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Five Ways to Bring High-Tech Ideas into Low-Tech Classrooms

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By Sara Nolan

Even the most wired classrooms know the screeching silence of that great technological dis: “Unable to Connect to Server.” It’s the 21st century classroom’s equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. But whether you’re trying to connect kids to learning in a fully loaded classroom or one with no technology – or even if it’s at the kitchen table during homework time – high-tech ideas can translate and be relevant in low-tech environments.

More than just stop-gap measures for tech-less teaching environments, these no-tech ideas can actually help students deepen their digital literacy by giving them an opportunity to see, explore, and understand the parts and purpose of the digital media they take for granted – tweets and status updates, for example – by recreating them in an analog context. Here are five simple ways to help students tap into learning using high-tech ideas and low-tech tools (i.e. pen, paper, brain).

  1. Put the Facebook page on paper. Use the template and terminology of a Facebook page as a reading log. Students can write a “Status Update” for a main character, “Like” the pages of organizations and people related to the main character, “Post a Picture” of their favorite figurative language from the reading (write the quote and illustrate it), and make a personal comment or question for the character (or author) on the “Wall.” This kind of log gives students opportunities to show and deepen their understanding of the text, while connecting it to a context that means something in their daily lives.
  2. Build a classroom search engine. Create a dedicated reference source space in your classroom (or home) library that you label “Search Engine.” Or, better yet, get the kids in on the effort and have them create and organize the section based on the kinds of questions and information they think they’ll need in the class. Be sure to include those quaint old bastions of facts: encyclopedias, newspapers, and magazines. Design protocols and tools for using this section that give students opportunities to hone their online research skills, such as choosing key words before beginning their search, and using multiple sources to check for accuracy of information. For extra credit, run a class contest to come up with a name and design a logo for the search engine, using the stories behind how Google, Yahoo, and Bing developed their logos and names to create a list of criteria and goals.
  3. Tweet to Learn. Create a “tweet” worksheet that students use to summarize new ideas, concepts, or short texts as a way to develop their close reading skills. Pass out these "tweet sheets" during a guided reading or viewing of a new text, asking students to stop at teacher-designated points to consider the main ideas of what they have just read/seen/heard, and then to summarize those ideas in a tweet. Instead of a character limit, which could become an end in itself, these tweets can be limited to 20 words. In limiting length and presenting a framework for writing, these tweets allow students to try on and express their understanding of new terms or concepts in a low-stakes context. Sharing these tweets during or after the reading gives students a chance to expand their understanding with their classmates, and gives teachers an opportunity to check the students' understanding of the text and make any adjustments or enhancements as needed.
  4. Encourage students to “chat.” While classroom discussions are great for extroverts, quieter students often feel too inhibited to speak up. To get them involved, create a classroom “chat room,” a poster or section of whiteboard where students can “post” comments on a particular question or topic using sticky notes. This can be used as a way to help generate ideas for and guide a discussion (students post their response to a question or prompt, then identify “threads” and develop guidelines to “moderate” the discussion); as a way to add commentary and questions through a sort of offline backchannel discussion (students post relevant ideas, questions, or comments as the discussion occurs); and as a way to reflect on the discussion process and content (students post notes reflecting on what they learned, what they liked, what they still wonder about, etc.).These offline “chat” alternatives open up the discussion to more students, while also providing an opportunity to introduce and practice conventions of thoughtful communication, both online (netiquette) and off.
  5. Talk the Text Talk. Kids are prolific writers, but sometimes in ways different than what traditional schools reward. Capitalizing on this propensity in its latest form – texting – presents a two-birds-one-stone opportunity: first, allowing students to write an informal response using text talk (for instance, a five-minute "quick write" in response to a prompt from the teacher that links to the topic of the day) hooks them into writing on their own terms (literally); and second, bringing text talk into the classroom as a valid means of expression gives students a chance to see and feel the power of their own language, while also giving teachers and parents an opportunity to discuss code switching and conventions around standard English without dismissing other student discourses. At least, that’s m.02 😀

Sara Porto Nolan is a writer and Language Arts teacher who has worked with Bay Area students in high-need schools.