RPS provides teachers with digital tools
by MAGGIE THELEN
Principal, Belmont Elementary School
Quick! In 140 characters or less, what do you think Abraham Lincoln’s advice to President Obama would be?
This may seem an odd question for those of us born before 1982, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary for today’s Twitter-savvy students. Otherwise known as digital natives, Generation Y or the Net-Generation, today’s students are unique, due to their level of Internet access and daily interactions with computer-enabled technologies.
“If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our students of tomorrow.” While spoken by John Dewey around the turn of the 19th century, these powerful words apply to us today and into tomorrow as each new generation fills classrooms. How does today’s educator keep up with the constantly evolving trends in instruction and technology?
Proudly, the Rockford Public Schools has taken advantage of a program offered through Central Michigan University in which in-district experts can design and teach a college level course sponsored by CMU. This innovative program allows our talented staff to share their areas of expertise, provides relevant professional development, and offers the benefits of earning college credit within one’s own professional learning community.
This spring, district staff offered a course called “Differentiation for Highly Able Students Using Technology”, a three-credit class for teachers in second through eighth grades. The course targeted instruction for the highly able, but was also applicable to the needs of the diversity of students found in every classroom.
To promote 21st century skills of collaboration, critical thinking, and communication while continuing to maintain a solid focus on required objectives, teachers in this class were introduced to technologies which change the way students acquire and interact with knowledge. Literary discussions are no longer confined by the classroom walls. Instead, students can blog across schools or around the world about literary insights and analysis. Technology allows us to remove the physical barriers that have—until recently—prevented students from easily communicating with like-minded peers with similar interests.
Today’s students have unprecedented Internet access through home computers, iPods, iPads, and other mobile devices. While these devices can sometimes cause distraction, being “plugged in” has its advantages. When students create their own podcasts or listen to podcasts of professionals, we open up their horizons for collaboration, content enrichment, and critical thinking. While it may seem daunting to some to record, edit and upload audio files, today’s learners are challenged by the content, not the technology. Engaging students with the cutting-edge technology of today allows us to further prepare them for the challenges of the modern age.
Another example of how we strive to continually provide students opportunities to engage with content is the use of interactive white boards, which were used as an important component of this recent professional development class. Instead of the white board or chalkboard simply being a repository of information, it becomes the place where students collectively manipulate information, capture results, and share results electronically with others.
Interactive white boards connect the computer to the white board via a projector, allowing users to control the desktop, software, Internet or applications using a pen or finger on the white board surface. Instead of students physically cutting apart a paper word list to categorize words according to patterns, they can drag and drop these words on the white board using their fingers. They can also access online dictionaries to add additional words to the categories, save the original list and then easily re-categorize the list based upon different properties.
But it’s not all about the Internet. The course offered to Rockford teachers also utilized smart pens. Smart pen technology records what you speak, write and draw. This information can then be accessed with a tap of the pen or uploaded for sharing.
Student-created “pencasts” are incredibly powerful applications for learning, as well as excellent tools to refine students’ skills in thinking about their own thinking (metacognition). Once pencasts are created, they can be shared with anyone and can be prompts for further discussion and elaboration. This year, smart pens allowed some fourth-grade students to turn their posterboard learning centers into interactive, multimedia displays. In sixth grade, students created and uploaded energy transference pencasts, and a group of first-grade students tracked fluency progress on their smart pens.
Ralph Ellison said, “Education is a matter of building bridges.” Rockford Public Schools is proud to provide our teachers with the digital tools necessary to build those bridges to connect content, generational perspectives, and instruction.