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Rethinking the Old Dog—Can We Learn (and Embrace) New Tricks?

by Mrs. Mimi
February 6, 2013
Being a teacher means embracing constant change. Yet all too often, teachers are told when, how and why to change. In this monthly column, Mrs. Mimi takes on creating change for herself by rethinking old practices and redefining teaching on her own terms.

A little birdie told me that February 6, 2013 is Digital Learning Day. Okay, it wasn’t a bird exactly; it was more like Twitter. I learned about Digital Learning Day while reading through my Twitter feed. (How savvy am I? Truth? Not super savvy for someone with a blog and an online column.)

Digital learning is hot. The education world is abuzz with talk of how iPads, virtual field trips, and connecting with schools on other continents via the Internet are going to change the face of classroom instruction as we know it. Watch out! Here comes technology!

Everywhere you look on the street, it seems like younger and younger children have smartphones and are plugged in in ways I could never have imagined. Just watching my two and a half year old navigate her way around an iPhone is alarming. (And thrilling. But mostly just alarming.)

And then I go into a typical classroom. In the corner of the room are three outdated desktops, two of which no longer work, and while the third works it isn’t hooked up to the printer (but the printer’s actually out of toner, so what difference does it make?).

Hi disconnect, nice to meet you.

As a result, I find myself intrigued by the idea of digital learning, but never consider seriously how it might impact my instruction. Sometimes, I’m intimidated by it—when am I going to find the time to learn how to use all of this cool new stuff? When will all of this cool new stuff be made available to me? What if I’m never as comfortable with all of this new technology as I am with a book and my Post-it notes? What’s wrong with a marker and chart paper anyway?

Sound familiar?

And then last week happened.

I went into a school piloting the use of iPads in the classroom. Every second grader had an iPad. Seriously, it was like a sea of iPads—I had to hold my hand up to my eyes to shade them from the glare of all those shiny, shiny screens. Once I stopped squealing, I got a little nervous. After all, without any warning about this major technological shift, I had to demonstrate a reading lesson in front of a bunch of kids reading on iPads and teachers who were ready to learn something new.

photo: Johan Larsson via photopin cc
Granted, I have an iPad and am comfortable with it for my own personal use (read: Words With Friends and checking my blog) but in front of these eager faces, I was afraid that I would screw up the lesson, that I would stumble too much and lose their attention, that I would come off as less knowledgeable. Needless to say, I was also sweating at this point, so there was that too.

But, as you well know, in the world of the elementary school, there isn’t a second to spare, so I had to put on my big girl panties, take my place on the rug and get started. The lesson flowed along nicely because fortunately I was focusing on an objective that transcended how students read. But, as I began to work one-on-one with children, modeling reading conferences with a gang of teachers behind me taking notes, my pulse quickened again.

In my first conference, a student and I discussed his thoughts and reactions to the text as he read. He was feeling frustrated by a character in his reading. He shared that he was frustrated with Junie B. Jones (which he was reading on iBooks) because she never seemed to learn her lesson and kept getting into trouble. After reading several books about Junie, this smart cookie was noticing a pattern in the behavior of the character. My instinct was to help this smarty to record his reactions by highlighting specific moments in the text and jotting his thinking. But how do you highlight again? And jotting? Could he handle jotting on the iPad? Could I?

I went for it and explained my idea and why I thought it would help him as a reader. And then I (gasp) admitted that I wasn’t completely sure how he would mark the text in the ways I had described. Unfazed, my friend said, “Oh, let me show you.” Then he modeled highlighting and note taking within the iBooks application. For me. He modeled for me. After shooting his teacher an impressed look, I quickly modeled right back, showing this young reader how to apply this bit of technological savvy in ways that would record and push his thinking as a reader.

You guys, we both learned something.

Later, his teacher reported back that this young man had then gone on to model for everyone not only how to highlight and record notes in iBooks, but how to use this strategy to record a reader’s reactions to specific lines of text.

And I die.

Bottom line? The technological capacity may not be in your classroom today, but it’s coming. And it means change, which is always a little scary. But if this moment was my glimpse into the power of digital learning, then I say game on.

Mrs. Mimi is a pseudonymous teacher who taught both first and second grades at a public elementary school in New York City. She's the author of IT'S NOT ALL FLOWERS AND SAUSAGES: MY ADVENTURES IN SECOND GRADE, which sprung from her popular blog of the same name. Mimi also has her doctorate in education from Teachers College, Columbia University.

© 2013 Mrs. Mimi. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.
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