Although the topic of tablets in the classroom may be considered old news, it is still just as important to examine how this technology is being used in our districts and campuses and how we can improve its effectiveness. I’ve worked in a 1-to-1 iPad high school for the past two years, and now that the shine on these fancy gadgets has worn off–at least a little–I’ve been able to focus on a few things that are working for me and my students, specifically as they relate to whiteboard applications. Below I address several ways that I’ve used apps like Educreations, ShowMe, and Explain Everything in my secondary English classroom, and explain how they have improved my practices as a teacher and deepened my students’ learning.
I still find that my favorite class periods with students are the ones in which we’re actively engaged in discussion, contemplating the complexities of Achilles’ character or questioning the ethics behind George Milton’s trigger pull. Conversations like these require presence, analytical and listening skills, and a particular mix of perspectives. Where “flipping the classroom” has worked well for me on some levels–introducing literary terms, for example–it isn’t my go-to instructional strategy. Most recorded lessons feel a bit too fixed, which is contrary to the way I prefer to guide students through literature.
I do, however, find great value in giving students the power to examine content and present their findings through short presentations. Whiteboard apps are perfect vehicles for this kind of learning process. Where in the past students might research a topic, gather a few (black and white) visuals, organize them (with scotch tape or–God forbid!–staples) on a piece of tagboard, and deliver an (often pained) speech, tablet whiteboard applications give students more choices, more opportunities, and more professionalism in their work, resulting in deeper comprehension and engagement.
Whether students work on their own or in small groups, I’ve had them use these apps to introduce their classmates to new background information, to examine one section of a long article or data set within the jigsaw framework, and to review both detailed and overarching concepts. Where all of this was possible before tablets and their subsequent apps (minus the font selection and high resolution graphics), what wasn’t is their ability to be shared, linked to, and replicated. Once one set of students is finished creating a summative and analytical review of Act III of Julius Caesar, for example–full of text, images, and voice over recording–they email me a link to their completed presentation. I’m then able to either show it to the class immediately, or upload it to our course website, where students interested in reviewing that material can watch it over and over again. Think about how beneficial this is to students with IEPs, 504s, and other learning challenges. Think about how this serves both the absent student and his or her teacher. Think about how this also serves the creator of the presentation; once a student knows his work will be available to and used by his peers, often the work becomes more organized, more accurate, and more relevant–a far cry from a hodgepodge collage stapled together three minutes before class.
Although the level of complexity varies within the whiteboard application options, the feature I’ve come to use the most is simple: record. I ask groups of students involved in literature circles or other intentional discussions to place their tablet in the middle of their group, open up Educreations, and record their conversation. That’s it, on the technology end. Once the “record” button is pressed, the students discuss, they pose questions, they posit answers, and–this is the beautiful thing for one teacher in a classroom full of eight small groups–all of it is digitally documented, there for the teacher to reference for comprehension checks and strokes of insight, whether she is present in those discussions or not. Another bonus, especially for students who tend to think a teacher on the other side of the classroom means a break from the task at hand, is that in my experience, when the red “record” light is on and glowing so visibly, students rarely digress into details about their weekend.
For individual students, I use this feature as a revision tool. I ask students to record themselves delivering practice speeches, and then listen for things like filler words, enunciation, and awkward phrasing before giving their final speech. I have them read their essay drafts word-for-word–with pen in hand–to help them identify similar problems in their writing. Each time I’ve done this, students have reiterated how much this process helped them. Of course, I’d required students to read their drafts and practice their speeches aloud before, but I was never able to guarantee that they’d take it seriously, that they would truly read every word and think intentionally about why a particular sentence made them stumble while saying it aloud. Now part of the assignment involves them emailing me their recording and immediate reflection. From a teaching standpoint, acquiring this kind of insight into how a student thinks about his or her work has proved invaluable.
It is true that students don’t need a tablet or a whiteboard app to record themselves, and presentations done in person can be effective; cassettes and tagboard worked just fine for me when I was in school in the 1990s. However, offering students a technology capable of multimodal creation gives them the ability to observe themselves observing themselves. It’s metacognition in action. The truth is, whiteboard applications are not fancy, not really. They are yet another tool. But they are a tool that works, and I will continue to use them to help my students hone their thinking in this quickly changing world.
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