Warmer

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I think Iowa has the right idea:

Unlike other schools that plop computers on a student’s desk and walk away, Carver did away with traditional paper-based learning and actively used the laptops in a new digital curriculum

I’ve seen these non-traditional, “progressive” methods pushed on students, and they’re usually awful, mostly because the administration doesn’t get technology. They think they can just throw some iPads or netbooks at students and everything will be hunky-dory. Typically, that fails so miserably it’s not even funny. Teachers have to spend 10-15 minutes per class period just troubleshooting tech problems that they are ill-prepared for or have no patience for. The majority of these teachers were over a decade into their teaching, some nearing two decades, and some nearing retirement.

Across the board, the issue was that they were given little to no guidance as to how to integrate these new technologies into their classroom. Furthermore, a digital classroom needs to have a curriculum that moves quickly and takes advantage of the technology so that the teacher is engaging students, creating opportunities for them to think and synthesize information. Without that, progress becomes an illusion.

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A Mixed Bag

Recently, I had the opportunity to observe several classes at a local school that had received significant funding for a project that I had not yet had the privilege of experiencing first-hand. Every single student in the school, from top to bottom, was given a netbook. The make and model chosen for the netbooks is irrelevant to this article; it is the profound impact on the class that I wish to discuss. As I observed classes over the course of several days, I was struck by the implications this technology had for the students, the classroom, and the teachers, and how I see it evolving in the near future.

To set the stage a little bit, some background…

The school I was observing at is, in a word, privileged. The community that the school services is one with deep pockets, and the decision to equip the students with netbooks (or other similar device) was inevitable. The unfortunate reality is, however, that you cannot gradually introduce a program like this without some students in the school feeling left out, or without giving some students an unfair advantage/disadvantage (depending on which side of the fence you’re on). The only way to implement a shift like this is to simply jump in feet first. Within a few months, the school received hundreds upon hundreds of tiny portable computers, padded sleeves to carry them in, and extra SMARTboards for the classrooms. Not every single classroom is equipped with one, but most are.

Teachers had to receive training on the usage of the new technology, and students were also taught how to use some of the essential software that was installed on each netbook. Thus begins our tale.

By the time I got into the classroom to observe, the students and teachers had already spent some time using the hardware and software, and most were acclimated to the entire setup. Despite having time, training, and resources available to help troubleshoot any possible hiccups in the workflow (there tech support staff available in the school during the day), I was amazed at how much time was spent simply getting the technology to work. On some days, literally a third of the period was spent troubleshooting various problems that the students encountered while using their netbooks, getting the software to work, etc. The number of problems the students encountered was staggering. From connecting to their home’s wifi network to connecting to the school’s file servers from home, to even saving their work reliably, the students came in every single day with new issues. After spending a few minutes trying to address these issues the teacher would usually be left without a clear answer, and send the student(s) for tech support. Clearly, there is a problem here.

In addition to the students’ woes, the teachers experienced their share of grief as well. For many teachers more accustomed to teaching without screens and gadgets glowing and humming out of every corner of the classroom, the addition of SMARTboards and netbooks was an unwelcome distraction and unnecessary hurdle to overcome. That being said, they did welcome many benefits these new additions could bring, but simply felt too stretched to learn to use the hardware/software in a way that would be beneficial for their students.

In addition to the simple issues of usability are those of behavior and focus. Due to the vast difference in experience between the students and the teachers with this sort of technology, students often take advantage of the teachers’ unfamiliarity with the more obscure capabilities of the operating system. What ends up happening is a sad mix of frustration and unnecessary stagnation. The students see the technology as an “out” since they don’t see much value in what the teacher is trying to impart in them.

The whole thing could be so amazing. The synergy could be flawless, the technology integrated into the lessons. The main issue is at the system as it is remains incomplete. The only option students have is to use a system designed for the corporate world, not the classroom. In the corporate world, the network exists outside the individual, despite the individual. Workers plug in to the network with their device (computer, tablet, phone, etc.), do whatever they need to do, and leave. The “network” existed before they got there, and persists after they leave. The classroom, however, is different. All of the “networking” done in the classroom is ad-hoc, spontaneous, and fluid. The network in a classroom setting exists because of the students; it is the students and only the students, without a common ground to unite behind, the network falls apart. The technology that the students and teachers are given does not take this into account, and the entire system suffers because of it. What could be a classroom that moves at the speed of thought has become a classroom hampered by uncooperative thinking machines.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t potential. I’m sure there are companies and groups of people out there devoted to creating a complete, top-to-bottom solution for the classroom that allows the teacher to explore their subject area in ways we can only imagine right now. Until I hold that solution in my hand, however, I will continue to hope.


