Improve Middle School Teaching with Technology

In 1801, a new technology literally revolutionized teaching overnight. It was called the blackboard. That’s not the kind of educational technology we think of as revolutionizing middle school nowadays. Today’s game-changing technology requires a bit more than wall space and chalk.

Here are some tips for how teachers can use devices, apps and software to improve middle school lessons.

Use the Tool; Don’t Let the Tool Use You

“The biggest mistake I think teachers make with technology is using it bell-to-bell — that’s a recipe for disaster,” says Oona Abrams, English Language Arts teacher for The School District of the Chathams in Chatham, NJ. “As one of my late mentors used to say, ‘I love my microwave, but I’m not going to cook a steak in it.’”

An interesting question to ask yourself is this: “Would this lesson be just as effective without technology?” If the answer is “yes,” don’t use technology. But if you dream up something that really can’t be done any other way, chances are good you’ve got an idea that would benefit from technology.

Connect Classroom Tech to Personal Tech

“Since we know that most teens can access the Internet outside of school, we need to design assignments and assessments that are congruent with what we can do inside and outside the classroom,” says Troy Hicks, author of The Digital Writing Workshop and associate professor of English at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, MI.

Along with an interest survey of your students, conduct a technology-use survey. Ask kids to tell you what kinds of technology they have access to and how they use it. Then look for patterns in how they use the technology they own so you can leverage that in your teaching. For example, if many of your students send messages on Twitter, show them how to follow trending topics related to world events using the #Discover feature.

Use Video for Additional Instruction

“After teaching my class a new skill, I might ask them to apply it in small groups,” says Angie Kenley, English Language Arts content specialist for Abilene Independent School District in Abilene, TX. “But often, some kids don’t master the objective or they develop slight misconceptions. This used to be a serious problem, but now I can give kids tablets and they can watch a student-created video about the objective. Sometimes kids can explain things better to other kids than I can.”

Kenley successfully executed a “flipped classroom” approach last year. She recorded her lessons on digital video and had the kids watch them outside of class to facilitate deeper work in class. You can also tape yourself as a means of providing personal feedback to students or to record procedures and messages for those times a sub or student teacher is running your room.

Kenley’s students also became capable video producers in order to showcase their own work in similar fashion. If production is a problem, you can bet there will always be a few kids in every class who won’t mind at all running the camera and doing some editing. And all this is easily achieved using a camcorder or the on-board cameras in smartphones, tablets and laptops.

What Matters Most

“I would encourage teachers to talk with their students about the technologies they are already using and work with them to think about appropriate academic uses that will help them understand, analyze and synthesize new ideas and material,” says Hicks. “While many educators think the biggest challenge is getting devices in the hands of every student, I would argue that the true challenge is working with students to shift their mindsets. Computers, tablets and smartphones aren’t merely replacements for paper or textbooks. They’re unique devices that offer us opportunities to think deeply, communicate broadly and collaborate easily both inside and outside our classrooms.”

There’s little doubt that technology is a significant force in education. But even the greatest minds of our age believe that technology alone is not enough to inspire and engage young minds. As Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs said, “What's important is that you have faith in people, that they're basically good and smart, and that if you give them tools, they'll do wonderful things with them.” Isn’t that the ultimate technology lesson we can teach our middle school students?

Steve Peha is the founder of Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., a North Carolina–based consultancy specializing in innovative approaches to educational change. In addition to working in hundreds of schools and teaching in thousands of classrooms, he is also an award-winning writer and educational software developer. Follow Steve on Google+.

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