Sometimes the only way to make progress is to leave something behind.
During one of our last leadership team meetings this past school year, we reflected on our use of digital portfolios to house student work. We had a lot to celebrate: We had found a digital tool to capture student learning, Evernote, a cloud-based note-taking app.
No one felt much pressure to be the best at using technology. Parent feedback, although limited in the initial stages of this project, was very positive. Things were looking up going into the fall.
But a variety of concerns were also shared. The one that stuck with me the most: Some staff members were still not comfortable using mobile devices to collect and organize student learning. “There isn’t enough time in the day,” someone commented. Furthermore, teachers didn’t always remember to pull out the devices and capture learning while it was happening — they were teaching. These were reasonable concerns.
Although there might never be enough time, what could be an underlying concern here?
A theory was that technology had not truly become embedded in the day-to-day instruction of some teachers because they had not developed fluency in using it. “Fluency” is usually a term used in reading instruction, but it can also be applied to other complex skills.
We had not yet achieved a sense of comfort with the digital devices we had on hand. Fortunately, there are things that we, as educators, can do to improve in using technology during instruction.
When we first integrated tablets into our school, three years ago, one of the first questions teachers asked was, “Can I take this home?” My response was always, “Please!” From my own experience, I knew that using these devices personally would help them become more fluent.
For instance, when I first started using the app Evernote, I would enter information that I wanted to remember but didn’t want to write out on paper. When I took my kids to a department store and they started asking for toys, I created a “Santa’s Wish List” note for each of them in Evernote. I took pictures of their suggestions, promising that I would email these files to the North Pole. With all that Santa has to remember, he should be using Evernote, too.
Certainly, I am not advocating that educators treat school technology like their own personal property. But the line between home and work is becoming blurrier with each passing day. By using these tools for more low-level types of activities, cognitively speaking, we are preparing ourselves for more complex work. By getting the how-to out of the way, we can focus more on the learning and less on the doing.
This past school year was the first time that all staff were fully on board in using Evernote and tablets to capture student learning. But some teachers still weren’t using technology fluently during instruction.
So we set a bare minimum expectation of having at least one note in each student’s notebook or portfolio that contained his or her informational writing over the course of the year. During subsequent training sessions, we would model this practice in front of the whole faculty. In addition, we made sure that teachers had ample time to work with one another, figuring out how to create notebooks in Evernote for each student. Users comfortable with the technology were paired up with more tentative teachers. This reinforced our culture of inquiry and collaboration.
Starting small and providing lots of training with sufficient support helped us to ensure that everyone experienced success right away. No teacher was left behind! This is important because all students deserve to have a great learning experience, regardless of the year or which classroom they are placed in. Setting minimal expectations, while allowing those who were ready to move on to do so, ensured that everyone was on board.
As teachers became more comfortable in using technology, they started to see connections between other projects and this work. For example, one teacher was using the app Book Creator to have her students create original e-books with their own audio narration.
“Could these be saved in Evernote, so I can share them with parents?” she asked me.
“I don’t know, but let’s find out,” I replied.
We took some time in her classroom to work alongside her students, experimenting and sharing our findings. We discovered that, yes, these e-books could be stored and shared using Evernote.
I highlighted these types of innovations in Friday Focus, my weekly staff newsletter that chronicles what is going well in our school. This sharing helped ensure that new ways of learning were disseminated throughout our school. Writing it out also gave me, and that teacher (I hope), a moment of pause to reflect on our work. Why was this an important project to share? How might other teachers use it in their classrooms? These connections sometimes inspired staff members to lead sessions for their colleagues on how to use these tools in practice.
By establishing a personal connection with technology, starting small, and making time to connect and reflect, we can ensure that the digital tools we have in our schools are used to their potential. It would be wise of my leadership team to revisit these steps as we prepare for professional learning for this coming school year.