Technology has profoundly changed my teaching.
If you were to peek inside my classroom you would see students using computers, capturing data with digital probes and manipulating it with Excel, corresponding via email with experts on the particulars of their projects, and so on. We'd look very techie. But what would be invisible to your eye would be the shift in how I approach learning and how my students use the "world" to learn now. That's where my biggest shifts in thinking and lesson design have occurred.
Digital tools have allowed me to gather a geographically wide network of colleagues. Now my Professional Learning Network (PLN) includes colleagues in my building and from the virtual world. I confer with them using a variety of tools, including Skype, email, and social networking tools. I've been able to find other teachers who were working on precisely what I was and to reach out to my PLN to ask for help. Technology has allowed me professional dialog and to engage in the knowledge-construction of my content and pedagogy well beyond the four walls of my school. Digital tools have afforded me the chance to gather many "coaches" around me.
I realized that I could replicate this for my students and allow them to see what it means to be connected to the world. Here's where the biggest shift took place. While my tools changed and I could use every toolbar and feature pretty well, what I fundamentally changed was how I approached my teaching practice because I could use technology to be connected.
Schools have suffered teacher indifference and resistance to digital tools, in my view, because they've been reluctant to help teachers make this shift. Instead, they have focused training on how to use a tool. Teacher learning has to be much bigger than a toolbar or piece of software. Toolbars come and go. Instead the training should be about what kinds of content best fit this kind of digital tool. Professional learning should be about being connected to the world and how that changes lesson design.
My young digital citizens yearn to connect. They are connected everyday, and the more my classroom technologically resembles what they use to talk to their friends, find the score of the game, or check when a movie starts, the more engaged they are. In my own classroom, I watch students learn about the progression of hurricanes across the Atlantic through their Twitter feeds and monitor the National Hurricane Center's updates. I am not the center of information. But I am the coach and mentor who has shown them how to find credible, useful, and understandable information, and then how to use that to figure out what will happen as the sea surface temperatures increase or how the principles of heat transfer make a difference in their everyday lives.
A visitor to the classroom might not "see" a big difference. But the way in which my students learn has profoundly changed. We learn together. We seek outside help in learning about our topics of study. We find resources and engage. The act of learning is more collaboratively constructed between the teacher, the students, other learners, and experts, with digital tools bringing us together. We use technology to connect to the world and that has been a profound change.
Marsha Ratzel is a National Board-certified teacher in the Blue Valley School District in Kansas, where she teaches middle school math and science.