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Facilitating Digital IS

Written by Bailey Means
December 04, 2010

I facilitated a Digital IS graduate course, ERL 590: Inquiry into Digital Literacy in the Classroom, throughout the 2010-2011 school year. This resource is meant to give insight not only into how such a class would run, but also to chronicle the successes and challenges a group of ten Maine teachers faced while integrating technology with the writing process.

1. Introduction: Digital IS in a Graduate Course Format

The graduate course Digital IS provided a unique opportunity for Maine Writing Project teacher-consultants to individually tackle a yearlong inquiry into how technology shapes the experience of writing in the classroom. The course consisted of five day long workshops where we met to work on our inquiries and give each other feedback. Outside of class, each participant tackled their inquiries in the spaces of their classrooms and recorded their struggles and successes through a running blog we shared as a group. The course was a wonderful way for teachers to set aside time to study and explore the impact of technology on writing.


II. Who we are

From the start, it was apparent we were an eclectic group. We had ten participants, their ages spanning from 26 to 58, the average age 47. Half of our group was 50 or older. On average, each participant had 20 years of teaching experience. This information is crucial to understanding the triumphs each person had with digital writing. Our participants were not the computer savvy teachers straight from college who knew all the newest and coolest classroom technologies. In fact, as a group, technology was a relatively new thing for us. Some participants did not even know how to set up email accounts for their students. So while they were helping students learn through the digital writing process, oftentimes they were scrambling just to understand how to use the technology themselves.

The participants taught anywhere from second grade to college level. We had a very even spread; three elementary, three middle school, three high school, and one college level teacher. This range made class especially interesting, because even though as a group we had similar problems with technology (access, it working appropriately, slow network, etc.) each grade level encountered problems that others might not, such as a second grader’s limited practice with typing or an older student’s penchant for plagiarism. These diverse experiences only added to rich conversations and problem solving.


III. Class Rundown

We met only five times over the course of the class for day long workshops, however, those meetings were power packed with sharing ideas, working directly on individual resources, and giving feedback to each other. Geographically, we were all over Maine (some of the participants living three and a half hours from each other) so after our first two meetings we decided to move our location from the University of Maine at Orono to a more centralized location.

Class #1 (End of August 2010)

Our first workshop together we spent the first half of the day playing silly games to get to know each other. The second half we spent thinking about the concept of a year long inquiry, and brainstorming possible inquires each participant might be interested in. Some ideas that sprung from our discussion:

  • “Do science students write better when they create audio field notes?”
  • “How does digital storytelling change the writing of my second-grade students?”
  • “How is my role as a teacher changed when students use GoogleDocs to write?
  • “Are challenged writers even more challenged when writing online?”
  • “Do students say more when they write with images and sound rather than words?”

After our first class, participants were left to mull over the decision about how to shape their inquiry, and by the end of the next month, post their final inquiry on our blog. Some inquiries changed over time. To view each participant’s inquiry and resource, click on their names.

  • Kim Oldenburgh: How does the use of digital media foster students’ writing and motivation as they work to create a yearlong timeline of their learning?
  • Michele Aronson: At the elementary level how do you sustain the writing process in order for young authors to move from “all done” to engaged writers? What would rehearsal/pre-write look like with two different (culturally/age) groups using a digital media such as Skype?
  • Heather Bendure: How will a multimedia poster change the way students research a topic, synthesize information learned, share/publish and present information in comparison to the traditional poster board format?
  • Gina Doyle: How does the use of digital media affect student engagement in reading and writing poetry?
  • Jennifer Estabrook: How can using technology foster critical thinking?
  • Kaili Philips: How do Wikis foster authenticity in middle school writing?
  • Kristi Bancroft: How does Google Docs impact student learning and engagement in my classroom and how does using this technology change how I teach?
  • Susan Dewey: How does a transition from carrying around paper and ink books to digital sources affect student engagement? How does this add to the mix of equity in terms of access to education?
  • Jonathan York: How can I explore, make use of, and learn about digital media options to enrich and expand my student’s experience with writing?
  • Rosemarie De Angelis: Will the use of Google Docs ultimately improve writing output by doing the following: allow greater ability to dialogue/conference about their writing, allow a chance to edit with them, make comments and help them to really zero in on their writing, thus allowing me to use the classroom time for direct instruction?

Classes 2 & 3 (October and December 2010)

Our following classes together ran in a workshop model. Myself and the other facilitator, Dave Boardman, were available for any help or feedback throughout the day. We also hired two tech savvy coaches, Seth Mitchell and Denyell Suomi, to help our participants with any technology questions they had, troubleshoot roadblocks, and help connect technology with student learning objectives. We also spent some time each class sharing fun online digital resources that could help us in our classrooms, such as Screencast-O-Matic, Wordle, Wallwisher, and Glogster. By the third class we started beginning the process of making our resource on the Digital IS website. During these classes, participants became each other’s coaches. As a result, we grouped the teachers by age and/or location to support each other through the final steps of creating their resources. This worked well; the teachers loved the chance to meet, socialize, and find comfort in each other’s successes and frustrations.

