As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people’s ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life. -Amy Poehler

What do educators talk about?  Even when not in the classroom, getting a bunch of educators together means “school talk”.  At a recent social gathering, I found myself huddling up with my teacher friends and commiserating with them about the ending of summer and the beginning of another year.  It is ironic that in a profession so centered around human interaction, teachers often find themselves feeling very isolated.

Spending time with other educators, engaging in meaningful conversations and talking through ideas is critical for effective teaching.  With the addition of new and ever-changing technologies, that collaboration is more necessary than ever.  Some teachers push through new ground effortlessly and others may need a little more guidance.  When experiencing difficulty, some teachers may feel reluctant to ask for help.  Others may feel they are the only one having difficulty.  We are quick to encourage collaboration with our own students and less likely to engage in it ourselves.

At the school district level and at my school level, we believe firmly in the “Train the Trainer” model.  Empowering teachers at their own schools builds a cadre of knowledge.  With the implementation of the iPads, the 3 of us who participated in the original pilot worked with our staff to train them.  We created a vanguard of sorts by also working closely with our school technology committee.  This committee consists of one teacher from each grade level.  This way, each grade level team had a point-person to check with first if questions or problems arose.  Our technology committee meets monthly to go over what is working and what needs attention.  Grade level teams meet weekly. During these meetings, we have a “Ten Minute Tech Time”.  We share what we are doing in our classrooms with the iPads and discuss any questions or issues that we may be having.  This built in time ensures that teachers are voicing their ideas, questions, and/or problems.  Our school district’s Ed Tech team are frequent visitors in our school and in our meetings.  They are quick to offer support, suggestions and solutions.

Teaching today is hard enough.  Collaborating with your colleagues and other educators can broaden ideas, provide support within the system and sustain teachers as we all navigate through the Technology Turnpike.

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Back to the Basics: Planning for a New Year

The beginning is the most important part of the work.- Plato

I go back to school in exactly 17 days.  *Sigh*.  The new school year always brings a convoluted mix of emotions.  Few advents bring such excitement and dread. However, one thing I have learned over the years is the absolute necessity to start the year right with your students by front loading procedures.  Harry Wong is an educator, speaker and author.  He states that “The three most important student behaviors that must be taught on the first day of school are discipline, procedures, and routines.” By being vigilant the first few weeks of school in establishing rules and routines, you set yourself up for a successful rest of the year.

Implementing iPads at the start of the year also requires front loading of procedures and rules.  Whether you have a class set like mine or a few for students to share, proper use is an integral part of classroom management.  Our school year starts on a Wednesday.  I spend those first 3 days teaching classroom procedures and do not incorporate iPads.  Older grades whose students used iPads the previous year might not need to wait 3 days.  With 5 year old students (and some are actually 4), I need all 3 of those days to get classroom procedures rolling.  The next week, I begin pulling small groups of students for reading groups.  I will introduce the iPads in those small groups.  We learn how to turn them on and off, how to navigate screens, how to hold them and how NOT to hold them.  We work our way through a few phonics apps and then put them away.  We will do that each day for that first full week of school, while continuing to go over all other classroom rules and routines.  The second full week, I will usually do a whole group math activity or phonics activity with the iPads.  We continue to reinforce proper use and handling and I model desired activities by connecting my iPad to the Smart Board.  Students can watch and follow along.  This has been successful for me in using the iPads the last 2 school years.

Those without class sets of iPads need to define how you want them used before giving them to students.  The old adage “Failing to plan is planning to fail”, comes to mind.  While there is nothing wrong with letting students freely explore the iPads, there needs to be a broader vision of their use.  This vision should be systematically communicated to students as they integrate them into the classroom.

I also find it helpful to think of what trouble students can get themselves into and be proactive.  The iPad has several features which allow you to control student access.  The first thing I do is turn off the “in app purchase” feature.  You can also turn off the camera, access to Safari and deleting apps features.  I don’t turn those off in general, however, if you have someone using the iPad in ways you don’t want, these are alternatives.

Starting the school year with iPads is exciting.  Having a firm vision on their use and purpose will help guide you through the first few weeks.  When in doubt, go back to the basics!

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eBooks in the Classroom

Teaching reading IS rocket science.- Louisa Moats

Have you seen the size of textbooks lately?  Measurements go from about an inch to 3 inches.  Forget portability.  Carrying a load of them will surely result in a trip to the chiropractor.  Enter eBooks.  They are rapidly growing into a popular option with all of the electronic reading devices available.

Don’t get me wrong…I still love reading to my students with a physical book. We get cozy and listen.  We drift off to fun and faraway lands.  We laugh at the antics of our favorite characters and we learn to love reading.  Many students don’t have someone cuddle up with them, to read favorite stories and drift off to sleep to the cadence of familiar words from an oft-read story.  eBooks simply offer options for my readers.  Many ebooks have interactive features and vocabulary support that physical books don’t have.  eBooks are easily updated as information changes.  Our iPads hold many eBooks and enhance the “learning on the go” concept. You can take a virtual library with you.  No trees were cut down to make an eBook.  Another consideration is that many eBooks have accessibility features for English Language Learners.  Some students may find reading on an iPad more engaging than an actual book.  While many arguments may be held over traditional books versus eBooks, I simply want my children to READ and to love reading.  eBooks give us the ability to differentiate.

