One mark of a great teacher is her ability to meet students where they are, and then take them on exciting journeys to new destinations. For today’s young people, that means understanding that much of their lives operate in the digital world. While we older folks grew up in the analog age with its somewhat limited classroom methodologies (note-taking via pen on paper–imagine that!–and lecture, lecture, lecture), Millenials were practically born with a predisposition for multitasking, multimedia instruction.
Recognizing that as an opportunity–rather than something to work around (or ignore altogether)– Scarborough Middle School Gifted and Talented Educational Services (GATES) teacher Jessica Kelly has fully embraced the latest technology. It’s along the lines of, “If you can’t beat ’em”–and why would you want to?–“join ’em.” (An earlier post explained her use of Skype, a web-based video conferencing platform, to foster dialogue between students and historical society members.)
Now she has created a “Ning” site. Ning is a tool that allows users to build custom social networking sites– something like a cross between Facebook and a blog. Students have the freedom to customize their profile pages to reflect their interests and personality, Jessica poses assignments and discussion starters, considerable dialogue takes place, and everything’s enhanced with photographs and funky graphics and video and… you name it. Lest you worry about privacy, Ning sites are completely closed to all but the site’s administrator, and the participants she or he allows in via personal password. In other words, it’s a digital classroom where you can close and lock the door behind you.
Jessica’s GATES class is primarily reading-based, so a central use of the site is to invite conversation about literature. To extend classroom discussion, she posts questions about the reading and students type answers at all hours of the day. These texting-savvy kids and their comfort with rapid-fire response creates an almost-instantaneous and multi-layered dialogue. One student’s post builds on another, and pretty soon the original question asked by “Mrs. Kelly” has not only been answered in various ways, it’s been used as a foundation to jump to related topics and threads.
It didn’t take Jessica long to realize the value of this visually-rich site for her MCHP activities. Encouraging a little “history detective” work, Jessica began posting old Scarborough photographs and artifacts and asking the students to uncover the stories behind them.
The first of these was an image of a mid-19th-century “palming thimble,” designed to protect someone sewing sailcloth from being injured. Jessica’s first prompts–“What might this unknown artifact have been used for? What are its physical qualities? Who might have used it?–quickly elicited responses, eventually totaling more than 70.
As one might expect in this somewhat free-form environment, some of the answers were playful–it’s an “elf shoe” suggested one creative thinker–but by and large, the students took the task seriously. “It is… made of leather,” wrote one student. “It looks to be old and worn, and I’m sure it feels smooth in some places and rough in others.” Toward the end of the guessing period, other students intuited the basic idea of the object, if not the exact use. “I think it is some sort of half-glove/hand guard, used by lumberjacks to handle and cut wood,” said one. “I agree with [the] idea that this object is used to protect the hand,” wrote another. “I think that it may be for when a farmer or handy-man is holding something like a pitch fork or an axe and using their hands. It may be used to prevent extreme callouses forming on the hands.” Jessica eventually revealed the true use of the item in class.
Of course, an activity like this can easily be done in person, and there’s something to be said for observing and handling (with gloves) the object up close. But that would necessitate regular field trips to the historical society, or historical society members transporting objects to the classroom, neither of which methods are practical. (Though both have occurred in Jessica’s class at least once.) And even if they were, there is no way the activity could be set up and carried out in anything like the rapidity with which it’s done online.
As any savvy user of technology in the classroom will tell you, it’s all about knowing how and when to deploy it. Clearly, Jessica has utilized the latest technologies in a focused, purposeful way to hook students with the virtual platforms they are so comfortable with–and then reel them in with the excitement of real learning.