touching literature

Recently, I’ve found myself having many conversations with my friends on the issue of technology in the classroom, specifically as it relates to young adult literature. I’ve had discussions that have lasted literally hours with high school students and adults alike, read plenty of articles online that hammer home the importance of social networking in the life of today’s teenager, but have always come up woefully short when looking at emerging trends in technology and popular culture and their relationship to the consumption of young adult literature by young adults. The speed at which technology grows and the rate at which it is adopted into the classroom have a huge impact on students’ ability to learn and retain the ever-increasing amount of information in our world. Students must navigate oceans of information that are constantly changing and being updated every second (all this before breakfast, naturally). Their ability to take in, parse, and utilize this information is becoming increasingly important, and there are a number of technologies available right now that can make this process easier for both teachers and students. The issue, as I’ve discovered, is not whether or not these technologies are powerful or useful, the issue is whether these technologies are relevant in classroom. As amazing as our world has become with the advent of consumer products that once only existed in science fiction, these advances lose there value if we cannot find a use for them in our classrooms.

Part of our discussion has to include the definition of technology. Taking this as a foundation, there are many things that are already a part of our classrooms that can be considered “technology.” In a recent blog post I made, I discussed the use of graphic novels or comics as a way to bring kids into literature. Just as print is a technology, so are graphic novels. This is important when we consider what we’re using to bring information to our students. More importantly, however, is that graphic novels are relevant to the creation and evolution of Young Adult Literature. Already being tested for its value and relevance, graphic novels represent a radical and potentially game-changing shift in the teaching and learning of literature, both classic and modern. If we apply the definition of technology liberally, even teaching methods that have been developed to aid teachers in reaching students with learning disabilities.

This discussion, however, is focused on the colloquial use of the word “technology” and the mainstream, evolving, and cutting-edge products it represents. When we use “technology” in the classroom, we’re usually not thinking about differentiated instruction, we’re usually thinking about smartboards, the internet, and computers. Things have been moving very quickly in tech recently, and the lines between these various devices are starting to blur. It’s difficult, for instance, to differentiate between a computer and the internet. Sure, we may understand that these are very distinct and different things, but one really cannot exist without the other, and their co-dependence has created a unique synergy of hardware and software that has a huge influence over the conceptualization and design of new products.

Why, then are we not looking at Young Adult Literature the same way?

We have our hardware (books), and we have our software (literature). Yet, the way we present these two have not changed for centuries.  The intent here is not to create a new way of disseminating information or to totally revolutionize the way students learn, the intent is to leverage existing movements in mainstream technology to give students more tools to “get it,” while looking forward to see how we can make room for new developments so that our teaching can remain relevant.

Undoubtedly, this is one of the most lamented, important, and yet easily fixed aspects of technology – that it is always changing and improving.  People are always upset that the device they just purchased has been superseded by something new, more powerful, or more capable.  At the same time, students see their teachers, schools, and administration moving and adapting too slowly.  At this point, a half-baked idea or implementation of a pre-existing idea hits the scene, teachers try to use it to get students excited about learning, students don’t want to use it because it feels too much like school and less like fun, and the project ultimately fails.  Take Ning, for example.  The “facebook” of education, as I’ve heard it described, is versatile, and adds an aspect of social networking to a school, class, whatever.  Students can log on to ning and feel comfortable browsing their local school community, and they can get access to their classes and any information associated with them.  Does it leverage an existing skill set that students most likely already possess?  Yes.  Does it have a robust feature set that allows more interaction between teachers and students?  Yes.  Can a teacher use this website and the tools it provides to enhance their classroom time?  Yes.  It can also do so much more.  Teachers are using technology more and more to enhance their classroom learning.  They’re building sites that help immerse students in their learning, in their literature.  Students get excited about things like this because they are able to take control of their learning, to delve deeper into topics and ideas that they are drawn to.  From a teaching perspective, this site is a huge success.  From a student’s perspective, they feel as though their teacher actually cares about their education.

What happens when a student feels left out, though?  What if a student is behind?

Students that are behind in their reading level may feel overwhelmed, threatened, or slighted when they simply cannot access this information.  In my previous post, I discussed the barrier that students have to cross in order to gain access to the information they want.  If they lack basic literacy skills, technology like this will not do much for them.  The last thing a frustrated student wants to do is spend even more time out of school trying to understand things that don’t interest them to begin with.  This is where we have to step up as teachers and discover each student’s interests, and use this information to springboard them to understanding.  We have to use their pre-existing knowledge to move them towards something more.  This is not a new idea, but it is horribly underutilized, and our nation’s policy of standardized testing has left many students in a vicious cycle of failure and misunderstanding.