Class 4 (March 2011)

Participants came to the fourth class having completed (as complete as it could be given individual inquires) their resource. We then spent the entire class giving each other feedback and working to fine tune resources.

Class 5 (April 2011)

The final class was an optional attendance of Writing Ourselves, the yearly Maine Writing Project conference, to act as a panel for other teacher consultants outside of the Digital IS graduate course to talk about the inquiry experience and integrating technology into their classrooms.


IV. Our frustrations (with integrating technology into the classroom)

Digital IS participants had many frustrations throughout the inquiry process. I think it’s helpful to share these roadblocks because most teachers who use technology in the classroom have or will face these challenges as well. We don’t necessarily have any answers on how to overcome these obstacles, but what I can provide (as you’ll read later) is the assurance that the successes far outweigh the frustrations.

  • Time. Teaching students how to use a new computer program or website takes time, especially when the teacher isn’t well versed in it. Even if all parties know how to run the program effectively, using technology (including recording, using pictures, movies, etc.) takes time. Some teachers had to use their free time after school trying to figure the technology out, which was a huge frustration. Most students and teachers need time to “play” before really understanding how to properly work a program, and our participants found it difficult to carve out precious classes with an already bursting curriculum. Teachers also found they needed time to differentiate for their students’ wide range of experience with technology.
  • Background knowledge. One participant confided that she needed modeling before she could model the program for the students, “I still have so much to learn.”
  • Technology itself. Thanks to Maine’s laptop computer program, many of our participants had 1:1 computing. However, at least 30% of our participants either only had access to a computer lab, or worse, only had a couple of computers at their fingertips. Even the teachers who did have 1:1 computing faced multiple difficulties. Desperately slow and inconsistent internet access. Slow servers and computers. Computers/programs failing or shutting down before student has a chance to save. Lack of technology support within schools.
  • Students. Students forgetting to bring their computers to school. Not saving properly. Students getting off task by getting into programs they shouldn’t be. Students leaving the classroom to receive special services or out sick, and thus miss important instruction on how to use technology or get work done on the computers that they won’t be able to at home.

V. Our successes (with integrating technology into the classroom)

Across the board, participants reported these similar successes:

  • More student engagement
  • Teachers were more easily able to differentiate, because as the level of scaffolding slowly fell away, students could independently work
  • Students who don’t normally shine in the classroom were able to through technology
  • Students became the teachers (helping each other and oftentimes–the teacher–work out technology difficulties)
  • The teachers themselves learned so much, became better acquainted with technology, and feel much more comfortable using it in their classroom
  • The amount and quality of students’ work went up, not only because they were engaged, but because they felt they had an authentic audience
  • Students enjoyed writing more

To view each of the participant’s individual successes, please click on their name in the previous section. I do, however, want to share a couple of their successes here. Kristi (who transferred her classroom writing from paper to GoogleDocs) had a student who struggled both academically and socially ask for her GMail just so he could share a piece of his writing with her. Jennifer found that kids who are reluctant to discuss books in the classroom setting responded with depth, length, and enthusiasm on their online blog and are constructing meaning together in a way they never did in class. Kaili reported that her students “started to act like real writers. They are posting for other subject areas on my English website because they want feedback, and some students are posting ‘free write’ stuff for feedback.” She has seen an “amazing transformation in the content and volume of their writing” since using a wiki. Michele, who teamed up with Seth Mitchell’s high school students via skype throughout the writing process, found that “The entire atmosphere of writing workshop changed. It was like all of a sudden there was a purpose and audience for writing that was authentic and they bought into it. They were self directed–it was coming from them, not from me. They knew at 10:18am on Tuesdays they were video conferencing with their partners. This propelled them through the daily writing workshop. They knew it wasn’t just going to stay in their notebooks or go up on the wall.” Kim, who has second graders reported that her students are starting to write more, and more quickly. Susan’s high school students were “really proud of the work they did, and engaged with their topic, although they need more practice with it, they understood the importance or necessity of evaluating information, finding important information, and using their own words to communicate, and also communicating in a multi-modal way.” Gina’s students now look at poetry in a different way, “they have to think about timing, get to the meaning of the poem through imaged and expression of that poetry.”

VI. Conclusion

Although Digital IS participants encountered challenges while integrating technology into their writing curriculum, those frustrations remained static, and were oftentimes out of the teacher’s control. However, throughout their inquiry, the successes they had in the classroom as a result of using technology kept mounting and getting more exciting as the year went on. In fact, teachers found that their issues with technology weren’t as prominent once they started to see results and how engaged the students were. One hundred percent of the participants believed that the successes outweighed frustrations, and when later polled, all of the teachers said they planned not only to use the same amount of technology in their classroom next year, but because of the positive outcome, have chosen to use technology with other units as well. The inquiry format of this class allowed teachers tackle important questions, improve student learning and engagement, and learn a ton themselves.

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