Embrace the Future

As we enter into the “home stretch” of the school year, I thought I would share a few reflections on the research I have done this year.

A quick reminder for readers: I am a U.S. History teacher at Waltham High School and my research this year has been a qualitative analysis of technology integration in a classroom with no direct 1:1 technology. I have attempted to analyze the struggles, realities, and triumphs of embracing 21st century skills in a classroom with 20th century technology.

As mentioned above, I have attempted to integrate as much technology as possible into a classroom that has inconsistent access to 1:1 technology. The technology-based projects, assignments, and lessons that I created have primarily taken place in the four labs (three computer, and one iPad) in my school.

Part one of progress report I completed reflecting on my research question.
Part one of a “Penultimate” progress report I completed reflecting on my research question.

For the most part, I have been able integrate technology into my classes at least once each month. However, I have found it difficult to maintain an integrated classroom throughout the school year. Although applications have allowed me to sprinkle in technology, I am far from a place that is a truly integrated or “flipped” classroom.

As I reflect on the past year, I find it difficult to isolate just one or two reasons that I was unable to fully integrate technology into my classroom. I know that one of the reasons is that technology in my school is limited and in high demand. This leads to a race to secure coveted lab reservations. So, the lessons where I am able to fully integrate technology are only those which I am able to foresee weeks in advance and book space accordingly. For instance, I planned ahead to have my classes complete the Touchcast assignment and Paperless Research Papers. However, this advanced planning rules out spontaneity. If three days prior to a classroom lesson, I have a stroke of genius about a great way to integrate technology, I won’t be able to make it happen because the lab will already be booked.

The lack of 1:1 technology also limits my ability to give formative and summative assessments online. I have found this to be restrictive. For instance, if I did have regular access to 1:1 technology for my students, I would have been able to use Socrative, Poll Everything, and other similar applications more efficiently. (Aside: since most students have their own cell phones, I contemplated having students use them to access apps like the aforementioned. However, after some thought, I decided against it.)

Part two of my progress report. I reflected on a few successes and failures.
Part two of my progress report. I reflected on a few successes and failures.

Furthermore, it has been difficult to maintain a flow of lessons that embrace technology integration throughout the school year. I have struggled with the conflicting demands placed upon me as a high school teacher. Teachers are required to cover certain content by particular dates, as bookmarked by required student assessments. This demands a certain amount of teacher-centered learning. At the same time, however, teachers are encouraged to “flip” our classrooms and engage in student centered learned.

The assessments mandated by our school and state, remain traditional and primarily factual tests. For instance, this year I have been responsible for administrating four in-class writing assignments, a midterm, and a final. These are six assessments that took away from classroom time or interrupted the flow of a unit I was teaching. I am not saying that these assessments are worthless. But, in my opinion, they do not measure or give students credit for the skills and ideas learned through innovative, technology integrated lessons. Thus is life, but it hinders creativity.

I feel that we can never truly embrace 21st century learning as long as we continue to employ 20th century assessments. I believe this to be a fundamental problem facing education.

Despite these challenges, I do think I had a fair measure of success with integrating technology this school year. Although I felt restricted in my ability to secure lab time, I discovered useful apps like Google Forms, Google Classroom, and Remind. These apps allowed me to push my U.S. History students to use technology outside of school, for homework assignments. (I chronicled my trials with these apps in previous blog posts). Despite the challenge of sustained use, Google Forms and Google Classroom helped to transform a lot of my teaching this year.

Part three of my brainstorm where I reflected on the tension I felt this year as I attempted to integrate technology.
Part three of my progress report where I reflected on the tension I felt this year as I attempted to integrate technology.

Furthermore, at when point when I was able to plan far into the future, my Honor’s Level U.S. History II students completed projects solely using Touchcast. Touchcast allowed my students to participate in a “flipped classroom” while creating projects about a Cold War unit that in previous years, I had taught in traditional ways.

In the end, I have achieved one of my major goals for this assignment: next year, I will have at least two classes of tenth graders that come to my classroom with 1:1 iPads. I am sure there will be structural barriers to navigate, but I am excited to think of new ways to use this technology next year.

Moving forward, I have a few tools in my belt with some of the apps I tried and found success with this year. I have some interesting ideas about how to use iPads for formative assessments. Most importantly, however, I have a new way of thinking about my teaching. I maintain my ultimate goal of achieving a more technologically integrated classroom. I’m not there yet, but I’ll get there one day.

Remind 101: Remember to Remind

After a frustrating morning with one of my U.S. History II courses, I began to brainstorm ways to increase my students’ achievement. One of the ongoing problems I was having with that particular class was homework completion.

This doesn’t just mean that students weren’t completing worksheets or short-term assignments at home. This encompasses all forms of work that should be done outside of the classroom. Short-term assignments, long-term projects, and studying for tests and quizzes were all lacking. This was reflected on both formative and summative assessments. Although students were coming to class and participating, not much was being done at home and this took a toll on their grades. This posed a significant, but all too well known problem.

