Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Reflections on Digital Teaching

Last week my friend and colleague Josh sent me an email, asking for a favor.  Below is an excerpt from it:


Early in the month of June I am participating in a panel discussion entitled “Using Technology to Enhance Teacher Effectiveness” that is being put on by the NC Network of Grantmakers and being supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.   I believe many of the practices in your classroom are incredible and should be a model of instruction.  That being said, I would like to outline some of your pedagogical approaches as examples of how technology can increase teacher effectiveness.  Below is the session description and below that are some specific questions. I would love to have your thoughts regarding these points so I can help share the great things you do. You are da man!

This sounded like a great opportunity.  I love sharing my practices, and  I'll do whatever I can to further the integration of technology in our school.  Besides that, I can't possibly turn down anyone who thinks that I'm da man.

So Josh, of course, I'll help you out.  Thanks for keeping me in mind, and also thanks for giving me permission (I did ask him first) use this opportunity to reflect on the ventures my students and I have undertaken this year, and post my thoughts in my blog while they are all still fresh in my head.

First, I'll start with some of the high points of how my students and I learned with technology this year.  There is overlap between them, but I'll break it down as best as I can.

1. The Digital Inquiry Project

Earlier on in the year I reflected on an observation I made that many of my students didn't know what they wanted to learn about. It struck me as odd that group of teens who are growing up in a world so rich with information were not continuously thinking about new questions and subjects they wanted to learn about.  Everything they could possibly want to know was only a few mouse clicks away, and I felt that if I didn't give them the chance to learn how to be a digital learner and contribute to this continually expanding wealth of knowledge on the web, I wouldn't be doing my job as their teacher in preparing them to live and learn in the 21st century.

Out of this perceived need grew what came to be the Digital Inquiry Project, which I wrote about in detail in this post here.  This project gave students the chance to be the directors of their own learning. 

In short, students decided what they wanted to learn about, scoured the web for content that answered their questions, organized relevant content through social bookmarking, and then used what they learned to inform pieces of writing they published to their blog.  As students wrote, thought, and responded to the writing of their peers, they developed new questions and interests, which they reflected on and used to guide future learning and writing. 

2. Diigo for (and beyond) Organizing Web Content

When swimming through the sea of content on the web, students could quickly get lost and even drown without a way to keep track of and organize sites they find.   It was for this reason, that initially, I introduced them to the social bookmarking site, Diigo.  With it, students bookmarked sites, tagged them to keep them organized, highlighted text that was important, and included sticky notes of their own thoughts and ideas.

As the Digital Inquiry project continued to evolve, my students developed the ability to use Diigo seamlessly in their web browsing, and I experimented with and discovered new ways to use this cool web tool. 

In my most popular post, Diigo for Digital Writing Reflection, I discussed how Diigo provided a great way for students to reflect on their own writing that they had published digitally.  In my post Research Writing 101 2.0, we discovered how Diigo simplifies and expedites the research writing process. 

Most recently, we stumbled upon an another unexpectedly handy use for Diigo, which I have yet to write about.  My students had just completed a couple days of web research, gathering information for their research papers.  I was introducing them to the concept of creating an outline for their papers, and after introducing one of my classes to the concept of sub topics, a student pointed out to me that she could easily determine the sub topics in her paper by looking at the tags she assigned to the sites she bookmarked.  This is a great idea, and I'm still thinking through how this is going to influence how I have my students research, bookmark, and tag next year. 


Every year my students write.  I love seeing them develop their identities as writers and learn the power of their words.  This year, though, the growth I've seen in my students as writers has occurred on a scale more grand than I any that has graced my classroom before. I thank blogging for that.

I put a lot of thought into just how blogging would fit into my class. In my post, Rethinking Student Blogging for Real, I wrote about my own journey as a writer through blogging and contemplated how I could guide my students in conceptualizing blogs as real bloggers do.  I can honestly say that my students are now blogging for real, and the journey to get where we are we all learned a lot about the potential that exists in these digital writing spaces. 

Like in years past, much of my students' journey as writers has occurred in the context of a writing workshop.  The principles of this workshop have all stayed the same.  Students wrote about what mattered to them, engaged in writing as a process, collaborated with and supported the writing of classmates, took writing pieces to publication, and shared published work with the class.

With most writing pieces, students began working through ideas for their drafts on paper, and when they were ready, typed out and developed their pieces on their blog.  And while the words they typed evolved from what they started with pencils, continuing the process in an digital space afforded them to add entirely new levels of meaning to their pieces.  With their blogs they were able to hyperlink to outside sites, their other pieces they had posted, and even related posts of their classmates.  They added videos, and podcasts, and slideshows, inserted and attributed Creative Commons images, as well as embedded polls and surveys to make their posts more interactive.

In addition to using existing digital elements to support and add depth to the meaning of written words, my students' blogs are also a space for them to publish multimedia elements that they create themselves.  A student may tell a story through images and music through Animoto, through a cartoon or comic strip with either Goanimate or Toondoo, or create a multimedia poster with Glogster.   Though these tools are hosted on different websites, each site gives users the option of embedding their composition on a blog or website.  Because of this, my student's blogs serve as places for them to both post their writing and digital stories that they create elsewhere on the web.

Having the opportunity to compose their ideas digitally has, without question, engaged my students in a depth of thinking significantly greater than that afforded through the written word alone, and while many students embraced and enjoyed this process, the most engaging aspect of publishing their words to the web was the audience that blogging gave them.

