Response To: The Dark Side of Tech in the Classroom

Recently, I’ve had a bit of a “reawakening” in my professional life. As things in my personal life have recently taken an all-time high in the crazy department (we added twins to the picture this past summer, so we’ve also added to the cute department), my presence in Twitter chats and my blog have taken a severe plunge. I’m the first to admit – I can’t do it all – and something had to give. But, as we come out of the fog of what is life with newborn twins, I’ve begun to re-emerge, joining my favorite chats once again, interacting with those I respect and admire on Twitter, and now, thanks to my most recent #leadupchat, I’ve resolved to spend more time in my “whitespace,” which has resulted in my renewed interest in my blog. Add to the mix that one of the people I so admire and respect, George Couros, tweeted a very thought provoking article (at least thought provoking for me), and alas! My first new blog post has been born.

screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-9-20-35-pm

 

As you can see in the image above, the article that George tweeted is titled, “The Dark Side of Tech in the Classroom: Caveats for Implementing Tech in Schools.” The article can be found here. The article quickly got my attention, and as I read on, I knew I couldn’t respond how I would want to in 140 characters or less. So, I’m here to take you through my thoughts – right, wrong, or other.

First, I want to make one thing very clear. My response is in no way an attack on the author of this article. In fact, it seems as though we’d be in the same school of thought when it comes to technology. He considers himself a tech-enthusiast, and the last sentence of the article reads, “If used properly, tech in education can (be a) fabulous tool for learning.” This statement is one that I can 100% be on board with. High five! If you know me, you know I am indeed a tech-enthusiast. I’m very pro-technology. But you know what? I’m also pro-personal interactions. Pro-have a good handshake. Pro-make good eye contact and speak clearly and respectfully. Pro-appropriate social interactions. Pro-face to face conversations. Pro-self advocacy. You get the idea. The thought here is that it’s all about balance. Technology is great, but solid teaching practices have to come first. I’ll touch more on this later.

As leaders, we are automatically charged with several things. Two of them, as they relate to this article are:

  1. Leaders are called upon to nudge people out of their comfort zones. As you well know, there are effective ways to do so, and there are also very ineffective ways to do so.
  2. With this in mind, when trying to initiate change, or when asking people to step outside of said comfort zones, it’s important that you listen to their concerns just as much if not more than you push the change upon them.

So while I may not agree with the majority of what is in this article, as a leader, I need to understand that these are not just “excuses” that people are throwing out there. They are legitimate concerns that need to be addressed. If you toss them into the pile of “excuses,”  if you don’t hear what these people are saying, and if you don’t try to work with the so called “excuse givers”, what do you think the chances are of you getting them to step out of that comfort zone we talked about earlier? Build relationships. Learn to work with those who oppose you or your ideas. This is not something that happens overnight. It comes over time by building trust and modeling and encouraging risk taking. I wanted to say that, because as I go through the points the author is making, it may seem like I’m brushing this above point to the side, but please know that I understand this to be true with every fiber of my being.

One last bit before I dive into this article. I know we are taught at an early age not to assume things. You know how that saying goes. But, I’m going to do it anyway. I’m going to assume the following:

  1. We (educators) want what’s best for kids.
  2. We (educators) are good people at heart who want to do the right thing.
  3. We (educators) want our classroom to be a place that kids want to be.

Ok, now that you hopefully have a better understanding of my philosophy as a whole, I feel as though I can have some honest dialogue about the aforementioned article.

The article

I want to start by addressing a sentence found very early on in the article. It states:

“Oftentimes, technology is thrown into classrooms while the school administrators sit back and wait for the high test scores to roll in.”

I cannot cringe enough about this statement. I’ll put it as simply as I can: An ineffective teacher with technology is still an ineffective teacher. There. I said it. Technology does not improve test scores. It is not the magic solution. Pedagogy ALWAYS comes before technology. Good teachers improve learning, and good teachers integrate technology to help students learn. While I see the point that the author was trying to make with this statement, what I see here is a leadership problem, not a technology problem. If the leaders of your school expect technology to all of a sudden make kids perform better on standardized tests, then they’re missing the point of why technology integration is important. This is hard for many, because the effects of technology are not easily shown with numbers and data and test scores, but rather with creativity, projects, and genius hours. I like to compare it to “soft skills.” Is there a standardized test for responsibility? Dependability? Gumption? Grit? Just because we want to integrate character education in our buildings, doesn’t mean it has to correlate with test scores. We do it because it’s good for kids. Similarly, wanting to prepare students and teaching them how to problem solve, create, and be fluent with technology in a digital age is enough reason for technology integration, without looking solely at test scores. To complete my thought from earlier in this paragraph, if you give technology to an effective teacher – now that’s something to be reckoned with. The possibilities are endless.

