Friday, February 12, 2016

Experimenting with Technology: My Real-Life Oregon Trail

Our blogger today is Jessica Moman. Jessica is a 7th grade Language Arts teacher at River Valley Middle School in Greater Clark County Schools, and a Teacher Consultant for the IUS Writing Project. GCCS is a 1:1 district using Chromebooks.

I remember 5th grade like it was yesterday. My family and I were in our cart. We had very little food. My sister had died of a broken arm. My brother had a snake bite and I had dysentery, yet my family persevered on to Williamette Valley. When we reached it, I felt like I had won.

Even back in 1995 in a rural community, my teachers recognized how the right technology can aide, engage, and inspire student learning. I was raised on the Oregon Trail. Well, not literally. I actually grew up in Small Town, Indiana, but my 5th grade world revolved around escaping to the high-ability room and knowing that if I had to die on the Oregon Trail, I needed to at least die by dysentery rather than a fever, because, let’s face it, dysentery was way cooler than an ordinary fever. As a 6th grader, I got to show 5th grade students which key was the spacebar so they could continue their journey on the Oregon Trail, and how to save medicine for a snake bite. I was allowed to teach them the things that I had learned while playing the game.

I live this same philosophy now with my 7th graders. We try new technology to aide in our learning of extremely challenging standards. As a teacher, I am trying to engage my students with technology in the same way that Oregon Trail engaged me, just with more relevant technology. Because I use technology with every student, every day, lots can go wrong.

Yes, lessons always turn out differently than planned, but when you add more moving parts to a lesson, there are more things that can go wrong. Wi-fi is down, the battery on a device won’t stay charged, kids show up without their device. The best thing we can do as teachers, though, is probably the most uncomfortable for us - do not solve the problems for them.

One of the classes I teach is our school newspaper. We recently added a poll to our paper to feature more students each week. We wanted to make this section visually appealing, so we searched and found, a website specializing in infographics. The two students working on this new feature were struggling with how to add pictures from their phones to the infographic on their Chromebook. Almost immediately, my instinct was to save them, to take the Chromebook and the phone from their hands and email the pictures to myself to open and save to the computer, and then import the images to their design. It would have taken a matter of minutes for me to finish the infographic. I knew exactly what steps needed to be completed, so it would have been easy for me to do it for them.

But, I didn’t. I didn’t learn how to survive the Oregon Trail because someone did it for. In fact, I learned because my teacher walked away, making me ask myself some important questions, so that’s what I did for my students. “Okay, so we have some issues. What should we do now?” By asking that simple question, I became the sounding-board for their discussion, not the leader of it. I put the learning, experimenting - and maybe even failing - experience back on them. After 5 minutes or so, they had a plan. I asked them, “Why do you think that’s the best way to do it?” Asking them to think about their thinking showed me how they eliminated other options. I know they were processing through information. Once they completed their assignment, I asked them to show the rest of the staff how to use this website for future issues. This assignment took much longer than needed to complete, but I know they learned not only how to use the website, but they also learned how to be persistent and problem-solve.

Technology is changing. A teacher’s desire for her students to be creative, analytical thinkers does not. Think about technology in the classroom as the Oregon Trail - lots of things will go wrong in the beginning, but don’t get discouraged. By asking the right questions, teachers will see how technology revolutionizes the type of thinking students will do and that will be like the teacher-version of making it to Willamette Valley.

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