TransformEd - Reflections from the Classroom
Updated: Nov 20, 2019
One of my favorite things about teaching is learning. It may seem obvious that good teachers like to learn, but that sense of wonder and discovery can get lost in the shuffle of a typical school day. Emails, transitions, paperwork, announcements, student crises – ask any teacher and they will tell you that these necessary but often unanticipated interruptions seem to take over most days in the classroom. It’s the proverbial Whack-A-Mole; solve one issue or problem, and another one quickly appears. But every so often, you get a chance to hit pause, take a breath, and deep dive into the process of learning and discovery. And maybe even once or twice, you get to experience something that transforms your whole outlook on the classroom and students.
First, a little about myself. I am a Grade 8 Language Arts/Social Studies teacher at a Calgary charter school. I am also the creator and teacher of a very popular Maker elective, and I’ve worked hard to incorporate what I thought was the latest technology into my classroom lessons and units. Instead of writing on paper, my students use a laptop for their finished pieces! We watch documentaries on the Smartboard! We play vocabulary review games together on the iPads! I was pretty sure I had it all figured out. At the middle school level, teaching lives and dies on engagement; if you can “hook” a Grade 8 and get their interest, you are half way to winning the battle. Get a piece of technology in a student’s hands, and engagement and learning is a done deal – isn’t that the way it goes? So, when a colleague and I registered for a PD opportunity called TransformEd at Calgary’s TELUS Spark, I looked forward to learning about some new gadgets and programs. I thought I would buy some new tech toys, download some apps, slide them right into my teaching, and keep going along, much as before. And bonus – free lunch!
Boy, was I wrong. So, so wrong.
What happened at TransformEd, for me, was truly revolutionary. If someone asked me to sum up the day in some sort of theme statement, it would be this:
You don’t know what you don’t know.
Looking back over my notes from the day, I must have written and circled The Future Is Now!! over half a dozen times. Right from the beginning, the words of welcome from Dr. Elka Walsh, Dustin Jez, Aria Azizi, and Christopher Usih, emphasized the transformative nature of technology. The apps, devices and programs we use in classrooms are supposed to SERVE our students, not be the end goal in themselves. These tools are meant to throw open the doors to learning, to ease accessibility for all, and lift up all students, not just the ones who “like” technology or who are good at it.
As we continued through breakout sessions on micro:bits, Flipgrid, and Microsoft Tools such as Translator, and Excel, I kept writing furiously: The Future Is Now. Unlimited possibilities. Must Use. I’m convinced that if someone took photos of me throughout the day, my facial expressions would have been fairly consistent – amazement and shock, eyes and mouth wide open in a look of …Wow!
The day flew by and I lost track of time. I was challenged, astounded, intrigued, and at times, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of possibility. The energy in the rooms was off the charts. I overheard and participated in countless conversations on pedagogy, assistive technology, struggles with learning disabilities in both students and teachers, engagement, student voice…I could go on. Fair Chance Learning and Hacking STEM offered up sessions about assistive technology and Microsoft OneNote data collection that blew my mind. But this was no “geek fest.” At the core was a living and breathing sense of purpose. Every single presenter and conversation always spiraled back around to LEARNING. TransformEd was not a “tech conference”; it was a HUMAN conference. Our brains, the process of learning – these were the central ideas, and the technology and gadgets are just tools to use to get us to maximize every student’s potential. I knew this, I understood this before, but at TransformEd, I felt as though I were seeing this philosophy in action for the very first time. I had taken a long, deep dive; longer than any dive I had taken for a while. Now, it was time to come up for air.
The weeks that have followed TransformEd have been incredibly exciting, and rewarding. I’ve done a lot of reflection on what I am doing in my classroom, and how to best serve my students. As I mentioned, we took a long, deep dive into the future of education and teaching that day; I’m now more confident than ever that with the right tools, every student can find success. My school has a high number of ELL students, and we have a growing sense of urgency to not only assist them, but to also help our students with learning challenges and barriers. This is a reality in many schools today, whether they be public, charter, or private.
