I don’t own a cell phone, a microwave, or a TV. By opening my very first professional blog with this horrifying confession, I’ve probably caused you to think two things about me. This guy is a technophobe and a cheapskate. One of these assumptions is correct. Let’s call me frugal. I teach English at a school with a one-to-one laptop program, and in this post, I want to show you why a teacher who still boils water on the stove gets giddy over Wikis, Animoto, Jing, and pretty much all things web 2.0.
Last spring, I taught Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl for the first time. I developed a fairly traditional unit. Nothing imaginative. Nothing new. Then one student’s question changed everything.
I had compiled a few sites about modern slavery and dedicated one class period to researching these. I hoped the exercise would help students connect their modern lives to the lives of those living during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. After looking at a few sites, one student asked, “Instead of just learning about slavery, can’t we do something about it?” It was a magical, teachable moment. After a quick poll, I realized all my students were eager to do something. I threw out my plans.
Instead, we made public service announcement videos and wrote letters to various governments, businesses, and individuals, all the while making connections to Jacobs’ slave narrative. These three weeks were filled with some of the most authentic, inspired learning I have ever witnessed, learning that could not have occurred without the systematic use of technology.
You can view all of the work at our class Wiki, and below I’ll explain how and why we used various technology:
The computer is not the thing: The key ingredient of this unit “more important than any specific technological skills” was a willingness to make and celebrate mistakes. Most learning is messy, and it’s so valuable to let students see teachers and peers working around problems. At the start of this project I was very comfortable using Animoto, but I didn’t know anything about movie making software. Also, I had only a vague notion of how slavery affects our modern lives.
I began most classes, though, asking students to show what they learned the day before. Key sources, tools, and skills emerged from this sharing, and students learned to turn to each other, not just me, for answers. A Wiki and Google Docs helped us organize everything.
Sharing beyond the classroom walls: A fellow English teacher and I had used a Wiki throughout the year, hoping to “cross pollinate” our classes. By this point, all students were comfortable adding text, images, videos, and pages. They also used Google Docs to write all essays and to collaborate on group assignments.
The initial brainstorm of project ideas started with a class conversation and notes on a whiteboard. Within 48 hours, by adding the notes to our Wiki, the project grew exponentially. Over one weekend, my initial list of five websites blossomed into a resource far more sophisticated than I could create on my own. As the project continued, the Wiki and Google Docs allowed students, in different classes with different teachers, to share further resources, edit rough drafts of videos and letters, and create the project’s guidelines and assessment tools. We could not have moved as quickly or broadly if we did not have a way to share our work, asynchronously and outside the classroom walls.
Galleries of thought: Because we placed early drafts of letters and videos on the Wiki, students critiqued work at the formative stages. Certainly, the students improved their work based on the specific notes they received, and, because the students could review everything outside of class “multiple times” the feedback was more specific.
Yet, seeing everyone’s work in its evolving stages (on their own schedule and across various sections) had an even more powerful effect. Students responded to evocative work “powerful images, tight phrasing, figurative language” and wanted to make their work as good.
Darren Kuropatwa, a math teacher who blogs about teaching and technology at A Difference, calls such moments “galleries of thought.” I’m convinced that allowing students to explore work during the creation process is the most important, authentic feedback we can provide”¦and knowing how to embed media into a web page (which is as easy as attaching an image to an email) is all a teacher needs to know to create such galleries of thought.
Instant, Authentic Audience: Toward the end of this project, I installed tracking maps to our Wiki using the free online tools at Feedjit and Clustrmaps. I then began one class with a challenge: the students had fifteen minutes to “seed” our work across the Internet. They responded to various blogs, tweets, videos, and articles””on popular sites as varied as NPR and PerezHilton.com.
Within twenty-four hours, their quick efforts bore fruit. People from Japan, Jakarta, Germany, and Italy visited our pages. Over the week, the hits continued to grow. One student was even asked to be a guest blogger. Because we could track each new visit, suddenly students realized that others were interested in their work, and the level of revision intensified. They were no longer creating something for me but for a global audience. Also, they were learning about an important topic not because they had to but because they wanted to. It is this shift in thinking that I hope will have a permanent effect on their lives and makes me passionate about technology and its influence on education.