I started teaching right out of college. Five years in, I almost quit. That part of my story is not unique. Nationwide, 40 to 50 percent of new teachers leave within their first five years on the job.
Teaching US and world history was exactly what I wanted to do and initially, I loved it. But over several years, it became monotonous. I had good relationships with my students, but the day-in and day-out of classroom management was wearing on me. I was tired of the lecture-homework-worksheet model that never seemed to spark the kind of excitement I wanted for my students. And, as all teachers can attest, the ongoing administrative burdens of teaching can take their toll.
If I was going to stay in the classroom, I needed something different. Fortunately, that’s about the same time I stumbled upon a world of tech savvy colleagues around the country who were energized about teaching and learning, and sharing ideas using social media. They introduced me to concepts like “gamification” and “self-paced learning.” I discovered new ways to reduce some of the burden of administrative tasks with apps for teachers. Most importantly, I began to see an opportunity for my students to learn more — and deeper — with technology.
My school didn’t have laptops or devices for every student. But phones were allowed in school. Of the 112 students in my classes, all but six had web-enabled smartphones. So, I decided to take the first step. My goal: start small, and bring the digital revolution into our classroom to improve and enhance student learning.
I initially focused on self-paced learning in an effort to give my students more control of their education. Rather than set the pace from the front of the classroom, which inevitably left students behind or bored, I created an online database with folders for lesson units. Each folder included a learning objective that students were expected to master over a two week period. Resources and prompts are included in digital folders, but students choose how to tackle each challenge — with me as their guide.
Technology has also helped me to see learning through the eyes of my students. I used to select top news to direct classroom instruction on current events. Now, my students have their screens up during class — they select the topics, and search for the latest news, shouting out new updates as they find them. They are especially excited when they are able to “break news” in class. When international news breaks, we follow the latest developments alongside the rest of the world and link it back to our lessons. By providing students with access to technology in the classroom, I’m able to understand the topics that most engage my students — and tailor instruction to spark their interests.
As it turns out, social media can also bring history to life. Recently, I asked students to write tweets as if they were a specific person during the Enlightenment. First, they had to find out what a historical figure might say about a particular topic: “what did Catherine the Great think about voting rights?” This sends them on an online scavenger hunt to find original letters, speeches, and pictures. The process is fun, inspires critical thinking — and collaboration, as students respond via social media and share their findings with one another.
By October of my first “digital” school year, our class wasn’t using any physical books. By December of that year, we were 100 percent digital. In a poll of my students, 86 percent said they preferred the self-paced instruction, and 85 percent preferred reading/writing online. More than half said that they “learned a lot,” and 36 percent said it was one of the best classes they have ever taken. Thirty-six percent may not seem like a lot — but given the number of courses students take, having more than a third choose your class as the best is pretty remarkable.
Technology is not only winning over students, it’s also working. In one district assessment, average achievement in my classes increased by 18 points in the two months after we implemented self-paced programming. Technology helps demonstrate the power of giving students control. It gives students the tools to invent their own curriculum. When students drive the discussion, their curiosity is rewarded — and we foster deeper learning.
Technology is not what kept me in teaching. Ultimately, it was my students and their enthusiasm for learning. But doing things in a different way, and utilizing new tools, gave my students and me the shift we needed to enable a more meaningful, powerful, way of learning together.