Who’s in Charge? A Year in Review.

It’s that time of year when you look both forwards and backwards.  I look forward to continuing my journey with a new adventure in the fall.  Faces will be fresh and diving deep into the world of digital tools will be a revelation for some (they have NO idea what fun is coming their way).  However, it is with reluctance that I let go of my group of students from this year.  We’ve come a long, long way together.  Co-learning.  Learning together.  Trying a new thing or two (or twenty…) and being better because of the growth opportunities failure can provide.

It was a safe learning environment where I was not the only teacher.  Peers relied on each other on a daily basis and cohesion grew.  Was tech the glue?  Or were the lessons that provided the use of tech as a way to demonstrate learning the magic ingredient and the machines were just the ‘flash’?  I’m confident in my abilities as a teacher, but I would be remiss to think that my lessons alone were the reason these students have learned 21st Century skills at such a rapid pace.  No, these kids get it.  And more importantly, these kids want it.  I’ll tell you why they deserve it.

Technology that exists in 2016 wasn’t even a possibility when I first started teaching in 2005 at a lovely little school in a small town in Ontario.  Guess what else wasn’t fully realized then.  My current students!  When we reflect on the extremely quick growth of the technology industry, it’s amazing to think that the word “app” hasn’t really been around all that long.  Cloud computing hasn’t been around that long.  Mobile Internet hasn’t been around that long.  But (yes, my beautiful wife would chastise me for beginning a sentence with ‘but’ – I argue that it’s my “conversational style of writing”), but…for my students, this has been all they’ve known.  Internet everywhere, reading on screens, video on demand, social media, ‘likes’, pop-up ads, playlists and all the amazing tools we’ve seen make our jobs and lives more interconnected are just part of the every day experience of these digital natives that we teach.

It should not, then, be a surprise when a student raises his or her hand and asks to show myself and the class how to customize a blog header with original photography, or another student offers to make me a Google Document of keyboard shortcuts for editing text.  It should not surprise me that students recreate poetry and writing lessons and share ideas with each other via the cloud for collaboration on their free time.  It should not surprise me that I show students one time how to use a new app and by the end of the day they are using it better than I am.  It shouldn’t surprise me, yet it still does because it makes me realize that we need to continue to give these kids more credit.

As I look back, I think to my own learning.  Every time I gave these 9 year-olds a tool that is used in the real world, they couldn’t wait for their turn to get their hands on an iPad or Chromebook.  I literally had students asking every day to stay in for recess so they could access the technology to do more writing, or researching, or creating.  Maybe the key is making the use of technology authentic.  To me this means using digital tools to publish. Not just to create something to hand in for marking, but publishing with an audience in mind.  When we publish our work digitally it starts to look an awful lot like the high tech world only these kids have known.  Comments, opinions, text genres, and content is all positioned with pizzazz in technicolour digital publications and websites.  Sound-tracking and animation are used as part of the big fight to gain a few minutes of your attention span.  Why shouldn’t student work be approached with the same multi-dimensional appeal?

Anything uploaded to the web is fighting for an audience.  Is this the new bar?  Should literate digital citizens always be thinking of their potential audience as the ultimate motivator?  Should students still be expected to write all their thoughts in a pastel green writing book with a dull pencil?  What audience does that pastel green book have?  Now take that same short story or reading response and have the student upload it to their own blog.  Live. On. The . Web.  Just like dad’s.  Take that same blog entry, but instead have the student select from a variety of digital response methods that they’ve practiced in class.  Maybe their reading response is now a live-action graphic novel recount saved as a jpeg using Piccollage.  That jpeg is uploaded to the blog, full colour, saying “look at me”.

Let’s go further.  Take that response and have a student type up three thoughtful reflection paragraphs.  The first focuses on what they did.  The hows, and the whys and the curriculum links.  The second paragraph brings the student voice to the forefront and explains what strengths the piece has.  The third paragraph is the very best.  Here, students focus on a next step, a personal goal, or a way to improve the piece the next time they give it a go (real growth mindset learning).  It gets even better as students visit each others’ blogs leaving quality-boosting feedback.  Self-evaluation, peer evaluation and of course I get my two cents in there as well.  Reflection as assessment in grade four. Amazing.


To recap, a response goes from a hand-written piece of paper read by a teacher and maybe a handful of peers to something that looks and feels modern and matches up with these kids’ experiences in the digital world.  They have an audience, they have choice in what digital tools they might use, and their voice is seen as being important in the assessment and learning cycle.  I need to continually rethink activities I give to students that I might have completed myself as a student.  The world is simply in a different place now and I truly feel the skills we ask these students to develop need to be innovative, reflective, and digital. Learning opportunities need to be rich in both authenticity and potential audience.  I hope that activities where I ask students to get creative and publish their thinking helps them frame their work as being something important, not just another page in an already dog-eared workbook.

We live in a world where working hard in your dog-eared workbook just might not be good enough any more.  I’ve recently read that high-school students today should think about having a digital portfolio of their best work, an About Me website, and a positive social media presence ready to share as they apply to post-secondary education or even careers. We are just starting to get that ball rolling in grade four!

So, in summary (and thanks for staying with me), I get excited when a student asks if they can do a stop motion animation or a Google Drawing to share their learning.  I feel as though I’ve done my job when I learn of a writing-averse student blogging on their own time at home about the wonders of Minecraft.  I feel all proud when my students tutor younger students on iPad apps.  I literally want to run around the room high-fiving students when I read a thoughtful quality booster blog comment or a spot-on paragraph reflection on next steps. For real. It’s that cool.

Mushy End-of -Year Reflections Alert!

I would like to thank my students – what a year!  I’m so proud of the eagerness I’ve seen demonstrated in trying new things all year long.  I hope you keep all these digital strategies in your back pocket. They’ll serve you well. Keep teaching others!  I would like to thank some inspirational teachers and coaches that I have the pleasure of working with.  I would like to thank administrators that say “try it!”.  I would like to thank my Twitter PLN for being super-motivated, innovative educators whose classrooms I’d love for my own children to be in.  I’m trying to keep up and I’m a better teacher because of it.