Wednesday, February 10, 2016

One of Those Good Days When Things Don't Go As Planned

I think good teaching is messy.  Highly structured teacher-driven classes are actually easier to teach, but they're not that engaging for students.  The best teachers I know are the ones that are responsive to what's happening in the classroom and are willing to go with a "teachable moment" when it strikes.  These moments can be scary, however, especially if they aren't part of the lesson plan.  Today in math class, I had one of those days.

My math class has been working on unit conversions and just started a unit on ratios and unit rates.  The worksheet I had assigned for last night's homework reviewed the concept of ratios in possibly one of the most boring ways--showing pictures of random items and asking kids to write the ratios in simplest form.  While it certainly helped them practice the concept, I couldn't help putting myself in their shoes thinking, "when would I ever need to know the ratio of flowers to pliers?"

To counter the worksheet, I decided to make sure we had some real world applications in class today.  Using a "Dan Meyer-style" format (See this link for more information--Dan Meyer--Ted Talk), I told the kids to watch as I ran back and forth across the classroom.  I then asked them to figure out what the question was I wanted them to answer.  Hands shot up (high level of engagement).  This is always the scary part for me as a teacher.  You never quite know what will come out of the mouths of 12 year-old boys.  The first questions were somewhat lame.  I was a little nervous.  I started writing their questions on the board.  As they progressed, the questions got more detailed and more sophisticated until finally someone asked "How fast am I going?"  Bingo!

Now that we had established the question, I asked what would we need to know to answer the question.  Lots of hands went up.  We easily established that the distance traveled was required to solve the problem. One student suggested how important it was for us to know how many steps I took.  And many agreed.  But several students insisted it wasn't.  Now came the great unplanned debate.  We spent a huge amount of time as students argued their cases passionately.  While much of their logic was flawed, I got to sit back and watch my boys argue about math.  Everyone got in on it.  It was one of those moments.  With a little help from me as a class we finally agreed that only the distance and time was needed to solve the problem.

I couldn't have planned this better if I had tried.  Seeing students so engaged, forming arguments and debating math was a little slice of heaven for this math teacher.  It would have been so much easier to simply teach a lesson on unit rates and then give them a worksheet, but tonight they have one problem--figuring out how fast I was going.  As I passed kids in the hallway heading down to lunch, I heard some of them still talking excitedly about how to solve it.  I can't wait to hear our discussion tomorrow!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Challenge/Exhilaration of Teaching Digital Natives

Let's face it.  Kids these days are raised on technology.  Expose them to a new program, game, or application and they run with it.  Take the same new technology to a group of adults and there is often fear, trepidation, and sometimes revolt.  I consider myself strongly average when it comes to learning and dealing with new technology, yet I've seen how valuable some of the technology tools are in the classroom.  So what's a teacher to do?  Do I devote countless hours learning a new technology so I can be an expert?  How will I find time to do that in my busy day?

That's me "faking" my way through technology.

The issue was forced on me a number of years ago when I was assigned to teach a 6th grade computer class.  My initial reaction was one of fear (or to be more honest more like horror).  How in the world was I going to teach a technology class when I myself struggled, at times, with technology?  As part of an assignment during the first few weeks of school, students were asked to create an autobiographical PowerPoint presentation in an attempt for students to learn how to use the technology and for us to get to know them better.  In the course of their work a student asked me how to insert some audio into the presentation.  I trembled with the fear of being discovered as an imposter, as I wasn't very familiar with the program at the time and didn't know what to do.

What I didn't realize, however, was that my room was full of "digital natives," and one of those heroes came to my rescue.  "Let's try this," said one student to the other.  "Or you can try this," said another.  "I think you can do it like this."  Their willingness to just get in there, roll up their sleeves, and assist each other was amazing.  At that point I realized that my approach to teaching technology was all wrong.  One does not have to be an expert with technology to use technology or even teach technology.  Working with technology is all about attitude.  You have to be open-minded and willing to put yourself out there.  You can't always be the expert and have to be willing to ask for help.  I see it as the perfect way to model lifelong learning for students and to allow students to see how to handle a situation when you don't know how to do something.  It empowers students to know that they can sometimes figure things out on their own and that even the "technology teacher" doesn't know everything.

From that point forward, I was much more welcoming of technology in my classroom.  My digital natives can figure things out ten times faster than I can.  All I have to do is to be generally familiar with what I am doing, and the students will help me and each other figure things out.  While being in that unfamiliar territory can be scary for many teachers, it's often a place where much learning by trial and error occurs.  And that's a place I like to be.