Counterpoint to First Caveat:

“Students may not be interested in activities that don’t use technology.”

The simple counterpoint: Effective teachers will find ways to engage students both with and without technology.

My more complex description: Teachers have been engaging students without technology for years. They will continue to to so for years to come. You want to know how? With lesson plans that are relevant and interesting. This may or may not involve technology depending on the week, day, activity, etc. I’m going to lay it all out there for a moment: If you really cannot find a way to meaningfully engage our students without using technology, it’s time for some deep reflection on why you are an educator. I truly believe that as an educator, you should be able to reach your class in meaningful ways that don’t involve technology. Yes, technology can be an excellent way to engage students in higher order thinking, and a great way to add relevancy to lesson plans, but in the end, it’s YOU that’s engaging (or not engaging) students. The school I’m currently in is a 1:1 school with Chromebooks. And you know what? It’s awesome. I see teachers effectively using technology all the time, and it’s so fantastic. And you know what else? I see teachers effectively not using technology too, and it’s so fantastic. They are finding other ways to engage students, working on ALL THE OTHER skills that are important for our students to leave us with. Remember what I said earlier? It’s all about balance. So while I do think it’s important for educators to grow, learn, change, adapt, and meet the needs of learners, it doesn’t always mean technology all the time. It’s not a “technology or nothing” mindset. That would be counterproductive.

Now, I have to admit, that previous paragraph is just a reaction to the title of this section of the article. The actual example it gives under this section is essentially this: If students are so used to typing essays on a laptop, and turning them in via Google Classroom, then they won’t want to write those essays by hand, if something were to happen to the technology. He states, “Most will prefer to use the computer than doing it the old fashioned way.”

Can I just say for a moment, that I’m with the students on this one? I can’t blame them for not wanting to handwrite an essay (other assignments – sure…essay? Probably not).  I’m not de-valuing having students write things by hand. I think it’s important for a number of reasons, I know the research is there – handwriting IS IMPORTANT (remember – balance), but to think that someone wouldn’t prefer to type an essay is a bit of a stretch for me. Do you know how many times I’ve hit backspace typing this? Deleted entire paragraphs? (You’re welcome.) There aren’t enough erasers in the world for me to write this out formally by hand. I bet if you took a poll of adults and asked if they would prefer to handwrite or use a computer to compose an essay, I’d be willing to say a vast majority would want to use a computer for such a task. Now let me take a moment to recognize and give a shout out to the hand-writers out there. Good for you – you do what works for you. In fact, I hand wrote the outline to this blog post. But there’s no way I would want to write my finished product by hand. Furthermore, if while completing, let’s say, my Master’s degree, I lost all ability to use technology to type my papers, I’ve got to admit, I would have been pretty bummed. And by pretty bummed, I mean I probably would have lost my mind. Also, there’s a reason that things like Google Classroom and Blackboard exist. It’s called organization and efficiency. I’m going to go extreme here for a minute, if you’ll allow me to do so. We no longer use quills for pens and carrier pigeons for message delivery, as those methods no longer meet our needs, right? We’ve deemed them inefficient. I don’t keep a carrier pigeon around in case I lose all electricity and the USPS goes under (I’ve found my Harry Potter owl much better for such cases). I digress. What I’m saying here, is that I don’t think it’s fair to blame the students on this one. Sometimes technology is a good thing that can make our lives easier, and it’s ok to accept that.

Counterpoint to Second Caveat:

Teachers in-service training is generally needed when introducing new technology — another workshop or staff development they don’t have time for.

