Saturday, November 12, 2011

From Digital Toy to Digital Tool

Students know how to chat, text, interact socially online.  What they don't always know how to do is use those skills beyond the social element.

As my classes have experimented with Google Reader and RSS, podcasting, keeping an online portfolio on a wiki, and digital photography to tell a story, I have learned just how much our students don't know about technology.

They want it, they adapt to it quickly, but as far as being able to understand what to do with it--they are still adolescent brains in the midst of adolescence.   The possibilities presented by technology as they relate to our capabilities as lifelong learners and citizens are lost on my students--but that is ok to a certain degree...they are thirteen.  Any thirteen-year-old needs guidance and patience from the adults in their life.
I took my student's enthusiasm for interacting socially in a digital forum and used it to our benefit last week; I shared a Google Document with my students.  On the surface it was nothing more than notes for the class.  It was already projected up on the Smart Board as they entered the computer lab.

I asked them to sit at a computer, log into their school Google account, and open the Document I shared with them--they saw it for what it was, notes on grammar.  The notes included definitions and examples of participles, participial phrases, absolutes, & absolute phrases (this is a writing class and I want to send kudos to Harry R. Noden for his book Image Grammar).  I also included some practice on the Document.

Insert any blank stare you've ever seen when handing out a grammar worksheet; that was the approximate level of enthusiasm greeting me from behind those computer monitors...

...however, the coolest part of reviewing this worksheet with them through Google Docs was the comment stream alongside of the worksheet.  I encouraged them to open it and to start chatting with each other about anything...keep it clean and appropriate for school though!

The comment stream on Google Docs functions as a live chat room.  Students are able to type into it live, while we are learning...they can each see it on their own screens and it is also seem up on the large screen--it functions as a sort of backchannel.  Their name comes up, so you know who typed what, and as long as you have it up as well, on your teacher account, then you can see a history of the chat should you need that in the event that a student took it a little too far.

At first the comment stream was filled with a lot of "hello" and "whazzup!" --students even got sillier with it as they PLAYED with it, but I made the decision that that was alright.  A part of my lesson was to teach them social responsibility and using technology appropriately.

I gave them time to explore this new toy in the classroom.  Eventually we got back to work and they were able to make suggestions when I asked for possible participles to begin a sentence, and they were able to type in suggested phrases to complete sample sentences--all live, all scrolling across all our screens.

It allowed me to immediately point out those which were correct and those which needed an adjustment--and then the greatest thing happened.  A student typed, "I'm confused."

And the student who typed this is generally shy in class.  She comes to me at the end of class to ask questions, but rarely puts herself out there and raises her hand.

Today, digitally, she did.

As I worked to clarify what we were doing and what the differences were between participles and absolutes, other students chimed in with similar comments or affirmations of understanding, "I get it now!"

Many students still raised their hands, but this new feature of the class very quickly went from toy to tool in a matter of moments.

What I did like about the tool element is that students still had fun with creating phrases.  For example, when we were working with absolutes I put up the prompt _____________________, the stranger knocked on the door.  Some of the (edgy) memorable responses offered to complete the sentence drew some laughs and gasps (excitement) from the class: Knife dripping; Bowels percolating; and Animal carcass draped over his shoulder.

This isn't an everyday tool (yet).  I have been working to try and find a way to backchannel in my regular classroom by allowing students to use devices which they may already own and I even have a few grant requests in to a couple of places for some classroom iPads, Nooks, Kindles, Google Chrome Books, or tablets.

Moving towards a class which is digitally friendly and immersed is a slow process--you can't do it all at once.  But I am glad I took a chance with the comment stream on Google Docs and plan to put this tool to work for us more often.

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