ASCD Whole Child Blog – Special Topic: Technology and Education
“There may not be an APP for that…”
Ever since I started my teaching career at Byrne Creek six years ago, the word flexibility has been a part of my daily practice. I remember walking into my new classroom, pulling the plastic off my new chair, looking at the bare walls and bookcases, and imaging what teaching here would be like. I could not believe my good fortune! How many new teachers have the opportunity to begin teaching in a brand new space…a space where they can contribute to the building and development of a school…of a new community? Change has been an integral part of my development as an educator. I remember the day that my class changed from literacy development…to a numeracy development in the middle of a block. One moment I was teaching reading skills…the next moment new students were at my door ready to learn mathematics! I have learned to embrace change, be flexible, and to take advantage of any opportunity to diversify or develop my skills as a teacher. I have realized that when you are working in a special place, with students who have diverse needs, skills, and backgrounds, you need as many ‘tools’ in your ‘tool box’ as possible. When Sandi, our vice-principal, offered me the opportunity to use a half class set of iPad devices in my Numeracy, English and Composition class, I quickly agreed. I figured the best way to learn how to integrate this new type of technology was to do what I have done since I arrived at Byrne Creek…say yes…and then figure out what to do next!
iPad devices in Numeracy Development…
The first class I decided to use the iPad devices in was Numeracy Development. This is a course designed for students who have had an interrupted education and need to develop their foundational numeracy skills before integrating into the mainstream math courses. The composition of this class is incredibly diverse. They are different ages (grade 8 – 12), they speak a variety of languages, and have different levels of mathematical skills. Some of the students speak a little bit of English, and have had some previous training in math. Others are more fluent in English, but have very little background knowledge of math. In this class, differentiated instruction is not a choice, it is absolutely necessary.
From the day the iPads first arrived in the class, it became apparent that students wanted to get their hands on them. They were keen, curious, and excited to touch these devices and it did not take long for them to begin experimenting and figuring out the workings of the iPad before I could. However, I recognized a potential problem right away…the students were excited to ‘play’ with the iPad devices. I realized that these amazing pieces of technology were quickly becoming ‘toys’, toys to play games on, to play music on, or to watch videos on, but not tools to learn math. Students began asking for ‘free time’ and the iPad devices were becoming a distraction.
At first, I began finding apps that were math related. If the students were going to use the iPads, then I felt they should be using them to develop their math skills. There are many apps that are math related and can help students develop their understanding of numbers and basic operations. However, I realized that when the students were playing games, or completing drills, they were often using inefficient or incorrect strategies. Most of the time, they were just guessing the answers. They were actually reinforcing their misconceptions as they played the games. I realized that they needed to do more than play the games to learn.
In the past, I have struggled to help students realize the importance of mental math skills. They often complain that the math we are doing is too easy and they want to learn what the other students in the school are learning. They see their friends` math text books and want to know why we are not doing algebra, or trigonometry, etc. Their interest in the math games on the iPad devices provided a perfect opportunity to begin conversations about mental math strategies and to differentiate instruction. When the students realized they could achieve higher scores, or complete the games they were playing at higher levels if they were able to solve problems faster and more accurately, they became interested in learning more efficient mental math strategies. The iPad gave me a way to differentiate instruction because each student could choose which games to play, and which skills they wanted to work on: number recognition, place value, addition, subtraction, etc.
We began class each day by looking at some of the questions they were asked to solve when playing their math games, and we started talking about different strategies they could use to solve these problems. For example, we discovered together that questions like 13 + 22 could be quickly solved by ‘rounding and borrowing’. 13 became 10 and 22 became 25 and it was easier to add 10 + 25. We had conversations about mental math strategies for all the basic skills, and students began to spontaneously share their discoveries. They started to teach each other how to solve multiplication or division problems quickly and efficiently. The students monitored their progress and thrived as they received instant feedback in the form of higher scores or by `leveling up`. They became teachers, they became interested in learning from each other, they became motivated to build their skills, and they became increasingly confident in their mathematical abilities. As their scores continued to improve, they began to see themselves as capable in math.
iPad devices in Language Adapted English 10…
Like numeracy development, this class presents its own unique challenge. The students are transitioning from the ESL program into the mainstream program. This means that they are making the crucial transition from learning the English language to learning through the English language. They are different ages (grades 10 to 12), they speak a variety of languages, and they are international students, refuges, and immigrants. They are united by the fact that they will all need to write the same English provincial exam that all grade 10 students will write, but they will only have one semester (5 short months) to catch up with their peers who have completed English Language Arts 8 and 9. Language Adapted English 10 is like a merge lane on a highway. The students have been traveling on a parallel route to their peers during the ESL courses and now they will need to ‘merge’ into this faster stream. They will need to develop the skills they need to survive in classrooms where the speed of instruction is faster, where they will be required to read more, speak more, and write more. They need to be prepared for classes with less explicit language instruction.
