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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Tech Tools Have the Power to Enhance Academic Work’

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 16, 2019 18 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are effective ways to use tech in English classes?

Part One featured responses from Jennifer Casa-Todd, Jenny Vo, Maggie Verdoia, Sarah Acosta Landry, Ingrid Nelson, and Stephanie Affinito. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jennifer, Jenny, and Maggie on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today’s contributors are Jeryl-Ann Asaro, Sean Ruday, Dr. Carolyn Brown, Dr. Jerry Zimmermann, and Sarah Thomas.

Response From Jeryl-Ann Asaro

Now a retired teacher, Jeryl-Ann Asaro loved her job as a middle school English teacher. As an educational writer for www.inspiringteachers.com, she specialized in offering guidelines to novice teachers. Jeri is also a contributor to the book Classrooms that Spark and the NJASCED Report on Professional Communities (PLC) and Character Education. She has taught at four levels—elementary, middle, high school, and postgraduate, but she found that teaching adolescent students was her true calling:

The English classroom plus technology infusion can be a marriage made in heaven. Technology energizes the literature students read, the quality of their writing, and the overall classroom environment.

Here are some ideas to try:

  • Teaching classes using Google Classroom as a home base will forever change teaching practices.

    If Google Classroom is an option, embrace it and become an expert in how to use it. Many of the following ideas suggested can be accomplished with Google Apps like Slides, Docs, Forms, Hangout, and Sites, but other options are also offered.

  • The NCTE offers an informative site that incorporates technology tools from poetry creators to graphic organizers.

    Visit Read Write Think and search around. Ideas are appropriate for elementary grades but can be used as a catalyst of fresh strategies for secondary-grade teachers, too.

  • “Gamify” the classroom.

    As students read assignments, do formative assessments using games. Make the game and obtain the necessary statistics for checking reading completion and/or comprehension. Use Kahoot! And Quizziz. These sites also allow educators to use and/or edit the work created by other educators on similar topics.

  • Another idea for formative assessment of reading is to use a teacher-made Criss-Cross puzzle

    . An easy site is Puzzlemaker.

  • Technology has taken Literature Circles or Reading Groups to a new level.

    In Reading Groups, make one of the weekly “jobs” the “Gamemaker.” He/she creates a game on Quizziz or Kahoot for the group to play during discussion sessions.

  • Reading Groups offer both individual and group work with a technology twist. If each member has a role to complete, and the role is completed on a slide within a presentation tool like PowerPoint, Prezi

    , Slides, or Sites, that slide can provide the individual part (and grade). Later, students share their slides/site with the whole group as part of a weekly literary discussion. Roles can include jobs like Gamemaker, Word Wizard, Journalist, Discussion Director, Graphic Designer, Historian, and Quotemaster.

  • Review vocabulary before the reading begins.

    Use 24 words per novel/section. As part of an anticipatory activity, use Quizlet to help students become familiar with the difficult vocabulary. The site lets the teacher provide a visual with the word definition. The “Word Wizard” in the Reading Group can be responsible to create a Quizlet for the group.

  • Twenty-four is the key number for vocabulary because it is perfect for BINGO.

    It is easy to create personalized BINGO boards on Docs/Word but head to Bingo Baker and follow the easy instructions for another option.

  • A final unit review before a summative assessment can be made fun using a Jeopardy-style game.

    The site Jeopardy Labs can help. Other teachers have also created templates for the game on PowerPoint or Slides. Give it a search.

  • The site PearDeck allows the pairing of various games or writing activities with a teacher-created PowerPoint or Slides presentation; plus, it can be shown on the classroom white board.

    DOK questions/responses can be used here. Open-ended responses can be projected for the whole class to see, with or without student names attached.

  • Blogs

    are amazing tools. If using Google Classroom, they can be done right there. There are videos to help set it up. Search it. Use formal and informal discussions/responses. The formal responses always improve the writing of the whole class because students realize that the “teacher” is not the only one to see the work (or the mistakes). For serious book topics, try blogging anonymously. It changes how honestly students respond. Assign students their screen names and ask them to keep the secret until the end of the unit. It is amazing how often the “quiet” student in class or the “class clown” becomes a highly respected blogger because his/her intelligence and creative thinking comes shining through. Head to Weebly, Edublogs, or Kidblog to get the process going.

