Reimagining Teaching Middle School English with Digital Tools by Cami Christman and Lan Vu

The touch of a keyboard replaces the turn of a page, just one of the many ways that digital tools have transformed the educational landscape.  Today’s educational experience is saturated with technology.  Screen time has become a normal part of the school day for sixth grade students everywhere, and often replaces the use of pencil and paper.  The sheer number of available resources is staggering, including lesson plans, apps, videos, information, and digital manipulatives, to name a few.  Discovering new ways to implement technological resources in the classroom can contribute to students’ learning in many ways.  Harnessing the power of digital tools to work for educational gains is a constant and exciting journey of trial and discovery.  It challenges teachers to stay current and evolve along with the blistering pace of technological advancement. “Connected technology— the umbrella term for using computers, cell phones, and the Internet to extract or share knowledge—is essential for helping students connect with resources and expand their critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills” (Harvey 1).  Our current progress in using digital tools in education provides wider access to information, advanced organizational strategies, vast opportunities to increase student engagement in the classroom, readily available communication, and effective tools for differentiation.

Technology has caused access to information to explode.  The Internet houses archives of digitized textbooks as well as videos and digital labs for teachers and students to access.  New educational strategies such as the flipped classroom have also become possible.  In the sixth grade English classroom, applying technology has changed the way that students learn on a day-to-day basis. In this paper, we will discuss several categories of technological tools that have been found particularly useful.

Tools for Accessing Content and Instruction

By creating flipped lessons, using online educational video resources such as Khan Academy, and utilizing digital literature, technology has improved our students’ ability to find information when it is relevant to them and in a format that makes sense.    

Flipped lessons have become a new phenomenon in the digital age, and we have experimented with them in our English classroom.  This method of teaching requires the teacher to pre-record the lesson using any of various digital technologies. (Screencastify has been our platform of choice for these video lessons.)  In our sixth grade English class, for example, we have developed our most recent descriptive writing lesson by creating explanatory videos that the students can watch on their individual devices as they work through each step of the writing process.  This has created a self-paced writing opportunity for students wherein they can find information when it is relevant to their current task.  They can backtrack, review, and relearn information that did not make sense the first time.  This allows students with a strong understanding to move on to the next step, while students who need more explanation can view content multiple times if needed. If students are absent, they do not miss out on the essential instructional information provided in class.  This approach also frees us up to focus attention on students who are struggling. Teaching flipped lessons has been an effective way to provide both visual and auditory instruction in a format that can be distributed to students in a readily available and reusable format. 

In addition to creating content for our classes with platforms such as Screencastify, there is also a plethora of resources and websites available to find educational videos and examples produced by other teachers and creators.  This broadens the students’ access to information by tapping the knowledge of other experts in the field.  No longer are we, as educators, limited to the scope of our own learning and knowledge.  Textbooks can be updated more frequently and are easily accessed online without carrying heavy books back and forth between school and home.  By allowing students many modes of receiving knowledge, they are able to learn in a way that is more suitable to their particular learning style.  Technology has made providing these different options for students more feasible. 

Audiobooks and digital textbooks have become much more readily available to students with our one-to-one technology.  Audio adaptations of books and stories are now much easier to share with students giving them options for reading and listening to class selections.  Easy to find recordings of books makes differentiating instruction for students a more accessible process, and it allows students to read and listen to materials more than once unlike if they are using class textbooks.  Digital libraries have allowed students to check out and read books that are not available in the school library creating a wider access to literature.  Finally, audiobooks provide an important opportunity to differentiate instruction. We have used this most in reading class with lower-level students.  By using audiobooks, students are able to keep up with the class and improve comprehension of their assigned literature.  This can also be helpful for students who struggle with dyslexia.  They can read along while listening to the audio allowing them to practice reading skills while not missing out on the story itself.

