Jump In … But Prepare Too!

This afternoon, I had a wonderful conversation with a parent of a student in my class. She was speaking to me a lot about the use of devices in the classroom, and the number of students — in different grades throughout the school — that like to bring their own devices. It’s fantastic to have so many students with their own devices, and so many parents willing to send them into school. Students can create amazing things and share their learning in incredible ways thanks to tablets, laptops, and cell phones.

Sometimes parents and teachers can get frustrated though. I’ve heard people discussing before the concern that “students are distracted by their devices,” or they’re “rushing through their work in order to play on their devices.” I know some people that would prefer that devices not come into the classroom. I understand the concerns with technology, but I think that with preparation, all of these devices can be used well in the classroom as learning tools.

Here’s what I do:

  • Discuss the ground rules before devices come into the classroom. Students need to know what’s expected of them, and that includes the expectations when they bring their own devices into the classroom. Talk together about how these devices are going to be used, where they’re going to be kept, when they’re going to be used, and what happens if problems arise. Set clear expectations, make sure all students understand them, and heed to the co-created rules.
  • Put the devices away when they’re not needed. Students can be distracted by anything. I’ve been teaching for 13 years now, and I haven’t always had a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) classroom. Even without devices though, students would play with pencils, write notes to each other, or fidget with what’s in their desk. Here’s my rule for pencils and for devices: put them away when you don’t need them! Before I start teaching, students put everything inside their desk, and they put their hands on top of their desks. Sometimes, they even move their chairs away from their desks. Students can’t be distracted by something that they can’t see and can’t touch. It really is as simple as this!
  • Devices are learning tools. Technology is wonderful, but there’s more to learning than technology. Students need to understand the importance of choosing the best tool for the job, and this is not always a tool with an Internet connection. For as many times as my students use iPods, iPads, Livescribe Pens, and laptops, they use paper, markers, crayons, and pencils. I’ll rarely say, “no,” to using a tool, but instead, I get the students to realize that the tool is not the best choice. How do they do so? With a lot of “thinking aloud.” Before we begin tasks, we speak about what needs to be accomplished and how we can meet these goals. Students talk through the choices and quickly realize the best options. As much as I like technology, I like student choice more.
  • Eliminate free time. At the beginning of the year, a student asked me when he would be getting “free time.” I said that the students have 80 minutes of free time a day: they’re called the two nutrition breaks. 🙂 I am not a fan of free time, and especially free time with devices. Giving students this time on devices says to them that these tools are not learning tools, and I believe quite the opposite. If students want to have “free time” on devices at home or over lunch, that’s fine, but for the rest of the day, devices will just be used for learning.
  • Make the devices invisible. If technology is used as an add-on, then students and teachers are just going to focus on the tool and not on the learning. However, if students are used to using technology in the classroom, and have the option of doing so when they want and when they need, then an iPad will soon become no more amazing than a pencil: it’s simply another way to share.
  • Show the power of “creation” versus “consumption” apps. Jared Bennett, one of the 21st Century Learning Consultants for the Board, wrote a fantastic blog post that really highlights how to choose apps well. In the classroom, students use the Twitter app (for sharing), the camera (for documenting thinking and learning), iMovie and Pic Collage (for sharing learning), and various podcast apps (for recording discussions of learning). The only game app that we use is Minecraft, and that’s just for specific purposes directly tied to curriculum expectations. The fewer the apps, the better!
  • Stop talking tools. When all we do is discuss the tool, the app, or the program, we forget about why we’re using them in the first place. Language is a powerful thing, and a slight shift in language can make a big difference. So in class, you’ll never hear me say that, “Today, we’re going to learn how to use _________ app,” but instead, you’ll hear me say, “Today we’re going to learn how to create different media texts. Here are some tools that you can use to do so.” Make the expectations clear, and model for students how to discuss the learning and not the tools. I tell the students all the time that if I come up to them and ask what they’re doing, I want to hear the tie-in to the curriculum expectations. I don’t want to hear all about the app or the program. I’ve said this to all students from Grade 1 to Grade 6, and with modelling of how to do so, students consistently meet this expectation of mine.
  • Model what you expect. If you don’t want your students to text and check emails during class time, then don’t do this either. As teachers, this can sometimes be difficult, but here’s what I do: I turn off iMessage on my iPads during the day. I only turn it back on if I’m sending a text relating to class (e.g., one day, our SMART Board wasn’t working, so I turned on iMessage and sent the principal a photograph of the problem. He was upstairs in a couple of minutes to help us out.). I try to only check and reply to emails during my prep or during the nutrition break. My only exception to this is that I’ll check my email at the end of the school day, just to ensure that a parent didn’t email me about a change in the pick-up routine. If I don’t see an email from a parent, then I won’t read my messages. Am I perfect about following the rules? No. But I really try hard to follow them, and to “be there” for the students during my time with them. Using the iPad to document student learning is a great way to keep me on-task when I’m online. This is a meaningful, purposeful task, and I try to provide equally meaningful activities for the students. Increased engagement equals increased time on-task.

Every day, I see the power of using technology in the classroom, and it devastates me when I hear that others don’t want to use it. I’d much rather find a way to solve the problems that occur than take away a powerful learning tool. What are your experiences with using technology in the classroom? How do you ensure that students are using devices for learning? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!


2 thoughts on “Jump In … But Prepare Too!

  1. Aviva,
    As always I agree with you completely. I am in a 1-1 iPad school but tech is a tool it is up to me to bring my passion for social studies to my students. The iPads have allowed us to ask deep inquiry questions and find interesting ways to create content. I have also introduced vlogging as an assessment tool. If a student is caught using their device for something else during class they have to put it away and then find their own way to work without it. But the bottom line remains good teaching.

    • Thanks for the comment, JoAnn! I think that you make a good point here about having students put away the tool if they’re caught using it for something other than the task. Mistakes may happen, but knowing the consequences and following through are so important. The consequence also aligns well with the rule that was broken, and I think this is really important. This helps the students learn from their mistakes.


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