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Purposeful Use of Technology Drives Relevant Learning in Digital Natives

Kindergartners through high schoolers in ISD 110 are delving into all kinds of technology to develop skills for future jobs. As shopping aisles give way to apps and drones do deliveries, “We’re preparing kids for something we don’t even know—what their lives and jobs will be like in 15 to 20 years,” says Jeff Jeska, ISD 110 director of technology. “We’re trying to give them skills that will allow them to flourish even though we don’t know how those skills will be used in different jobs.”

From using a touchpad to 3-D landscape software to simple yet powerful video recording of Spanish voice conversation, ISD 110 is using different technology tools to help shape the four “Cs” necessary for a thriving future workforce: creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. While the long-term goal of ISD 110 is to ensure all students have uniform experiences with technology as they grow, this article spotlights some of the unique efforts of ISD 110’s technology integrationists.

Geo-Inquiry merges practical use of technology with local growing experience

“Our kids are digital natives, and they know how to play with social media . . . and when asked if they know technology, students will say yes. But they don’t necessarily know how to use it effectively or responsibly,” said Michele Melius, Waconia Middle School social studies teacher.

Melius knows a lot about applying tech beyond the buzzwords. Melius collaborated with Mandy Bellm, Waconia Middle School media and digital learning coordinator, to create an innovative Geo-Inquiry/Minnesota Landscapes semester class for seventh-graders at the middle school that merges the best of field trip research, storytelling technology, online topography maps, and spatial design software with a hands-in-the-dirt experience.

Based upon Natural Geographic’s Geo-Inquiry Process (which Melius and Bellm learned at the Nat Geo Summer Institute), the semester challenges students to explore a global question and scale solutions locally. Students were asked to explore how countries with growing populations and a limited amount of land incorporate sustainable growing practices.

The class kicked off with a University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum field trip, where seventh-graders learned about native plants and bees’ roles in apple formation. While there, they completed a mini photography and videography boot camp to create Flipgrid productions, movies that allow for adding visuals, such as emojis. Students then posted the Flipgrid videos to a “teacher wall,” where students viewed and commented on each other’s work. Students get really excited about having the chance to uniquely articulate their learning, Bellm said. The reflection piece ingrains the process and makes it more meaningful, Melius added.   

Students continued the semester’s exploration by learning about which plants would grow in each of the different Minnesota biomes through self-paced instruction and guided research contained in a HyperDoc that Bellm created. HyperDocs are digital lesson designs, embedded with all sorts of pieces, such as videos as well as Quizlets.

Quizlets are an online testing technology that utilizes a range of multisensory approaches for students to practice and master knowledge. A Quizlet may contain flash cards or offer an auditory Q&A test. Quizlets totally level the playing field and are useful for all kinds of learners, including those in special education, Melius said.

After students completed the HyperDoc and identified Minnesota locations for their virtual pollinator gardens, students then defined their green spaces as 2-D maps using ArcGIS. ArcGIS is an online mapping tool that employs layering technology with landmarks and topography. Screencastify enabled students to record themselves giving an audio tour of their 2-D maps. And the SketchUp program on MacBooks allowed them to complete 3-D models that showed specific design elements, such as selected stones for a path.

Finally, each student prepared an Adobe Spark summary presentation to practice persuading public stakeholders toward actual construction funding. “This helped some of them realize they could do this for a job,” Bellm said. “And it helped them practice, over and over, their presentation skills.” 

Bellm, Melius, and the 20 students participating successfully fulfilled the Geo-Inquiry process[tlp1] : asking the question, collecting the research, creating the object, visualizing, and making change. Without the HyperDoc, students would have plunked away on their own machines, Bellm noted. But the HyperDoc had them working together on the same grid. “When one person didn’t understand how to do something, then another student said, ‘oh, I can show you how.’ For a lot of this, we were learning too,” Bellm said. “We tried to go with the rule of ‘three before me’ so that students asked three classmates for help before an adult. They get that leadership experience through teaching another and learning it better yourself.”

Melius and Bellm consistently collaborate with another HyperDocs guru in the middle school, science teacher Britta DeVinny, as well as science teacher Brian Honkomp to advance scientific standards through smarter use of technology. Melius and Bellm will continue sharing knowledge from the Natural Geographic Geo-Inquiry Summer Institute at other educational venues, including Macalester College.

Greater voices, wider choices available with digital tools

Technology is enhancing many different district classrooms, but Erik Olson, high school Spanish and technology integration teacher, really sees it benefitting students in his language classroom. The tools he uses enable quicker feedback for students on tests, collaborations on Spanish story creation, and consistent growth in Spanish-speaking confidence.

