Primary Preoccupation

A grade one teacher inviting the world into her classroom

Primary Preoccupation - A grade one teacher inviting the world into  her classroom

The Use and Abuse of Technology in the Classroom

This article was also posted on the kinderchat blog.


More and more primary teachers now have access to technology in their classroom. Whether it is an iPad or an iPod touch, a desktop or a laptop, a growing number of teachers are either being given access to this technology by their school boards or bringing their own devices to class to help students to learn. Because of the multitude of choices and opportunities that technology enables, this is a positive development.

I have been concerned, though, by some of the ways that I see technology being used. Technology should not just allow us to do things in a more engaging way; it should allow us to do new things that we thought were not possible. It is those new things that are the real value technology provides.  It is not enough to USE technology. You must use it well.

Having access to books does not mean that the students in my classroom will learn to read. I need to make careful pedagogical choices and use those books in a way that will gently and purposefully help those children to become independent readers. Very few children can make this leap themselves. Most need a thoughtful teacher to guide them.

In the same way, having technology in my classroom does not mean that my students will discover how to use it as a learning tool. I have to carefully select and structure what it is used for so that it becomes truly educational. As with reading books, should not our goal be to develop independent learners? Here are my personal abuse and use lists for the handling of devices in the classroom.

Technology Abuses

Technology should not be used as simply a digital worksheet. There are many apps and Internet sites available that are simply a technological version of a paper task, forcing students to practice over and over a skill that they may already have mastered.  Don’t get me wrong. Skills do need to be practiced. I just happen to think that students should spend most of their time using technology for more creative purposes.

Technology should not be used as a way to keep students occupied.  A small number of computers or devices in a classroom can be an inviting center, whether it is an assigned or a self-chosen one.  If you use technology in this way, choose wisely when you decide what the students will do with the technology. There are many, many creative options available. It should not be just to keep students busy while you work with small groups of children. (They’re working on mouse skills? Really?)

Technology should not be used to do what can be done without it.  Drawing a picture on an app or a computer program and labeling it is a worthwhile activity, but why bother if that activity is an end in itself? It may as well have been done on paper. Technology should allow you to do something new with that picture, such as sharing/publishing it in some way.

The good news is that there are other, better options for using technology. My heart does a happy dance when I see these.

Technology Uses

Technology should be for accessing what was inaccessible. In the past, my teaching materials were limited to what was in my classroom and in the school’s library. Now there are a plethora of materials available online to fill any teaching need I have, limited only by my online search skills. From classroom-ready videos such as those of Mercer Mayer and Dr. Jean to sharing and learning with other teachers on Pinterest or Twitter to accessing the creative commons photos of thousands of photographers—well, let’s just say there is no longer an excuse for not having appropriate resources.


Technology should be for doing good things in better ways
. For example, hearing books being read aloud is an important part of primary literacy.  Long ago, listening to books on a cassette tape became listening to books on a CD. Now, there are online books and apps that do a much better job of this, highlighting the words as they are read aloud.

Technology should be for sharing with the world.  The environment that our students are growing up in is wired for sharing. The hardware and the software that is available make it easier every day for children to share what they are learning with the world. Even young children can share their learning using drawings, images, blogs, video and digital portfolios. By sharing their artifacts digitally, students invite the involvement and support of their parents, grandparents and anyone who sees their work.

Technology should be for connecting. Before the advent of the Internet, classrooms were forced to be isolated learning hives.   Now, those hives can all be interconnected as classrooms can easily link with other classrooms and experts to ask questions, compare experiences and learn together. Tools such as Skype, Twitter and blogs make connecting and collaborating with classrooms from anywhere a possibility.

Technology should give choices.  We are blessed to have a lot of technology in my classroom and my favourite part of that is the choice it gives my students in both their learning style and in sharing what they have learned. When allowed to choose, some students prefer to read on iPads or computers. Others choose paper books.  I think choice is important as we accommodate the variety of needs our learners have.

Technology should not just allow us to do traditional in a different way; it should allow us to do things that we thought were not possible.

 

Is There an App for That? Word Work Edition

One of the most often asked questions these days seems to be “what are some good apps?”   This is such a difficult question to answer, because the answer depends on the question “what do you want an app to do?”

Don’t get me wrong. I have asked that question as well. Sometimes you get an unexpected answer and you are able to see an application for your classroom that wasn’t immediately obvious to the person you questioned.  It’s a fair question. I just don’t think it’s the best question. I think that better questions might be “what is an app you might use to help a child struggling with letter reversals?” or “can you think of an app that will help students to demonstrate their learning?” or “is there an app that you have used to help students understand groupings to make ten?”

The question I’m hoping to answer with this post is “what do you use for word work” or “what are some apps that could help students to learn to spell frequently used words?”

Here are my answers. These are apps I am currently using in my classroom for just that purpose.

DrawFree – (free) This is technically a drawing app not a spelling app, but in my classroom it does double duty. Writing words can be so much more engaging when you get to choose to write with a paint brush, a pencil crayon or a crayon and can also choose from a wide variety of colours. Children can also change the background colour or the thickness of their lines.