I have learned over the years that to meet this unique challenge, I need to adopt a unique approach. Instead of dividing the course into the traditional literature units of drama, poetry, short stories, novel study, etc. I realized that I needed a more integrated approach so students could practice the skills of reading / viewing, speaking / listening, and writing / representing together. I decided to adopt what I call a ‘collaborative, thematic, inquiry-based’ approach to language arts. Each ‘cycle of learning’ begins with an essential question such as “How do the major transitions in our lives impact our identities?” , or a theme statement such as “Overcoming differences”. Once we have discussed the question or theme we begin reading a variety of texts to gather new information and ideas. The next stage of the cycle includes activities where students speak about the texts they are reading and the insights they are gaining. Finally, students participate in activities that require more writing to demonstrate their knowledge and learning. The iPad devices are a perfect tool to connect these processes, and to facilitate the ‘social construction of knowledge’.
Using the iPads gave the students a reason to interact with each, and to produce work that could be published or shared. Instead of their work ending up in the recycling bin, they posted their work on-line for other students to see. Instead of completing comprehension questions based on their reading, students used the Puppet Pals App to re-enact scenes from the articles, novels, poems, plays, etc. that they were reading. Apps like Explain Everything helped the students create and participate in academic conversations. They recorded their conversations and took turns listening to each other and providing feedback. They used the iPad devices to create multimedia presentations to help show their learning about the essential question or theme. When students struggled to find the words to communicate their ideas, they used the iPad devices to show their understanding in alternative ways. They created drawings, found images, and recorded their singing. They played musical instruments, or created dances. They even used their skills in different sports to represent their knowledge. I have often realized the students who are learning English as a second language frequently know and understand more than they can communicate with words. The iPad devices became versatile, powerful tools for creative expression in the hands of the students.
iPad devices in Language Adapted Composition 11…
Once again, Language Adapted Composition 11 is a one-of-a-kind course. This course is designed for students who have learned English as a second language and want to improve their academic writing skills. Many of the students who take this course are frustrated by their performance in their senior content courses such as Social Studies, History, and English because of the strong emphasis placed on academic writing in these courses. As students are often required to demonstrate or show their knowledge through their writing, these students struggle because their writing skills are not strong enough to provide an accurate representation of their understanding.
Teaching this course presents its own unique challenges. While the students are often highly motivated, it is difficult to encourage them to produce a ‘body of written work’ to develop. They will often complete a piece of writing, submit it for assessment, and begin the next assignment. I frequently see them read my comments or feedback, think about it for a moment or two, and then move on. I have struggled to find a way to motivate students to go back and make revisions or corrections to their work, especially if their work is a hand-written essay or composition. Using the iPad devices in class helped the students do more than produce one draft of a written text.
In the past, students showed little interest or desire in ‘crafting’ the texts that they were creating. If they did go back and revise or edit their work, they did it reluctantly. When using the iPad devices, students can do so much more than create a written text. Now they are creating visual / verbal essays or videos, or podcasts. As they work on these projects, I have witnessed them paying much more attention to their language and carefully considering the effect they want to have on their reader/ viewer. They choose their words carefully, reorganize their sentences, and amazingly use feedback from me or their peers to revise their work. The iPad devices also provide opportunities for individualized and differentiated instruction. Many of the students have identified grammatical skills they need to work on, such as sentence structure or subject verb agreement, and then they use the apps and games on the iPad devices to practice these skills. I believe that this attention to detail is motivated by the students’ ability to create something meaningful that they can publish and share with a wider audience. Once again, I have seen how the iPad has become a tool that enhances students’ learning.
My ‘AHA’ moment…
When I first began working with iPad devices in the classroom, I feel I made the classic error of trying to find apps to teach with. For example, when students were learning about geometry in my numeracy class, I looked for geometry related apps. What I realize now is that there may not be an app that matches what I want to teach, but there is mostly likely an app that students can used to process their learning of new concepts, or to express their understanding. I know now the secret to using any piece of technology in the classroom is to begin with clear learning goals and intentions that are based on ‘big understandings’. Once students know what they need to learn, they will often find a way to express their ideas. Providing tools such as iPads for students enables them to use the items and skills they use outside of the classroom to communicate their knowledge. Furthermore, they are building the skills and learning how to use the tools that they may be required to use in the workplace.
There may not be an app that will ‘teach’ what you want students to learn, but there is most likely an app that will support and enhance students’ learning.