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Best Practices for the Digital Age: Where's the H.E.A.T.?

Written by Jennifer Estabrook
September 17, 2011

     Lakeside living and an empty nest create the ideal conditions for summer reading and reflection. This summer’s Big Question: How well did I do designing and integrating digital age learning experiences, and how can I do it better?  As I learned and wrote about earlier in this resource, designing curriculum for the digital age is no easy task. It requires that teachers combine content knowledge and sound teaching practices with digital technologies that continue to evolve. For many of us, early attempts to integrate technology were all about the tool.  Now we know that when technology is used in isolation, we risk neglecting the development of higher order thinking skills and fostering the ability to read complex texts, skills that colleges and employers are telling us their students and employees lack. 

     Fortunately, standards and more examples of best practices are beginning to emerge. Most educators are familiar with the well-established Performance Indicators developed and revised by ISTE (NETS) as well as the framework established by The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Classroom teachers and school administrators looking to gauge the effectiveness of their instructional practices should also look to the work of LoTi, Inc., an educational consulting firm specializing in 21st century learning.  First recognized for its Levels of Teaching Innovation framework, LoTi has recently published its Digital Age Best Practices.pdf This is a highly relevant and important document highlighting six instructional practices that are aligned to the NETS and have empirically shown to improve student achievement. In addition, Dr. Christopher Moersch, executive director of LoTi, has conceptualized the essential components of a 21st Century classroom as the acronym H.E.A.T. – higher-order thinking, engaged learning, authentic connections, and technology use. The H.E.A.T. framework measures the level of integration of these four components. For the classroom teacher, this is a useful tool for planning instruction as well as assessing the impact of daily lessons on students. It is this framework that I used for assessing the H.E.A.T. in my own classroom.

     One of the unanticipated advantages of using Web 2.0 literacies in the classroom is the opportunity to look back on a year’s worth of student work and reflect on their performance, the quality of assignments, and how well the methods of assessment align with learning objectives. Our class wikis and blogs provide pages and pages of student work, reflections, and discussion threads which in turn allow me to evaluate my own level of technology integration. I began this resource last spring by sharing the Big6 process used for our Holocasut Inquiry, but I experimented with other digital literacies last year as well. Our class blog was used as a platform for responding to literature, as well as for a more structured Virtual Literature Circle; my Honors English class used a wiki to co-author short stories based on the Heroic Journey; and, using the wiki, this same class followed the Big6 process to investigate topics of personal relevance and write argumentative essays. Looking back, some clear trends emerge. Referring to the H.E.A.T. Framework.pdf, this is how I measured up:

H. Higher order thinking:  Levels 4 -6:  Fostering higher-order thinking skills is my strength as a classroom teacher. After introducing new content, I routinely expect students to extend their thinking. They become familiar with process verbs that reflect level of thinking and learn how to generate questions that require critical thinking. Evidence of higher order thinking skills are present in the Holocaust Inquiry project where students were required to synthesize information among texts and create a web-page.  Students who co-authored short stories also had to employ critical thinking when applying the archetypal heroic quest pattern to an original short story. (Here’s a link to the Hero Journey Short Story.pdf assignment and a story Healing Flower.pdf by Abby and Emelia.)

E. Engaged Learning: Levels 2-4:  Engaged learning refers to the degree to which students are self-directing their own learning and collaborating with others.  This is an area I continue to struggle with both in practice and philosophically. Although I continue to plan for more collaborative inquiry each year, the reality of state and national testing and demands of our local curriculum require a considerable amount of teacher-directed instruction.  Nevertheless, I found some success with the wiki as well as our class blog. 

I experimented with a Virtual Learning Circle in a class of struggling and reluctant readers with mixed results.  Students chose one of three highly engaging YA novels (Speak, The Hunger Games, and Shattering Glass) and met face-to-face to plan a timeline for reading and responding to the novel.  Since each of these novels deal in some way with the theme of power and how it is used and abused, we began our forum by discussing what power is and our need for power.  Students were to return to this theme in their own literature circles. My hope was that students would engage in rich threaded discussions about the books and construct meaning together. The reality was that they were responding primarily to me. Even after a lot of modeling and discussion about how to ask questions, some students never went beyond retelling what they had just read.  On the other hand, they were highly engaged in both the reading and responding. Take a look at “Making Connections” as well as the individual book discussions in our blog Let’s Talk Books.

Students in my Honors English class have had more experience with collaboration and self-directed learning.  They enjoy the opportunity to work with others and have the skills and motivation to make it successful.  While co-authoring their short stories on the wiki, they had rich conversations among themselves as well as with other peers who offered feedback. (see Short Story discussion.pdf)

A. Authentic Learning: Levels 3-4:  Authentic Learning refers to the opportunities students have to apply their learning to real-world situations that may extend beyond the classroom.  Although each year my students have experiences that are authentic in nature, they are certainly not routine.  I frequently help students make connections to the world beyond the classroom, but to be honest, they are often considered enrichment opportunities.  For example, after completing our Holocaust Inquiry, we invited a Holocasut speaker to visit. Students developed and posed questions that were relevant to their own topics.

Students in the Honors class engaged in inquiry projects that were of relevance in their own lives. Although not required, several communicated with experts via email to investigate their questions. For example, Kathryn, whose family is experimenting with organic farming, contacted a local organic farming association and interviewed several members.

T. Technology Use: Levels 4-6:  The level of technology use in my classroom is also a strength.  Although I am a digital immigrant, I am energized by using technology both professionally and personally.  Since having one-to-one computing in the classroom, teaching has become more exciting and easier on many levels. I like change and I like new challenges, so the rapidity with which technology is changing education suits me just fine.  We are very fortunate in Maine to have laptops for every middle school student and most high school students.  The MacBooks are fully equipped with software for students to engage in a range of new literacies that honors their own learning styles and preferences. That being said, there are many times we close the laptops and engage in face-to-face discussions, wrestle with a text with paper and pencil, and read real books.  I hope that never changes.

    As suspected, with help from the H.E.A.T. rubric, I discovered that my strengths in the classroom include fostering critical thinking and integrating technology; however, I have some work to do to help prepare my students for the digital age. My primary goal for this year is to provide my students with more opportunities for authentic and collaborative writing and learning. But to make it meaningful, I realize I need to develop better strategies for keeping students on task and ensuring all students contribute equitably. To help me turn up the H.E.A.T. in my classroom, I recently added two titles to my professional bookshelf: Inquiry Circles in Action by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels and What’s the Big Idea? by Jim Burke, both by educators I have trusted for years. The best thing about teaching is the chance to try it again.

Open H.E.A.T Observation Form.pdf Open H.E.A.T. Framework.pdf Open argumentative essays.pdf Open Healing Flower.pdf Open Hero Journey Short Story.pdf Open Short Story discussion.pdf Open Digital Age Best Practices.pdf



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