What I learned at TransformEd has gone on to change many of my foundational practices and assumptions. For example, my Grade 8 Language Arts students are expected to give short Book Talk presentations to the class every 4-6 weeks. For some of my ELL students, this was an assignment that provoked a lot of anxiety and stress. Getting up in front of the class to speak is a challenge, even for many adults! However, armed and inspired with the knowledge from TransformEd about Flipgrid, I made the assignment into a take-home, Flipgrid project. I still had a lot to learn about the platform, but my students took to the assignment with ease. Their finished videos were AMAZING; funny, insightful and of much better quality overall than I would receive from the traditional “get up in front of the class” performance. Some of my most reticent students really shone on Flipgrid; they were able to relax, take their time, and complete the Book Talk with multiple opportunities to edit and polish their projects. I still believe that there is a place for “live” student presentations, but when I got right down to it, the Book Talk assignment wasn’t about that. What exactly did I want to accomplish with these talks? I wanted to amplify student voice and choice, as well as promote reading in my classroom. What better way to satisfy these goals than by a collaborative and student-centered platform like Flipgrid? My students loved making their videos, and our next challenge is to share with others and join up with the Flipgrid online community. When you have Grade 8 students asking “when can we do this again?” you know you are doing something right!
Next on my radar is the Microsoft translate options and the read aloud capabilities of OneNote. We are forming a small PD teacher “pod” at my campus to explore the possibilities of using these tools for our ELL students. I see so much potential for these applications, especially in the middle years. We have a critical window at our grade levels to really improve reading, vocabulary and comprehension. If we can assist students in their reading and language skills, we are giving them a true gift for academic success. I’m excited for what the future will hold for our students, as we add these tools to our daily instruction.
Lastly, as a Maker teacher, I am inspired to add Micro:Bits and the data collection capabilities of Microsoft Excel to my elective class. I am in the process of modifying the excellent Hacking Stem Brain Impact Simulator we learned at TransformEd for my classroom. With just a few simple adjustments and some very inexpensive equipment, my Maker students will be doing consequential, hands-on work that is truly in the spirit of the Maker movement!
Reflecting on TransformEd and my experience there, I keep returning to the theme I wrote down repeatedly in my notes:
You don’t know what you don’t know.
The statement still holds true, but now there is a crucial difference for me. I know there are many more discoveries to come, and new platforms and gadgets to try, but my thinking has changed. I’m no longer looking for the shiny new toy or the quick fix. Technology in the classroom isn’t a question of when – it is a question of how. How can we best use the myriad of tools at our disposal to help all students find success? How can we amplify student voice, and get kids and teachers to look at traditional learning activities in a new light? I’m very certain that the answer lies in our classrooms and in ourselves. As teachers, we can’t see technology as one of those “Whack-a-Mole” interruptions that crop up during our day. The key lies in our approach and mindset to the rapidly changing world of technology and the evolution of connection. Our students know this already; they live in this world. It’s up to us to meet them there, and journey together to a more inclusive and exciting future.
I wish to give heartfelt thanks to Fair Chance Learning for giving me the opportunity to not only write this blog, but also trusting me to do a Twitter Takeover for them on the day of TransformEd. I met many people from this wonderful company during the conference, and they inspire me every day with their messages of inclusion and accessibility for all. Thank you as well to Microsoft, the WE organization, Telus Spark, and all who organized and sponsored TransformEd in Calgary on that cold March Saturday. It was a truly inspiring and uplifting day. Many, many thanks!
Olana Thomson is Grade 8 Language Arts/Social Studies/Maker teacher at Foundations for the Future Charter Academy in Calgary.
Connect with Olana via Twitter: @olana_thomson
The next round of TransformEd Educator Summits kicks off in Ottawa on December 7th -learn more and register here.