Tech in the classroom – looking ahead to this school year

I asked two of my favorite elementary school teacher peeps, Jennie Lopez and Claire Vincent, 5th grade teachers at Westbrook ES in Bethesda, MD, to think about this coming school year and technologies that they want to implement in the classroom, etc. Here are my questions and what they had to say. Enjoy.

1. What technologies are at the top of your list to use in the classroom this coming year and why?

JL: After experimenting with Twitter toward the end of last year, and figuring out good ways to use it with students, that’s going to be a bigger part this year. One of the main reasons for that is that it’s one of the social media avenues that is accessible through school computers (not all social media sites are – and rightfully so I think), and so the class and I can get to it throughout the day. It’s also short and sweet – doesn’t take too much time to incorporate. I’ve toyed around with the idea of a class blog – maybe having one student write up a quick paragraph about our day near dismissal, and seeing how our ideas grow from there. Both the Twitter and blog ideas came to me after attending a parent meeting during which a parent told teachers something along the lines of, “In an ideal world, parents would receive a detailed report of how their child was doing after each school day.” This parent understood that was impossible, but it got me thinking that I might be able to communicate more than I am right now. I’m also hoping it creates communication between students and parents, beyond the typical “How was your day?” “Good.” “What did you do?” “Nothing.”

CV: I’m looking forward to making use of our class Twitter account. The 5th grade team has made it a job in our classrooms for kids to create tweets throughout the day. I like the idea of parents being able to follow along (hopefully in real time) with what happens in our classroom.

I’m also very excited about the new laptop carts that our school received this summer. The younger grades now have three computers in every classroom, one for the teacher and two for the kids, and the older grades have laptops that we can use in our classroom. Since typing is a skill of the 21st century, I always try to get every published piece typed, but with only one lab that can be hard. Also with wireless in the building, I’m excited at the prospect of more time on computers in general – for research, creating presentations, etc.

2. What technologies seem to be a bust, even though there’s a lot of education-related chatter about them? How come they seem to be a bust, to you?

JL: I’m almost embarrassed to say it, but I’m underwhelmed by Promethean boards, which are all the rage around here. They’re often used as glorified white boards or for PowerPoints. I’d love to come across an elementary teacher who uses them in more interactive ways – which is certainly something they’re designed for, but as of right now, I’m honestly not itching for one of my own.

3. What sort of support are you getting from the school and/or the district when it comes to implementing new technologies? What more might you like?

JL: Bringing more technology into the classroom is something I became more and more interested in towards the later part of last year, and so I’m honestly not sure of everything that’s available to me through the system. I know that my principal, parents, and the greater system encourage using new and/or “real world” technologies in the classroom. I also know the district offers trainings over the summer for Promethean boards and offers a site where you can upload lessons from the curriculum you’ve translated to the Promethean software. That way, any teacher can browse depending on the grade level/unit and may not need to re-create the wheel. From just getting my feet wet this year, it sounds like one of the keys is going to have to be writing grants to obtain funds, so that will be new territory for me. Honestly, one thing that might help the most is a way to communicate with other teachers who are starting to bring these new elements into their classrooms. Teachers are all about grabbing great ideas from colleagues.

CV: The district has a site for accessing Promethean flip-charts, which is great because you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. We’re also lucky to have a parent who’s also an employee in the district’s technology office and is assigned to our school. He comes in for trainings and will even do things one-on-one with teachers if we need it.

I’d love to see more technology in our school. The district could also share information about grants that are available. I know that a nearby elementary school got tablets and Promethean boards through grants and volunteering to pilot new technologies. Somehow our school’s ended up in the dark ages, it feels.

4. What side of education technology seems to be the most exciting for improving teaching and learning – social media apps, for example, or new reading tools, like the Kindle?

JL: I’ve definitely noticed students mentioning Kindles, and other e-readers. Lots of students asked me if they could bring theirs to school last year. I like the idea of anything I can put directly in a student’s hand – Kindles, iPads/tablets, that kind of thing. It seems to me that would make the most impact – everyone has their own device, there’s no waiting for a turn for it. Just thinking about the prevalence of those two devices out in the world makes me think they might be here to stay, at least longer than some others.

CV: I love social media apps, not necessarily because of student interaction, but because it brings my super-excited parent community even more into the classroom. Not all parents are able to come in to volunteer, but tweeting allows them to keep tabs on what’s happening. Jennie also had the idea to start a class blog, where each day one student writes a summary of the day and posts it, a preview of the answer to the what-happened-at-school-today question.

5. What’s your sniff test for a new technology – that is, what is the main thing it has to do/provide before you’ll even think of it?

JL: It has to work for me personally, outside of school. That’s how I do a lot of my initial research. I try these technologies/sites/apps out for myself and see whether I think they’re worthwhile in my life, or even if they’re just plain fun. If there’s something I don’t see as beneficial to me, but a lot of my peers or others around me are utilizing it, I might experiment with that as well. My ultimate goal is to help my students become technologically literate. I know the technologies around them will be changing, but I want them to get used to keeping up with that. And if what I’m showing them isn’t actually being used out in the world, then they’ll see right through it.

CV: I want it to be intuitive. Our district has more than one version of the Promethean technology for no apparent reason other than one looks more kid-like, the other more professional. The professional version appeals to me because it’s straightforward and I can figure things out with little training. I also like tools that are for the kids. The Promethean and ELMO are great, but what does it do for my kids other than update an overhead projector?

6. Smart phones in the classroom: Whatcha think?

CV: I’m not sure this really applies to our grade level. I don’t love 5th graders with a cell phone to begin with (maybe when I have a 5th grader I’ll feel differently – get with the times, Old Lady Vincent!), but as of right now even the students who do have a phone don’t typically have a smart phone.

As for the older grades, I can hear teacher fears: “They’ll be on Facebook, they’ll text, etc.” What about passing notes? In middle school my friend and I had a notebook for the express purpose of passing notes. One of us wrote in it, typically during a class, and passed it to the other in the hall. We didn’t have many classes together but spent serious time engaging in extensive note writing, like a pen pal. Teachers can’t stop a kid from not paying attention – and a teacher who uses smartphones with a purpose is going to have engaged students who might also multi-task with some texting and Facebooking.

7. What will never change, in your opinion, no matter what technology gets thrown at it?

JL: Kids. Now that I’ve been at this for seven plus years, I see that what’s happening around children changes all the time, but at their core, fifth graders are fifth graders (so are kindergarteners, third graders, etc.). And I always love setting a kid up with a good book on tape.

CV: Teachers’ passion. I think that even with the ability to do schooling completely online, you can’t take the teacher out of the equation. Kids need a teacher, whether it’s their parent doing homeschooling, some 20-something-year-old at our school, or an instructor engaging them via the internet. True teachers get into teaching because they want to impact kids, and they’ll still be interested in teaching even if the face of the classroom changes. If you told me the only way I could be a teacher was to do it virtually, as with Skype, for example, I’d still want to be a teacher – but you’d have to give me more training first.

I got the Twitter image here.

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