Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Striking the Right Balance

Our 4th grade studies ancient Chinese history along with an introduction to Chinese culture and language.  We recently finished a project looking at Ancient Chinese inventions, one of which is a set of tuned bells.  2500 years ago, craftspeople in China were able to create large, beautiful sets of bronze bells that each had not one, but two tones depending on where they were struck.  There was mastery in creating the tool, and also mastery in playing it.

Our year in iPads has been like that.  We have discovered that the iPad is an incredible personal and educational tool, masterfully thought out and created.  In the hands of our children and teachers, powerful experiences are possible - but only when the device is well played.

I recently had a conversation with a concerned 3rd grade parent who had good questions about how we use iPads and valid concerns about how our program will grow in the coming years.  It dawned on me that she didn’t need a demonstration and sales pitch about the iPad itself.  What she needed was reassurance that I, as an educator who would potentially use this technology with her child, knew how to use it well.  Of course creating a host of online addicts who can’t break away from their screens to have a coherent conversation with live people at the dinner table is not on my list of goals for our 1:1 program.  But how do I enthusiastically experiment with technology while demonstrating restraint?  How do I promote our program while supporting the wisdom of moderation and limiting screen time?

It feels good to reassure parents and colleagues that, as experienced educators, we are always starting with “why” when making a decision to use or not use these devices.  We just use them frequently because as it turns out there is a lot of work to be done in 4th grade and an iPad (along with Haiku, Google Drive, and our email system) allows us to do some of that work more easily, more conveniently, and more creatively.   Of course we still draw, paint, practice handwriting, use paper, sharpen pencils, and read books because sometimes those processes are more meaningful and more effective.  As it turns out, when seeking to inspire neither digital addicts nor luddites, what feels really good is balance.  We talk about balance explicitly with our students as part of our digital citizenship curriculum so it makes sense to live it in the classroom.  

Another guiding principle in deciding who, what, where, and when about the iPads is consumption vs. creation.  We try not to consume very much on our devices in class since generally that feels passive, less worthwhile, and more like the gratuitous use people are afraid of.   You might say we don’t really like that tone so we still use paper packets and copied math homework. We could put them online, but that might not be the best use of our students' screen time.  Instead we have learned to lean toward opportunities for students to create, to choose how to express themselves, and to share and document their work.  What results are processes that are unrestrained by medium because we can choose from the best of both online and offline worlds, mixing and matching them to suit student and teacher needs.  

For our next research project on daily life in ancient China we will research using books and take notes on paper.  We will draft pieces in our writer’s notebooks then type, share and edit in google drive.  In addition to performing the resulting historical fiction monologues for each other live, students might choose to record them in iMovie or to create a Telligami video.  At this point in the year, we enjoy considering all of our options and striking a spot that hits just the right note.  

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