The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Taking a Break from Technology

I wear many hats in my building and in my school district: classroom teacher, instructional technology specialist, improvement team member, grade-level leader, writing committee, technology cadre, technology-enhanced learning environments task force member, program council member, professional development leader, PBIS universal team, Young Authors coordinator, Young Authors representative, union building representative, union leadership team member, union elections chair, and probably some others that I have forgotten.

Of all of these different hats, the one I am most passionate about is being a classroom teacher. I am constantly asking myself what I am doing well, what is not working out, and what I can do better. Many of the other hats are directly connected to this one. Which is why it should not be at all surprising that I am also very passionate about educational technology. For the past year and a half, I have served as my building’s instructional technology specialist, which means that I spend my time outside the classroom thinking about ways I can help my colleagues effectively use technology in their own classrooms. And, of course, this means I also think about how I can be more effective in my own technology use.

Sometimes that means that I need to take a break from the technology. It seems counterintuitive at first, but sometimes we get so caught up in using the technology for the sake of technology’s use that we lose sight of why we are using it. Or, as is perhaps more often the case, our students get caught up in the use and lose sight of what they are supposed to be doing. This is what happened in my classroom this week.

We use technology a lot. All day, every day, my students are using technology to connect and to learn in ways that they simply cannot do using traditional materials and resources. (That isn’t to say that traditional materials and resources are not important; they are!) But I realised yesterday that far too many of my students were using technology for activities that were not actually connected to what they were supposed to be doing at that time.

My students love using Prodigy to do math. If it is a rainy day and we have to stay inside for recess, they will ask if they can use their Chromebooks to do Prodigy. Why would I tell them no? If they are doing more math practice and are either honing their skills or learning new concepts, I am not going to stand in the way of that! However, if we are in the midst of our Daily CAFE and students are supposed to be reading or writing independently while I am meeting with a small group and instead they are doing math on Prodigy, that is problematic. It isn’t that I don’t want them doing math; it is that I also need them to work on improving their literacy skills!

As I was finishing meeting with groups yesterday, my awesome teacher’s aide informed me that eight different students had been accessing websites that were not connected to literacy. With twenty-six students in my class, those eight represented nearly one-third of my class! And so I realised that we needed to take a break from the technology to refocus on what independent learning tasks should look and feel like.

All of that to explain why my students came to school today and discovered that our Chromebook cart was locked up this morning. Instead of practicing math facts on XtraMath first thing in the morning, the students wrote about technology expectations. Instead of working on Front Row, Khan Academy, and Prodigy during our guided math group time, they worked out of the math book, used task cards, and worked together on real world math situations. Instead of using InstaGrok to research ancient Mayan, Incan, and Aztec civilisations, they used our social studies books to read about these groups of people and to learn about their amazing accomplishments. Instead of using Storybird, Google Docs, and Storia to read and write during our Daily CAFE, they read from guided reading group books, self-selected texts, and completed graphic organisers related to the texts they had been reading with me in small groups.

Were these all tasks that could be done using technology? Of course! Does the technology give them access to a wider variety of information and resources than found within their print materials. Yes. Were my students still engaged in meaningful learning activities today that helped them improve skills and deepen understanding? They sure were!

In many ways, I think my students think of technology as a substitute for more traditional materials, or they consider the technological tools as something that simply augments what they have available. I don’t blame them; when we consider models for technology integration in the classroom, many people have an enhancement mindset. My goal is to use technology to transform the classroom by modifying tasks or, even better, to completely redesign learning situations so that students are using technology to learn and share in ways that are simply not possible otherwise. (Ironically, I found myself using the traditional materials to substitute for the technology today instead of the other way around!)

After a day off from the technology, we will begin working tomorrow to slowly reintroduce our advanced learning tools in the classroom. Now that we have seen what we can do, it is time to refocus in on what we should do.

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