So anyone that is a regular Radical reader knows that several critical friends have been pushing my thinking around teaching with technology in the past few months. That conversation continued today when Nancy Flanagan over at Teacher in a Strange Land wrote:

Bill and I have been gently tussling about the desirability of technology in the classroom all over blogdom, and he recently posted a blog full of statistics (when in doubt, display numbers) and comments from his students on how much they enjoy using blogs, Voicethread and wikis. They note that learning from heavy textbooks is boring (as it always has been) and that they enjoy knowing that their work has been “published.” Much better, says Bill, to have kids using alluring tech tools than slogging through traditional instruction.

First, let me clarify something:  I’m not in doubt, Nancy.

I used statistics in my recent post because they seem to be the only bit of evidence that anyone really cares about in our “data-driven” world. I’d be happy to return to the “good ol’ days” where teachers chose instructional practices based on their gut instincts and their deeply  personal understanding of their students—and where their professional opinions were trusted by communities that believed in their schools.

But we don’t live in those times anymore. Instead, we live in times when teachers in tested subjects are held accountable for numbers and numbers only. Heck—I was called “decidedly average” this year because my end-of-grade test scores didn’t measure up to expectations.

The way I see it, unless I can start to quantify the impact of technology on my students, my digital work will be snuffed out by those who’ve found a scripted curriculum that guarantees to close the achievement gap—regardless of how stifling and useless it really is.

And while this conversation seems to have run its course for me, it has forced me to really think critically about what exactly is happening in my classroom. And I’ve finally come to a conclusion that I may never have recognized until today:

Good teaching is good teaching. Technology just makes good teaching easier.

Here’s what I mean:

I believe there are three fundamental pillars that support good teaching in a middle grades classroom. The first is frequent opportunities for students to engage in collaborative conversations.  Collaborative conversations teach students to recognize and respect multiple viewpoints—an increasingly important skill in a world where argument has replaced dialogue as the primary form of human interaction.

Collaborative conversations also provide students with opportunities to have their thinking challenged—and challenged thinking leads to new learning as individuals work to resolve the mental tension that naturally exists between preexisting notions of “what is true” and new, contradictory evidence.

Technology has facilitated these kinds of interactions between my students.

Using asynchronous tools like discussion boards and Voicethread, I’ve extended the conversations that have always been a part of what we do in my room.  While ten years ago, the conversation ended when the bell rang, today, they go on for weeks. Students follow up on strands started in class and begin new strands aligned with their own personal feelings and beliefs.

Our digital conversations are empowering because any student can ask challenging questions without having to wait for “their turn.” Better yet, students to pay attention to the strands that are the most interesting to them and ignore those that are disconnected from their own thinking—something that is nearly impossible during in class seminars with 30 students working at once.

If you look carefully at the comments left by my students in our recent survey, you’ll see that our digital conversations are having the desired effect. My kids aren’t saying that “Voicethread conversations are just plain nifty because they’re online.” Instead, they’re saying, “I like hearing viewpoints that are different from mine,” and “I like having my thinking challenged by others.”

That’s nothing more than sound instruction facilitated by technology, isn’t it?

A second pillar of true learning in a middle grades classroom are opportunities for students to craft their own identities and sense of self. No other point in life is as confusing for kids, don’t you think? Over the course of three or four years, the students in my room will break away from their parents and start forming the core of who they will be as people.

Unfortunately, these changes can be brutal. Middle school becomes a place where students are categorized and treated like outcasts. Students afraid of “standing out” would rather sit silent in class than engage in learning. Clear “rankings” develop over the course of a year, and interactions between students remain limited to students within the same social groups.

Technology has changed that in my room. It’s simply amazing to see the number of students who participate in digital conversations compared to those who will “speak up” in my classroom. Every year, some of the biggest “digital superstars” are quiet girls who rarely draw attention to themselves, but who are frequent visitors to online forums.

After four or five years worth of interviews, I’ve found that the reason for this increased participation is that digital forums feel safer to marginalized students than face-to-face interactions. There is no risk of “saying something stupid” in a digital forum because ideas can be revised and polished before they are posted. What’s more, students take on alternate identities in most of our online forums. They might be known as “The Drama Queen” or “Flying Onion Boy.” These identities help insecure students to find their voice.