I’m going to try to keep this short and sweet, because this is a topic I could write on for a very long time. I said this earlier, and I’m going to say it again. This is a leadership issue, not a technology issue.  What are the leaders in this building doing to promote a growth-mindset among their staff? What are they doing to attempt to intrinsically motivate teachers to learn and grow? This is true whether your PD is technology driven or not. Good teachers will make time to learn something new. Remember my assumptions before? Educators want what’s best for kids, and they are good people at heart. Tap into this and find a way to get their gears going. Work to personalize their PD (shoutout to my #personalizedPD crew!). Give them choices, find what they want to learn about, build relationships, build trust, invest in your teachers, and eventually, they’ll come play for a bit in your sandbox. You cannot just say “here’s what we are learning so learn it.” Find a way to make the technology (or any PD) relevant to what they do, how it can transform their classroom in a good way, and then differentiate/personalize/individualize the heck out of your PD.

I have one more point to make here (well several more, but since this post is getting rather lengthy, I’ll make this the last one for this section). Don’t assume that teachers don’t want to learn and that they don’t have time for new PD. If you work to make learning relevant to teachers and balance that with getting them out of their comfort zone, amazing things will happen. I want to talk specifically about those veteran teachers who get a bad rap sometimes. The author states, “Getting veteran teachers to try a new teaching method, let alone something they have to take time and learn, can be something of a chore.” I’m sure this can be true. I’m not naive enough to think that there are no teachers out there who aren’t “stuck in their ways” so to speak. I know you can lead a horse to water, but can’t make it drink, etc. etc. However, in my experiences, some of the best learners are veteran teachers. I think if we automatically write veteran teachers off as unwilling to change, we are doing everyone a huge disservice, and even missing out on amazing leadership potential in our buildings. Again, do some leg work to find where they want to grow, and create PD to match that, while still stretching them out of their comfort zones. But please, can we stop throwing veteran teachers into this massive pile of “unteachable teachers?” My mom was a teacher for 38 years, and up throughout her last year, she was learning new ways of doing things, integrating technology, making lessons fun and engaging for kids. There’s a teacher at my school who is retiring at the end of this year, and I’ll be darned if she’s not taking things from PD days and applying them almost immediately. Remember, educators want what’s best for kids, educators are good people at heart, and educators want their classrooms a place that students want to be.

Before moving on to counterpoint 3, I’m just going to pose this question, because I can’t seem to shake it. Has it crossed anyone else’s mind that this article was written satirically? I’m going to paste a paragraph below, to which I won’t respond necessarily, but it almost seems like the author was being sarcastic here.

Teachers spend six or seven hours in a classroom but as most teachers know, a lot of their teaching time is dedicated to preparation. After all, someone has to put together those Powerpoints and worksheets as well as enter student work into their grade book. Attending training on something entirely new will take them away from their necessary tasks.

Counterpoint to Third Caveat:

Technology could prove to be a distraction for students.

Yes. This is true. Students are…SQUIRREL! Sorry, I got distracted for a moment. Counterpoint: Everything can prove to be a distraction for students. Your poster on the wall. An email they received earlier. The kid sitting three rows up. What they’re having for lunch. Thinking about the game after school. Kids are distracted creatures by nature. Whether you “allow” cell phones/technology in your classroom or not, kids are texting in class. Fifteen years ago, they were writing notes to each other on notebook paper. Today, they text each other.  This is a classroom management issue. Yes, you’re going to have kids try to text and get on social media at inappropriate times. These are teachable moments. Use them as such. Have clear classroom expectations, use strategies such as positive behavior supports, conferences with students, and when necessary, discipline. Be consistent. Be fair. If you let the fear of students using technology for communicating with friends keep you from using technology at all, you’re really missing out. Yes, it will happen. Yes, it will be frustrating. Yes, it’s something you can overcome.

Similar to a statement I made earlier: A teacher with good classroom management skills will continue to have good classroom management skills with the addition of technology. Similarly, a teacher with poor classroom management skills will continue to have poor classroom management skills with the addition of technology. As leaders, we can help them overcome this.

Counterpoint to Fourth Caveat:

Teachers use it because “they” like using it, with little concern for the students.