Every other week we devoted class time to reading and responding to the blogs of our classmates.  On these days, I would overhear students whisper during class and talk in the halls about posts they really liked.  It was not uncommon for a student for a student to enter class and find a piece they published the day before to have 20 comments or for a student to be approached by a peer in another class who asked hopefully if they planned to add a second part to a story they started.  The power of this authentic and captive audience drove my students to want to write, to value written expression, and it gave them affirmation that their voices and ideas mattered.

And while I believe it was the peer audience that most contributed to the fire that blogging kindled for my students, their passion for writing continued to grow as they began to notice that it wasn't just classmates for whom they were writing.   Particularly after we began the Student Blogging Challenge, students quickly began to see that  the words they published to the web were also being read beyond our school, state, and even country. This image below is a screenshot of the visitor tracker from Anthony's blog, with each dot on the map representing a view his blog had received. I can't imagine that anyone, even the most reluctant writer, could not be inspired and motivated by seeing by seeing they had such an audience.

On Students and Learning

So, you want to know how I know meaningful learning is taking place through the activities that I described above? 

That's an easy one to answer....

I know my students are engaged in meaningful learning because they have the space to reflect on their own thinking and learning
With such a wide variety of writing students are publishing on their blogs, it would be impossible to evaluate each with a single rubric.  And even it it was possible, attempting to do so would serve counter to the goals which I had in place for conducting our digital writing workshop.  The main goal was not that each student demonstrate an ability to compose writing that fit into a particular predetermined mold.  Rather, the goals of having students engage in such a process were for them to grow as thinkers, learners, and as writers; and therefore, it is these areas that were assessed.

In order to cary out such a personal and metacognitive assessment, students reflected and wrote in response to several points posted on this assignment.  Here is an example of one of these assignments.  Through completing this reflection, my students better made sense for themselves the significance of their experience with the assignment, while also making their thinking and learning visible to me.

I know my students are engaged in meaningful learning because I read what they write.
   On their blogs, students have a chance to write about what matters to them.  Many of these pieces focus on issues that are central to adolescents.  They write about love and relationships, popularity and fitting in.  Through these pieces, they seek to better understand the world in which they live and in doing so, better understand themselves and their place within it.  In each post I read, I see aspects of students' identifies emerge that previously did not exist, and in reading the comments that other students leave on these pieces, I see connections between students that would not otherwise be made and affirmation to all involved that the rocky road of adolescence need not be traveled alone.  I cannot think of any learning that is more meaningful.

And as for their actual abilities to express and convey their ideas through the written word, one needs only to visit the blog kept by any of my students and read from their initial posts to the present.  Though all have grown differently, the changes that my students writing has underwent in both content and mechanics is amazing.  In some cases, this growth is obvious, such as in developing and understanding of correct punctuation, capitalization, or paragraph organization.  In other cases, it almost appears that writers change little or even revert, but upon looking at previous posts, it is evident that the student is experimenting with new styles and types of writing, thus indicating a growing confidence with taking risks as a writer and a developing writer's repertoire.

I know my students are engaged in meaningful learning because I watch and talk with them.

My students are far from a uniform group.  They all have unique interest, backgrounds, and abilities. As such, I understand that their needs as learners are as individual as they are.  For this reason, I build in plenty of time during class to conference with students, focusing on addressing their individual needs.  Here, I use technology as well to record annotations of what my students are learning and the skills I focus on with them.  Using a Google spreadsheet, I take notes on each child after we talk.  I may work with one student on punctuating his writing, and another on editing html code.  With each conference, I refer back to previous annotations I have taken on that student, so that I can see their growth and the areas where they still need to develop.

And even without the data in front of me, when I watch my students undertake a digital assignment in my class today, what I see is in stark contrast to what transpired at the beginning of the year. When the year began, most of my students struggled to navigate the directions on a web page to create an account on a given web tool without assistance.  Fast forward to this week when I gave my students the assignment of creating a digital story using a new web tool from a list, and then embedding the final project on a blog post. Other than a brief overview of the purpose of each tool and a link to it, I gave my students NO instructions whatsoever....they didn't need it.  They dove into the project without hesitation, and learned themselves how to use web tools that, for most, were completely unfamiliar with little, if any, help needed from me.

Final thoughts on digital teaching

Without question, technology needs to play a role in creating learning experiences that adequately prepare our students for the future.  In my class, as I've described above, technology has had an incredible impact on my students learning.  But there is one point that I feel like I have to make before I end this post: appropriate and effective instruction that integrates technology is complicated.  It's about more than just the tools.  It involves not only having teachers who have a degree of tech-savyness, but have adopted a pedagogy that uses technology to meet learning needs and develop skills that are relevant to life and learning in our modern society.   

I by no means claim to posses mastery of this knowledge.  Honestly, I'd question anyone who claims that they do.  The field is too new and changing too rapidly to have it all figured out for anyone to be the authority.  In a sense, this reality of there not existing a single authority over information underlies how I understand this new pedagogy and perceive our responsibilities as educators in teaching our students to learn.  The past traditional paradigm where the teacher is the master of the content which he or she distributes to students is quickly becoming irrelevant.  With a reality where anyone can find just about any information any time, anywhere, there is less of a need for us to be designators of subject matter content in a traditional sense.  Rather, what our students need of us is guidance and support in using the digital tools at their disposal to find content on their own, evaluate and organize the information they find, make meaning of it through collaboration and composition, and contribute their own ideas to this vast and ever-growing collective authority.

This is what I'm coming to see being a 21st century educator entails, and while my teaching approach this year was far from perfect, I feel that the points that I mentioned above are all steps in the right direction.  I hope that this helps you Josh, and of course if you (or any other reader of this blog) want to get in touch with me to continue this conversation, hit me up on Twitter @steve8071.

Take care and good luck at your meeting,