I am a former curriculum director who loves technology. It’s a fairly new love affair. We’ve been a serious item for almost six years now. Here’s the backstory: I began teaching in 1998 when my students would get to go to the computer lab once a week for a lesson planned by the librarian. I was pretty much on crowd-control during these lessons. I add that to say that I’m a self-taught tech integrator who was definitely not born a digital native. As my teaching progressed, so did my time leading lessons in the computer lab. But technology available to my students in the classroom was minimal, at best. My last year in the classroom (2010-11), I had my teacher computer and three old iMacs for my students to use. They could basically only use them to play games and take Accelerated Reader quizzes. I was a pro at making copies on transparency sheets to use on my overhead projector. My weekly computer lab trips were usually reserved for publishing writing pieces, typing practice, or math fact drills. We are, obviously, not talking about any innovative technology infusion.
After I became the curriculum director for our district in the fall of 2011, I quickly realized that we needed to catch up with some forward-thinking districts when it came to tech integration. Our elementary schools were just getting equipped with SMART boards that year. Our math teachers at the high school had Promethean boards and doc cameras. The other middle and high school teachers had LCD projectors. That was as tech-rich as our district got. In that year, I started a blog, joined Twitter and LinkedIn, and began immersing myself in learning about edtech solutions for transforming instruction. I followed edtech leaders, subscribed to blogs, read articles, and attended conferences on the subject. At one point, our Director of Technology visited my office and candidly said, “You know, when I heard you were named our new Curriculum Director, I was a bit worried.” I just laughed, because I knew he was referring to the lack of technology integration I previously had in my classroom. He went on, however, to assure me that he had changed his mind and knew they’d made the right decision when they hired me. That only happened because I was motivated to further my own learning and stretch my thinking when it came to teaching and learning.
The second year in that role brought about even more growth. Our district was wanting to move to a 1:1 environment for our 5th-12th grades for the following school year. That led to me being appointed as the 1:1 steering committee chair to conduct research, explore options, and learn as a team in order to make the right decisions for our students. During another office visit from our DoT, he joked that he’d just read an article about how tech directors and curriculum directors should be married. We laughed about this, but the point was, and still is, completely valid. Technology and instruction are no longer separate entities in schools. These two facets of a student’s education must work seamlessly together. I was fortunate to work with a DoT that understood and respected that fact. I was the one who got to attend instructional technology trainings and workshops. I was the one who led that integration into our classrooms. And being a former classroom teacher, the current teachers were more open to the idea of change coming from me. But it took both departments working together to provide devices and ongoing professional development in order to sustain lasting change.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I am still working within the technology-curriculum marriage. As a consultant, I often get to work with districts who purchase Dell laptops and/or Chromebooks for their teachers and students. I get to go in and provide training for teachers and administrators, and then work one-on-one in job-embedded professional development with them multiple times throughout the school year. I like to say that Dell is the foot in the door, but the true work lies in transforming instructional practice. I show teachers how to use technology to leverage rich resources and learning opportunities to provide their students with personalized learning experiences in student-driven environments. I don’t just give them a list of good websites. I don’t just teach them on a specific student-centered learning strategy. I marry the two together, and beautiful learning is born through this union.
I use the TIP Chart when working with teachers on increasing student-driven learning via best practices surrounding technology infusion. Here are a few snippets from recent visits at the Bill R. Johnson CTE Center in Crowley ISD.
Mr. H teaches a Correctional Services class. The lesson I recently observed involved students creating radio communication tools. They were given access to the Course Communication List and then collaborated as a team to determine if they needed anymore 10-codes or codewords. Students accessed their research and information fluency skills to research other department 10-codes for examples as well as to think about codes that would have helped in previous scenarios they experienced in prior classes. Their jobs were to create tools that explained proper radio communication and proper use of duress codes to other law enforcement classes. They were split into two groups for the project. One of the students is the Captain of the class (voted as such by his peers), so he appointed the topic to each team leader. Lieutenants (Team Leaders) were charged with making sure their teams remained on task. There was a group participation rubric to guide the teamwork aspect, as well. Prior to this lesson, Mr. H had shown students some various tech resources (Marvel Comic Maker, Storyboard That, video, Prezi, etc.) that they could use to create a final project that would teach about their particular communication tool. Students were actively engaged throughout the class period.
Mr. C teaches Advanced Commercial Photography. I visited during a lesson on studio lighting. For this lesson, the students worked in groups to research a studio portrait style that they found visually interesting. Then they worked to replicate that lighting style by first using lightingdiagram.com to virtually place their subject, camera, lights and background. Once complete, the pair/small group went to the studio to use that diagram to place subject, lights, and camera in a similar arrangement to see if their capture was the same look as the one they researched. Through research and collaboration based on prior knowledge, the students learned about the placement of lights, exposure, shadows, form, key lights, fill lights, background/hair/rim lights, while using online software to plan before they shoot. Their critical thinking skills were tested if the lighting diagram planning failed to yield the “look” they were hoping to achieve. Mr. C intentionally designed this opportunity to allow students to synthesize research, communicate/collaborate with peers, and apply critical thinking skills to address an authentic task.
