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From Disconnected to Mr. Connected Educator

7 min read

Voice of the Educator

October is Connected Educator Month. Stay tuned throughout the month for advice from your peers about connected teaching and learning

What is the first thing you look at in the morning, and the last thing you see at night? Ding ding (or should I say ring ring?) you guessed it, for most of us, it’s our phone. There are very few of us who live our personal lives ‘disconnected’, so I ask myself, why isn’t that the case in each of our classrooms?

As we celebrate national Connected Educator Month, I ask, or better yet challenge, all of my fellow educators, to get and keep your classroom connected! Technology can be daunting, but the rewards are extremely sweet. Educators have an immense amount of responsibility to our students such as facilitating a top-notch education, instilling technology-based skills that will serve them in jobs that may not yet exist, and creating a common understanding of the effects of their digital footprint.

Think back to when you were in elementary school. The ways in which we stay connected have changed dramatically. If you wanted to speak with someone far away, you called him on the phone (how many of you are picturing a rotary phone?), or write it down, slap a stamp on an envelope and send it off.

But today, in a matter of seconds, we can send a tweet to a veterinarian across the globe and get a reply, or hold a Google Hangout with an endocrinologist. Educators have so many tools to stay connected with our fellow teachers, students and parents, allowing us to reach well beyond the walls of our classrooms or the constraints of the USPS and into an entire web of connectivity to foster collaborative, connected teaching and learning.

It’s time to knock down the classroom walls!

Teaching degree: A license to learn

Like many teachers in our classrooms today, my degree was earned through (once) typical professors using an ‘old age’ approach; it was all about the consumption of information. Teaching 101 if you will. Nine years ago when I entered the classroom, tech courses were just emerging (note, Facebook was not yet available to the general public.) One-to-one initiatives were still somewhat of a futuristic concept, and we were lucky to get an hour a week in the computer lab. Most of what you would see in my classroom today regarding tech integration and connected teaching and learning stems mainly from my individual passion to learn, reading like a mad man to become the best teacher possible, always aware of best practices, the research supporting those practices and spreading the word to teachers across the globe (without buying any stamps!)

During my undergrad years, the approach to teaching and learning was still very much consumption based or ‘sit and get’, not creation or higher-order thinking. My co-teacher and I base our technology integration model on the SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition) approach. Using technology for technology’s sake just doesn’t cut it anymore; we owe our students more than that. We are tasked with redefining the way students think and the way they approach a challenge or obstacle. We can all do this by providing students opportunities to create, reflect and question what they are learning. I have seen this approach truly transform my student’s learning experience, and have watched technology only amplify its effects.

We do not have dedicated, full-time tech-integration specialists in our district. At Isaac Fox Elementary in suburban Chicago, I wear two hats, that of a teacher and of an integration specialist. My classroom was chosen as one of three in the district to serve as a “demonstration classroom” regarding technology integration, serving not only as a model to be observed by my colleagues, but also as an exemplar prompting them to push the limits (and comfort levels) of tech integration in their classrooms. The focus is on authentic, purposeful learning, not technology. We are always cognizant of the fact that technology is a TOOL, not a learning outcome.

A unique teacher-to-teacher connection

We’ve created an environment where teachers are teaching teachers, allowing us all to relate what is observed to practical classroom situations. While some educators, like myself, have a passion for technology and often try new tools, others are overwhelmed by classroom technology and only use computers for tasks like typing papers. That’s where I come in to facilitate connected teaching and learning at a comfortable pace for my colleagues.

To stay connected with fellow teachers and administrators, we use Google Apps to help keep track of schedules, appointments and workflow. We also use Google Surveys to gauge how teachers are feeling about tech and emphasize in areas of need.

Technology allows student-led learning, and lets us as educators reach our students without standing in front of the class, and delivering lectures (consumption model). We use Edmodo as our learning management system because of its functionality and collaboration features. It serves as the hub for nearly all technology and content we use ensuring teachers, students and parents stay connected on everything from class work to what is on the agenda for the following day.

Speaking students’ language

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Remind are just a few tools that “speak” the language of today’s students. Though used mostly for social connection, I integrate many of these trendy apps into my classroom to show the importance of privacy, safety and potential impact of a student’s digital footprint.

A huge plus of using technology, is the ability to create personalized lessons for each student. myON, a personalized literacy environment, gives students the power to choose what their reading based on interests, reading level, and recommendations. In this case, I am able to use technology to increase student engagement by giving them a choice.

Connecting the living room with the classroom

Nearpod is another tool we use to create presentations, pulling resources from across the web and share them with fellow teachers, students and parents alike. I had a “soapbox moment” during our school’s open house, seizing the opportunity to show parents how presentations can be downloaded from any device, ease of use and the impact of staying connected with what their student is doing. Parents were amazed to see for themselves how and what their children would be learning during the upcoming school year, needless to say, folks were excited!

We often have a difficult time connecting with students outside the classroom, and getting parents on the same page as teachers. Remind is an easy-to-use, free app that communicates or reminds’everyone what is coming up. I remind families about upcoming school events, an assessment coming up, or general classroom news and events. It’s a simple way to facilitate parent-teacher communication and creates transparency, which parents love.

As technology evolves, so must we; at Isaac Fox Elementary we make sure the integration models used are ones that can be shared, adapted, replicated and keep us connected. Let us all celebrate Connected Educator Month together, better yet, let’s celebrate the possibilities and opportunities we can create for our students by being connected educators.

Billy Spicer teaches in Lake Zurich Community Unit School District 95 in suburban Chicago. As a member of the district’s Demonstration Classroom project, he spends 50% of his time in the classroom, with the other 50% serving as a technology integration specialist. He enjoys facilitating a passion for literacy, passionate learning through student choice, and social media to discover creative ways for students to meet their individual learning needs. Billy tweets @MrBillySpicer  & with his fifth-grade students @SpiceBurgerIF.