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Booting Up Your Digital Classroom

As the school year begins, countless teachers across the country are beginning their first foray into mobile learning. Whether they wrote a grant or it was a school/district decision, this fall they now have access to mobile devices for their students. While some teachers feel ready to dive right in, others take a moment to size up the situation with their classrooms before breaking out these shiny new tools. If that's you, I'm here to offer some ideas to break the ice (not the screen) and get you started.

It's okay to feel nervous.
It's a big change to bring technology in the classroom. When I first brought 32 iPads into my classroom, I was completely terrified. Terrified that the students would break something. Terrified they'd somehow navigate to the world's most inappropriate website. Terrified I'd be a complete failure and end up doing more damage than good. Being nervous is a good thing. It means you're taking this seriously. So, take a deep breath and remember...

Keep it in perspective.
Perhaps you've been lucky enough to go to a professional development, workshop or conference where a presenter talked about the SAMR model, or demonstrated the amazing things their students have done with technology. Or maybe you've just read about it on the Internet or seen a special on TV... all amazing stories of transformation through technology. Don't worry - you'll get there. But take these examples with grain of salt.

While it's great to know where you can go and what amazing things can happen when you redefine your classroom and transform student learning with your new devices... this takes time. I've written before about the fact that presenters rarely tell you about are the bumps and failures in their journey (like the time I deleted all of my 5th graders' writing for an entire quarter because I didn't understand how WebDAV worked). Instead, they focus on the bright spots in their practice. Then mystified participants go back to their classrooms and wonder why they can't be a smashing success out of the gate just as those presenters seemed to have been. Know that everyone takes time to find those bright spots. So my advice would be to...

Start small.
Download only two or three apps to begin with. Or for non-tablet uses, only dig into two or three programs. Having too many apps or programs to start with can overwhelm not only you but your students as well. The instinct is to run to the app store or search engine and look up every app or program you can find that meets the keywords in your current unit of study. Don't do it! Too many drill apps -- no matter how convincingly dressed up they are as games or puzzles -- will only lead to low-level practice and coginitive exercises. Instead, invest your time at the beginning of your school year by developing digital routines that will pay off in the long run. To do this, make your first app or program a...

Learning Management System (LMS)
These are exactly what they sound like -- a system to manage student learning. They are usually websites, but many have an accompanying mobile app. Some popular examples are Schoology, Edmodo, Canvas, Blackboard and Moodle. This is how you will deal with the currently unforeseen issue of managing all of your students' future digital work. Once they really start cooking and creating those amazing podcasts, screencasts, videos, or even simply annotated PDFs or Google Docs... how will you get "collect" them to give feedback? Then how will you give said feedback? Having a quality LMS will not only manage your workflow of collecting work, giving feedback and allowing for revisions... but will also open doors to streamlining other classroom practices. One example: most LMSs allow for teacher-created assessments that are automatically graded. Think about it... you never have to photocopy, collect or grade another exit ticket all year long. Win! For more information on how to get started with an LMS and which may meet your personal needs, here is another post I've written comparing two of the popular platforms.

Create a Management System.
iPad Wallpaper Just as you set up a system to manage your textbooks, classroom library, math manipulatives or other classroom materials, so must you with these new devices. First off, numerate them. Unless your students own their own devices and have personalized them in their own special way, you'll want to keep tabs on which device is which. I tend to get big labels from the office store and stick them in an obvious, visible location on the device. Then I go the extra step to slap a piece of packaging tape over that (for some reason something about a sticker screams "pick at me!" to a student). Another fun trick is to set the backdrop of the laptop / tablet to be an image of the number as well. If your devices stay with the same students all day, make it even more fun: Give them a blank sheet of paper and have them decorate their own numbers... then hold up the paper and take a picture of them with their number. Make that photo the wallpaper for their device.

In addition to numerating and cataloging, you'll also want to consider how they are accessing the device during the day. Are they out on their desks all day? Do they put them in the middle of the table or in their cubby when not being used? Most mobile devices purchased for educational use have a battery life that well stands up to the school day and so don't need to be charged mid-day. As such, consider keeping them out somewhere all day- not putting them back in the cart. Doing so would sacrifice precious learning time and would also add to the wear and tear of the cart and devices.

Develop a Student Leadership Team.
Many classrooms have class jobs, so this would just be another role for your students to play. Whether they're 6 or 16, students can demonstrate a knack for digital tools. So take advantage of that prowess and recruit a team of "tech leaders". Pull them during lunch every few weeks to pre-teach new apps/programs, or features. Have them practice teaching one another and testing the app to see what does and doesn't make sense. Then when you introduce the app or program to the whole class, make sure you have one student tech leader at every table. As confusions arise, you now have built-in support at every table! A few rules all of my tech helpers follow:
#1 Hands-off: Never touch someone else's device. This is important to remember as they teach their peers or address a misconception. Your students will want simply do it for their classmate. And as we know, this won't result in real learning. So teach them to narrate instructions and allow their classmates do it for themselves.
#2 Slow and Steady: Remind your tech helpers that even if they can do it quickly, to slow it down when they're showing a friend.
#3 Kind words: Coach your helpers to know that they shouldn't get frustrated with their peers if they don't understand immediately. Just as teachers don't tease their students for being confused, neither should the tech leaders.
Note: These handy helpers can also ensure that each of your students have successfully signed out of their learning management system at the end of class so as to maintain their account security!

These are just a few of the tips I've found to be useful as I support our teachers getting powered up in their new digital classrooms. If you have your own tricks or ideas, please share them below!

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