Tools for Assessment and Feedback

In addition to creating greater ease in accessing information, technological advances facilitate feedback, modeling, and organization. For example, digital quizzes have even advanced to the point of providing immediate scores to students once they have completed the assessment.  This also provides teachers with the advantage of looking at statistical data on a given test, as many digital quizzes extrapolate this information automatically. A simple quiz created in Google Forms not only provides individual student grades, but it also breaks down the information by question.  Teachers can view most frequently missed questions and compare class averages.  This allows for adjustment or re-teaching concept gaps.  We have found this particularly useful when covering different aspects of grammar.  Using the response summaries provides a quick way to determine whether students have a strong grasp of the material or are falling short of the targeted standards.  This immediate feedback also creates an environment where time-effective conversations with students take place.  Assessments have the natural effect of increasing student ownership of content, therefore giving the teacher a unique chance to explain misunderstood content.  When the students see their scores immediately, they are more likely to ask a question about the content, not just the grade.  They can then connect the answer back to their recent thought processes more easily because it is fresh in their memory. 

Another organizational benefit to using technology in the classroom presents itself when giving writing instruction to students.  Documents on a screen can be edited in real time, meaning that students can make active changes alongside the teacher while listening to explanation.  We use this frequently with our middle school students to practice essay format and structure.  By putting an example essay on the screen and manipulating it at the same time that our students are fixing their own essays, we give them an opportunity to learn visually and actively.  They can see if the format of what they are typing matches up and, if not, understand the necessary process to correct it.   

There are also benefits to grading student writing digitally.  “A digital immigrant would print a digital document and mark it up with a pen, whereas a digital native would use online reviewing tools (like Track Changes) to make edits” (Harvey 2).  Using comments, making suggestions, and tracking changes are three excellent methods of providing feedback and giving students the tools needed to improve their writing.  Suggestions allow a teacher to show possible edits they recommend without actually manipulating what the student wrote permanently.  Comments work similarly to written comments on an essay, but some platforms allow students to reply to comments, creating a dialogue instead of a one-sided response.  Finally, tracking changes can show a student how to actively revise their work for improvement.  A new feature on many educational platforms is the digital rubric, which allows more objectivity in grading student writing, as well as distinct feedback on particular details and aspects of their written work.

Tools for Representing Understanding

The profits of technology extend beyond content delivery and assessment.  Infographics, such as timelines and mind maps, provide new methods of organizing, manipulating and synthesizing information.  Students are no longer limited to writing words on a sheet of notebook paper.  They can use colors, images, graphics, text, and even animation to arrange information.  “A person only needs key words, curved branches, colors and imagination to create a mind map” (Buran and Filyukov 216).  Using this method to map a story they have read, take notes, or brainstorm ideas for an essay or project gives students a unique chance to take ownership of what they have learned.  Information no longer just exists in sentences and paragraphs.

This tactic can be applied to many different subject areas, but we have found mind mapping a unique way to arrange story elements in a reading lesson.  “[Mind mapping] offers teachers a common sense strategy that can be used to target the visual-spatial intelligence, thus providing another tool through which students can learn and show what they have learned” (Goodnough and Woods 3).  Students are able to arrange characters, plot points and motives throughout the reading of a short story.  It greatly aids in their understanding, as they are able to trace later events in the story back to the early action.  Students are also better able to draw connections between the individual characters motives and their choices throughout the story.  By using this method, students can document and rearrange what they discover throughout the course of their reading.  Mind mapping allows flexibility that would not have been possible otherwise. 

Timelines are another useful way to collect and document information.  We have had students use this method when preparing for a writing assignment focused on an autobiographical event.  The timeline method gave them the ability to record their experiences in chronological order as well as providing them the ability to add in details that came to mind later.  Arranging information in a timeline could also be used in teaching the literary element of plot.  Many other applications that provide infographic frameworks for teachers and students to work from have been created.  These different digital flowcharts can give students a visual way to grasp new concepts and create their own connections to learning.

As discussed earlier, video lessons can be an engaging and flexible tactic to use in the classroom.  In some classes, allowing students to create their own videos showing what they have learned can be a very effective tactic as well.  This especially allows students who may struggle with writing to exhibit their learning in a different way.  Pertinent videos provide a good option for differentiation and engagement.

More broadly, the ways that students exhibit understanding can be differentiated using digital tools. Sometimes different modality can simply be the difference between writing, typing or using a voice-to-text tool when completing a lengthy writing assignment.  For students who struggle with fine-motor skills, this can allow them to share their thoughts in writing without having to physically form letters with a pencil.  Other times students can be given the option to create a short video talking about what they have learned rather than writing or typing.  When talking about concepts in literature, this can be an effective tactic.  In this way, students are being assessed more based on what they have learned than their ability to write neatly or quickly.  Even simple tools like spell check can help students to be more successful in their writing.    