Mr. M teaches an Advanced Film class. During my most recent visit, the school was having a pep rally. Mr. M’s class was responsible for filming the event. They had to employ knowledge of recording equipment by using proper monitoring of equipment to ensure quality recordings; setting appropriate levels before recording using broadcast standard tools; identifying standards for logging notes or comments in the original recording process. The students were given crew positions the day before the pep rally and were to fulfill the requirements of each position during the production phase of the pep rally projects. The setup was similar to other events some of the students had previously filmed so those students were able to take on the teacher role in different aspects of production. One student was the director who decided where the cameras were set up and what shots the cameras needed to cover. The director wore a headset that allowed him to talk to the other students to give them instructions throughout the production.
I saw evidence of student-driven learning in various areas. The students accessed prior knowledge and experience to address the authentic task of filming the pep rally. Communication and collaboration among peers took place throughout the pep rally to ensure quality results. More communication and collaboration happened after the pep rally during the editing process. Students used critical thinking and problem-solving skills to determine key placement for setup, camera lighting and positioning.
You may not teach photography, corrections, or film, but what strategies did these three employ that you could apply in your classroom? This journey to student-driven classrooms is about transforming instructional practice, and these teachers are setting the pace.
Other posts on this subject include:
I grew up in a small town. I’m raising my children in that same small town (I know. Sounds like a John Mellencamp song). While I love small towns for many reasons, I do get a bit envious of the learning opportunities that bigger districts can provide. One of my favorite districts to work with is Crowley ISD in Crowley, Texas. They have a CTE center there that boasts of some of the best teachers I’ve ever met. For many of them, teaching is a second career after leaving the military, law enforcement, or some aspect of the business world. I’ve written about some of them in the past. I got to hang out with them again this week, and they brought their A game just like they always do.
The class I observed taught by Mr. P was Principles of Engineering. When I visited, the students were already a week into their projects, and on day four of the collaborative design phase. Their purpose of the project was to design, create, test, and evaluate a compound machine while collaborating effectively with others in a design team. I love this sentence from the lesson plan Mr. P shared with me prior to my visit, “There is no one lesson or objective today as students will be directing me to assist with whatever “step” they have achieved.” Doesn’t that statement get right to the heart of student-driven learning? The students were all designing, building a model of, and then completing a CAD of a machine that could remove the hardtop cover of a Jeep. They had an authentic problem to solve. Before my visit, the students had already sketched their designs on grid paper. They were all in the model-building phase, choosing from a variety of materials (i.e. Fischer Technik, Legos, or VEX components). While circulating among groups, Mr. P saw a common issue that needed to be addressed. He was able to pull them back together as a whole class to demonstrate how to draw a gear on Autodesk CAD design software. The students would watch him draw a step, and then they would do the same on their own computers. This was a step they would all be taking next in their projects as they all incorporated some type of gear into their machines.
At the conclusion of the project, students will write a reflection piece about themselves, as well as evaluate their peers as part of the collaboration process. The groups will vote on the best design to then build to scale and test on a real Jeep. Doesn’t get more real-world than this, right?
If you like these practical examples of real teachers facilitating student-driven learning, stay tuned. I’ll be sharing more stories from Crowley ISD soon.
I get to work with teachers of all grade level and all content areas. That’s one of the best aspects of my job. I normally don’t like to make generalizations, but just this once I’m going to. In my experiences, math teachers have usually been the most vocal with me as to why technology integration and/or a student-driven learning environment don’t work in math. (Now, in their defense, I’ve heard that argument from just about every grade level and content area at some point along the line.) I take extra delight, because of that, when I get to work with math teachers who completely change their minds in that regard in a fairly short amount of time.
Think back to how you learned math. Chances are high that your math teachers lectured, demonstrating how to work through problems from the front of the room, and then provided you with problems to work out yourself using this information. You probably memorized rules and formulas, postulates and theorems, and then prayed on test day that your memory wouldn’t fail you. You probably wondered at some point, “When am I ever going to use this?” Or, “How does this apply to my life?” If you were lucky like I am and that stuff just makes sense, then math was a decent experience. If you were like my husband who was the one asking those questions above and looking for any and all extra credit to pass each math class, then you probably commiserate with students still learning like that today. While math was fairly easy for me, I’m horrible at trying to teach higher math concepts (something I have to do often with my teenage daughter). I know how to solve the problem but can’t explain it to her in a way that makes sense. I don’t know the why behind the processes.
