Becky Bair, who teaches the intermediate grades in Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown Area School District, is passionate about incorporating technology as one of many tools to help students view learning as an exciting, lifelong endeavor. She writes the blog Teach ‘N’ Life and can be followed on Twitter @becky7274.

by Becky Bair

When I first started teaching I was handed a curriculum and told, “Here’s what you need to teach.” How I taught it, the ways in which I integrated the different subjects, and the different modalities I used to hook my students were up to me.

With the background knowledge from my college courses and the support of my talented mentor and other colleagues, I planned and delivered lessons to meet the needs of my students and the requirements of the curriculum. Sometimes they worked, and I kept those to use again the following year. Other times, the lessons did not turn out as planned so I looked for ways to reteach my current kids and improve in years to come. Teaching was fun, and by getting to know my students I was able to plan lessons and activities that would get them excited about learning and encourage them to go out and learn more on their own.

In August I will be starting my fourteenth year of teaching, but the last few years have been no fun. There is very little creativity in teaching any more. We hear words like “rigorous” and “research-based,” not “student selected” or “engaging.”

Teacher designed lessons crafted specifically for our unique mix of students have been discarded in favor of scripted lessons that are one size fits all. The days of learning from and sharing with professional colleagues have been replaced by time spent pouring over screen after screen of test score data. Our kids are beginning to hate school and, to be quite honest, so are the teachers.

Going against the tide is scary

With all the consequences that ride on a small number of standardized assessments, trying to do something different, like blending technology into your lesson plans, can be extremely scary. Will my students learn what they need to in order to pass “the test”? How will other teachers react? What will parents say? Will I have support from my administration?

This past year, I knew in my heart that things needed to be different in my classroom. The last thing I wanted was to do the wrong thing for my kids by trying something new. But it was time to change, no matter how scary the prospect might be.

I’ve always incorporated technology into my lessons, but this year I was able to take the next step through a Powerful Learning Practice professional development opportunity offered by our area education service agency. Rather than teaching to the test in reading, which is what I felt I’d been doing the last few years, I focused on skills and strategies and had my students responding on a class wiki. Many times we shared links to websites that connected to what we were reading, or we used the discussion page to talk about what we were reading and to add our own questions about the stories. As I expected, students chose to participate much more often than they did during worksheet-based class discussions.

Other times, like when we were working on compare and contrast and evaluating, I asked my students to compare two items — a Wii and an iPad — and recommend one for the classroom. I was able to use their evaluations to help write a grant proposal to try to get iPads for our classroom. While the grant was not successful, the students saw that their work had a purpose; there was more to learning than just answering questions on a test.

After I shifted my teaching strategies, it was terrifying each time I had to review our required reading assessments. I could see the kids demonstrating their knowledge on our wiki, but would they be able to transfer what they were learning to the weekly test? Just like my first years of teaching, some lessons worked and the students did well on their assessments. I tucked those activities away for the future. When the scores showed my students didn’t quite get it, I knew I needed to adjust how I taught that skill or strategy to help my kids grasp the concepts better.

In writing, we took to the blog, and my students finally had a purpose for writing. While there were times when everybody was working on the same topic, what really sparked their writing was the opportunity for the kids to share unique pieces with the world: stories, events and topics that mattered to them. I know that “Nine Innings” by Hunter, or “Ninja Cat” by Grace would most likely not have been written if it wasn’t for the blog, nor would Nathan have had the chance for people to read “The Strange House of Professor Travis McGee,” which began:

 “In the Swiss Alps there lived a man, an unusual man. He was a scientist, he did many strange experiments. Some people thought he was mad. He had white hair, it wasn’t grey hair. Not the hair that you get when you’re old. It was a bright snow white. Some people think he was struck by lightning in a experiment and it turned from brown to white. This man lived alone in a house larger then the White House. Neighbors have no idea where he’s from or how he built the house but one thing is for sure, it is the scariest house they have seen with gargoyles on the roof that seem to peer into your soul, and a giant Hollywood style graveyard on the side.”

The kids jumped up and cheered the day we got our first outside comments on our blogs — and I jumped up and cheered when I had the data to show that my kids’ writing had improved dramatically over the course of each marking period.

Did my students learn what they needed to pass “the tests” required by our state? I’m still waiting on pins and needles to learn the answer to that question — the data is still out. But here’s what I can tell you based on our local scores and student interviews:  More kids showed improvement in their reading and writing than in past years, and they enjoyed the learning experience. On their year-end reflections, students shared thoughts like these: “I never believed I could read books and actually like it” and “I never thought I would like writing so much!” and “Knowing that anybody in the world could read my writing made me try a lot harder.” That tells me the changes implemented in my classroom worked for this group of kids.

New building, new grade, new year

I know I was lucky this year. I had students who were enthusiastic and jumped at the chance to try blogs and wikis and other new technologies. Their parents were appreciative of fewer worksheets and supported the work the students were doing online. Several parents even commented multiple times on our blog. I had no complaints or concerns about the students’ blogs being open for all to see.

Most importantly, I had administrators who supported me as I made this change. They gave me the green light to try something new and really encouraged me to take risks. They realized that I might need to make adjustments along the way and supported me every step.

So what happens when the new school year starts in September? I’m not sure. There are a lot of changes in store for my teaching life this year. I’ll be at a new building with new administrators, teaching only two subjects at a new grade level with a new mix of students.

I’m hopeful. I have what worked and what did not work in my pocket, and I also have some ideas of how I want to take my technology use to the next level. I can’t wait to improve what I did last year and make connections online with other classes to try some new things.

Will my new students learn what they need to in order to pass “the test”? How will other teachers react? What will parents say? Will I have support from my administration? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

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