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Technology in Education: Student Engagement Through iPods
I love talking to people of a certain age who have never taught in a classroom. Usually the conversation starts with a sentence like this: “You teach high school? I don’t know how you do it!” Once that fact is established, my conversation partner generally meanders through all the wrongs that have happened to our public schools over the past decade, me muttering my own opinions about my profession from time to time (which usually is countered with a “Well, in my day…” dismissal). We come to the end of our chat with my new acquaintance sighing and then summing up the big problems with teenagers today by saying something along the lines of “Kids just aren’t the same these days.”
While I politely smile through most of the conversation, disagreeing (or not so secretly) with many statements, I tend to agree with this final statement: kids just ARE NOT the same these days. It’s almost dizzying to think how much our world has changed in just the last decade (use the size of a cell phone as a measuring stick if you must). How can we expect our young people to follow suit? Theirs is a world of texting, tweeting, Google and Facebook, and none of these things were common knowledge (much less common verbs!) when I was in high school, albeit a mere ten years ago. Instead of lamenting that today’s students do not respond to the standard method of delivering instruction, we should meet them on their own playing field, integrating technology into our daily practice. With this thought in mind, I structured my classroom around the use of iPods and quickly learned that dedicated educators have the opportunity to harness so much educational potential through a small device.
I became the shepherdess of thirty iPod Touches as a sort of accident; I was a young English teacher and my school district had just received a grant to place these devices in English, math, and science classes preparing for our state’s standardized tests. The cart resembled R2-D2 from War of the galaxies, and had a slot for each numbered iPod that came complete with a cable connecting it to the cart itself; this allowed bulk loading and syncing of iPods. Inside the cart, I found that it also had a Macbook, a digital presenter, and a wireless access point.
Instead of the excitement I’m sure he was supposed to feel (oh, the right to be one of the first teachers in the district to be a part of this new wave in education!), I was completely terrified. Nothing in my limited teaching experience thus far, let alone my college education courses, had prepared me for handling or using iPods with my students. What the hell was he supposed to do with these things? Weren’t they just for listening to music and playing the occasional game? What should I do if a student was dating one? So what was stopping them from coming in after hours and removing the whole cart? I was beset by thoughts of massive educational failure, followed by the inevitable termination of my teaching position, and considered myself very unlucky to be chosen for this “honor.”
I finally got over my terror and created a system where each student was assigned an iPod by their seat in the classroom. Students and parents signed a waiver at the start of the school year acknowledging that they would be responsible for half the cost of the iPod if theirs were lost or damaged beyond normal wear and tear. Each desk was equipped with an iPod “parking space” which was simply a laminated piece of paper that had the outline of an iPod that included the iPod number assigned to that desk and the rules for using iPods ; when the iPods were not in use, students had to turn them upside down in their parking space. Students were required to pick up their assigned iPods from the cart when they first entered the classroom and return them during cleanup time, about three minutes before the bell rang. Since I was teaching five separate sections of 10th and 11th graders throughout the day, this system made it easy to manage the devices and also prevented the students from simply playing with their iPods when the instructions were being given.
My first foray into using iPods was very simplistic, but it eventually turned into an effective research project. Simply using the Safari app, I had students look up various facts about our upcoming author and answer questions on a worksheet. This first project turned out to be a little too basic (and a little too much like looking up facts in a textbook), so we added another element to our next project. When we were starting our unit on Zora Neale Hurston, I created a modified webquest by simply finding informative websites and saving the links to my PortaPortal website. I then created a shortcut to iPods on my PortaPortal site. Students were placed in groups and assigned the task of creating “Farcebook” profile pages that had to include posts, biographical information, and friends that would have been included if Zora Neale Hurston had had a site of social networks like Facebook. The different variations of this project became a regular occurrence in my classroom because my students felt they were not doing “real research” because of the format of the final product, and were much more willing to find the information with the iPods that they don’t. it had been when I was doing a similar project with printed materials.
After this initial success, I began to investigate more specialized applications. I soon discovered that some simple (and free!) games from the App Store could be used as quick and efficient bells (or warm-ups). Right before our standardized tests, my remedial students began using Miss Spell’s Class during the first five minutes of class every other day to review misspelled words. Students would record their scores on cards that I would collect for participation credit at the end of class. We also often start class with Chicktionary, a game that requires letters to be rearranged to spell different words; I would ask students to type in a word from their game that they weren’t familiar with and then use their dictionary app to find the definition. Depending on the amount of time we had in class, I could extend this activity so that students had to use that word in a sentence or ask a partner about the meaning of the word. We also used the Grammar Up app as a way to review concepts before an assessment.
For my more advanced students, I started a class blog that allowed us to create “silent discussions” where students could use their iPods to answer discussion questions. I would post a question on the site before class started and students would respond in class by commenting on the post and then responding to their classmates’ posts. I modeled this activity in several different ways, including having students use certain sentence structures in their comments (ie you must use a compound sentence in your post) and also having students post their own questions so that the class discuss them “in silence”. This activity became a favorite of my students because it allowed the quiet students (who didn’t talk at all in regular discussions but often had wonderful ideas) to express themselves, and it was also fun to see how long a class of twenty-five tenth graders could sit together in a room and be verbally silent as they interacted with each other on their devices.
I also used iPods as an easy way to differentiate instruction. My eleventh grade remedial class had students with special education assistance as well as students who weren’t shy about cutting it in the regular level course. Because of this wide range of ability levels, behavior management was often difficult to deal with as students would become bored because the instruction was too slow for them or they would start to act as a mask for not understanding concepts as quickly as others. By placing an audio copy of the books we were reading in class on each iPod and creating reading guides that highlighted concepts we had discussed as a class, students could work at their own pace while I circulated around the room assisting the people. . The reading guides eventually became an Easter egg hunt of sorts, with questions such as “After reading Chapter 2, look back to page 5 and copy the example of personification used there.”
In addition to the techniques I detailed above, I implemented iPods in many other ways. Google Docs helped me create simple multiple-choice (and even short-answer) assessments that could be completed on iPods; this gave me an instant picture of how the students were doing with the concepts we discussed in class. The PDF feature in iBooks allowed me to upload copies of my PowerPoint presentations so that students who were absent could quickly come in and copy notes. The preloaded camera app allowed my students to take photos and videos of group projects. The QR code reader allowed me to create quests where students would scan codes, be sent to sites or videos, and answer questions for a project. The best part was that it was only the tip of the iceberg; I can’t even begin to imagine what these devices could do in other disciplines and grade levels.
Now, with all that said, I’m not saying that the iPod Touch is the last word in student engagement; in fact, by the time this article is read, this piece of technology may be completely obsolete. iPads, Android devices and other devices have the same potential; I just talked about my work with the technology that was made available to me. The takeaway from my experience is that as educators we must also be innovative; we cannot follow the same strategies in the classroom and expect engagement to come naturally. The classroom must transform and change with the rest of the world.
If a reader is looking for a place to start with technology in the classroom, I hope this article has provided some helpful tips and some inspiration. However, I am also hopeful that this article will quickly become obsolete as teachers continue to develop new approaches. Using media that students are already comfortable with to engage these young minds in the important work of the classroom makes sense.
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