I remember exactly how I felt when I put together my first real toolbox. The gray no-nonsense plastic container, made by Rubbermaid, would house the essential tools I needed now that I was twenty-something and on my own. I bought a hammer, of course, two kinds of screwdrivers (one with a Phillips head and one with a flat head), a foldout miniature saw, some nails and screws, and a measuring tape. I mainly used the toolbox to hang pictures in my apartment, but oh my, did it make me feel empowered!
This summer, as I have transitioned to a new teaching position in a new school and a new culture, I have found myself fixated on that toolbox. As the academic year unfolds, I hope to share my previous experience with using technology in the classroom at a school that is pulsating with the energy of change. Given the freedom to design a 21st-century Language Arts curriculum for fifth and sixth-graders, I’ve been thinking a lot about the infrastructure – and the tools — I will need to build into the everyday experience of my students’ learning.
I know that my students will have access to laptops, though that’s about it for now. I will miss Moodle as a classroom environment to learn in, and my K-8 school has yet to embrace Google’s great online tools for educational purposes (besides basic email for schools, the means to write collaborative documents, create websites and surveys, etc.). In addition, I’m now working with “under 13-year-olds,” who, because of the COPPA legislation and legitimate parental concerns about safety, basically can’t make use of most of the digital tools I have depended on when working with older students. So I find myself asking, “What are the essential tools my students will need in order to be empowered as learners?” Thus, I share with you my basic toolbox for 21st-century learning.
Phase 1: Basic Toolbox
Collaborize: This online classroom platform is essentially a “walled garden” where only those students assigned to the class, or those educators or parents who are specifically invited will be able to see student work. The platform depends mostly on discussion forums (where I can also post videos and other resources) and polling tools (some might use this for quizzes). It also includes a page for sharing resources.
Collaborize will be the toolbox itself, providing a space to organize all aspects of my work with my middle school students. It will empower them to share readings and ideas, take charge of their own learning with “flipped” video lessons on grammar and vocabulary (which they will produce), and make sense collaboratively of the research we undertake together.
Diigo for Educators: Providing social bookmarking in a “walled garden” format, Diigo is as essential for learning as my hammer is for hanging pictures and making home repairs. With Diigo, students will be empowered to share and critique online resources as a classroom “group.” In addition, students can highlight and write collective notes on whatever they dig up, thus refining their research and critical reading skills. Luckily, Diigo also provides one of the few means available for young students to save their hard-won research to the “cloud.”
Study Blue: Unfortunately for those of us who work with the “under 13” crowd, Study Blue, a popular study app, is built upon the idea of creating an open community of learners who share study materials with one another (thus, it’s not a “walled garden”). So, despite its popularity with my eighth-graders last year, I must designate it as a recommended tool for learning in my classroom. Those students whose parents set up and supervise accounts for them will be able to create and share online flashcards, schedule their study times on a calendar (with reminders), and use their time effectively by discerning what they have mastered and what they haven’t. Most importantly, I want to empower my students to study and track their learning on their mobile devices – that is, the computers they carry in their pockets, their mobile phones.
Phase 2: Advanced Toolbox (Digital Portfolios and Blogging)
Digital Portfolios: How can students become stakeholders in their own learning? First, they must understand for themselves what they have learned. They need to record the process of learning in a transparent way, and they need to watch their learning evolve. Finally, they need room to reflect on their own growth. With those things in mind, we need another essential tool – the digital portfolio.
Wikispaces for Teachers: A wiki is one of those all-purpose tools, providing versatile online space for sharing information, collaborating with others, and collecting artifacts of learning. The teacher-creator controls who has access to or sees what is produced (thus, it can be set up as a “walled garden”).
You might also think of a wiki as a nifty organizer tray. I hope to use Wikispaces as an archival space for classroom materials, the course schedule, and student projects. Most importantly, students will be empowered to curate their own content for individual pages as digital portfolios.
Blogging: If, as a Language Arts teacher, I want to empower students as writers in an authentic context, I need to provide them with what they need not just to put words together in elegant sentences, but with the tools that will allow them to reach an audience. I want them to write for each other. I want them to write for their parents and relatives. I want them to write for their communities. I want them to write for the world. We absolutely need tools for blogging if we hope to accomplish those goals.
Stage-one blogging will allow students to learn their craft in a safe place. After that, I hope their parents will help them choose the tool that is appropriate for them to reach out to others.
Edublogs: This stage-one educational blogging platform, as I understand it, can be set up in a “walled garden” format as students become comfortable with sharing their writing in a public space. We can create a class blog, to which students can post, or we can set up a class grouping of student accounts.
In an important step, parents can become our first audience as students begin to take responsibility for what they say and how they say it.
Glogster Edu: This one-of-a-kind tool empowers students to write with words and images, and to share their work with one another as a social network, albeit in a “walled garden.” Students create digital posters (using text, sound, video, and images) with this stage-one tool, and then they can embed them elsewhere (such as in their digital portfolios). They can even print their posters for old-style classroom display and for their parents’ refrigerators. Students are empowered to learn design skills, editing skills, and presentation skills by using this tool.
(Note: There is a cost for using this tool in the “education” format: 50 student accounts for $29.95 (other pricing is available, for instance, if you want to go school-wide).
Quadblogging: As my students become more accomplished writers for the web, I hope to broaden their sense of audience by connecting with other bloggers around the world. A rather new phenomenon begun last year in the United Kingdom by David Mitchell, quadblogging provides for group writing in a round-robin format with three other classes of same-age students from around the world. Essentially, students at one school respond to a prompt on an assigned rotation, and the other three schools offer comments in response. The goal is to create a sense of responsible readership and an authentic audience of real kids for the blogs. Quadblogging also provides ample opportunity to teach how to comment, a companion skill that requires lots of practice.
Writer’s Club: For advanced and more mature writers, the worldwide Writer’s Club, is hosted by Rob Sbaglia at the Castlemaine North Primary School in Victoria, Australia. Sbaglia’s site uses a unique system of “badges” to reward writers who participate actively in the community by posting writing and commenting on the writing of others. Students can choose from a range of writing groups based on their interests. The idea is to empower students to write and let them go (with a few adults looking over their shoulders to make sure everything is okay).
It may not look like it to some folks, but I’m starting slowly. I want to give my students, their parents, and my school community time to experience the power of working with the right tools for the right purpose. If we can master how to swing our hammers with some force without smashing our thumbs, we can start to build one heck of a learning space.
Besides researching the actual “terms of service” for the any number of digital tools, I used Mark Gleeson’s recent blog post, “Web 2.0 for the Under 13s Crowd,” for guidance in choosing appropriate tools for younger middle-school students. I also consulted with trusted former colleague Renee Hawkins of Garrison Forest School in Maryland, and with my husband, Larry Kahn, of the Kinkaid School in Houston, both of whom oversee educational technology programs for the “under 13” crowd. Finally, I want to thank HollyAnne Giffin, Spanish and Language Arts teacher at the Chinquapin Preparatory School, for her timely blog post on “Tech Toys” that mentioned Collaborize.