Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why my classroom iPads are like William H. Macy

Combining digital technology with literature circles with research components, my students took me a step closer to what my new classroom will look like once the upgrade from a half cart of tablets to a full cart is established--sooner than later.


For all intents and purposes, digital technology has helped me place a finger on the importance and the pulse of access. And I found that the technology almost dissolves in the classroom environment as students work on those rich activities that we always seem to chase as teachers. The personal device has become the great supporting actor of the classroom. As David Thomson writes in The Guardian, "Supporting actors aren't just those familiar faces who can steal a film. They show a way for movies to portray real life."

In less than two weeks time my students read a common YA novel from a group of three, viewed short (2-3 min. videos) on topics related to the novel, read articles from periodicals on those topics, and explored relevant infographics. We brainstormed possible topics for persuasive essays, scoured the internet for more informative videos, infographics, and essays, and composed several short drafts before settling on one polished draft for submission at the end of the unit.

The Literature Circle Novels
Having finished Little Women and submitted our essay tests, I offered the classes enough copies of the following complimentary novels to read:

  • The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly
  • Crossing Stones, by Helen Frost
  • The Red Umbrella, by Christina Gonzalez
Free to choose what they like, I was working from within the added bonus that my students had recently studied the turn of the century (ECT is set in 1899) and were currently learning about WWI and the Suffragist Movement (CS takes on both) in Social Studies. The only history we knew little about was Fidel Castro and the Revolution.

Digital Folders on Google Docs

Ahead of time, I prepared three folders in Google Docs. Each was labeled for a literature circle novel. Within each, I placed three articles, one video, and one infographic. Each was based on some of the themes we found in the novels based on class discussion.

The theme of "strong women" arose again and again, even in our discussions of Little Women. By the looks of their essay tests, strong women were still on the minds of my students so I wanted to feed some of that developing curiosity.

After taking a class to teach the concept of writing a persuasive essay built around "Five Things We Can Learn From______" or "Five Things We Can Do To________," students sat in groups of three by common book. Each group took an iPad
and explored the items in their digital folder in whatever order they chose. They wrote and discussed how each idea connected to the novel, but took each a step further by listing the things they still wanted to know.

Continuing Our Research
Students then dug into a wide array of topics with the iPads. They searched for more on the history of Cuba, or the U.S. relationship with Cuba. This developed into researching if the U.S. had similar relationships with other countries. 

The discussions about strong women developed into hunts for more articles on who the female leaders are today, or what is written about the suffrage movement today. Imagine the surprise on a 14 year-olds face when they discovered that women in Saudi Arabia will not have the right to vote until 2015. 

And then someone shrewdly asked, "Imagine what the Suffragettes would think about American women not exercising their right to vote today."

Lists, Lists, and more Lists
After developing lists of ideas for papers, we curated a digital list as well as a bulletin board of ideas. Initially, the ideas were basic and surface-level thinking...but we were moving in the right direction.

Students could add to the Google Doc at anytime, but mainly referenced it from home or the classroom to help them develop their own lists of ideas that they most wanted to write and develop.

As they continued to clamor over topics in their groups and share snippets of what they had written, I asked the students to start hunting for more videos, infographics, articles related to our brainstorming of topics.

Sharing Our Research
And now we were on our way to developing another shared document--a list of possible resources for our persuasive essays. Kids dug for and pulled all kinds of good stuff. Some needed help, some did not. But the end result was several pages of solid, accessible research. Some found current articles, others sought historical documents and photos.

As the students did this I found that my managing of the resource kept it from getting messy. As they emailed links to me I organized the page while keeping a running conversation going with the class. I tried to nudge them towards some great information...and when they didn't find it on their own I literally led some right to it.

"What other ideas might we try?"

"Did anyone find any policies?"

"Has anyone notice anything about Facebook and Awareness online?" (a minute later..."Hey I found something!")

The Depth of the Essays
The papers I received from students have been a pleasure to read and use as a teaching tool. Beyond the technical conspecifics of editing, the depth that the students dug into has been rewarding.

While one student, Lauren, titles her essay a breathless Five Things You Can Learn From the Children Who Moved to the United States During the Revolution in Cuba, her subtitled paragraphs left me (almost) speechless:
  1. The children's parents loved them
  2. Be brave
  3. Family Matters the Most
  4. If You Love Someone, Set Them Free
  5. Everything Has a Purpose
Another student, Jenna, took the character Frankie from The Red Umbrella and dug deep with Five Things You Can Learn From Frankie's Protective Nature. Her five paragraphs were labeled:
  1. Siblings should look out for each other.
  2. A good relationship between siblings is important.
  3. Countries should protect one another from harm.
  4. It is important not to desert people in hard times.
  5. Promises should be kept.
Everyone had research components, and everyone was encouraged...taught...told? to included citations within each of the paragraphs. Ok, that didn't always happen...but, like I said, we are moving in the right direction.

Technology Plays Second Banana
In an odd way, the technology took a back seat. In my subtitle I joke about it being a second banana, sort of the William H. Macy of a teacher's toolbox, but it really is in this case. When my principal came in to take a peek at the lesson, I felt like it was impossible for him to tell the kids were entangled with technology, and writing, research, conversation, and collaboration...because writing, research, conversation, and collaboration really took off, once technology gave the kids access. The personal devices provide the students access in way that I never could portray as the star of my classroom stage. Now matter how many tricks I know, how many great lines I cull over the years, I never ever portrayed access to real-life in the same way as the personal learning device in a student's hands.

I really believe my principal left the room not knowing that Willam H. Macy was even in the room. When another curious and interested administrator, aware of my lesson, wanted to see it in action, I literally took him aside to walk him through the steps of what the kids were doing...I literally put an iPad in his hand to show him the importance of the second banana. 

The hallmarks of good teaching won't change as personal devices permeate our classrooms. For me, it is about finding my comfort with the access that continues to be the key.

I tip my cap to my current students for showing me what my classroom of the future is going to look like...sooner than later.

Here I include an image of most of an essay written by one of my students--Uma. If you know the novel The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, or even a relationship between a grandparent and a grandchild, I think you'll find Uma's work pretty darn charming:

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