Students can also become more motivated when given personal choice in their learning.  By allowing students to choose between designing posters or creating presentations on the computer, they are excited by the prospect of making their own decision.  We have used this in both reading and English classes.  Some students find it much more engaging to manipulate and design content on the computer than draw something for a book report assignment.  Allowing students to make choices can help them to take ownership in the learning process, thus making it more personal and interesting to them.  In this way, it is also easier to direct students toward activities where they can find success while still mastering the content of the class.  Technology provides so many more engaging opportunities to make this differentiation possible across classes and content areas.      

Tools for Immersive Learning and Engagement

Digital tools can also provide a more immersive learning environment.  Instead of simply talking about the location of a story or article that students are reading, we can hop on Google Maps and take a virtual trip there.  It is also easy to find virtual tours of certain museums and famous landmarks, helping students to gain a fuller picture of what they are learning about.  This can help students to feel more connected to characters and stories making it easier for them to remember the different aspects and attach them to deeper meanings.  We have enjoyed using this with our middle school students to give them a bigger picture of the importance of the literature that they get to read. 

In the same way that digital tools make education more immersive, they also help students to expand their worldview.  They can watch travel videos and documentaries that give insight into what is happening in other parts of the world.  There are also so many more ways to connect historical significance to their reading class selections.  As English teachers, we enjoy digging into the history and setting that fill out the background of a story, but having resources to accurately share that information with students is invaluable.  We can rely on actual experts to avail students to relevant information.  This helps students to understand different cultural and historical implications of the books that they read. 

The availability of cultural and historical information helps students develop empathy. In our reading class, we read an article about a young woman in Pakistan who was attacked and injured for standing up for girls’ rights to be educated. This allowed students to understand that education is not a privilege extended to people around the globe, and while reading this story helped them develop empathy for those who faced these hardships, it also put their own education into a different light for them (Walker and Weidenbenner). Access to stories like these with connected videos and resources are made possible by the use of classroom technology.  We believe that students are able to engage with stories that are current and impactful because curriculum is made relevant in a way that can only be achieved with easy access to digital resources. 

Student engagement can also be improved through digital educational games and game-based learning platforms. Students need a variety of experiences that engage them in the learning process. These vary widely from platforms that allow students to work at a self-paced rate through a set of content relevant questions, to websites and links that allow teachers to input class specific information for the students to manipulate and practice.  There are several advantages to using game-based learning in the classroom.  It boosts students’ interest, motivates students to practice the content multiple times, and provides immediate feedback. 

Naturally, playing an interactive game is going to interest students more than filling in a worksheet.  Options like Quizizz and Kahoot allow students to interact with each other while practicing lesson related content.  There are also specific sites created for particular subject areas that allow students to practice, as an example, spelling words for English class.  Websites like Flippity allow teachers to create review games that can be played as an entire class or practiced independently by students afterwards for additional practice, and countless apps and websites have the option to create digital flashcards, a popular option with students and teachers alike.  Game-based learning can be fun and engaging for students in a way that makes them more motivated to study. 

Another wonderful aspect of game-based learning is its self-paced nature.  By allowing students to work through content at a speed that is comfortable for them, they are no longer left behind or scrambling to stay caught up.  This allows them the freedom to ask for help without feeling embarrassed or uncomfortable, and to take more time practicing the skills necessary to move on to the next step.  Some programs are even set up to make questions easier or more difficult depending on how much students are struggling.  For more advanced learners, they are able to move beyond the expected limit, actually accessing and learning content that may not be taught in the curriculum of the class for the year.  Instead of sitting in class bored while the other students get help to comprehend content, they are able to move on.  This set up possesses an obvious advantage for students on either end of the educational spectrum.  They are able to learn at a level that is accessible to them.

