Technology: Another Tool in the Toolbox

I love a good blog post that makes me think.  This one did just that.  It was written in response to this blog post from Nancie Atwell. Both blog posts approached the topic of technology in the classroom, but in very different ways.  It made me stop and reflect on these past few months as I have worked to bring more technology into my classroom.  I should restate that, because it makes a huge difference.  In these past few months, I have worked to find ways to connect my students to the world they live in and empower them to have a voice in that world through the use of technology.  And I have seen incredible things happen.

Now, I firmly believe that there is no one right way to do anything (except maybe the one right way there is to eat an Oreo). If I were to say that there is only one right way to teach, then I would be as bad as the people who believe that one standard test is effective in measuring a multitude of different children. All I can speak to is what I have seen happen in my own classroom. But I believe these experiences are worth sharing because they are what allow us to arrive at the truths and beliefs that we hold.  The stories of our own classrooms are how we learn from each other and how we start to see things in new and different ways.  So here is what I know from what I have seen and what my students have taught me.

Several years ago, I switched from having my students draft on paper to having them draft on the computer. I was hesitant at first because I knew that, as a writer, I could only really draft on paper. I wanted my students to experience what I had experienced. What I loved about writing. I wanted them to know what it is like to hold a pen and open a brand new notebook and write for pages and pages and pages. I wanted them to know the satisfaction of writing over pages that have the imprints of the previous page’s writing on them.  This, to me, was writing.  And so the idea of drafting on the computer was not one that I was ready to embrace. Until I finally stopped and listened to the kids. They were telling me, very clearly, that for them, writing was different.  For them, writing meant drafting on a computer so that things felt less permanent and they were more willing to do the things that I was asking, and begging, them to do. To go back and reread what they have written and make changes and play around and try something without it feeling so permanent.

So I did it.

I made the switch.

And. It. Was. Remarkable.

All of a sudden, the kids were writing more than they ever had before. It was as if allowing them access to the computer for drafting, opened up doors that their writing had been hiding behind all this time.  And they were more willing to make changes. And they were more willing to try new things, even if they weren’t certain they would like them. And they were more willing to share their writing because they weren’t worried about handwriting anymore. It was amazing.

But revision.

That, in my mind, HAD to be done on paper.  Because, for me, I couldn’t accurately read what I had written from the computer screen. I couldn’t possibly mark places where I wanted to make changes without having a colored pen in my hand.  I couldn’t possibly digest what I had written and revise it while looking at a computer screen.

But then, last year, I remembered what I had learned from my first switch to the computer.  I remembered that I learned that my students and I, we are not the same people. Just because I was not able to revise on the computer, it didn’t mean that THEY weren’t able to revise on the computer. Just because I needed to hold the physical paper in my hand, it didn’t mean that is what THEY needed.  They knew what the needed.

I just needed to listen to them.

So last year, I gave the kids the option to draft on the computer. Using GoogleDocs, I was able to see the revisions they made. They were able to see the revisions they made. They were able to put things back to the way they were if what they tried wasn’t working.  They were able to share their documents with me and with the rest of their writing community and we were all able to offer feedback.  And I found that my kids were more willing to accept the feedback that I left as comments on a GoogleDoc than the red pen writing that I left up and down the sides of their paper.

And all of a sudden there was this incredible collaboration happening that I never anticipated. My students were using technology to create a stronger community of writers. Children were happily sharing documents with each other and this led them to talk about their writing and reflect on their writing. None of that ever happened when we were doing all of our revising on paper and then going back to make the changes on our computers.

And that was the next lesson that my students taught me.  Technology is about more than just word processing and sharing documents. Technology is this incredible tool that put so much power into the hands of the kids.  Technology opens up incredible possibilities than I never even dream of, but the kids figure out how to do. Technology allows them the freedom to try things out and to be unafraid and to follow their interests and instincts. Technology is this thing that I will NEVER be an expert in, but that I am lucky enough to have my students to show me how to use. Technology lets them work together and create new paths for themselves towards learning.

So what I first saw, was technology that allowed us to collaborate more effectively inside of my classroom.  And that was good enough for me, for a while.  And then came this year.

This year, I started to crave more for my kids. I wanted our learning to matter to the world outside of my classroom.  It’s one of the big reasons I started this blog. I found connections for myself online through blogging and through Twitter and I wanted to bring those connections to my students as well.

This year, we have learned to share our voices with the world through our blogs. We have written blogs about who we are and we have written blogs to ask others to help us with what we needed in order to learn in better ways.  We have written blogs about our reading and we have written blogs to share our writing. We have learned how to comment on people’s blog posts so that we can spark conversations in respectful ways. We have learned to read and learn from what others have to say. We have learned to read the blogs of people in far away places to help us put faces and lives to the stories that we hear on the news. We have learned to read the blogs of other people to build empathy for others and to understand that the way we live is NOT the way that everyone lives. We have learned that blogs are a way for people to share their stories and we have learned that blogs are a way for us to share our own stories as well.

These blogs have created a purpose for our writing.  It is not our only purpose, but it is one additional purpose. And just like some of my students get excited at the thought of writing an informational picture book for our first grade buddies, other students get excited at the thought of writing a blog post to publish for the world outside our classroom.  I am thankful that I have this new purpose to offer to my students because you just never know what purpose is going to suddenly make a writer out of a non-writer. And I would hate knowing that I missed an opportunity to spark a love of writing for one of my students because I was afraid to use a mode of writing that I didn’t fully understand for myself.

We have also used technology to enter into communities of learners outside of our classroom through Twitter. We have had Twitter chats about books and about inferences we have made in our books and about what our learning looks like with other 5th graders from across the country.  We have learned that we need to be able to support what we say with evidence or no one is going to believe us.  We have learned to ask thought-provoking questions in a clear way so that children in far away states are able to understand what we are asking and respond in a thoughtful way.

And we have reached out to authors and experts on Twitter. We have had authors respond to us on Twitter and it suddenly made us feel like authors were real people. It made us feel like we were a part of a global reading community. And that matters so much to us. Because now we are not just reading alone in our classroom, now we are reading in a great big world of readers. And it feels so much bigger, and better, than just us. It motivates us to read more and it motivates us to share our thinking about our books with others.  It provides us a real purpose for writing about our reading and writing about the thinking that we do about our reading. We write to share our reading with the global reading community that we feel a part of.

And all of this learning. This incredible learning. We would have missed out on it if we had not been able to have the access to technology in our classroom that has allowed us to do these things.  And my students would have missed out on all of this if I had not been able to realize that they were capable of things that I, myself, might not be capable of yet.  If I hadn’t looked at them and seen them for who they are instead of just as reflections of who I want them to be, I hate to think of what we would have missed out on.

I am certainly not saying that teachers who don’t do these things with their students are doing something wrong. I am not saying that teachers who are not connected to technology are bad teachers. I am just saying that I am grateful that I have been able to see what I have seen in my students these past few months. I am just saying that there is no ONE way to something.  Technology is another tool in our toolboxes as teachers. And it is an incredibly powerful tool when it is used the right way.  I don’t know exactly what that right way is yet, but I am grateful that I am on my way to figuring that out.