  • Historical fiction novels and nonfiction reads often include references, which are meaningless to students. For example, typical middle school novels like Wednesday Wars or Okay for Now

    both by Gary Schmidt, include 1960s references to the Apollo missions, the 1960s rebellions, flower children, the Vietnam war, and the Ford Mustang. Allowing students to research related topics, and present to the class, is a great way to bring about better comprehension. PowerPoint, Prezi presentations, Slides, or the use of Sites, shown on the classroom white board, brings core speaking standards to the lessons.

  • Have students make a Pinterest, Facebook, or a Twitter page about their chosen research topic.

    Teachers have created mock templates on PowerPoint or Slides for students to use without having to be involved with social media. Search it out. Upon completion, a process of viewing like a “Gallery Walk,” along with a student questionnaire (Docs/Word), or the use of Forms or Surveys, will enable all students to learn about each other’s chosen topics.

  • Another tool for this type of research-based project is Glogster.

    This site heightens student creativity as they make digital “posters” called “glogs.” Upon completion of the work, students blog about each other’s glogs.

  • Blendspace is a site where digital “stations” are created.

    Students work on a series of teacher-created activities in a self-paced (or paired-paced) manner. Set a goal for the number of activities to complete on any given day and work individually with students who need assistance while the rest of the class works on the station activities. Blendspace also offers class blogs on stations, so students can watch a video/read an article and answer a thought-provoking question about it for the whole class to consider.

  • Poetry writing becomes easier if students begin with analyzing a famous poem written about the topic at hand

    . Example: Take oppression as the topic and use Whitman’s “I Sit and Look Out” as the example. Using a teacher-centered but active learning lesson, the teacher and students work together to analyze the poem using various strategies like shared Docs, talk-and-turns, four corners, video-clips, audio of the piece, and the review of online literary criticism. Doing this process initially lets students better understand figurative language and how any poem is created.

  • After analyzing the famous poem, provide students with a Docs/Word graphic organizer for the five senses and show a teacher-made PowerPoint or Slides of images that depict both freedom and oppression.

    Use appropriate music to enhance the presentation flow. Let students brainstorm ideas through their viewing of the images. Have them talk together afterward about what they individually wrote. Encourage students to circle their ordinary words and use a thesaurus to find a list of alternative words. Then, with a whole toolbox of ideas, set students free to choose a side (freedom or oppression) and write a powerful poem about the topic.

  • Writing historical fiction is a challenging assignment, and it fulfills many of the core English standards. Use a Pinterest

    page to post picture prompts for consideration and have students research the events in their chosen picture using a Doc/Word graphic organizer. Have students brainstorm their stories in another Doc/Word organizer as part of their writing process. This same idea can be used for mystery writing or science fiction writing.

  • Offering feedback on student writing is essential.

    If Docs is a tool students use, the feedback process is easy through the editing or suggesting tools available. There is also a microphone option which can help. For another idea, try Kaizena. It is fast, and students look forward to hearing a voice providing the feedback!

  • Now that students created some amazing written work, having students published authentically is rewarding to them.

    Knowing that an important piece of writing might be published makes students work harder to perfect their written pieces. Sites like Launch Pad (elementary), Stone Soup (elementary) and Teen Ink let students submit work for consideration.

  • Edpuzzle

    is an easy-to-use site which lets teachers import videos and ask/answer questions while the video is being watched by students.

  • Word Art makes it all about the important words and phrases in what is being read. Have students pick the top 35 words/phrases in a set of chapters and create a symbolic piece of word art. To be sure students are reading, have them pick the top 10 (of 35) and explain their importance in an additional writing assessment through Docs/Word.

  • Using student-made videos is a terrific task.