I recently wrote about a fantastic experience I had working with Mrs. E. She was a very traditional math teacher up until the fall of 2016. You can read more about her transformation here. The best part is that she isn’t an anomaly. I got to work with three other math teachers in the same district and watch their growth throughout a five-month period, as well.
Mrs. W’s tasked her Algebra 1 class with developing presentations to show their knowledge of Quadratic Equations in standard, vertex, or intercept form and describe the effects of the graph if any given variable is changed. The students chose their small groups and conducted research based on which form was assigned by Mrs. W. They had guiding questions for their research, but then had to construct three to five questions for their peers to answer following their presentations. The students were able to choose which platform they use to share the information and I saw Prezi, PowToons, and PowerPoint all being used. Following the presentations, students evaluated and gave constructive feedback to their peers about the content and presentation.
Ms. H teaches an inclusion class for Algebra 1. She works hard to differentiate her lessons to meet the needs of each unique learner. This past visit to her classroom, I saw the most student-directed learning yet in her class. She created a choice board for her students to choose from to learn the vocabulary for their new unit on parts of a quadratic. In introducing vocabulary in this manner, the students had to research and define each vocabulary word instead of just listening to the teacher or reading the definitions. They were in charge of their own learning, and the synthesization of that information in order to complete their chosen project showing their new knowledge. Check out her board for more ideas on how she used technology integration to increase their learning choices.
Mr. M teaches freshmen in an early college academy at Crowley. He also shared a thank you with me last week for pushing him to be more student-directed in his instruction. One important item to note is that I noticed Mr. M’s outstanding classroom management and excellent rapport with his students from the beginning of our time working together in the fall. These strong foundations allow for an easier transition into student-driven learning. It’s also fun to note that all of these teachers were teaching quadratic equations to their Algebra 1 students, making it easy to see much variation in the same topic area.
The day before my visit, students were given a blank graphic organizer over quadratic functions. They used technology to explore the properties of quadratic functions to fill in the graphic organizer. Mr. M had also shared a video via EdPuzzle with his class to provide more information. After completing the graphic organizer, they worked with partners to present the material through whatever media they wish to use. They created their own quadratic equations then created a presentation that showed a graph representation of the equation. They had to determine the vertex, width, domain, range, the direction of opening, and the axis of symmetry.
It’s difficult to give up control in a math class. These teachers have made great strides toward releasing some of that control over to their students. If you are determined to transform your classroom into a student-driven learning environment, keep increasing their opportunities to make choices and find their own learning while giving them the vision of how math relates to their own lives. It works. And the students will thank you for it.
I have had the pleasure of working with an Algebra 2 teacher this year at Crowley ISD in Texas. She applied for a Dell Certified Eductor program in her district and attended my two-day kick-off last fall. She admitted that she signed up because she was positive that technology integration would not work in math. Some of you may be thinking that’s the opposite response you would’ve expected, and I’d have to agree. I love her thought process, however, in this situation. What I love even more is that once she put her mind to accomplishing the goal of effectively integrating technology into her high school math classes, she was all in.
After that initial two-day workshop, I got to lead Mrs. E through three job-embedded coaching cycles. We used the Teaching Innovation Progression Chart developed at Henrico County Public Schools sevenish years ago as the guiding document and measuring tool throughout the process. Today was my last round in Mrs. E’s classroom for this school year and to say I was delighted would be an understatement.
Right after Christmas break, she established three learning spaces in her classroom: Independent Station, Semi-Independent, and Teacher-directed. She started putting the class notes and other information in the LMS the night before. When students came in the next day, they could sit in the Independent Station and start to apply the knowledge on the class assignment. They could sit with a group of classmates at the Semi-Independent area if they wanted to discuss the content and work on the assignment collaboratively. Or they could choose to join the teacher for a more traditional teacher-directed lesson.
She frequently checks in with her students to see how they are doing with the changes she’s made. She recently asked a student why she always came to the Teacher-Directed group for the lesson instead of the Independent group. The student’s response was, “I don’t learn like that.” I wasn’t surprised by this response, but it saddens me all the same. Because everyone learns “like that” – by doing. It’s inherent. We are born with the capacity to learn by doing: rolling over, sitting up, walking, eating independently, etc. We didn’t learn to do any of those things by listening to someone tell us how to do it. But somewhere along this student’s school life, she forgot how to drive her own learning, and got used to the sit-and-get method. Fortunately, she has a teacher who is willing and eager to scaffold real learning experiences back into her life.
