New Tools or New Thinking?

If you’re like me and set aside as much time as possible during your hectic week to discover new technologies to use in your classroom, then you are already aware of the mind-blowing possibilities out there for us to find and explore. In fact, it can be a bit overwhelming. While there are lots out there that I’m excited about (Pear Deck, Recap, etc.) and plan to share with you all, I want to start with a bit of advice or caution.  Just like any tool we’re given as educators, the use of the tool determines it’s value and effectiveness, not the tool itself.  I’ve shared discoveries with teachers for years in every district where I’ve had the privilege to teach, and I’ve had some great responses and some not so great.  The problem with some educators is that they don’t change their thinking on teaching and learning as the years pass, they just add a technological component to their lessons so that they look up to date.You know who I’m talking about, and if you are reading this and realize that you are in fact guilty of this, which I find myself guilty of occasionally as well, then let me help you reboot your thinking. There’s nothing better than a reboot, hard or soft, to get things working properly again.


Let’s look at Google Classroom, for example. This is an amazing tool in the G Suite that I love and use frequently.  Do I have 1-1 in my small rural Missouri school? No, not yet. Do I have handheld devices for students to use? No, my class itself doesn’t, but most of my students own their own smartphone or tablet of some type. Do I have access to a few computers daily? Yes. Can I reserve a cart of Chromebooks once a week? Yes, usually.  Okay, so how do I use Classroom?  For starters, I use it daily in my short stories class. It is a small enough class to be 1-1 for that period of my daily schedule since I have some desktop computers in my classroom. I don’t use a textbook. (If this thought raises your blood pressure, take a deep breath or maybe go for a short walk and then come back.) I use links to the classic short stories I want to teach and post them in my Classroom. My students read the stories online during class. I can generally find audio links for every story too, which helps my students who need differentiation, and it’s fun for those who love to be read to, especially when I find audio files with great narrators or music to set the ambiance. Students who are absent know they can go to my Classroom and see what we read for the day and whether or not there were other activities or assignments also tied to the day they were absent.  I have several students who never have makeup work when they are absent (and one or two who always do) merely because they check our Classroom and then complete the reading or other activities on their own. I love that.  This is how I want technology to work.


So what’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing.  But there are educators out there who can’t visualize this small revolution, and instead, they just do the “same ole same ole” but add Classroom.  How can using Google Classroom in education be perverted by a teacher? Well, I’m sure there are more ways that I can list here (plus it’s a beautiful Saturday outside, and I have nothing I have to do for my school or my contemporary Christian band, ONE, so the outside beckons),  but one way I see frequently is to make it a homework only resting place.  This practice is excused by the educational perpetrators in classrooms everywhere  by claiming they’ve flipped their classroom. Unfortunately, they haven’t flipped anything. The homework they normally would have assigned is merely posted in Classroom, perhaps doubled or increased by some increment because they feel empowered with this new-fangled technology.  Ring any bells?


If you truly want to flip your classroom, try posting a video or tutorial of your lesson for the following day (or post it on a Friday and due on Monday to give them a few days) in Classroom as the assignment or homework. This allows your students to be prepared to work on the new problems in class while you, the teacher, are available to provide assistance. The 60 math problems you have at your disposal to assign would not be posted in Classroom as their homework for the evening, due the very next day.  The class period would not be spent showing and explaining how to do it, providing no time for students to practice the new problems with teacher assistance.  Keep in mind that this isn’t flipping your class, nor is it a proper use of Classroom. Sure, it works, and yes, you are using technology. But consider for a second your methods, lesson design, and purpose instead of the tools you plan to use.


Is your interactive whiteboard being used as an interactive or merely a whiteboard?  Are you turning over the discovery of learning to your students?  Are you truly providing independent practice in the classroom? Are your students doing anything that helps them reach the upper levels of the DOK chart? Does having 60 problems a night help them learn? (Well, sure, they will learn something if they are able to keep up with all the work plus the demands on their time by their normal lives.) Rote memorization and lots of practice do help hone skills. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be homework in high school or at whatever level you teach. I don’t personally give out much homework to my students, and when I do, they have more than one evening to complete it.  But the problem with your thinking lies in the numbers (hehe-numbers).  Regardless of what subject you teach, if you think that giving students more and more work on the same level of DOK means that you are reaching analysis, synthesis, or even evaluation, then please reconsider.