    They can be done individually or as part of a collaboration in a project-based-learning assignment. Through Apple’s iMovie app and apps like Do Ink, which allow for green-screen technology within the video, students can create videos to demonstrate their knowledge of plot and theme, to create a lip dub, to teach another grade a writing skill, or simply to introduce themselves to the class. A teacher-made video can also be used to provide information/lessons to the students. A great site to get started is FlipGrid.

  • Working with other English classes across the globe or right within the district is a terrific form of collaboration. Hangout is a great tool, but there are others as well. Apple’s FaceTime can work. A classroom Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest page has possibilities. This collaboration can be done as simply as having an older grade work with the younger grade to improve writing skills or as extreme as using a site like The Center For Global Education to connect students globally on projects of similar interests or goals.

As a teacher, opening a Twitter account and finding a Professional Learning Network of like-minded educators (PLN) is a great way to get ideas. Following @Larryferlazzo, @teacher2teacher, @Lynch39083, @educationweek, and @SteeleThoughts is the way to begin.

Any of these options are wonderful ideas for the English classroom. These tools require upfront planning and preparing, but the class time is spent facilitating, offering feedback, and helping individual students. Plus, once the activities are finished, they can be used and updated from year to year.

As with any strong teaching strategy, post-reflection is needed. Give a new idea a whirl. Write down what worked and what needed tweaking. These ideas and sites all offer interesting ways to meet the core standards, the lesson objectives, and the curriculum of the individual district, while engaging students with choice and differentiation. Technology is a win-win for teachers of English!

Response From Sean Ruday

Sean Ruday is an associate professor of English education at Longwood University and a former classroom teacher. He has written eight books on teaching, all published by Routledge Eye on Education, including The Multimedia Writing Toolkit, from which this piece is adapted. You can follow him on Twitter at @SeanRuday and find his professional website at www.seanruday.weebly.com:

Think about recent articles you’ve read: If they were published electronically, they likely included links, videos, graphics, or pictures to illustrate key ideas or provide opportunities for readers to find more information. We teachers can apply this same approach to our writing instruction by helping our students meaningfully and purposefully incorporate multimedia, such as pictures, videos, and infographics, into their written works. Doing so can make the writing process more engaging for students, help them integrate technology in meaningful ways, and allow them to create written works that more closely reflect the kinds of writing that are done in the real world. (For example, many middle school students I’ve worked with regularly read articles online about a range of topics, such as sports, current events, and Harry Potter fan theories—all of these students noted that multimedia was frequently used in the pieces they read.)

To help students use multimedia effectively in their writing, I show them multimedia forms that they can integrate into their works, talk with them about how those technological innovations can enhance their works, and confer with students as they incorporate those examples of multimedia into their writing. When I meet with students about this topic, I emphasize that any multimedia the author uses needs to be incorporating strategically in ways that support the content of the piece. For example, when my students wrote informational pieces, I talked with them about how to use infographics to highlight important details. I introduced this multimedia tool to them by showing them a humorous infographic that compares my basketball skills and experiences with those of NBA star LeBron James, talked with them about how this infographic could be used to highlight key points in an informational essay comparing LeBron and me, and then met with them as they brainstormed and created infographics designed to highlight key ideas in their works. For example, a student who wrote an informational piece about the career of pro hockey player Mario Lemieux created an infographic timeline that highlighted key moments of Lemieux’s career.

Similarly, when my students wrote argument essays, I encouraged them to take or find photographs and videos that supported their piece’s message. These examples of multimedia help students supplement their written explanations by providing visual evidence that corresponds with and further emphasizes the topics they describe. For example, if a student wrote an argument essay in favor of preserving a city park, he or she might include photographs or videos of people using the park to support his or her point that the parks are useful and valuable to the community. These purposefully selected examples of multimedia can further emphasize the ideas in the essay.

Helping students strategically include multimedia in their written works not only has the potential to improve their works: It also teaches them about the importance of purposefully using technology. Technological tools have the power to enhance academic work, but they are at their most effective when they are used carefully and with a clear understanding of their benefits. The purposeful selection of multimedia to enhance written work helps students develop reflective technology skills they’ll use throughout their lives.

