Monday, October 3, 2016

Teaching Technology in the Zone of Discomfort

I see and hear a lot of stories, tweets, quotes, images, and infographics about failure. How it's an important part of the learning process. About how we need to allow for the possibility of failure in our students, and allow for them the ability to reflect, revise, and try again.

I'm on board. Sounds great!

But what about teaching? Teachers need to feel like it's okay to make mistakes, too. We need to embrace the zone of discomfort. We need to feel like we're taking risks, but within reason... a safe risk-taking, if you will. Teachers can no longer wait until they've "mastered" a tool, or feel 100% comfortable with technology inside and out before utilizing it in the classroom. Things move so fast that if we waited, it's likely that the technology would be obsolete by the time we've fully grasped it!

For example, here's my story: I teach 6-week classes. Yep. I see kids for 6 weeks, and then they're gone until the next school year. It's less than optimal, I know, but it's all I've got. The good side of this is that I have the ability to reflect and revise my curriculum and teaching strategies many times throughout the school year. 

The downside? 6 weeks! Ugh. 

But anyways, this year I've been very fortunate to receive two new technology tools for my 6th and 7th grade students: Ozobots and Dot and Dash robots. We're a 1:1 Chromebook program, but I received 8 iPad minis to use with these new tools. Luckily, at home, we're an Apple family. 

Awesome! But uh oh... I have a lot of new stuff to learn! 

Since my "free" time is quite limited, I had to take a different approach to incorporating these new tools into the curriculum: I had to teach it without knowing it 100%! This is very scary for many teachers, and, I'm not gonna lie, it's quite stressful, because there are so many unknowns. But it's also challenging, which is something that actually I love when I'm teaching - give me a challenge! I'm a pretty good creative problem-solver. 

Here's what I did: I opened up the boxes, watched a few video overviews, and made sure that I knew the basics. The VERY basics. I took a set of robots home over the weekend and had my 4 year-old play with them with me. He loved it, and I got a little bit more practice with everything. 


Then, when I went back to school, I had a conversation with my kids: we were going to learn this new thing TOGETHER. Students were tasked with discovering new features and concepts and sharing them with me and the rest of the class. When someone was having trouble, or stuck on a task, we'd poll the class: "Hey, we're having trouble getting our program to load on the Ozobot. How are you guys doing it? Can you show us?"

The same thing happened with advanced coding. I used Codecademy and allowed students to choose a course to take, based on their level and experience with coding. I feel competent enough in the HTML course to provide help to students, if needed, but many of them chose languages that I am not well-versed in, like JavaScript or Python. Basically, I admitted my shortcomings up front: "Hey guys, I am not an expert on these courses, so I can try my best to help, but I cannot make any guarantees. But feel free to try them out if that's the level that you are at. We can also try to find another student to help you out if I can't." 

Students LOVE being the expert on stuff! Bonus points if they know something that the teacher doesn't! It's a real motivator. By the time my first 6-week term was up, I felt way more comfortable presenting to the class the second time around. The sad part is that I'll never quite capture that magic of discovery from the first round again. Yeah, it's all new and exciting to the next group of students, but there's something really fun and special about learning it alongside with your classes. 

My point here is that you shouldn't be afraid to jump in and teach something just because you don't feel like a total "expert" on it. You shouldn't hold your students back simply because you're "not there" yet. It's okay not to know all the things. And admitting that to your students is very humanizing and honest - many of them will respect you more for having admitted your shortcomings.

- Mrs. L.

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