Asking me to catch eight crickets instead of just one cricket and then label its parts does not move my assignment up on the DOK scale.  Asking students to read the chapter sections in history class and do all of the questions at the end, and posting that assignment online does not move it beyond the skill and knowledge level.  It does not increase the difficulty of the task unless you have students who do not have the internet at home (yes, those students still exist), and then you have increased their level of difficulty in completing your homework, which is not the same thing as the level of difficulty/complexity in the work itself. If that floats your boat, then perhaps you need a wee bit of a vacay.  Soon. Take it soon.


Instead of looking for trinkets you can sprinkle into your lessons to impress your administration that you are teaching Chemistry version instead of plain ole traditional chemistry from the 1950’s, look at ways you can update your thinking on the best practices being used in classrooms today (Please! For the love of Pete!) to present your information and better ways in which your students can receive, process, and produce once you have “taught” your objectives. After you’ve done this, then come see me. Boy, do I have some mind-blowing tools to show you.


Taking Risks-Educationally Speaking

In this first blog post, I’m challenging educators to take risks.  In life, I am not always a risk taker.  I mean, I don’t jump out of perfectly good airplanes for fun, or swim with sharks on purpose, or even handle poisonous snakes. But when it comes to finding new ways to help my students understand concepts, explore their own creativity, make connections, or engage in my content in deeper and more meaningful ways, then I take risks. I’m a risk taker. I see new strategies, websites, programs, or technologies, and I contemplate how that would help my students. I think about how the “something new” could enhance the learning my students experience in my classroom, and then I take risks.

I get this drive from my late father, David Ingalls. He was an outstanding educator, administrator, father, and mentor.  He had that special gift for seeing almost immediately how things could be applied in his classroom, building, or district.  As it happens, Dad began his Missouri teaching career in the same school district where I am currently employed. In fact, his former classroom is just around the corner from my current classroom and both are down a long hallway from the entrance to the high school building. It was down this hallway that my dad trudged weekly, and sometimes daily, with his VCR n the early 1980’s. It was big and bulky compared to our DVD and Blue Ray players today, and the hallway was and is long.

This is the actual hallway Dad walked down with his VCR, though the picture is recent. His room was all the way to the end and then around the corner.

He was the first teacher in his district to use a VCR in the classroom. In fact, he was the first teacher in the district to bring one to school period.  You see, Dad taught history, and when the TV miniseries, The Blue and the Gray, began airing promotional commercials, my dad saw how he could get students interested in the Civil War, the problems our nation faced then, and the struggles of individual families. He saw how he could make it real for his students. So Dad purchased a VCR for around $700, and then he bought blank VCR tapes to record the series off of the television.  The blank VCR tapes cost around $20 each at the time. Dad was not rich, and he worked in a rural school district, but he could see how using this tool in his classroom could transform how his students viewed the Civil War, so he took a risk. He had to explain to his administrators how this would be a good thing for his students. My dad had to fight for something we educators take for granted in our classroom today. He had to blaze the trail. He rocked the boat.

I’m not advocating that we all run to the stores to find the “latest and greatest” tool out there and spend just under $1000 (or way over).  I would love (love, love, love, love) to have a 4K SMART board in my classroom, but I don’t have to spend that kind of money in order to take risks for my students, and I’m not asking you all to do that either. We don’t have to spend a lot of money to blaze new trails today. We can be innovative in cheap and/or low tech ways by finding more creative ways to use in our lessons what we already have at our fingertips. But I am challenging you to take a risk. If you struggle to see how to apply a new strategy or tool in your daily lessons, ask that one teacher in your building or district who seems to have that same knack my dad had. Attend workshops, conferences, or get online and see what other teachers are doing that is new to you, and then find a way to try it in your classroom. Don’t be afraid to let your students help you learn a new technology. Don’t be afraid to try.  And finally, don’t put the process or product ahead of your students. Keep what’s best for your students at the forefront of your mind as you consider taking a risk.