Magic Ink – (.99) The more quickly you move your finger, the thicker the lines this app makes.  Your letters become gorgeous, with extra swirls thrown in at the end. The magic part is that after a few seconds, your letters disappear, leaving you room to write more words.  The length of time the letters stay before disappearing, the colour of the letters and the line thickness are all adjustable in the settings.

Skywrite - (free) As you write the words in the sky, a tiny airplane follows your finger and turns your letters into cloud letters. You can also type the letters into a textbox and the airplane will again make cloud letters for you. (I first learned about Magic Ink and Skywrite from Angie Harrison.)

 

Word Wizard – (2.99) This app makes the sounds of each letter as you drag them onto the board. As you put the letters beside each other, the app tells you the combined sound. When all of the letters of a word are in place, the child knows it is spelled correctly because it is read aloud to him. There are also lists (CVC words, number words, Dolch words etc.) in the app that are spoken aloud for children to spell. My favourite part of this app is that if you spell a word that is inappropriate in school, the app will say “oops” and return your letters to the bottom of the screen.

This list is by no means definitive, just the apps I have been using so far for this. I do have other spelling apps on our iPads, and since apps that are not yet suitable for my students may be useful to someone else…here is a screenshot of my current Word Work folder.

Word Work Folder

“I Guess We Really Like the iPads!”

Because I was fortunate enough to win a contest from Best Buy Canada, I got to go on a $20 000 shopping spree last week to purchase technology for my classroom.  I chose to buy iPads.  Being 1:1 with some sort of device has long been a dream of mine, a dream I was ecstatic to fulfill!

Day One of 1:1

Friday was the big day—the iPads finally arrived in our classroom. To say my students were excited would be a bit of an understatement, but then, so was their teacher.

I don’t want the iPads to just change the way we do things in my classroom.  I want them to be transformative.  That is, I don’t want to use the iPads to just do things we could have done on paper.  An app should not just be a glorified worksheet. I want them to allow us to connect and to work and learn differently.  I hope that will happen more and more as time goes on.

Our First App

But for this first day, it was all about fun and about learning some of the possibilities of these new tools.  For our first app, I chose Letter Reflex.  Almost every child in my classroom is still struggling in their reading to consistently identify b’s and d’s. If you teach kindergarten or first grade, you know this is pretty common.  The Letter Reflex app allows students to tilt the iPad to select a b,d, p or q, adding a kinesthetic aspect to learning letters.  The students loved the game, and I hope they’ll go back to it often.  With so many students trying the game at once, hearing the voice on the app proved to be difficult, so everyone ran to get their headphones.  Success, engagement and learning—but no transformation yet.

Creating with the iPads

We next moved to Brushes, a drawing app that was recommended to me by Giulia Forsythe. It is more pricy than some other drawing apps that I could have chosen, but my students spend most of the year learning to read and write something that is readable to people who are not first grade teachers. They show their learning much more often through a drawing than through text.    I wanted them to have a great tool that will allow them to show their learning effectively through drawing if that is their choice.  The students used this tool to make (and to decorate) the number of their iPad. (I numbered them for organizational purposes.) I helped them to make a screenshot of their drawing, and to set these numbers as their wallpaper and home screen image.  I saw this as a higher thinking skill—the students were creating rather than consuming—but not yet transformative.

While the students were not complaining about the restrictiveness of the activities we had done so far, they really wanted to explore on their own, so I let them do just that.  Some of them gravitated to games that we had had on the two original iPads that were in our classroom.  Others returned to Letter Reflex. Still others began to explore the other enticingly coloured squares they saw on their iPad.  They were so engaged, that we all forgot to watch the clock for our gym time (a practically sacred time for my mostly male learners) and missed it entirely.

Taking Pictures–The Highlight

In the afternoon, we had a chat via Skype with a second grade class in Wisconsin about a project we are doing together called A View From the Window.  Afterwards, the students and I talked about how we would show them our view. Would we make a movie…draw pictures…take pictures?  The students felt that we needed to use a camera, not drawings, so we grabbed our iPads to figure out the camera app. This app is very intuitive, and the students only needed some support to tuck the cover into the back of our cases so that it would not block the camera.

This was their favorite part of the day. We agreed to wait until a sunny day to take pictures out the window for the project, but they joyously took picture after picture of the view from the window, objects in our classroom and each other taking pictures.  It was amazing how many pictures some of them were able to take in a few short minutes.  One student had dozens of pictures, including sixteen pictures of a computer mouse.  Lots of fun, and then, it was time to teach them how to delete unwanted pictures. The student with the most pictures quietly admitted to me that he had taken “too many pictures” and I showed him how to delete them more quickly. The students kept only those photos that they really liked. Most of the students emptied their photo gallery.  For them, the fun was in the taking—not yet in the sharing.  Sharing pictures—now perhaps that will begin to be more transformative.

My favorite comment from the day was from one of the boys when we realized that our time in the gym had already evaporated while we were so engaged.  “Mrs. Cassidy, I guess we really like the iPads”, he said.

I guess they do!  We’ll keep on working to make this technology transformative as well as engaging.

 

 

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