I Used to Think…But Now I Think… (Part 1)
We made a decision this year to shine a spotlight on computer time in K-1 in order to better define a standard of excellence and a vision of best practices that could be shared across our network. Achievement First has a history of using technology to support centers-based reading instruction. (KIPP LA Empower blended learning pioneer and school leader Mike Kerr is the former principal of AF Crown Heights Elementary, where computers were used for a similar purpose.) Heretofore, that history has been one primarily of babysitting and not data-driven instructional practices and the use of the “software-as-colleague”, as we’ve begun to think of it. We identified one lead teacher in each grade at Amistad Academy Elementary School in New Haven, CT to own the project of reinventing the use of computers and incrementally sharing practices with her co-teacher and other teachers across the grade. There are approximately 90 students in each grade, divided into 3 classrooms of ~30 students each. Every student spends approximately 20 minutes/day on the computer during reading centers. What follows is the unedited writing of these two pilot teachers after I asked them to share reflections using the structure of “I used to think… but now I think.”
Becca Trombly (Kindergarten Teacher)
Becca has 6 years of teaching experience, all of it at Amistad Academy, the first two years through Teach for America.
I started teaching 6 years ago. As a new teacher I was highly aware of the roles technology could play in my classroom, but my understanding of how to use it has changed.
I used to think that literacy and math computers were a way to occupy students while I worked with smaller groups. Just as a parent might put her children in front of a movie in order to get chores done, I routinely alternated groups of students through the computers in order to get my small group instruction done. Now I think of computers as a metaphorical colleague. With the help of Dan Cogan-Drew, I have acquired quality computer programs (MimioSprout and ST Math) that teach and reinforce skills from the same curriculum that I follow (ST Math actually allows me to rearrange the order of standards to fit my year-long schedule!) Instead of seeing the computers as a necessary distractor, I now consider the computers a necessary co-teacher who is teaching my students skills that are equally important to the skills I’m teaching them. While I’m teaching essential skills in small group, the computers are teaching my students essential skills one-on-one.
Because of this, my view of computer behavior management has changed. I no longer explain to students that they need to “stay in the zone” in order to avoid distracting their peers from learning, I now explain it as, “You need to stay ‘in the zone’ on your computer in order to learn from it.”
In addition, I used to think of the computer programs as something I could pretty much ignore. I didn’t check up on my students’ progress and I didn’t check in on what they were teaching my students. Now, with MimioSprout, I get daily updates on the levels that my students have passed and the objectives that they’ve mastered. With this information, the students and I can visibly track their computer growth and I know when students are ready for the next reading record (hard copies of books and reading records that match computer lessons are part of the program.)
Although the positives outweigh the negatives, there is one thing with MimioSprout that I would change: I wish that there were 2 or 3 different tracks for students to follow toward the same end goal. For example, track 1: remedial learner, track 2: average learner, track 3: advanced learner. The only students that this computer program does not work for are my remedial learners. Some of my students have flown through the lessons and are already on lesson 63 (!) while I have a few remedial readers who are having a huge amount of difficulty getting past lesson 8. I used to think that this was due to struggles with computer navigation; but after sitting down with these students in order to assess their difficulties, I noticed that the program jumps fairly quickly from individual sounds and blends to sounding out words and reading sentences. My remedial readers who are struggling to get passed lesson 8 are struggling because they need more repetition with the initial lessons.
That brings up my biggest frustration with using computers in my classroom. 98% of my students can succeed independently on the computer while 2% hit road blocks and become unable to move forward. Computers are programmed to present information to my students in limited ways while a teacher is able to react to student responses and present information in infinite ways depending on each unique situation. This can cause various problems:
1) if a student cannot move past a roadblock, behavior often becomes a problem,
2) if I notice a student is not focused on the computer program, it’s my job to problem solve and redirect,
3) if I’m redirecting, my teaching is interrupted.
It goes without saying that it’s essential to teach students exactly what to do if they hit a roadblock on the computer. My students know exactly what to do when their computer or headphones are not working. But what do they do when they just don’t understand the content? The computer knows to repeat content that hasn’t yet been mastered, but if the content is too challenging, students get bored of the repetition – fast. Since some lessons take my remedial student 2-3 days to pass, I often don’t realize that they’ve hit an academic roadblock until they are beyond frustration. Reading teachers know that frustration is the enemy of learning how to read. A possible solution for this problem could be to dedicate one day of independent reading conferencing a week to computer tutoring. Of course, this means that computers are still taking time away from important instruction time. In the end though, I think it’s worth it. Because of the computers in my classroom, there are hours in the day when my students are receiving twice as much instruction as they would without computers.
[Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog series where we’ll hear from 1st grade teacher, Jamie Murphy.]