In this Educator Spotlight, you'll learn how Martin Plunkett's use of educational technology and blended learning encourages his students to be both collaborative and innovative learners.
Martin Plunkett has been teaching middle school social studies at Jacobson Sinai Academy since 2013, having also taught math and language arts to 5th Grade. He also teaches drama to 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students as part of the performing arts program, is a student advisor, and has run chess and money management electives. Martin received a Bachelor of Education from the University of Leeds, a Masters of Education from the University of Nottingham, a Certificate in Special Needs Education from The Open University, and a Diploma in the Education of Children with Special Needs from Sheffield City Polytechnic.
You’ve worked in the IT industry. How did you transition to teaching?
I started in education initially. I used to live in England and worked in Special Education. I was the IT coordinator at a school. Computers were just coming out in schools at that time. There was a push for coding in that elementary school, and I decided to teach myself coding with Basic. I was just blown away by Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms. I’ve always had this idea that computers can make things accessible and show things in a different way. Then, when the school closed, that’s when I worked in the IT industry for a while. When I came to America, I wrote to Jacobson Sinai Academy and said I wanted to be a substitute, but after seeing my model lesson, they asked me to go full-time!
What have been the highlights of being part of the JBlend Miami cohort this year?
The presenters and leadership are such high quality. The energy and dynamism within the group is fantastic. Everyone is prepared to speak openly and honestly; people are prepared to go out on a limb. The group has been absolutely brilliant. We’ve had those kind of sessions where you walk away and you think, “That was fantastic!” Gary and Tatyana have been excellent, and they also bring in great speakers. There hasn’t been anything mentioned where I didn’t say, “Wow, I want to try that!” JBlend Miami has been really reassuring - what I’ve wanted to do with technology are the kinds of things we’re being told we should be doing!
What are some lessons in which your students have used technology?
Instead of using textbooks, I created packets and had the students do their own research online about the Revolutionary Period. They could use iPads or laptops, but they actually prefered their phones because they’re familiar with them. Everyone liked doing this research - it brought the whole lesson to life for them. They were each off doing their own investigations and were researching different topics. Since they weren’t using a textbook, they could work through the packets any way they wanted. The whole lesson was very dynamic and students were trading information. I heard conversations like, “Who’s found out about this?” “I have! What can you tell me in exchange?” There was a huge amount of collaboration. It was like in the real world where people share information with each other when working together. To make collaboration easier, we rearranged the desks as needed, instead of having the usual pods of three with no allocated seats. The students asked who’s working on what section and they would sit together accordingly. I really enjoyed watching them collaborate.
For Martin Luther King Day, the students watched Selma and live-tweeted during the movie using the tool TodaysMeet. By live-tweeting, the students were able to have an ongoing conversation while watching the movie. For the most part, their tweets were thoughtful and reflected a real conversation. They asked questions about the events portrayed such as, “If this guy is governor and is supposed to be looking after people, why is this happening?” Afterwards, it was great to have a total record of the conversation, which we could expand on during the next class. The students were in two different groups. Interestingly, one group said they thought tweeting was good, but they would rather just watch the movie while I as teacher pointed out important elements. The other group thought the entire live-tweeting experience was fantastic and liked both seeing my tweets and writing their own. Overall, the students really enjoyed the experience and actually got more about the movie because of the interactions and live conversation in TodaysMeet.
We’ve also used tweets for learning about the poem The Ride of Paul Revere. The students worked in groups of two or three and each group had to do a presentation of a section of the story and some chose to do it in tweet form. They really told the whole story with tweets and hashtags and everything! It was fantastic.
What are your favorite EdTech tools to use in the classroom?
I’m using Google Docs much more now. The great thing about it is the ability to put comments in - if I had to handwrite comments, I wouldn’t write nearly as many. With Google Docs, I can put in those comments and provide links for students to read more on a topic. That helps them see the writing as more of a first draft, an iterative process, and they don’t have this sense of “Gosh, he wants me to rewrite it!” Instead, the comments just show where they need to clarify something. They can just go back and tidy it up. Google Docs makes these teacher-student communications into real conversations.
I’m also happy to let students find their own tools! I include suggestions for tools that might work, but I usually say, “Go and innovate!” As long as they show me what I want them to learn, then whatever tool they want to use is okay. I am always open to them coming up with suggestions and asking, “Can we do it this way instead?” Why not?! There’s no “right” path for learning, as long as you get to the goal.
What are some advantages of using technology for learning?
The problem with textbooks is that they usually give just one simple answer. Google and the Internet don’t give simple answers; you have to gather lots of information from multiple sources before you have an answer. So technology gets students thinking critically more and forming their own questions. “I’m telling you this, the book is telling you this, now you’ve got to figure it out.” Our job as teachers is to get students to ask the questions that will lead to taking action and finding the answer. We want students to see that they can make their own decisions on how to tackle a question or problem.
Another advantage of technology is that it gives you privacy. When a student is struggling they can email me, they don’t have to be the one staying after class. I really value that kind of conversation with a student. Technology makes fluidity possible, where we can go back and forth easily. There’s no shame in not understanding. Technology shows students that learning is a constant, fluid process, and it allows both students and teachers the opportunity to be “experts.” We can both have a chance to say, “I know more about this than you.” When I hear that I say “Ok, show me!” and sometimes it’s true! Technology is such an integrated part of students’ lives that they don’t even realize the power it has.
How has educational technology and blended learning influenced your classroom environment?
Partly because of what I picked up from JBlend Miami, I changed my classroom layout. Instead of rows and columns, we’ve moved to a circle layout. Then students can talk to peers across from them and to those next door. The students like the flexibility and it makes the classroom feel bigger. With no assigned seats, I can move around and join in their conversations, or I can stand in the middle and speak to everyone. The flexibility has helped the students with their learning.
Students today are constantly watching videos on YouTube, so I’ll do a current events session where I’ll ask about anything they’ve seen on the news. They’re out there finding news videos and blogs. Educational technology and blended learning give students that freedom to get out of textbooks and explore. That freedom allows them to find what they’re interested in and brings relevance and immediacy to the learning. They have motivation and become so involved and engaged.
What do you envision for the future of technology in your classroom?
Already the students are doing all sorts of amazing things with technology unprompted by me. For example, a few of them wanted to calculate the best angle to make baskets while playing basketball based on a person’s height. They used Excel and worked out the formula. This learning was immediate and relevant, so they were very interested and engaged. Then, there’s a lot coming up with virtual reality. Someday a social studies class will be able to virtually “visit” the Continental Congress and you’ll be able to really “be” there. You’re going to be in the movies. It’ll be so much more meaningful than reading it in a book. My goal is for students to be totally comfortable with the technology they’re around, and to know when tools are appropriate to use. I want them to keep pushing that frontier and to understand that the possibilities are only limited by their imaginations.
For more tips on using technology in your classroom, submit a question to Ask DJLN, our free EdTech and blended learning help desk!