Scaffolding Tech

Earlier today I read Scaffolding Your Lesson Plans on Scott Meech’s blog. The following began as a comment in response and turned into a full post…

Last year was my first year teaching at a 1:1 laptop school. I embraced the technology with open arms and threw myself (and my students) into it. While there were days of absolute wonderment, there were a number of days where I wanted to slam my head against a wall and never use technology in the classroom again. Several times during the year I went to our instructional technology director‘s office and said, “Give me the speech again.” He would tell me what wonderful things my students were doing, empathize with my frustrations, and make suggestions about how to do things differently the next time.

To be fair to myself and my students a fair amount of our frustration was the result of limited bandwidth which made streaming videos and using Glogster painfully slow at times. (The school has since dramatically increased the bandwidth. Yay!) In hindsight, I’ve realized that a good deal of that frustration was also expecting my students to master too many new technological skills at once.

This year I hope I am doing better, although this is likely more the result of reflecting on last year than any sort of serious, considered technical skills schema. Over the next two days in my 6th grade World Cultures class, students are completing a chart in Word using the BBC website for information and then creating a timeline using Capzles. After the timelines are created, students will embed them in their blogs.

In the space of the previous two sentences, a number of skills are represented. Some we’ve been tackling since the early days of 6th grade- editing documents in Word, gleaning information from websites, and creating and tagging blog posts. Some are intermediate skills- embedding objects in their blogs and snipping and saving pictures for the timeline. Using the Capzles website was brand-new for all the students.

I’ll be honest and say that this design wasn’t very intentional on my part. I was just trying to come up with a way not to have to teach the whole class at once. Orienting an entire class of students to a particular app or website is a total pain, one that I’m trying to avoid this year as much as possible. I’ve found it works so much better in a group of three or four. At the beginning of class today, I showed students Capzles, where we were headed. Instead of trying to explain all of its features at the outset, I told students, “Your first task is information-gathering. When you’ve completed the chart, come to me and I’ll show you the next step.” Students were working independently or with a partner, and as I had hoped, they didn’t finish all at once.

The most critical part of the process was finding the information and completing the chart, so even if some students don’t complete their capzle or do a bare-bones version, they’ll be just fine. We’ll go back and use a timeline-creation app again at some point, and when we do, I’ll have some students who will be experts further reducing the demands for my time.

Ideally the scaffolding can also happen horizontally across the disciplines. It’s been really great to see other subject areas begin to use students’ blogs. I love that I don’t have to orient students to Wikispaces every year because students do a research project in Science that uses it before we get there in World Cultures or Language Arts. I’ll be honest that I don’t want to regiment this scaffolding process too much because I want to leave open the possibility of playing with the next new tool that comes along 🙂

Talking Back to the Teacher

Although, I blog primarily about my Language Arts classes, I also teach two sections of 6th grade History (World Cultures). We’re studying the Middle East right now and going through some pretty complicated material. Today students were reading a summary of the World War I peace settlement. I’d asked them to highlight the important information in preparation for looking at a picture that their text described as a visual metaphor, which we would label.

As I walked around the room, I saw highlighting bleeding indiscriminately across the page. This was actually one of the better examples…

It’s in these moments that I’m tempted to resign myself to total despair. Students were clearly frustrated and I was, too. I’ve learned that if I don’t try something quickly, the thoughts spin out of control (in my head), and I spend a week in a funk convinced I should have been a lawyer.

K piped up, “Ms. Stewart, How do we know what’s important? Isn’t it all important if it’s written down?”

This felt manageable. “Ok, imagine you’re leaving your house in the morning. There are certain items of clothing that are essential. There are some items that are still important but not essential. When you’re underlining or highlighting, look for the essential parts. Look for the pants.” (Sixth graders are still innocent enough for this kind of metaphor to be silly but not out of control.)

K again. “But Ms. Stewart, what if we don’t know what the pants are? If you gave me a paragraph describing [our school], I would know to highlight information about the Middle School and the Fine Arts building, but not the information about the fish bowl (our name for the small windowless meeting rooms). But I don’t know anything about the World War I peace settlement, so how am I supposed to know what to highlight?”

Hello! Earth to clueless teacher!

I said, “Wow. That was really thoughtful, K. Someone explain to me what K just said.” Another student, “She meant it’s hard to decide what’s important when you don’t know what the thing is about.”

“Ok,” I said. “We’ve got two choices. Never read about anything we haven’t personally experienced or figure out ways to determine what’s essential without maybe totally understanding what we’re reading, at least not in the way you understand the school. I can tell you that first option probably isn’t going to work for you or me in the rest of school or life, so let’s see if we can read this together and find ways to identify the essential parts.”

I projected my copy of the text. We worked through it together stopping to rephrase what we just read, noting unfamiliar vocabulary, looking at the relationships between words, and realizing that we could just draw a line from the picture instead of having to underline entire sentences. About half-way through, I thought Cool! We’re doing a close reading. This was not anything like what I had planned for today. 

Today’s class reaffirmed my commitment to a classroom where kids can talk back without fearing that I’m going to get angry. I don’t allow disrespectful comments, but I also don’t assume I’m the only authority in the room. If the lesson you need isn’t the lesson I’ve prepared, we’ll chuck it. If the lesson you need is one I don’t feel as prepared to teach, I’ll do what I can today and prepare so I’ll be ready next time.

It would have been easy just to restate my original directions and then tell students to be quiet. Honoring K’s comment and reorienting the class to address it meant admitting that I did not know what was best for the class that day. It also means I need to spend some time reading up on teaching annotating and note-taking strategies, especially as a way to help students construct meaning.

The learning never stops. Thank you for teaching your teacher today, K.