I’m having a hard time coming up with a response to this. Not because the argument is so solid that there is no rebuttal – quite the opposite. The author points out that if a teacher gets a new computer, they’re going to spend all their time ONLY making presentations on said computer because they like it, disregarding all other forms of teaching. I know I’m young, and I have a lot left to learn in my career, but I’ve literally never met a teacher like this. Sure, there are teachers who are slide show heavy (I had a professor in college nicknamed Slide Show Eddie), and I would encourage these teachers to continue to seek engaging ways to have students learn the material. Most teachers that I know that use slide show presentations also utilize really awesome projects, assignments, and activities that are student centered and good for kids. I’ll end this counterpoint with a statement I made at the beginning: pedagogy always comes before technology. If a teacher is putting technology ahead of pedagogy, let’s all rally together to bring them back to the mothership.

Final Thoughts

I always have the intention of being short and to the point, but rarely measure up to that intention, so I thank you for hanging in there with me ’till the end. I do want to share a few closing thoughts before I wrap this up. Technology is a really powerful tool that teachers can and should integrate to maximize student learning, to create innovators, to create problem solvers, to create great communicators, and to have fun. However, we all know that technology is not always sunshine and rainbows. It’s not easy. Neither is being a teacher. It’s hard work. Really, really  hard work. But what a great opportunity that we have – to model to students how to problem solve and work through difficult situations, to take risks and learn from mistakes. To teach them when it’s appropriate to use technology and when it’s not appropriate to use technology.  We are preparing the leaders of tomorrow, and if we don’t use technology because there are going to be too many difficulties along the way, then we are doing our students a disservice. Yes there will be times when the network goes down. Yes, there will be student misbehaviors. Yes, your hard drive may crash (be sure to back up!!). I encourage you to take these challenges head on, learn from them, improve upon them, and continue on the path of creating great lessons for kids. I’ll end with a quote from the great John Wooden, someone I look up to immensely:

Don’t permit fear of failure to prevent effort. We are all imperfect and will fail on occasions, but fear of failure is the greatest failure of all.

 

Advertisements

Scary New School Finance Bill – My Thoughts

If you haven’t heard, there is a new school finance bill trying to make its way to a vote in the Kansas House of Representatives. In case you didn’t know, last year, Kansas did away with its old school funding formula (because it was too complicated) and replaced it with the new block grants that we saw this year. I’m not here to talk about the block grants, although I do feel comfortable stating for the record that public education in Kansas is not adequately funded, which the Supreme Court has also stated. In fact, school funding has been found unconstitutional in the state of Kansas, and if our elected officials don’t get it sorted out before the June deadline, schools will not open up in the fall. Again, I’m not here to give you a report on all of this, but if you’re not familiar with school finance in Kansas, give it a quick Google. Hint: It won’t be quick. Back to the bill I want to speak on for a few moments – it wouldn’t actually give public education any more money, but it would redistribute how it is spent, and quite frankly, it uses a more confusing formula than the one that was nixed before our lovely block grants. The new bill would highly restrict how school districts would able to spend their state aided funds. I could probably write a separate blog post on almost all of these restrictions (and I may), but for example, we wouldn’t be able to use state aid to pay for food services, because having well-fed students has nothing to do with delivering effective instruction. (Also, there is wording in the bill that allows for our state aid to fund private schools – let’s save those opinions for another day, shall we?) The bill restricts school districts from using state funding to pay for anything that doesn’t directly affect classroom instruction. What this blog post is going to mainly defend is how, contrary to some legislators’ beliefs, extracurricular activities do indeed have an instructional impact on our students. You see, extracurricular activities are one thing (of many) that the bill specifically outlines that state funding could NOT be used for. And let’s just say, that doesn’t settle well with me.

I’m not here to spit research or statistics at you. I’m here to speak from the heart. I may not have statistics, but I have stories. I haven’t spent hours researching the effects of extracurricular activities on students’ lives, but I have lived it. I’ve seen it as a student, as a teacher, as a coach, and now as an administrator. And while that may not be enough in some people’s eyes to qualify me as “educated” on the topic, I’ll take my experiences any day over the “numbers” that some of our legislators may have, although they’ve never worked in a public education institution and seen first hand the impact these activities have on students.

If you’ve ever spent any amount of time in a classroom as an educator, you’d know that each student is motivated by something different. Some students are motivated to learn just for the sake of learning. Some are motivated because they know their parents won’t accept anything less than their best. Heck, we have students whose expectations for themselves exceed those of their parents. But guess what, we don’t just teach those students. We teach those students who are motivated by external factors as well.  And guess what one of those external factors is for a good portion of our student body – the ability to participate in an extracurricular activity. Now, I want to make it clear, that although a good portion of the rest of my blog post will revolve around athletics, that athletics are not the only thing at stake here, and every other extracurricular activity is just as important, carries just as much weight, and can have just as big of an impact on a student’s life.