In addition to helping students learn at their current educational level, game-based learning provides students with immediate feedback. “Games that are too easily solved will not be engaging, so good games constantly require input from the learner and provide feedback” (Van Eck 3).  This is especially helpful for younger students who may not yet know how to self-monitor for understanding.  They are able to know definitively, right away if they are grasping the concept or not.  This also allows teachers to monitor and target students who need help without waiting for the next day’s homework to be handed in.  If there is a lack of understanding across the class, this will become evident very quickly and reveal the necessity of re-teaching material before moving on.  Immediate feedback provides students who are mastering content, the ability to move on more quickly, showing their understanding and accessing more challenging material.  In these ways, game-based and tiered learning programs can be very effective in helping students practice class material in a way that aids their learning.  

Limitations

With all of these wonderful applications for technology in the classroom, it must be noted that teachers encounter challenges and potential problems with technology. A lot of research has depicted drawbacks of using flipped classroom and self- paced learning, including students finding the taped lectures less engaging than the typical classroom ones and encountering more distractions when viewing the videocasts (Roehling et al.), students being unable to anticipate, schedule and complete the out-of-class learning activities (G. Akçayır and M. Akçayır), the decreased compliance with the reading assignments while students watching videos (McLaughlin et al.), inadequate student preparation prior to class (G. Akçayır and M. Akçayır), etc. Game-based learning does have downsides, much of which involves discipline issues. Students may get excessively noisy and/or stray away from the primary purpose of the game-play activity, resulting in playing too much and the lack of learning (Vu & Feinstein). If games are already familiar, students might not get actively engaged and find games unnecessary and childish (Wolf & Vu). Regarding the use of mind mapping in the classroom, the negative aspects of mind mapping can be the time consumed and the accessibility. Mind mapping seems to take longer time to brainstorm and organize the ideas, and creating a mind mapping needs computer access (Fadillah).

Conclusion

Technology continually transforms our pedagogy.  From assisting with invention, to enabling collaboration, to facilitating assignments, the ever-changing landscape of computer-assisted instruction encourages teachers to experiment with new and exciting ways to support and challenge their students. Students should be taught how to use technology responsibly and effectively.  Without taking the time to help students develop strong technological skills, an engaging, exciting and immersive learning environment can quickly become stressful or dangerous to students.  We, as educators, have a great responsibility to guide students toward safe, effective, and valuable content to help them learn.  “Teachers should drive forward the movement to infuse with technology students’ learning and prepare them for collaborative 21st century workplaces” (Harvey 3).  School is a wonderful place for students to learn ethical use of the Internet and technology that they can apply both inside and outside of the educational setting.  By providing a positive example for our students, we give them the power to be responsible and successful in their own lives. 

Works Cited

Akçayıra, Gökçe, and Akçayırb, Murat. “The Flipped Classroom: A Review of Its Advantages and Challenges.” Computers & Education, vol. 126, 2018, pp. 334-345.

Buran, Anna, and Andrey Filyukov. “Mind Mapping Technique in Language Learning.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 206, 2015, pp. 215-218.

Goodnough, Karen, and Robin Woods. “Student and Teacher Perceptions of Mind Mapping: A Middle School Case Study.” Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, April 2002.

Harvey, Brison. “Bridging the Digital Divide in Classrooms.” Education Week, 2 July 2014, www.edweek.org/technology/opinion-bridging-the-digital-divide-in-classrooms/2014/07.

McLaughlin, Jacqueline E., et al. “The Flipped Classroom: A Course Redesign to Foster Learning and Engagement in a Health Professions School.” Academic Medicine, vol. 89, no. 2, 2014, pp. 236-243.

Van Eck, Richard. “Digital Game-Based Learning It’s Not Just the Digital Natives Who Are Restless.” EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 41, no. 2, March/April 2006, pp. 16–30.

Vu, P. & Feinstein, S.  “An Exploratory Multiple Case Study about Using Game-Based Learning in STEM Classrooms.” International Journal of Research in Education and Science, vol. 3, no. 2, 2017, pp. 582-588.

Walker, Gabriela, and Jeni Venker Weidenbenner. “Social and Emotional Learning in the Age of Virtual Play: Technology, Empathy, and Learning.” Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching & Learning, vol. 12, no. 2, 2019, pp. 116-132.

Wolf, S. & Vu, P. “Incorporating Game-Based Learning with Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” to Maximize Students’ Achievement and Engagement.” The Wisconsin English Journal, vol. 61, no. 1, 2020, wisconsinenglishjournal.org/2020/03/21/wolf-vu/.

Learn more about Cami Christman and Lan Vu on our Contributors page

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