I ruminated about the problem for most of the day and brainstormed ways that I could help my students complete work at home. However, I couldn’t come up with any solution short of following students home and haranguing them to do their work. When I was teaching this class the next day, I asked about their lack of homework completion. A few students expressed that they had every intention of doing their work, but would forget about the assignments when they got home. The rest of class was silent or avoided my gaze.

It was at this point that I realized it may be time to put to use an app I learned about in 2014. In an effort to improve the amount of homework completed by one of my U.S. History courses, I turned to using the “Remind” app. Remind allows a teacher to communicate with a class through a third party messenger service. In essence, Remind allows a teacher to send information directly to a student’s mobile phone, tablet, or computer from their own device. The important part about Remind is that it keeps the phone number of both the student and teacher confidential. This allows for safe direct communication without the fear of the student or teacher abusing the knowledge of the other’s mobile phone number.

I then explained the concept of the app to my class. At first, my students lacked enthusiasm, but some of them eventually warmed up to it. Originally, due to a lack of proper explanation, I think my students thought I was going to be texting them to remember assignments. I had to explain to them all the concept of the app and the way it allowed all involved to keep their privacy.

After I got students on board with the concept of the app, I began the sign up process.  First, I had to download the Remind app for my iPad and create my class. There are then a few ways that students can begin using Remind. Students can text a number and message that is provided by the teacher or download the app to their mobile device to enroll in the teacher’s class. Both of these methods allow the student to receive messages from the teacher.

Remind App

Since my students do not have school issued 1:1 technology, only those with mobile phones or personal iPads can participate in the use of the Remind app. This is a downside, but there is not much I can do about it. Back to the process, I also used my desktop pc to print out handouts that explain Remind and how to sign up (see image below). It seemed as though many students signed up right when I handed out the sign up leaflet. I thought we were off and rolling!

Sign Up 1

When class ended that day, I went into the Remind app to check on how many of my students had signed up. To my dismay, only two students had done so! I had spent the last fifteen minutes of class explaining the app and setting it up. My students had seemed on board, and I thought they would be relieved to get reminders about their assignments. I guess I was wrong. At this point, I decided to wait another day to see if my students would sign up over night… I got one more student by the next morning.

Sign Up 2

The next day, I confronted my class about why they had not signed up. I got varying answers, but it seemed like some students were wary about getting reminders, and others simply weren’t interested. I got a few more students to sign up that morning after I explained the concept again. However, I certainly couldn’t force the rest of my students to sign up. It was at this point that I accepted the fact that the app was not very popular with my class and that I wasn’t going to be able to get all of them to embrace it. I contemplated contacting parents for support, but I eventually decided against it. I imagined trying to explain to parents how Remind functioned, and shuddered at the thought of having to explain all of the nuances multiple times. Right or wrong, I ultimately decided against it.

At this point, I decided that since some students wanted to receive reminders, it was worth using the app with them. Over the next few weeks, my small cadre of students and I experimented using Remind.

It didn’t go well.

The reason why is slightly embarrassing, and foolish. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember to send the reminders. I would write a note in my lesson plan book, and set reminders in my mobile phone, but I still couldn’t seem to send the reminders out.

Don’t get me wrong, I was able to send a few. These reminders told students to complete their homework or study for a test.

Reminder 1

However, nine times out of ten, I would completely forget. I know this seems odd, but after a day of teaching, lesson planning, grading, and dealing with other school responsibilities, when I got home, reminding students to do their homework was the last thing on my mind. I would be cooking dinner, catching up with my spouse, watching a favorite TV show, or reading a book.

Reminder 2

Remind typically didn’t enter my mind. Maybe this says something about my ability to separate work and personal life (a healthy ability I think). In full disclosure, this whole blog post has been written with the intent of sharing this message: I DON’T WANT TO USE REMIND! Phew, I feel so much better. I had to get that off my chest. This app, although wonderfully made, well meaning, and valuable, is not for me.

My students will have to use their agenda books, personal reminders, and my reminders in class to remember to do their work at home (GASP!). Furthermore, I’m not sure that it should be my job to remind students in the evening that they must complete work.

I literally can’t go home with my students to make sure they complete work, and maybe that is a good thing. I think two important skills that should be learned in high school are organization and responsibility. Students must learn ways that they can remember to do assignments or tasks. There will come a time in their lives where teachers and parents won’t be there to hold their hands.

Moreover, maybe some of my students don’t want to be reminded or don’t want to complete their assignments. I will do all I can to motivate my students and teach them the skills they need to be a successful in my class. However, I can’t make them do their homework. I’ll cajole them, beg, plead, bribe them with candy, but this experiment taught me that I’m not going to force students to remember to complete their work.

In conclusion, Remind may be a helpful tool for some people and in certain instances. For example my coworker and I use it with a History Club we co-lead, and it is great way to remind students of meetings and events. However, it is not an app I want to employ on a day-to-day basis as a way to remind students to complete their homework.