Olson enjoys Schoology, which helps automate some of his test grading and has a Discussion feature, where one posts something and comments on another’s work. He uses it to have students create stories in Spanish, read others’ work, and build upon the stories—a strong exercise in comprehension, applied language, and collaboration. He also uses “Story ReTells,” great auditory indicators of what language is sticking for a student.

Yet another simple, innovative way Olson uses technology is with his “Weekend Updates” assignment.  Students record themselves with video, speaking in Spanish to Olson about their weekends. “There are quiet students who don’t want to say something in front of the class; but some of these quiet kids, in a situation like this, they wow you with Spanish they can speak,” Olson said.

“After listening to the Weekend Updates, if there is a common mistake I’m hearing, I bring it back to the class and call it, ‘my favorite mistakes,’” Olson says. “Sometimes in-class conversation feels like ‘forced family fun,’ where students say the same thing over and over, but Weekend Updates enables students to speak more on their own, to have more discussions with me,” Olson said. Mistakes are common when speaking Spanish, but Olson wants students to be able to communicate, and Weekend Updates gives students confidence that they can.

Olson also brings native speakers into his class, to record them. These recordings give gifted Waconia voices a stage, so that others throughout the school have a chance to hear them.

“A lot of people like to think of technology as dividing—that it’s making kids go off on their own, that they’re not able to talk and communicate with one another,” Olson said. “But I think technology is bringing my classes together because they’re able to communicate and share with one another as they’re using this technology.”

Coding and robotics spark learning; Seesaw app shows parents evidence of learning

At Bayview Elementary, time passes quickly when students work with media specialist and technology integrationist Kerry Canfield in “Hour of Code.” Computer coding is occurring at all levels in the district, to expose students to various forms of “computational thinking.” Computational thinking makes use of patterns, sequencing, loops and repeaters, and eventually even functions, when one command stands for three different actions.

Canfield has seen coding light a fire in many kids. Code.org is one of her favorite online resources, where coding challenges with familiar characters (Minecraft, Angry Birds) are blended with messages from tech thought leaders who connect the lessons to real-life tasks. “The challenge is making tech purposeful,” Canfield said. “I could show students a new app every day and they’d have a blast, but is that purposeful? Is that leading anywhere?”

Even Bayview kindergartners are coding on iPads, learning to build a sequence of commands to make something happen. Bayview’s Innovation Lab contains the especially engaging Dash robots. Through more advanced coding commands, Dash robot “Kirby” may be given a voice or maneuvered through an obstacle course of squares on the floor. “What I like about it is that they collaborate with each other and help each other out; it helps with spatial thinking,” said Taylor Pacyna, Bayview kindergarten teacher.

Pacyna is also an avid user of Seesaw, an app for assessment, learning activities, and communicating learning progress with parents. Pacyna first used it as a blog to communicate classroom activities, but more recently, she’s asked her kindergartners to unscramble sight words and then record themselves reading the words. As students submitted their recorded work, parents received notification on their phones that their child added content for viewing. It’s exciting for parents to witness evidence of their child’s progress and to be able to comment on it back to their child, Pacyna said.

Will Swingle, kindergarten teacher at Southview Elementary, is a Seesaw ambassador in the district, and teachers across the country are collaborating on unique ways to use Seesaw. It’s a very popular tool with parents that will grow in use along with their students, Pacyna believes.

Diligently building responsible digital citizens

Digital citizenship is addressed in focused lessons with media specialists and in classroom teachable moments throughout the year. Monthly topics addressed include responsible use, digital footprint, plagiarism and copyright, and cyberbullying awareness and safety. “We don’t shy away from it with our eighth-graders,” Waconia Middle School’s Mandy Bellm said. “We talk about the dire consequences of hate speech on social media, and we address inappropriate photo sharing as well.” Eighth-grade teachers have also used the online Turnitin checker to capture the amount of plagiarism in student papers.

To show students how to responsibly research, Bellm directs students to a variety of trusted information databases to properly evaluate and source information. With controversial issues, she steers students toward ProCon.org or the Points of View Reference Center. Bellm shared that ISD 110 is very committed to online digital literacy as the middle school recently received $7,000 to update its e-book collection.

Having skills to critically seek and evaluate information will be an essential 21st-century skill, summarized Jeff Jeska, director of technology for ISD 110. With talented media specialists and teachers embracing roles as technology integrationists, ISD families can be assured of intentional, well-directed digital instruction.

The process is asking, collecting, visualizing, creating, and acting.