This piece was orginially published in SEEN Magazine.

“We dare you to hold our attention.” That’s the message I saw on the faces of my sixth graders on the first day of this school year. Soon enough I learned that, hooked on digital culture, these students were tech-savvier than ever.

I knew from the previous year that talking about great books with my English classes was no longer enough. I couldn’t just place a row of Newbery winners on the desks and invite kids to peruse them or plow through the tried-and-true class novel. I figured they’d respond well to my innovation from last year: virtual book clubs. But what more could I do to engage them? How could I meet these learners on their own ground?

Even as I considered these questions, I had no idea that by mid-year, my sixth graders would be designing a virtual book club app for Apple’s iOS platform. Will the app work? I hope so. In some ways it doesn’t matter. What’s more important is that we’re learning together on my students’ turf. Each day they are fine-tuning their literacy skills by working on a virtual project that is rigorous, relevant, and fun.

For me, the experience has been exhilarating, frustrating, and enlightening. Here are some takeaways for teachers:

  • Even if you’re a new digital immigrant, you can engage your students with relevant digital learning. You’ll find a wealth of helpful resources online.
  • Let your state standards drive instructional objectives. That way, you’ll plan rigorous student outcomes, not frivolous activities just to employ technology.
  • Model what it looks like to face the unknown.

During the 2010-2011 school year, I launched a virtual book club (VBC). Looking for the right platform, I read everything I could about Web 2.0 technology, from blogs to Moodles to Vokis. Finally, I settled on creating a class wiki using Wikispaces. With input from students, I set up a basic page and some guidelines. Then students created sub-pages for individual books, complete with reading schedules, discussion threads, and multimedia content.

The engagement was immediate, and more importantly, student-driven. Students unpacked vocabulary, debated character motivations, and tracked themes. I loved the authentic discussions taking place outside of the classroom.

The VBC whetted appetites, but it wasn’t enough. Limitations remained. We couldn’t chat in real time except in class. E-mail notifications were slow. We had no easy way to rate books or make personal recommendations. The wiki is web-based and lacks portability. My students clamored for more and eventually convinced me to listen to their virtual learning ideas.

Where It Got Scary: The App Idea

Fast forward to late fall 2011. I chugged through a reading unit with a new crop of 11-year-olds in Walker Middle School’s brand-new International Baccalaureate (IB) program. One day I noticed the kids were not truly engaged. Luckily, I had a good question to write on the board: How can a young person change his or her community?

We then read an article about 11-year-old Cameron Cohen, a Los Angeles sixth grader who created his own app for the iPhone. While recovering from a surgery, Cohen immersed himself in online research about computer programming and app building. His creation, iSketch, is a popular download in the Apple app store. The class discussion livened with a sudden passion absent all week. “Who is this kid? How did he do it? Is he rich now?” My students were all inspired by Cohen’s innovation and ability to teach himself.

A few days earlier, I had published an article outlining VBCs for teachers. After the Cohen lesson, I arrived home to find an intriguing Tweet from an app developer: “Have you considered designing a virtual book club app for your students?”

The Cohen lesson. The developer’s Tweet. Light bulb! We could design our own book club app. But there was a major hiccup: I didn’t know anything about computer programming. Neither did most of my students. Of course, I hadn’t known anything about wikis either.

The next day I passed the message along to all six of my classes. Each period, my students begged me to let them create a VBC app.

“But we don’t know how,” I said.

“You can learn anything,” a boy blurted. “Isn’t that what you always tell us?”

“If Cameron Cohen could do it,” a girl said, “So can we. He’s, like, our age!”

I had excuses galore. “This is Reading and Language Arts, not Computer Science.”

The students presented rapid-fire arguments, tossing aside the need to raise hands.

“You’re always making us research.”

“And write plans and reflect.”

“Kids will want to read more. We promise.”

Clearly they were going to pester me until I practiced what I preached. And why not? They had valid points. What is more rewarding than creating a real-world solution to a problem? And why not show students how I learn? So we set out to build an app to improve our VBC.

Part 2 of “Confessions of an Online Teacher” will be posted on transformED tomorrow (April 24).

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