Friday, July 10, 2015

Social Studies in the Air...

Imagine a class where students find the content personally meaningful. A class where students are able to see a transfer from the content learned and their own lives. One reason I became a teacher was because my childhood was marked by classroom experiences where I was never able to understand the connection between school and the real world. I was an average (and sometimes below average) student. I basically did what I was told, but never really bought into school.  It wasn’t until I grew to become a young adult that it all finally started to click. I moved away from home and made friends with a girl from South Africa, we are still good friends today.

At eighteen years old, I ate up everything my friend had to say. She was passionate about civil rights and justice. She made me look at the way the world is today through a critical lens, a lens that I’d never used before. I realized that I missed out on so much of this within my formal education. As a teen I had spent a lot of time being critical, yet my criticism was non-productive. I never paid attention in history class because the focus was always on our famous forefathers and how wonderful they were. My friend, Tammia, taught me more about history than I ever learned in school. I realized that my natural propensity to ask questions and think critically could be channeled into something productive. Around the same time, I also realized that I enjoyed spending time with middle school students. After some time and reflection, I decided that I wanted to become a teacher. I wanted to become a teacher who would actually help students understand how history and geography are connected to their lives today. I wanted to become a teacher who would ask meaningful questions and ask students to ask meaningful questions.

Fast forward about ten years. I’ve now been teaching for five years. As a middle school teacher, one of my favorite things is still finding ways to help students see that social studies is all around them.  As Michael Wesch says,  technology and media (and I'd argue social studies), “is in the air.” Throughout my time teaching, I’ve made it a point to incorporate pop culture and real life into my classroom and I've found a lot of other teachers doing the same thing. I ask students to come in with connections to class. When they bring in connections they earn little yellow tickets that can be traded in for bonus points, candy, etc. Students bring in screen shots of images they’ve seen on Snapchat or things that come up in video games and songs. Sometimes they tell me about something they saw on the news, or overheard their parents talking about. One student last year was a major Disney fan, almost every day she would come in with connections to different Disney movies. I consider this to be a really great way to start conversations and get students invested in the content being learned. I literally had one class last year where the first ten minutes of each day had to be devoted to connections because so many students would come in with things to share.

When I was considering options for my final project for this course, I really wanted to try to find a way to digitize the link system. I thought this would have a number of different benefits. I know that most kids spend at least an hour a night on the computer (if not more), so why not upload connections in real time? Also, I felt that having a way for students to post connections before class the following day would allow me to preview what they were coming up with. If I had a way to preview the content of the connections, this would allow me more time to prepare and think about the discussion the following day.  

As I searched for different tools that could be used to connect with students, I felt unsure about how effective many of these interfaces would be for the connections I wanted kids to make. I also didn’t know if I could realistically have all students subscribe to certain social media accounts (such as Twitter). Additionally, other new types of technology and material came up in class and I really wanted to find a way to use all of these new platforms. I LOVED hearing about the Maker Movement and 20% Time when Kelly Reed came in to speak.  But how could I do all of this without having to send students to a million different places? It wouldn’t be possible. So after spending some time reflecting, I decided that what I really needed to do was to revamp a website that I already had, a site that was being tremendously underutilized.

For the past couple of years I felt like I was in a pretty good place with my website. I used it to post homework and figured out how to post some links for class activities. Most of the other teachers I work with use little to no technology, so just the fact that I had a website made me feel pretty good. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much traffic my website was really getting. The page was pretty boring and included no interactive or interesting content. I wanted to find a way to incorporate all of these new ideas and make my website more appealing to users. So I organized and changed my website. Instead of the emphasis being primarily on homework posting, there is now a section for real life connections. Additionally, I've incorporated a survey portion so that I will be able gather student data in an efficient and productive way. I loved learning how to use Google Forms and think this simple tool will save me a lot of time and energy! I no longer have to go into Excel and record all of the hand written data one survey at a time. 

Finally, another important section of the site is devoted to class resources. Because I believe that students need to have a personal investment in the content being learned (this is the root of student connection making), I am going to implement 20% time as a new way to provide students with more control over their own learning experience. I have a couple of resources about 20% time on my site now and intend to add more. I'm excited to use the Bingo sheet provided by Kelly. 

There is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to this new tool, but overall I feel that this will be something that is reflective of my personal pedagogy and practice. I've taken meaningful activities that I was already doing with my classes and brought these activities into the 21st Century. Because the content and meaning-making is what I'm so invested in, I feel like my website will be something that I just naturally use, it won't feel forced. I'm looking forward to finding new ways to use the site as a learning tool in the future and think I will even ask my students (via Google Forms) to provide me with new ideas for the site! Again, this would not only allow me to be personally invested, but would get students invested as well. 

Upon entering this class I felt like Prensky's labels of "digital native" and "digital immigrant" were really reasonable, but I never really considered the blurry space in between. In one of my first blog posts I think I labeled myself as an immigrant. However, I now feel like I'm somewhere in between. I see myself (as Noons would say)a techno-traditionalist, but feel that the changes I've made have placed me on the cusp of becoming a techno-constructivist. Ultimately, I feel like it's important to think beyond labels. I don't need to fit into a particular category or with a particular group in order to be productive and use technology in a way that is conducive to teaching. I believe that I am more knowledge-"able" than I was a week ago which will enable me to help  teach my students to become digital citizens.  Overall I think this course was helpful and enlightening, it encouraged me to go beyond where I would have gone before. Now I just need to look for a more opportunities to push myself further! 

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