I have been lucky. I was on a computer at a young age, playing Math Blaster or Oregon Trail until my eyelids grew heavy and I had to crawl into bed. This is probably like today’s student playing Fortnight until the sun comes up. I don’t remember using technology in school but think about how powerful my learning experiences would have been with simulations and the ability to create.
Today’s students have the opportunity to collaborate and make global connections within the classroom; they can try to solve problems and share BIG ideas. I used to be hesitant about using tools that I thought were a better pedagogical choice because I thought I needed to know and understand how to use the tool before teaching students how to use it. Then I realized that I am in this profession for all of our students—not just myself—and that it does not always have to be about the technology. If I held onto my own fears, the students would suffer.
I’ve spent time reflecting on why educators need to stop giving into our own fears and realized that some of us just don’t know where to start. Here are some sound tips for getting over your fears to help engage and empower students.
#1: We do not need to know the answer.
Teachers often feel we need to know the answers to our student’s questions, but I have seen the benefits to admitting to students that I do not know everything and need to seek answers to not only my own questions but also the ones they ask. Model for students how to look up answers to questions. Show them how to use key words, Boolean operators, quotes, or search strategies.
We started using a Google Home in our classroom to learn how to talk to assistive devices since that is their future. These skills will help students as they delve into the research process and encourage them to be curious about their world.
#2: Try one tool that allows you to connect your classroom to others.
There are so many advantages for having you and your students connect to other educators and classes. Building up your personal learning network on Twitter gives you access to answers to questions, ideas you want to discuss, or ways to share the great work happening in your own classroom. Twitter provides students an avenue to talk to experts for research projects and authors who respond to their questions about the books they’re reading, providing a more authentic learning experience. Flipgrid is another great tool to try as it gives every student a voice. Use it for reflection, book discussions, explaining how to solve math problem, or persuasive pieces. The new gridpals feature connects you to other classes across the globe for free. Adobe Spark and Padlet are two other tools worth checking out.
Remember: It is the pedagogy behind the tool, so you always want to be thinking about why you are using it. Start small, choose one, and your students will reap the benefits.
#3: We don’t have to know how to use all the tools.
I was reading through our 2008 Reading Street anthology and came across a story about ghost towns. I wanted students to engage in the story beyond the text and teach each other something about ghost towns, which I knew very little about. I thought Google My Maps would be a great tool because it would allow all the students to collaborate on one map, but I had no idea how to use it. I could have scrapped my idea, but instead I found a blog post and video that explained how to use My Maps. (Thanks, Matt Miller!)
I explained to my students that we’d learn together, and we watched the video and discussed how to make this learning experience successful. Students researched a ghost town with a partner to teach classmates about. They put their pin on the class-created map and shared their ghost town using images, geographical location, and text. It was such an empowering experience to learn Google My Maps with my students, and it showed I was a learner right alongside them. Be bold. Try new things with students. Trust students, as they are adaptable and flexible and love to figure things out.
#4: Go off script.
Give yourself the freedom to go off script from lesson plans, curriculum guides, and pacing guides. If a lesson is not going as planned, try something else. Trust your gut and listen to your students. Some days, I ask students how they want to learn. To show me they understood line plots, we made murals on butcher paper of data we collected (instead of doing the practice problems in the book). The script is a one-size-fits-all model. Are we serving the different needs of all our students by sticking to it? Veer off the path occasionally and see where the adventure takes you.
#5: Read books.
There are so many books that will light the fire in your belly and make you wonder, what if I tried that?
Dave Burgess talks about removing the four walls of the classroom in Teach Like a PIRATE. Now when I do my PBIS lesson about the bus we take our chairs outside and create a bus on the sidewalk. Learning comes to life when you make small shifts in your practice. From Ditch that Homework I got practical strategies to make learning more meaningful in and out of school, including using Google Forms to connect to parents on the homework front. Joy Kirr shares a fresh approach about how to create gradual change that has massive impact on classroom culture in Shift This. Tara Martin writes about teaching with the heart and using booksnaps to meet learners where they are in Be Real: Educate from the Heart. Ted Dintersmith visited schools in all 50 states, sharing pockets of innovation happening around the country in What Schools Could Be.
I read a chapter a night or when I can. It takes time to devour the pages, but each book helps me feel ready to try something new that impacts students.
Remember: It does not have to be about the technology. That is the tool for delivery. The teacher makes pedagogical choices that allow for student voice and choice to happen. Start small. Make one shift and reflect on what happens. We are in this for all our students whom we hope will change the world and make it a better place. Why let our fears stand in the way of that?