Life As A Student Athlete

First, let me tell you about the things that I gained from playing high school sports. (How much time do you have?)

Time management. When you are playing a high school sport, you typically either have a game or practice every day after school. Sometimes, you don’t get home until 10:00 or 11:00 at night. And guess what – you still have homework to do, tests to study for, projects to work on. Is it difficult? Yes. Is it possible? Absolutely. You might struggle at first, but being a student athlete teaches you early on how to manage your time, work efficiently, and prioritize. Is this something that we want to teach our students within the walls and time frame of our school day? Yep.

How to interact with adults. Sometimes when playing a high school sport, we are put in situations where we have to communicate with our superiors (adults) in uncomfortable ways for adolescents. For example, we have to learn to advocate for ourselves, and we have to learn to listen to reasoning from our coaches, and deal with news that maybe we don’t want to hear. We can’t just “change teams” because we don’t get along with the coach – we have to find a way to work through the situation in a respectful way, and find a solution that works. Is this something that we want to teach our students within the walls and time frame of our school day? I’d hope so.

Effective communication. Sometimes, you take on the role of a leader in a high school sport. You work with underclassmen and your peers to assimilate them to the program. You work with them to build camaraderie, and ultimately to work towards the same goal. Is this something that we want to teach our students within the walls and time frame of our school day? I vote yes.

Overcoming difficult situations. Losing is hard. But you know what? Sometimes it happens. What I learned in high school sports is that a loss is only as good as what you can learn from it. Also, sometimes, giving your best isn’t good enough. (That’s a hard pill to swallow.) You can give it your all and still lose. You use that as motivation to get better, work harder, and stop making excuses. Do I still apply that to my life today? Yes. Has playing high school sports helped develop my grit and overall ability to cope with situations that just plain stink? Yes. Is this something that we want to teach our students within the walls and time frame of our school day? Absolutely.

Dependability/Personal Responsibility.  On the softball field, I had eight girls depending on me to do my job every pitch. On the basketball court, four other girls counted on me, just as I counted on them. They counted on me to put my best into practice every day, to push myself to become better, and to push them to become better. They counted on me to run the plays that coach set forth, and to work within the system that had been designed for us. They counted on me to pull my weight, to do my fair share, to contribute. If you didn’t do these things, you didn’t play. Is this something that we want to teach our students within the walls and time frame of our school day? Yes.

Commitment – This one is directly related to dependability and personal responsibility mentioned above. When you make a commitment to a team, you see it through to the end – you don’t flake out. Is this something that we want to teach our students within the walls and time frame of our school day? I think especially today, it’s a resounding yes.

Working with people you don’t get along with. I learned that just because a teammate and I didn’t get along off the court or field, it didn’t mean that we couldn’t be good teammates to each other. I’ll let that one sit for a minute, because this is something several adults have a hard time with as well.

Bottom line – if you think that these skills – these soft skills that are a huge push in education right now – are not a vital part of a students’ success in the K-12 public education system, I’d argue that you haven’t spent much time in a classroom lately. If you tell me that these skills don’t play a part in a student’s ability to effectively receive instruction, and a teacher’s ability to effectively deliver instruction, again, I’d argue that you haven’t seen these things in action. Extracurricular activities are an excellent way for many of our students to gain these ever-important skills.

Life As A Teacher and Coach

Coaches. It’s easy to look at their positions as an easy “cut” to the budget and a place to save money. But what are we losing as a result? We’re losing mentors to our students. For many of our student athletes, they develop a bond with their coaches that go beyond the playing field. They look to their coaches as role models and adult leaders in their lives. Can teachers play this role? Yes, I’ve known many who do this every day to many students. But again, I argue – would we reach all of our students? Some of our students form stronger relationships with coaches than teachers – to no fault of the teacher. I know that when I was a teacher struggling to build a relationship with a student athlete, who was one of the first people I went to for advice? Their coach. Their coach would either give me advice on how to best reach that student, or the coach would work with that student to be more successful in my class. And as a coach, I had teachers coming to me for the same reasons. Sometimes, if a student doesn’t want to work hard for a teacher, they may not want to let their coach down, and working together, we can help that student find success.

