescribed ways in order to resituate the goals of the classroom and digital tools as part of our schools and communities, tightly connected to what we know will work. One way to do this is to form a group of like-minded educators in your school and meet to discuss and plan for digital curriculum that matches the needs of your students. It is possible to unite around a shared mandated requirement (such as integrating digital technology into your curriculum) with a shared meaningful goal (such as integrating digital technology that meets the needs of your students in your community) by creating teacher study groups. Your collective voices can guide curriculum to meet your students’ needs and be a supportive space as you try out new digital texts and tools in your classroom.

In a school I have been working with for the past year, I witnessed this occur first-hand. Teachers were tasked with integrating technology (iPads, apps, blended learning requirements, lesson planning tools, etc.) and, as is not surprising, many were initially overwhelmed. Finding time to work together to discuss and solve problems helped teachers feel anchored to their tasks and identify uses of digital tools that were meaningful to their students while also meeting curricular goals. These teachers came away from a year of teacher study groups around issues of digital technology integration with a sense of what mattered to their students. 

The teachers I have had the opportunity to work with in teacher study groups began thinking about technology beyond mandated programs or apps, and they created lessons and units that matter for their unique student population. These teachers have helped students use Skype to discuss global problems like the refugee crisis in Europe, iPads to map their communities and home lives, and social networks to write to kids around the world and community leaders nearby. These ideas came from the opportunity to discuss the needs of their students in teacher study groups.

If starting a teacher study group on digital technology seems like a good fit for you and your school, consider the following steps and ideas:

  1. Find like-minded colleagues
    • Who in your school is also deeply interested in integrating technology in the classroom in ways that are meaningful for his or her students?
    • Who is struggling with some of the mandated technology requirements?
    • Who has shared curricular goals that might be met with digital tools?
    • Is there an instructional or literacy coach or expert tech user who could help facilitate your joint conversations?
  2. Determine a good time and make a schedule
    • One idea is to use time you are already contracted to be at school: immediately after school, during shared planning, or at regularly scheduled PD days (if allowed).
    • Make a set schedule for the semester or year and stick to it.
  3. Choose a study group model and set some shared commitments
    • Lewison, for example, describes a teacher study group model in “Taking the lead from teachers: Seeking a new model of staff development,” a chapter in Teachers and Principals at Work: Becoming a Professional Leader, in which teachers discuss a text or video at each meeting, keep running notes and reflective journals, and work on a shared question or goal.
    • Each meeting can include reading/viewing time, a discussion component, time for questions or problem sharing, and time for reflection or planning on materials from/for the classroom.
    • Share responsibilities about choosing texts, organizing materials, and facilitating discussion.
  4. Decide on possible goals and outcomes of the group
    • As a group, take the time to set some attainable goals with possible outcomes, such as developing a meaningful unit plan, writing a grant for additional technology, or bringing a suggested change to mandated technology to the administration.

We all know that students need the chance to use digital technologies in our classrooms, but we also know that it must be meaningful for them. Working together with other teachers can make this possible!

Alexandra Panos headshotAlexandra Panos is a PhD student in Literacy, Culture, and Language Education at Indiana University. She holds an M.Ed in Teaching & Learning from DePaul University in Pennsylvania and is a former middle school English Language Arts teacher.

 

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