Today, Mrs. E introduced cube roots like this, “Today you’re going to learn about cube roots. But I’m not going to tell you anything about cube roots. [pausing for effect] Where do you go when you don’t know how to do something in math?” The students answered with Google, Khan Academy, and YouTube. Mrs. E added Purple Math, while I added Wolfram Alpha, and they had a list of places to begin. Prior to that, as they entered the class they chose a seat at a table for four. Then, after groups were assembled, they chose a role (Time Keeper, Computer Person, Scribe, Reporter). Mrs. E also had an assignment in Desmos to guide their research, and they were off to drive their learning, collaborating with peers, for the next 45 minutes. The Scribe recorded what they learned on chart paper and then the Reporter shared the group’s learning with the rest of the class. Mrs. E had this part of the lesson added so that she could supplement any information that they might not have found. The best part of that? She didn’t have to supplement at all! The kids found all of the information regarding cube roots that she had wanted them to.
Out of the hour+ class period, I only observed one student out of 24 being off-task. They were engaged and working well together. In the last five minutes, she took a quick poll from the class on how they liked today’s class. It was overwhelmingly positive. I guess they do learn “like that” after all. I can’t wait to hear how the rest of the school year develops in this Algebra 2 class. Well done, Mrs. E!
What is the ideal blended learning environment? I have had a lot of noneducators talk to me about technology in the classroom. Most don’t have informed opinions (so I’m happy to share mine with them). Many ask me what the best device is for learning. Sadly, I’ve even had educators argue this point with me in favor of one particular device. Good teaching and sound student-directed learning is device-agnostic. High-quality learning can happen on laptops, Chromebooks, tablets, and cell phones. It’s not the device that makes the difference. Just like there are definitely instances where the best learning occurs with no device.
In addition to the type of technology, I often hear that blended learning can only happen in a 1:1 environment. While 1:1 is fantastic, not all school systems have the infrastructure and/or finances in place to make this a reality.
So instead, I ask if you only had six laptops in your classroom, how would you best utilize those as learning resources? I’ve worked with several districts where this was the technology implementation model they chose to employ. Some teachers get hung up on the fact that they only have a small group of devices and can’t visualize how to use them for true learning. Sadly, that means they often don’t get used at all. Others are so excited to finally have something in addition to their interactive whiteboards that they jump right into the integration. Overall, do you know the grade levels that seem to take off the easiest with this model? The primary grades.
The reason that it’s generally easier for them to see how this model could work for their students is because they are already accustomed to using learning stations in their daily instruction.
In one K-8 district that uses this small-group model, I saw all of the following ideas implemented in classrooms via learning stations: Hour of Code activities, math practice through game-based learning (DreamBox), digital projects that show evidence of student-driven learning (Piktochart, Google Slides, iMovie), reading fluency and comprehension practice (ReadWorks digital, SeeSaw, ReadTheory), virtual field trips (Google Earth, Nearpod), and formative assessments (Formative, Google Forms, Socrative).
One very fun kindergarten teacher utilized every bit of technology she had access to. One learning center was at her interactive whiteboard where a group of students played a game working on letter sound recognition and identification. Another center had the classroom’s six laptops to work on English-language learning skills. A third center used three iPads that the teacher has gotten through Donors Choose. The fourth center was a writing station which is integral for emergent literacy practice and fine motor development. This teacher is not limited by a fixed mindset. Her classroom is a lively and engaged place for learning across many platforms.
Another questions frequently asked is, how does digital learning work with electives? An art teacher I am working with has students bring laptops from a STEM lab with them to art class. Her goal is to divide her class into two groups. She would use direct teaching methods to instruct on practical/visual arts to one half, while the other half applies art theory via digital design. Each half would get time to create using multiple mediums. I was in her classroom for the first time that she pulled laptops into her instruction. These sixth grade students had experience working with a 3D printer from their STEM lab, so she built on that background knowledge. Using her document camera and an iPad, the teacher demonstrated how to take a 2D image that one student had previously drawn, and alter it to become a 3D image ready to be printed. Her challenge for the students was to find and/or create an image to be made into Christmas ornaments for the class tree. It was fantastic to observe these preteens completely engaged in the work, while having the freedom to choose the medium for creation. They worked in small groups of four, and while the project itself was individual in nature, good collaborative conversations were happening throughout the process. The result was a fantastic art project that built on work the students had done previously in and outside of art class.
When I work with teachers who teach upper elementary, middle and high school, I often recommend a station rotation model to make the best use of a small group of digital devices. I like this framework for any grade level, but I think it is easier to visualize for higher grade teachers than typical primary learning centers are. I recommend a small group station where the teacher can direct-teach (or reteach), an independent station (this is where I would put the six laptops), and a collaborative station where students work collaboratively with their peers on a performance task. This is a great way to structure a class period while meeting with every student and allowing students to work digitally every day. Rotating through these different stations keeps students engaged in their own learning, while giving them the need and space to take control of it, as well. The focus is taken off of the teacher delivering content and placed on the students.
People will always be able to find the roadblocks. The best teachers find a way around them or a way to remove those obstacles altogether, but putting student-driven learning at the front of the equation. Impactful learning isn’t limited by grade level, subject-area or the resources available, but only by the mindsets in the room.