As a coach, I was able to work with more students than I would have in my classroom alone, and I feel so blessed to have been a part of these young ladies’ lives. As a high school coach, you work with every skill level of athlete, from beginners to the elite, and you teach each one how to find success, and you help them through many of life’s ups and downs. I’ve been there for student athletes who needed academic support. I’ve been there for student athletes to help them overcome the typical adversity and pressure of the sport which they wear very heavily on their shoulders. I’ve been there for student athletes whose parents were going through a divorce. I’ve been there for student athletes whose mental health was not stable, and they were engaging in less than healthy behaviors. I’ve been there for student athletes whose parents were not supportive, and they were looking for approval elsewhere. I’ve been there for student athletes who have gone through more tragedy in their lives than anyone deserves, and were looking for something positive to pull from their day. I’ve been there to teach a student athlete how to win with grace, and lose with dignity. I’ve been privileged to pass along all the lessons that I was able to learn as a student athlete, and hope that I have had a positive influence on our next generation of student athletes.  If I was not afforded this opportunity to coach, I would never have met some of these young ladies. Would they have found another mentor? It’s hard to say.

School Buy-In

This point is pretty simple to make. Students who have “bought in” to their school are more likely to succeed in school academically. When you see school as a positive place to be that provides you opportunities, and you have multiple positive adult relationships, you’re more likely to put more effort into your school work. Why do you think that one of the first steps that poor performing schools take is to build up morale and school spirit within their students? When a student takes pride in their school, they take pride in doing their part to make their school great, including in academics. Disengaged students tend to do the opposite. I’m pretty sure there is research to support this, but talk to any teacher, and they’ll tell you this trend is accurate. Extracurricular activities are an excellent way for students to buy in to their school.

Opportunities For Our Students

Do some student athletes have the opportunity to play club sports? Yes, there’s no doubt. Do all of our student athletes have this opportunity? Absolutely not. In fact, there are some sports, where their primary season is the high school season. High school athletics afford students the opportunity to play at a level higher than recreational sports do, and provide opportunities for students to try to reach the next level – college.  We are all about trying to find opportunities to get our students scholarships for college. Many of these are academic scholarships. Several of these scholarships require that students are involved in extracurricular activities. Some students even receive athletic scholarships. Guess what these athletic scholarships require? Certain academic standards need to be met. So if a student seeks an athletic scholarship, let’s say for cross country, they’ll also be motivated to meet that college’s academic requirements to be accepted into their school. And if cross country wasn’t offered at our school because we couldn’t afford to fund it from our local taxes, that student may never get looked at for said scholarship. I would hope the state wouldn’t want to take these types of opportunities away from our students.

Focus on the Whole Child

It will be a sad day when we stop focusing on the development the “whole child,” and we are only concerned with the old three Rs of education – Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmatic. We have come so far from those days in order to support the ever growing needs of our students, and to provide them with opportunities that did not used to exist. Let’s please not go back. Instead, let’s look ahead to our potential new accreditation system, and 5 better Rs that are being proposed within it: Rigor, Relationships, Relevance, Responsive Culture, and Results.

We Want It All – It’s What’s Best For Kids

Do I think that athletics are more important than providing sound instruction in the classroom? Absolutely not. I’m simply trying to make a point – extracurricular activities support what we do in the classroom and help us reach more students who may otherwise remain disengaged from school. Do I think that we should take funds out of the classroom and into extracurriculars? No. Call me crazy, but I want to have my cake and eat it too. And is that such a bad thing when all you really want is to see opportunities for kids? I’d like to see a bill come across that supports extracurriculars (and everything else this bill undermines) AND puts substantial money into teaching staff so that our schools can continue to grow in their academic offerings. When you get into the field of education, you’re constantly thinking through the lens of “What’s best for kids?” It’s unfortunate that many of our elected officials do not go through this thought process as well. (And thank you to those who do.) So where does the answer lie? I’m no economist, but I think this comes with a responsible tax formula, and not by robbing Peter to pay Paul, and certainly not by taking away opportunities from tomorrow’s leaders. So, as voters in the state of Kansas, let’s stay aware of the types of bills that are trying to make their way through the legislature, and advocate for our public schools.