A few months ago, I found myself telling two 3rd grade students about my fat, orange, tabby cat interrupting a business meeting. The students were conducting interviews for their Dream Jar project and I, along with several other members of the Randolph staff, had volunteered to be one of the interview subjects. This gradewide project was inspired by their reading of The BFG by Roald Dahl. Like the big friendly giant in the book, these students were collecting dreams to share with others.
In my dream, my cat somehow found himself in the Randolph House conference room during a weekly administrative team meeting and made quite a spectacle of himself. As I shared the details of my dream with the students, they asked insightful questions to lead me through the interview and recorded our conversations using iPads. Later they would produce a movie based on my dream using a green screen app on those same iPads. I was excited to see a piece of technology used by our students as part of such an interesting project, and it served as an excellent example of how Randolph views the use of technology in the classroom.
When you’re dealing with technology, it’s easy to get caught up in the novelty of the gadgets. What’s the clever new function coming out in the latest smartphone? How light and thin will the newest tablet be? How long will the line be to buy the next big must-have tech? In many ways, this love affair with technological novelty is good. It drives innovation and competition. It pushes engineers and designers to make tech smarter, lighter, faster, better. But is the same fascination with the latest and greatest good for educational technology?
With the recent disheartening news coming out about the failure of technology rollouts in some of the largest school districts in the country, that question is increasingly more relevant. And for me, it always comes back to the same answer. It’s not about the tools, it’s about what you do with them. Here at Randolph, we work hard to make sure that we focus on the possibilities we can allow with educational technology. We hope that our students will use these tools to create, not just consume. We want to find ways to engage them, not just improve the efficiency of the classroom. A big part of reaching that goal is the behind-the-scenes effort to provide functioning infrastructure and adequate hardware. But a bigger part is the work the teachers do daily is to find techniques to bring digital technology into their curriculum in order to enhance the classroom experience and engage students in innovative ways.
In the last few years, we’ve seen that effort pay off in all three divisions. Upper School teachers are using various cloud-based collaborative software to allow students to work together in real-time and to facilitate online discussions. Middle School students are learning to use productivity software while working on projects. Our Lower School teachers are able to leverage the familiarity of touch-based technologies for skills reinforcement and content creation.
I recently spent some time with a few Lower School teachers to talk with them about how they use technology in their classrooms. We have equipped each Lower School classroom with a Promethean ActivBoard interactive whiteboard, two PCs, and five classroom iPads. Some of the answers were expected. The students are excited to use tools like the iPads and interactive whiteboards. They find it fun and engaging. Anytime you can turn learning into more of a game, kids are going to love it. I was also surprised to hear some of their other answers. I hadn’t really thought about how those technologies would engage the teachers and make their planning process more fun.
In Henri Helstowski’s 2nd grade class, students work in groups to complete various skills reinforcement tasks using the Promethean ActivBoard at the front of the classroom. During free time, her students often choose to play math or spelling games on the ActivBoard. The classroom iPads are another popular tool with her students. They have used the tablets to create movies, which they view together as a class. When I spoke with her, the students were working on a persuasive writing assignment to convince Mrs. Wolfe, the Lower School Science lab teacher, to adopt a new classroom pet. They were planning on presenting their argument to Mrs. Wolfe via a green screen video created on the iPads. Mrs. Helstowski has also found success with QR code scavenger hunts, math and spelling practice, and online research using the iPads.
Mrs. Helstowski says the enthusiasm and engagement the technology provides are a major benefit to her class. Last year, she found that her students loved the creative possibilities of the iPads so much, that they begged to stay inside during recess to work on their iMovies. Second graders willingly gave up outside time to work on assignments! She also believes the self-paced and personalized nature of many of the games for both the iPad and the ActivBoard is a strength of the technologies. Students who need a challenge can move through tasks faster or play at a more difficult level. On the other hand, students who need remediation can review difficult topics at their own pace.
Mrs. Helstowski believes that access to multiple technology tools in her classroom has had on effect on her process as well. She feels that the creative and engaging possibilities of the technology allow her to reach more children in more ways. She finds herself more fulfilled as a teacher and can’t imagine her classroom without the tools. She looks forward to planning new ways to use them in her lessons and appreciates the added spontaneity the tools allow.
First grade teacher Nichole Knapp uses her classroom technology in similar ways. Her students get additional practice across subjects, take online assessments, and tell stories through iMovies and green screen apps. In particular, she finds the familiarity of the iPad’s touchscreen interface effective for her young students. They already know how to use them and don’t need much training on new apps.
Mrs. Knapp enjoys the collaborative process that her 1st grade team uses to find new apps and share tips on classroom use of technology. She finds that the self-paced nature of many of the iPad activities challenges her by requiring her to give up a little control over her students’ learning process. However, it also allows her students to take more ownership of their learning and to drive it according to their needs. She also told me that there is a challenge in finding the right balance of technology and more traditional teaching methods involving pencils, construction paper, and scissors.
Throughout the Lower School, teachers and students are finding ways to collaborate, create, and explore with classroom technologies while still valuing tried and true learning methods. A walk down any of the Lower School halls might find classes writing stories on lined paper and illustrating them with crayons or recording a stop motion animation using their classroom iPads. In both cases, students are learning to express themselves and share their stories with a wider audience. As with any tools, the possibilities for learning, engagement, problem solving, and creativity are the real strengths of educational technology. Here at Randolph, we see those strengths in practice every day in our classrooms.
Which brings me back to the Dream Jar project. Technology enabled those students to record our conversation, but they had to write and edit the interview questions and present them to me. Later they both sent me lovely notes thanking me for participating in their project. Technology allowed them to create movies bringing my dream to life, but they wrote the script, directed and produced the footage, and did set design from scratch. Students worked together with their classmates to brainstorm ideas for filming and to troubleshoot problems. In one project, students practiced conversation and writing skills, they were challenged to work both independently and in groups, they had to overcome road blocks and produce a final product that represented their vision. Technology played a large role in their successful vision, but it was only one tool among many that made their vision a reality.