Years ago as a beginning teacher, I asked one of my University of Chicago professors how it was that my mentoring teacher seemed to do everything at once — teaching one group, keeping an eye on other parts of the classroom, and continuously but quietly communicating with everyone in the room — all at the same time. She even knew when a student some distance behind her was not completing the assigned task.
“She acquired those skills step-by-step,” my professor replied.
Today as we cope with the challenge of transforming our teaching skills to make what goes on in our classrooms applicable to the ever-changing world of digital information (a.k.a. innovation or 21st Century learning), many of us are renewing our commitment to lifelong learning as we explore and acquire a range of new skills and behaviors. We are learning, step-by-step, how to teach differently and stretch ourselves in ways that help students access, process, and use information in innovative but sensible ways.
To get started we each need to figure out how to reconstruct our skills, making changes one step at a time and figuring out how to cede control at the front of the classroom.
Walking into the classroom at the start of a school year or the beginning of a curriculum unit and attempting to change everything doesn’t usually work for a teacher and certainly not for students. Moreover, even the best professional development (PD) will not help an educator change overnight without lots of extra work inside the classroom. What good PD can provide is a reservoir of ideas to support our incremental steps — changing a discussion here, introducing an online tool there, holding an evening online discussion at some point, or focusing on collaborative learning at another time. Over a school year we’ll make enormous progress, building a strong foundation that will help us transform our skills even more.
Teaching Transformation — Twelve Getting-Started Suggestion
- Rearrange your classroom so students sit in small groups.
- Find out what each of your students does online and with digital devices.
- Each time you mention a website, take a moment to explain why it’s good enough for you to use in class.
- Use the 21st Century Google Drive tools that assist students with writing, editing, sharing, and collaborating.
- At the beginning of a unit, ask students to work together in small groups discovering online resources. Ask each group to present its discoveries. On an interactive whiteboard, keep track of the information — perhaps in a Google Doc — and help students examine the strengths and limitations of the sites they found. Share the Google Doc.
- Set up a discussion that is led by students — while you take notes. Post the notes on the class website.
- Use a response app like Socratic that encourages students to answer questions publicly and share information — all without identifying who they are and risking public wrong answers.
- Move away from Google images. Explain that Google is just a collection and demonstrate the dozens of image collections available for students to use. Read Discover Images and Avoid Copyright Violations.
- Ask students to write, share, and respond — again and again. Set up a blog using KidBlog, WordPress, or Edublog and conduct at least one writing assignment per unit on the blog, helping students understand that writing well online is a critical skill to develop an extremely different from writing online for entertainment. What is a blog?
- After discussing the importance of online commenting, ask students to comment on one another’s work.
- Practice commenting.
- Find an infographic that relates to your curriculum unit. What is an infographic? Can small groups of students make infographics about what they learned?
One of the most important aspects of the new ways of teaching in our classrooms is taking advantage of our students’ participatory culture experience. In his book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, Howard Rheingold explains how our students, who spend much of their lives online, know how to find and do all sorts of things and use all sorts of tools when they connect, but they need considerable assistance fine-tuning their strategies and learning much more about how to identify quality information, judge it critically, and come up with additional questions that expand their learning. Rheingold suggests names to the digital literacies — attention, participation, collaboration, critical consumption of information, and network smarts — that today’s students must refocus and develop if they are to learn, grow, and achieve in today’s digital world.
That’s where educators make a difference. Our transformed job as teachers is to develop the skills, one step at a time, that help our students polish and refine their participatory experiences. It’s up to us to create learning environments where they develop the competence to learn today and the confidence to encounter new information in the future.
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