A Semester's Reflection

Starting this past August, I finally had my first real students! Three classes of them, all different levels of 11th grade American Lit (SPED, ESOL, and Advanced). Our school has one-to-one laptops, and it seems like most, if not all, teachers use Google Classroom daily. I had a good, flexible space to use digital technology in the classroom. I had high hopes, some of which were met, and some of which were utterly disappointed.

I'll start with my catalogue of frustrations. Unsuprisingly, when we have laptops open for an activity, students easily get off task. I'll have one on CoolMath over here, and another on YouTube over there, completely ignoring the directions. As a student teacher, I would just go use the online tool GoGuardian to monitor their screens and close out or block disracting websites, but this is going to be next to impossible when I'm the one responsible for being up at the front of the class! I feel like every classroom needs more than one teacher in it. An interesting behavioral detail I noticed what how some students reacted to their games being closed. Some took the redirection and started paying attention. Others waited a few seconds before reopening the same exact tab! And even others would look up, startled, and stare across the room at me, apparently just appalled that I would do such a thing (this was extremely funny). These three camps exist in pretty much the exact same ratios whenever I asked kids to put their phones away. But the latter two categories seem to represent an offshoot of the 'digital culture' I mentioned in my Philosophy. I get the feeling that many students feel that complete digital freedom is their right, rather than a privilege or a tool. Now I'm wondering how I might be able to address that mindset explicitly in my teaching...

Another time-sink was having to go around and individually address technical issues all the time. If we used a new program or website for the first time, it would take 20 minutes to set up, with a slow trickle of students raising new confusions throughout class. Even when we used "familiar" programs, like in the Google suite, every student would have a different lack of knowledge. It seems that nobody has really been given a standardized education in how to use these tools, and are expected to magically understand them already by the time they get to 11th grade. For example, I had one kid who's extremely bright, but didn't know how to attach a file to an email. Some don't know how to italicise text. The list goes on. Because their needs are all so different, it sounds excrutiating to try to design a lesson that gets everyone up to speed without terminally boring the other half of the class. Maybe the solution would be more small-group work where we split up based on who knows what? Designate certain students to help teach their peers? I am definitely planning on including more direct instruction of computer skills next semester, though.

On to the good stuff! Probably the most stand-out usefulness was with my bilingual students. I had five kids who were just beginning to pick up English this year, and I think this class would have been impossible for them without Google Translate. They could write an entire essay in Spanish, and then run it through the machine into English. I see my role as a teacher of language skills, and so it didn't matter to me what language they thought and wrote in, as long as they did both of those things. It was also super helpful, especially at the beginning of the year, for them to communicate with me. They could type in a question, translate it for me, and I could type and translate the answer back. Honestly, these students would have done much better in a sheltered classroom, but it's fantastic to have this method when the school doesn't give them a choice.

Next: participation skyrocketed when students could respond in text (using PearDeck, for example). I had a few students who were very quick thinkers, but the majority need some time to think over their ideas and then put it into words. This goes double for students who were socially anxious and/or less practiced with spoken English. Rather than the same two or three people volunteering to speak each time, we would get responses from almost everybody in the class. It also made it easy to anonymize answers, which took some pressure off too. If we had tried this on paper, things like handwriting would still give identities away and potentially embarrass students.

Because our school tries to have a no-tolerance policy for cell phones, I am thinking hard about how I can get around this and justify their use in classwork. They've already been great for helping students with quotations. They can take a picture of several physical pages, and then copy it down from their screen without having to mess around flipping through pages. Is there some other way I get can photography involved? We did a class field trip around the school to collect notes for a poem, so maybe letting them take photos or record audio to help remember would be useful! Of course, what I really want to do is get them investigating social media. I think it would be so exciting to task them with finding posts/videos that demonstrate different rhetorical techniques and fallacies! Our rhetoric unit this semester was totally focused on old print documents, but I think I can make space for my idea somewhere. The only problem would be figuring out how to share and display our findings. I think this is where my students might know better than me what will work!! I am truly so excited.

However, I want to conclude by pulling back the pace a bit. I am so fascinated by digital technology and the internet as a whole, but I don't think that it is good practice to pivot to 100% digital learning. I can speak to my own experience in this online college course in comparison to my in-person ones. Having time to physically move my whole body, talk to someone face-to-face, form relationships, and feel my handwriting muscle memory activates so much more in my brain. In fact, I had a student tell me how relieved he was that we were asking them to write an essay by hand, because he recognized that it was easier to get his thoughts out by hand than by typing. It may be more convenient to keep up with digital files and conversations, but I think their benefits do not always outweigh the pure psychological staying power of real life interactions. I'm not sure what the right balance is yet, but I am going to keep on a close lookout for where the line seems to be drawn (and surely redrawn!) in my future years of teaching.

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