Last summer, DigitalJLearning Network had the pleasure of taking 15 Jewish day school educators to the ISTE Conference in Philadelphia, PA. The participants shared their learning from the conference and what they hoped to implement in the coming school year. Now we're catching up with these educators and finding out how their new educational technology initiatives are going. Gerald Lazar (@GeraldLazar), Director of Student Life at Bnei Akiva Schools of Toronto, shares his thoughts in the second installment in this new blog series.
It's been a few months since I left ISTE wide-eyed, excited and confident that 1:1 was the way to go. Some of the idealism has worn off as the challenges of reality have crept back in. Nonetheless, I am still convinced that my school is on the right track in terms of technology integration and that my teaching will only continue to be enhanced as I implement more ideas from ISTE.
The number one goal for me was to move toward a paperless classroom. My school has mandated laptops for all grade 9 students, the only grade I don't teach. However, many of our students in other grades already bring laptops and next year, should I again teach grade 10, I will have a class full of 1:1. We use Moodle as our online classroom platform. I set up my tenth grade English class online, and, on the first day of class, told the students that anyone who has a laptop and would like to go paperless is welcome to do so. I still have to make photocopies for those without laptops - and those sticklers who insist on using both a laptop and a binder. The biggest change has been how easy it is for some students to stay organized. Instead of searching for binders and lost papers, they’ve got everything they need saved on their laptops. I don’t need to hear “I can’t find this” - they just find it on our Moodle!
Using Google Drive has been another really important technological enhancement. I’ve had students prepare presentations on Google Slides - it cuts down on the “I need an adapter for my Mac to get this on the smartboard” - students share the presentation with me and there are no more delays. They can work in partners on a project at the same time, without having to sit next to each other - or even be in the same room or home. Research can be done in the classroom (again, using some of the Google research tools I discovered at ISTE). I’ve also used other online resources like Google’s Cultural Institute collections to take virtual tours of locations in Europe in my World History class.
I recently started implementing one of the great ideas I received from an English presentation at ISTE: using Google Docs to teach Shakespeare. I uploaded the various acts from Merchant of Venice onto the class Moodle. This allows students to comment and to keep a copy of notes. While I was concerned that students may check out mentally, thinking “I have the notes saved on my computer, so I don’t need to pay attention,” that hasn’t been the case. I do try to make Shakespeare fun, so maybe that helps keep their attention!
One idea I tried that did not work well was backchanneling using todaysmeet.com. I tried it with one class - explained what we were doing and what the purpose was - and the students found the multi-tasking too distracting. We ended up not having productive conversation on either the “regular channel” or the back channel. I wonder if we sometimes assume today’s learners are all multi-taskers when, in reality, they can just pay a little bit of attention to a few things at once.
Moving toward 1:1 has resulted in a few different reactions from various people. Firstly, we have students who occasionally don’t come to school with their laptops, and the ever-present “my charger is at home and I’m out of battery.” We then have the “I can’t connect to the wifi” (rarer this year after we beefed-up our wifi capabilities) or “I don’t remember my password” kinds of problems. When everything is working - the atmosphere is great - students are all working and engaged. It just sometimes takes some time to get there.
Prior to the school year beginning, we had staff meeting discussions focused on the potential challenges involved in going 1:1. In my classroom, I use a mix of patience and vigilance to deal with “laptop as a distraction” problems. They do not always need to be open: a student who misuses it can be asked to switch to paper, or I can teach from the back of the classroom and keep an eye on their screens. I’ve found these techniques generally work for me. I do think there’s validity in the argument that student engagement was a challenge of teaching before laptops (so they’re checking Facebook today instead of daydreaming - our goal remains to make the learning more interesting and meaningful than the distraction.)
It’s difficult to accurately assess the impact ISTE has had on my classes and school at this point. I’ve only started implementing some of the ideas - and still continue to return and re-visit the many notes I took at the conference. Our school is offering a new Media Arts course next year. If there is student interest and the course runs, there is another area where sessions I attended at ISTE could be impactful. The course (developed by the Ontario Ministry of Education) focuses on current media texts - from magazine design to film and animation, to criticism, to photography and beyond. Students analyse forms of text and create their own pieces. At ISTE, student production was an important focus of many sessions - video creation was one area that I learned about at the conference.
I hope to continue to implement and utilize the ideas and resources I gained over the summer in Philadelphia. There were many valuable sessions during the conference days, followed by insightful ideas shared by DJLN participants in the evenings. I plan to continue to return to those summer notes and resources, enhancing my classes and sharing with my colleagues.
Thank you to DJLN for supporting my learning and my students' education. The impact has only begun to show - and will continue to grow in the coming months and years.