Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Striking the Right Balance

Our 4th grade studies ancient Chinese history along with an introduction to Chinese culture and language.  We recently finished a project looking at Ancient Chinese inventions, one of which is a set of tuned bells.  2500 years ago, craftspeople in China were able to create large, beautiful sets of bronze bells that each had not one, but two tones depending on where they were struck.  There was mastery in creating the tool, and also mastery in playing it.

Our year in iPads has been like that.  We have discovered that the iPad is an incredible personal and educational tool, masterfully thought out and created.  In the hands of our children and teachers, powerful experiences are possible - but only when the device is well played.

I recently had a conversation with a concerned 3rd grade parent who had good questions about how we use iPads and valid concerns about how our program will grow in the coming years.  It dawned on me that she didn’t need a demonstration and sales pitch about the iPad itself.  What she needed was reassurance that I, as an educator who would potentially use this technology with her child, knew how to use it well.  Of course creating a host of online addicts who can’t break away from their screens to have a coherent conversation with live people at the dinner table is not on my list of goals for our 1:1 program.  But how do I enthusiastically experiment with technology while demonstrating restraint?  How do I promote our program while supporting the wisdom of moderation and limiting screen time?

It feels good to reassure parents and colleagues that, as experienced educators, we are always starting with “why” when making a decision to use or not use these devices.  We just use them frequently because as it turns out there is a lot of work to be done in 4th grade and an iPad (along with Haiku, Google Drive, and our email system) allows us to do some of that work more easily, more conveniently, and more creatively.   Of course we still draw, paint, practice handwriting, use paper, sharpen pencils, and read books because sometimes those processes are more meaningful and more effective.  As it turns out, when seeking to inspire neither digital addicts nor luddites, what feels really good is balance.  We talk about balance explicitly with our students as part of our digital citizenship curriculum so it makes sense to live it in the classroom.  

Another guiding principle in deciding who, what, where, and when about the iPads is consumption vs. creation.  We try not to consume very much on our devices in class since generally that feels passive, less worthwhile, and more like the gratuitous use people are afraid of.   You might say we don’t really like that tone so we still use paper packets and copied math homework. We could put them online, but that might not be the best use of our students' screen time.  Instead we have learned to lean toward opportunities for students to create, to choose how to express themselves, and to share and document their work.  What results are processes that are unrestrained by medium because we can choose from the best of both online and offline worlds, mixing and matching them to suit student and teacher needs.  

For our next research project on daily life in ancient China we will research using books and take notes on paper.  We will draft pieces in our writer’s notebooks then type, share and edit in google drive.  In addition to performing the resulting historical fiction monologues for each other live, students might choose to record them in iMovie or to create a Telligami video.  At this point in the year, we enjoy considering all of our options and striking a spot that hits just the right note.  

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Learning from Setbacks

I just got back from an inspiring  presentation by Carol Dweck, author of Mindset.  In her presentation (and book, which I am thoroughly enjoying reading) Carol talks about two approaches to learning - the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, a person believes that they have a certain amount of intelligence and that's it. In a growth mindset, a person believes that they can always learn, and if they put effort into something they will get results.  Failures do not stop people with a growth mindset.  These setbacks often spur these people on to work harder and make new discoveries.

This got me to thinking about my teaching and learning this year. This has been a huge year of growth for me personally and I have noticed that I am more reflective about my teaching.    One might say I am in a growth mindset now! 

I have been thinking about how we teach and assess children.   If we want our students to learn and grow, then we have to give them ample opportunities to try new things multiple times.  Recently, the Spanish teacher at our school started a project with the students in our class using Book Creator. After the first session with them, she came to tell us the conversations that were happening in her class as the students were creating their books in Spanish.  They weren't afraid to experiment with various things in their books and helped each other throughout the process. As she was talking about the way the children were forging ahead with the project, I couldn't help but think back to the beginning of the year and the first Book Creator books.  The students were afraid to try new things, and wanted  us to talk them through every step.  I remember thinking at this point if it was worth the effort of giving the students this experience.  It took a lot of resolve on my part to find another time for students to experience Book Creator again.  They did, several times, and each time more students felt more comfortable with their results. The ones who were willing to experiment and make discoveries seemed to generate a "can-do" attitude in the classroom.   

Listening to Carol Dweck tonight, I realize again how much impact teachers (and, of course, parents) have on the children in their lives.  If I had let my frustration and discomfort with the project affect the students' access to discoveries, they wouldn't have had the same learning experience in Spanish class.  It reinforced my belief that students need multiple opportunities and ways to show us what they know. Just because they have one setback doesn't mean that they can't learn! Thank you to Carol Dweck for your inspiring words!