I’ll never forget a student named Robby, who was a social outcast in our suburban school because he was constantly suspended and always dirty. Robby would sit in the in-school suspension room after flipping a desk, punching a peer or cursing out a teacher and make posts to our digital conversations that were nothing short of brilliant.

Before long, Robby was seen as the intellectual equal of students that had looked down on him for years—and he felt like a student for the first time because his ideas were forcing others to think. They would compliment him regularly—both online and in person—when he made interesting contributions to digital conversations.

I’ve always tried to build a positive and safe classroom for my students. Digital tools have just made that easier.

Finally, as a language arts teacher, I believe the third pillar of a solid middle grades education is the opportunity to practice the process of articulation through writing. You probably couldn’t get more traditional than that, could you? I mean, we’ve been teaching students to write, revise and polish their thinking for generations—and there’s probably no skill that is more important for success in today’s world.

That point was reinforced for me time and again in the past few weeks as I recruited parents to participate in our school’s job fair. “What has made you successful in your profession?” I asked parents working in fields ranging from software development to restaurant management.

Without fail, the ability to communicate placed first on their list.

My favorite parent was an IT systems engineer (You don’t get much more geeky than that!) making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. “In my field,” he said, “No one really understands what it is that we do or how we do it. The technology is just beyond them. If I can’t communicate to my customers about what I can do for them, they aren’t going to hire me no matter how brilliant I am!”

But getting students to write is becoming increasingly difficult. Kids who have grown up in an instant gratification culture can’t seem to invest the mental energy or patience required to put thinking into words—and then to polish those words until they represent personal opinions in a clear and convincing manner.

Our kids have been trained to hit the reset button anytime something doesn’t go their way, haven’t they?  They pay attention for 15 minutes at a time, trained by television shows broken into manageable chunks and the levels of the latest video games they just had to have. Those personal traits run contrary to the kinds of skills necessary to be an effective writer.

The motivation of digital tools (and unlike some tech critics who believe that motivation shouldn’t be a reason for selecting digital formats for learning, I won’t ever apologize for selecting interesting tools to engage my students in a study of the required curriculum) has proven to be a bit of a boon to my attempts to get students writing.

Need a bit of proof?  Consider this:

  1. Our classroom blog has had literally hundreds of posts in the past two years.  In fact, I got an email just yesterday from a student that included four different entries he’d like me to add to “The Blurb.”  One is a book review, one is a poem, and two are reflections on world events.  Even more interesting: We’re a year-round school and my kids are on a three-week vacation right now. So this kid has been sitting at home on holiday willingly churning out the written word.
  2. Our classroom wiki (which is closed to the public) has over 200 pages of student generated content that has been revised almost 1,000 times this year. (When was the last time that you got your kids to revise anything once—let alone 1,000 times?)
  3. Our classroom Voicethread presentations—including one where sixth graders joined with eighth graders in a digital conversation about the idea of hate—have had almost 850 written comments in the past year alone.

Oh yeah—and all of our digital work is ungraded and done beyond the school day. The only time kids can work on digital projects in my room is during recess—where I usually see 10-15 students a day.   

As a guy charged with teaching writing, can you understand why I’d be a bit jazzed about any tool that had the potential to generate thousands and thousands of opportunities for my students to engage in free writing on school related topics for pleasure?

In fact, wouldn’t I be a bit unprofessional if I DIDN’T use digital tools to encourage writing in my classroom after seeing the response that my students have had to blogs, wikis and Voicethread presentations?

In short (if you can consider a 2-hour blog post short), the digital learning that happens in my classroom ain’t about technology at all.  Instead, it’s about finding ways to facilitate the kinds of experiences that support the intellectual, social and emotional growth of middle school students.

And interestingly enough, my fundamental beliefs about the nature of high quality instruction really haven’t changed all that much in the past 15 years. My kids are still creating, collaborating and communicating.They’re wrestling with critical ideas, they’re investigating challenging questions, and they’re identifying and testing solutions together.

Digital tools simply allow my students to do those things more often—and have proven to be more effective at engaging every learner who rolls through my classroom door each fall.

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