Do We Really Need Technology To Learn?

When I first picked up this Sunday’s New York Times, I was delighted to see a photo of kids standing in front of an interactive whiteboard. A whiteboard which was mounted to a wall with the children’s height in mind (Many of my students have to use a stool. It’s unfortunate, but at least I’m lucky enough to have an interactive whiteboard in my classroom). Then I read the article that accompanied the picture which questioned the necessity of technology in schools, and how districts are spending a lot of money on state-of-the-art equipment with very little effect in terms of higher test scores and student results.

Unfortunately, the question shouldn’t really be whether technology is needed to learn. The question should be “Are you teaching kids to use technology to learn?” I am a huge proponent of technology, but it is merely a tool. It’s not about the ‘state-of-the-art stuff’ one has in a classroom, but how the kids are using it. Technology is a mindset and until teachers start to understand that, technology just takes away time from other curricular activities. Rather than see technology as a separate subject or skill, it should be integrated into what you are already doing.

I had kids head to our computer lab yesterday, our first day of school. Of course there were certain things I had to show them, like how to save a file to a particular folder, but the idea was to engage the kids in the writing process. Earlier in the day, we had generated ideas for our poems. Then the kids wrote a draft using pencil and paper. As they were doing this, I provided feedback, and gave them suggestions to help them revise their work. It was only then that we headed to create our good copies. Many of my students have not had a lot of exposure to computers, but its the questions the generate that excite me. “How do I move the cursor to the next line?” “Can I change the size of the letters?” “What does that red squiggly line mean?” It’s then that you start to give individualized instruction to each child. Another great thing that happens is the dialogue that happens between kids. “How did you do that?” “Oh, let me show you.”

We don’t use a lot of tech in my class, but when we do, the kids need to see a purpose to it. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a mindset. It’s not about whether or not the computer is running Apple or Windows 7 (I’m actually writing this on an Apple running Windows 7). It’s not a question of Google vs. Bing. It’s not about whether they are using MS Word, PowerPoint, or Google Docs. Twitter is an amazing tool, but who knows if it will even be around in 5 years. Technology should support what the kids are trying to do. And in the case of my class this week, completing the writing process by editing and typing their poem was the task. When kids want to learn how to do something, they will.

So, do we need technology to learn? YES! But we also know how to make it meaningful, and how to use it to enhance learning.

Being Resourceful

I’m still running on fumes, so please forgive the dearth of posts lately. Our new classroom is almost ready.

I’m fortunate that I’m at a school that gives its teachers an amount to spend on their kids and classroom. Still, it’s amazing how quickly supplies add up.

Living in Seattle, one has to prepare for “Rainy Day Recess” and one activity many of the children (and grown-ups) enjoy is playing with Lego.

A table like this one

Cost: $299.95

will cost close to $300. It’d be nice to make that money go further, especially since there are always curricular resources and supplies that need to be purchased as the year progresses.

Well, here’s what I did. I took two “Lack” tables at IKEA ($9.99 each). Built the first table as is, attached casters to the second table top (no legs), and then attached them with velcro (yes it really works). I already had 3 base plates, so I only had to purchase one more – ($6.99) and affixed it to the top of the table with contact paper and some double sided tape. Oh … I had some extra wire baskets that came with some of the new classroom furniture that was just lying around too.

Here is the result:

Table from IKEA with wire basket.

Second Ikea table (just the top used - casters were lying around in the tool box at home) - notice the velcro on the corners.

So, for less than $30 (10% of the cost of the table above, I was able to make my own. Our school’s mission statement’s values mention being respectful, responsible, and resourceful – I think this project qualifies for the latter –  perhaps more $$ can go to lego purchases. They are not a cheap toy.

And, when separated from each other you have a lovely side table and a nice dolly if you should need it.

Top 20 Reasons for iPhones in the Classrooms

Late last week even after the iphone 4 antenna fiasco, Apple posted an incredible quarter. They also mentioned that for some reason they couldn’t get the white plastic right until the end of the year. I was waiting for that one, but decided that was too long to wait and got myself the new one. What to do with my old one, I thought. It’s headed to my classroom. Here are my top 20 reasons for having iphones in the classroom. If you have more, I’m all ears!

  1. It’s an ipod after all – kids can listen to audio books (formerly called books on tape) – and it can play music
  2. It’s an e-reader – even though I can’t read for too long on those small screens, kids can.
  3. It’s a recorder – kids can record themselves reading
  4. It’s a camera – kids love taking pictures and from their perspective, there are always interesting shots. Unfortunately my phone is 2 versions old and doesn’t do video (but I hear there may be a way to do this)
  5. It’s a drawing pad – just think, no messy fingers full of paint, no wasted paper, and a gallery of kid art
  6. It’s a calculator – you can even geek out and get one in reverse Polish notation
  7. It’s a clock – and a timer, stop watch, alarm – you can even get a binary clock.
  8. It’s a dictionary
  9. It’s wikipedia
  10. Kids can watch BBC or PBS clips on youtube (National Geographic, Nasa, and Discovery have great apps too)
  11. It’s a web browser
  12. That means it’s also a writing tool (zoho.com is a good example – a mobile google docs is coming soon)
  13. It can still be used as a phone without a plan over wifi (skype)
  14. A lot of educational games – Scrabble, chess, sudoku, tangrams, pentominos, (and a lot of games that aren’t) – there are also flashcard games, memory games, strategy games, puzzles, mad libs, etc.
  15. It can be used as an FTP server (if you don’t know what this means, ignore and read the next one)
  16. It can be used as a remote for your slide shows, used as a mouse, even be a remote desktop for your pc!
  17. It can be a translator or converter (imperial to metric, dollars to euros)
  18. Kids can use it to roll dice or flip a coin
  19. It’s great for mapping – google earth is amazing
  20. It can be used as a flashlight/level/ruler (you get the idea)
  21. (bonus) – it’s a musical instrument too.

If anyone reading this has an old iphone 3g or 3gs sitting around in a drawer somewhere, I am accepting donations for my classroom. I’ll also be accepting any old Kindles that would otherwise be unused.

Interesting story here – don’t know how legit it is, but a $35 tablet computer? I’ll believe it when I see it.

ipod Touch in the Classroom?

Apple is trying to promote using ipod touches in the elementary classroom. One of their web pages features an article and video of a fourth grade class in Central Elementary School in Escondido, California using them to improve literacy. They’re not quite the perfect tool yet, in my opinion, each costs $199. But add a camera and video (coming soon, according to some internet rumors), lower the price, and I can see them becoming very useful in the classroom. They’re mobile rather than tethered to the wall and easy to carry. I imagine ipads will also be a great learning tool. They won’t replace beautiful illustrated children’s books – or at least I hope not. But they will replace most reference materials. Don’t believe me? Remember those encyclopedia volumes? Or even Microsoft Encarta? Obsolete.

What happens to the iphones and ipod touches people replace? I’m sure one or two may be sitting unused in someone’s drawer. Hmm, maybe I need to start asking people.