Response From Dr. Carolyn Brown & Dr. Jerry Zimmermann

Dr. Carolyn Brown and Dr. Jerry Zimmermann are co-founders of Foundations in Learning, a company that provides school districts with research-based tools designed to assess struggling readers, address their foundational skill deficits, and empower them to achieve significant gains in reading fluency and comprehension:

Blending Technology into Relevant Learning Environments to Develop, Reinforce, and Extend Language Skills

Technology can certainly enhance and extend language and literacy opportunities in the classroom. However, it can do much more to personalize instruction and assessment for each student, moving away from a methods-view of teaching toward a learning-theoretic view that focuses on how students learn rather than what they learn. The promise of technology to pivot to individualized learning has yet to be fully realized.

Over the past decade, we have worked with a team of cognitive scientists to develop and test an approach to building foundational reading skills that is based on a robust set of learning principles. The approach is derived from an extensive body of research across many disciplines that has been shown to enhance the application, generalization of knowledge, and skills in many domains. The major premise is that systematic variation in one’s experiences in a learning environment allows one to better learn the regularities and irregularities of a system, rather than a lock-step mastery model which assumes that variation in experiences needs to be tightly controlled. Rather than using the traditional mastery approach or the unbridled whole-language approach to support the development of foundational reading skills, we have used technology to instantiate learning principles that adjust the learning environment to meet each student’s needs.

The Benefits of Integrating Technology into a Blended-Classroom Environment

Indeed, language arts teachers can implement technology that leverages how students learn and adapts to students’ individual needs as an important component of a blended-learning environment. Doing so not only supports learning objectives, but it also motivates students to fully engage. Individual online learning becomes much more relevant if students can use technology to independently practice new literacy skills, delve more deeply into their reading in advance of class discussions, or work on individual writing tasks. For instance, teachers can have students rotate through several “learning stations,” one or two of which provide an online experience, to support the broader curriculum and learning goals.

Here are some of the advantages to using technology as part of a blended approach:

  • Students are given multiple and varied opportunities to learn and review concepts.
  • Students can use technology tools to progress at their own rate and make choices.
  • Technology adapts to students’ learning needs to individualize their learning experiences.
  • Teachers have many sources from which to observe and evaluate student growth.
  • Teachers can access reporting tools that make the learning process and outcomes transparent.

Technology Should Support Learning, Not Replace Good Teaching

While we have a ways to go before educational technology will provide a truly individualized and impactful learning experience for all students, exciting progress is already underway. Even as technology continues to improve, it is important that teachers use it as an important support to learning but not as a replacement for good teaching. They should be intentional with their use of technology and provide an appropriate balance between technology and other types of learning experiences. Finally, teachers should carefully consider whether their students’ use of technology positively impacts their learning and inspires active engagement. In addition to using the various reporting tools built into many of today’s ed-tech, teachers can engage students in evaluating their own learning. By taking the step to review and evaluate their use of technology, teachers and students will be better informed about what worked and what could be improved the next time around.

Response From Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas, Ph.D., is a regional technology coordinator in Prince George’s County public schools. She is also a Google Certified Innovator, Google Education Trainer, and the founder of the EduMatch movement, a project that empowers educators to make global connections across common areas of interest. She has presented internationally, participated in the Technical Working Group to refresh the 2017 ISTE Standards for Educators, and is a recipient of the 2017 ISTE Making IT Happen award:

Spending most of my classroom-teaching career as an ELA teacher, I loved integrating technology in my classroom. Over the years, I shifted from “drill and kill” tools to opportunities for creativity and creation. My students loved creating videos to demonstrate their learning, writing, and filming scripts for the drama unit (or using tech such as Tellagami to have their characters act it out), creating podcasts, using G Suite to collaborate with other students around in a different state on a project, blogging with buddies on the other side of the world, and interacting with guest speakers via Google Hangouts.

Thanks to Jeri, Sean, Carolyn, Jerry, and Sarah for their contributions!

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