The Common Core State Standards stress readying students for college and career.  Growing good readers requires a large variety of reading resources. I have spent some time recently with Sylvan-Dell publishers.  They have 70 titles in English and Spanish available in eBook format.  The picture books that they publish are usually, fictional stories that relate to animals, nature, the environment, science, and math. Each book has a “For Creative Minds” section to reinforce the educational component of the book itself. This section will have a craft and/or game as well as “fun facts” to be shared by the parent, teacher, or other adult.  The illustrations are realistic and engaging. The books are great for school purchase or for parents to have at home on their iPads for their children. The books are leveled in a variety of ways to meet the needs of different reading programs.  There is a 30 day free trial with no obligation available.

I am all about engaging minds and growing life-long readers.  Having an arsenal of resources both physical and electronic only strengthens my teaching.  In this day and time, teachers need all the help we can get!

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Learning in the 21st Century

Multimedia brought the world into the classroom, smart technologies will take the classroom into the world.” -Steve Wheeler

My 90 year old father-in-law always seemed to be fascinated by the fact that we could call him from just about anywhere with a cell phone.  This technology was as foreign to him as a phone tethered by a coiled phone cord on the wall will be to my kindergarten students.  I mean, aren’t we all just a little surprised when we meet someone who doesn’t have cable tv, or not just a smartphone, but not even a cell phone these days? The technology treadmill just seems to keep on increasing speed and incline making it difficult for some  to keep up.

Our students, even the youngest ones, get it.  They understand the value of connectivity, media, and mobile learning.  Being restricted to 4 desktop computers in a classroom of 25-30 students is archaic at best. Less than 0.01% of the information we generate today is ever printed on paper. Information technology is becoming more and more personal and “pocketed”.   The core issue is that teachers need to be at the center of their own learning if they are to change their life-long habits and beliefs regarding the use of technology.  Perhaps we’ve looked at this backward.  Perhaps instead of trying to integrate technology, we need to redefine literacy and integrate that. Information literate people are those who have learned how to learn.  It is difficult to teach students and prepare them for an uncertain future.  Our best approach is to teach them how to teach themselves. Learners are creating their own learning spaces, blending face-to-face with virtual, and formal with social.

Do you remember your 3rd grade teacher (or any grade for that matter?)  Mine had been teaching for 30 years when I was in her class.  She taught the same thing in the same way on the same day of her 30 plus year career.  Bless her heart.  Today, no teacher should believe he/she can teach the same thing the same way.  iPads have been transformative to my teaching.  Not only is the learning mobile and individualized, it is engaging and collaborative.  Our school district is continuing to explore and expand the use of iPads in elementary, middle and high school classrooms.  A recent article in our local newspaper outlines where we are as a district at this point.   As a district, we are striving to put the learning in the students’ hands.  As educators, we have to realize that mobile learning isn’t about delivering content to mobile devices, but instead is about learning how to operate successfully in and across new and ever changing contexts.

I am more energized about my teaching now, more than ever before.  iPads have been a game changer.  I can’t imagine ever teaching without them and I’m excited about finding new ways to incorporate them.  I too, am learning on the go!

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A Balancing Act

Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.- Mitchell Kapor

I’ve just returned from 2 weeks of vacation.  While away, I experienced 2 extremes of technology.  Part of my vacation was on beautiful Lake Champlain in Vermont.  Verdant pastures, mountains and cooler temperatures certainly made it a welcome change from the 100 plus degrees and oppressive humidity of Charleston.  With the beauty of this place, came absolutely no Verizon coverage.  No phone and very spotty wireless internet made it sometimes frustrating for my embarrassing need to connect.  After the first day of trying, I just turned my iPhone off and put it away.  The Vermonters like it that way I’m told…

In contrast, we spent a long layover in New York’s La Guardia airport.  Delta has recently installed 2,500 Ipads in the very small D terminal. Booths and bars were set up all over the terminal replacing the regular seats at the airline gates.  Ipads were everywhere.  Free to use.  Well, free limited use that is.  Certain apps were available for free. A convenient credit card swipe device was attached to each iPad if you wanted to go beyond the free apps.  I sat and watched as kids ran immediately to the devices and navigated their way easily to the games apps.  The adults were a little more apprehensive. A few even admonishing their children to “be careful” as they touched the iPads.  Many of the kids had never used one before based on the conversations going on around me.  The kids were engaged and busy and quiet. That was a welcome change from most airport experiences I’ve had lately.

So what’s the take away here?  I think it’s a good reminder of balance.  Being “off the grid” in Vermont was a little unsettling for me for the first 24 hours but it forced me to do other things.  In some ways, it was very freeing.  I couldn’t check email or voicemail or Facebook or text messages so I didn’t think about it.  The airport was as far removed from the quiet, pastoral lake setting as east is from west.  Everyone was connecting in some way with electronic devices, adults and kids alike.  Debate continues in my city about the need and value of iPads in the classroom.  Most are concerned about the financial commitment but many are concerned that students won’t experience hands on learning and interactivity with others if iPads are used.  Balance is the answer.  I’ve stated before that my kindergarten students still play in centers with blocks, paint, puzzles, games and even dress up.  We also use iPads as a tool for enhancing our learning in all subjects.  Any technology has the potential to be used inappropriately by teachers and by students.  It requires careful planning and teacher facilitation to be successful.

As I am wallowing in summer vacation and seldom know what day it is, my recent trip was a good reminder that we all need to unplug, go off the grid, and do other things from time to time.  School starts back for me in 5 weeks.  I think I will be like Scarlett O’Hara and “think about that tomorrow.”

How do you create balance in your fast-paced life?

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