This is where technology can help.  In recent discussions I have had with some of my colleagues, I discovered that the issue of “technology in the classroom” tends to polarize people.  Some feel strongly that technology can be used to increase understanding, and some feel that it is a waste of time and resources.  SmartBOARDS are phenomenal devices that only a few school districts are privileged with having.  Can they be used to teach YAL?  Unlikely.  Struggling readers who find it difficult to engage with a text due to barriers in understanding and word recognition may take to the shine of a fancy new device, but that may not help them build understanding.  What high school students want, however, is connection.  In talking to high school students at various reading levels, it seems that there are certain characteristics that they share, all of which can be used by a clever teacher to help them reach a common level of engagement and pull them together.

Students today love to feel connected.  They enjoy the ability to communicate instantaneously and have grown up in an age that is characterized by instant gratification.  Reading a book, to many students, is just plain boring.  Students are used to bite-sized chunks of information that are heavy on ideas but short on words.  Blogs are becoming more ubiquitous and important as a means of exchanging ideas and discussing concepts in just about every sphere imaginable.  Print is dying, but there is still plenty of life left in the ideas present in today’s printed media.  The problem is getting those ideas out of the print and into the minds of our students.  Leveraging social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are incredibly important for a teacher in order to capture their students and direct their attention.  More importantly, however, is bridging the divide that currently exists between school and the world.  One of the reasons that students feel alienated is due to their perceived disassociation from other students.  By bringing a student’s knowledge and existing skills into the classroom, a teacher can very easily and very quickly capture students who would otherwise take a back-seat approach to their learning.  Sometimes a shiny new gadget is all it takes for kids to start reading.

Part of being engaged in learning is being given control over what you learn.  If a class has too much structure, students feel constrained.  Too little, and they may stray too far.  Of increasing importance in today’s classroom is the aforementioned idea of differentiated instruction.  A technology in itself, we can use this method to make sure that students are engaged…but is it enough?  We want students to fly, right?  Part of teaching is also discovering and removing barriers to learning.  There are already projects in the works that are seeking to do just that.  Look at that!  How would reading change if the world you’re reading about is literally all around you?  How amazing would it be for a teacher to say, “Let me show you this scene from Hamlet,” or “For an assignment, construct the world that existed when Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath.”  I am positively giddy when I think about those possibilities.  The better technology gets, the easier it is for students to access information, process it, and put something out into the world.  This is the world that I’d like to live in, but there are still further hurdles to overcome on the path to building that world.

In urban schools, where dropout rates are high and absenteeism is a fact of life, we may be able to patch these holes by building an infrastructure that kids love to be a part of.  Naturally, these devices that kids are constantly absolutely thrilled about have a price tag, and when a school can barely afford textbooks for their students, we have to scale things back.  What we absolutely positively cannot do, however, is give up.  So many teachers enter into teaching with an unbridled enthusiasm and world-beating attitude and end up disillusioned when half of their students are regularly absent.  What if a teacher could hold virtual classes?  What if they had a Twitter account that they used to hold class discussions?  This is the unexplored territory of Young Adult Literature, and I’m excited to try to push the envelope of what is possible while discovering what is effective among students.  There will undoubtedly be dissenters and critics who say that literature belongs on the page, and they may have a point.  Taking those ideas out of their confines and helping a student see them in the world around them should be our ultimate goal, and if a student needs to use a cellphone in the classroom to get there, so be it.  I recently had the pleasure of meeting the founder of Project Gutenberg.  Loud and jovial, he (ironically) takes a low-tech approach to life.  He has a basic phone that doesn’t do texting, wears sweatpants all the time, and meets with his friends to discuss life over coffee on Wednesdays at a local coffee shop.  He is, however, absolutely driven in his quest to get kids reading, and he believes ebooks are the key.  He is in constant negotiation with companies like Samsung and LG, trying to purchase old, obsolete phones and PDA’s that are capable of displaying ebooks.  I haven’t spoken to him about the iPad, but I assume he would be thrilled about that as well.  All he wants is for kids to read, and is trying to do everything possible to get these technology into their hands to enable that.  Is technology cost-prohibitive?  Yes.  Is it worthwhile?  Absolutely.  Right now, every classroom in the country may not have the ability to beam a lesson into the palm of a student’s hand, but we’re getting there.

There is still so much to learn, so many things that we simply do not know about this emerging movement.  Publishers don’t know how to license content, and people may not understand how to use the tools that are given to them, but the further along we go, the cheaper this technology becomes and the easier it is to use it.  Soon, the technology that we see in science fiction will be a reality, and will undoubtedly present new challenges to overcome, but the progress we will make along the way will be enormous.  Stay tuned.