Kathy Cassidy is the author of Connected From the Start: Global Learning in the Primary Grades, published by Powerful Learning Press.

by Kathy Cassidy

speed bump signI frequently get emails from primary teachers asking for help as they begin to add technology in their classroom. These teachers have a lot of questions. They want to use technology, but there always seem to be problems or glitches of some kind along the way.

Their emails go something like this: “How do you use technology so easily in your classroom? It seems to run so well for you. What is your secret? How does that happen? There are always problems when I use technology and then I want to give up.”

These are all great questions. I too have experienced many bumps in my travels with technology. Just when the journey seems to be becoming smoother, another roadblock comes along that needs to be negotiated. Experience has taught me a few things about the mindset that helps us navigate this bumpy road.

Don’t just “integrate” technology

The first bump in the technology road involves a new way of thinking. Don’t view technology as just one more thing to add to your day. And if “integrate” means (as it often does) adding one more thing to your already heavy load, then we probably need a better word. Technology should help us to teach better and in more meaningful ways. It should be used to connect us. It should give us choice and allow us to share. It should not be something that you do in addition to everything else you already do in your classroom. If technology is something that you try to add after you have planned your reading, writing and math, you are destined to fail at “integrating” technology.

Using technology does not mean keeping your students entertained with digital worksheets, or practicing skills with animation, or using computer time instead of a red checkmark as a reward. Instead, use technology when it allows you to do something in a better way than you have done before or to do something that was formerly impossible to do.

Technology supports new ways of learning

Thanks to advances in technology, we now have powerful tools to help students understand and learn in unique ways.

Kathy01You can select a tool or app that will give your students an online audience for their learning and connect them with other classrooms and experts around the world. That tool may be as different as a classroom blog or Twitter or Skype. Other tools make it easy for your students to create artifacts that show not just their learning, but their thinking processes and their self reflections. These are all examples of doing things with technology that could not be done before.

Use technology to make learning new and different in your classroom. Set your sights high and aim for activities that transform! Then, when you hit a bump, you will be more motivated to keep trying. Transformation is never smooth.

Expect problems

My days with technology do NOT all run smoothly. Sometimes there are many stops and starts. This is especially true at the beginning of the school year as my six year olds become familiar with the tools and apps we will use to learn and share what we know. Bandwidth can be an issue in my school, and access has often been as well. Sometimes a tool that I rely on will not work for some reason or other.

I think that everyone experiences these issues and they can be very frustrating. On the other hand, things don’t always run smoothly when I am teaching without technology either.

Kathy03When my students use pencils, they frequently break and need to be sharpened. Some of the children chew on the ends of the shared pencils we use. Erasers get thrown, children get poked. My students hold their pencils in a wide variety of ways, many of which need to be patiently corrected. But we don’t stop using pencils and erasers. I continue modeling the correct usage of those tools and helping students practice until they can use them well.

I don’t let the rough spots deter me because I know the importance of students learning how to use these and other traditional tools to assist and demonstrate their learning. The same holds true when we use a form of technology. Children already know how to use technology for entertainment. They need to learn how technology can help them to learn.

What is the solution? For anything that will become a learning routine in my early years classroom, whether it involves technology or not, I model, model, model it and then we practice it together until the students can do it independently. Even once that independence has been established, I still have to monitor how and what the children are doing to ensure the best learning outcomes.

Flexibility and a backup plan are important ingredients in any classroom, but particularly in a space that includes the use of technology. If the Internet goes down in the middle of our day, I have to be prepared to teach another way, just as if I had planned a trip to the school library and it was suddenly unavailable.

Start with just one thing

My suggestion for people who are hesitant to use technology in significant ways is to start with one thing. Think of one way technology could enhance or deepen the learning in your classroom and then just try it. If you fumble and falter for a bit, keep trying. Like the six year old learning to hold a pencil properly, you will gain mastery over time.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed if you try too many different tools at once. Most of us who have been teaching with technology for awhile have taken on too much too fast somewhere along our journey.  Focus on just that one technology-enhanced activity until you feel very comfortable with it. Then, when that feels good, try adding something else.

Kathy02bMaybe you would like to share what is happening in your classroom with your students’ parents and others who are part of your classroom community. Why not try a classroom blog, a classroom Twitter account or a Facebook page to showcase the activities and learning that are taking place? (You don’t have to do all three at once!)

Perhaps you would like your students to be able to publish their writing or their reading fluency or their math skills for a global audience. If this is the case, then why not try student blogs, a wiki or some other online program? Invite others in to view and give feedback to your learners.

Maybe you would like to use Skype to connect your classroom with another classroom far away to compare perspectives. Check out the resources that are available to help you do this. Plan a small event, perhaps with another teacher who is also just beginning to use Skype. Learn together. Building a network of online support is a great way to bolster your confidence.

It’s not technology – it’s the stuff of teaching

What do you consider to be technology? A pencil? An overhead projector? A computer? An iPod device? At some point, each of these items was considered to be the very latest technology for the classroom.

Many people think of technology as anything that came into popular use after they reached adulthood. To my six-year-old students, and in fact to all students in school today, computers, tablets, smart phones, interactive boards, etc. are not technology. They just are. It’s their teachers and parents who consider these items to be something new or unusual.

CFTS-cover_curvedStudents are comfortable using these devices to communicate and to find information. To them, tools and apps are just another part of the world they inhabit. These tools have the power to become the stuff of teaching and learning if we will let them. Don’t think of them as technology. They are just part of the fabric of life around us. Students need to be shown how to use them to learn.

Is using technology bumpy? You bet. But we need to begin thinking the way our children do. We use technology not just because it is technology, but because of what it can do. It engages us and helps us to learn. So bring on the bumps!

About the author
Kathy Cassidy is an award-winning first grade teacher who incorporates technology into her classroom to give her students an authentic audience and a portal to the world. She blogs at Primary Preoccupation and with her students at Ms. Cassidy's Classroom Blog. Follow her on Twitter @kathycassidy. Her first book, from Powerful Learning Press, is Connected from the Start: Global Learning in the Primary Grades.