Teachable Moments: Reaching Students Through Technology
It’s easy to think of the ways that technology can make humans feel alienated or alone: less in-person interaction, or feelings of FOMO—that’s the Fear of Missing Out—from social media. But technology has also brought people—and teachers and students—together in new ways that have inspired learning.
In this episode of the EdSurge On Air podcast, we hear from four educators who share how technology tools engage their students and expanded their classrooms, whether that’s connecting with students around the world or learning a new language through technology and how that can spark community.
This is the third episode of a four part series about why teachers teach called “Teachable Moments.” (Here’s part one and two.) In this series, we’ll hear directly from educators who attended the EdSurge Fusion conference last fall about the challenges they face, and what brings them joy in teaching.
Listen below, or subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast on your favorite podcast app like iTunes or Spotify. Highlights from the conversation below have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
First up is Mimi Kasner, principal at Francis Scott Key Elementary School in San Francisco. She tells us the ways her own learning and life experiences have been shaped by technology and how that’s influenced her approach in working with students.
Mimi Kasner: I came to this country as an immigrant when I was 25 to attend grad school. I never really grew up with typing, it was pretty much just handwriting. So, I learned how to use a typewriter when I came [to the U.S.]. And a defining moment for me was learning about word processing—that was when I realized how powerful technology is. I did not have to rewrite my essays, and from that point on I fell in love with technology, how amazing it is that it can help people to be efficient and also do beautiful work.
I actually changed my career pathway. I switched to a whole different major and became a computer technology teacher in an elementary school. Once I had first grade student, a little girl, who came to our school in Kindergarten. She struggled through the whole year, could not read or write and it was really, really hard for this little girl to focus.
One day I was working with her using a website that helps teach the alphabet, and suddenly she turned around and made this loud noise with joy, saying, “I know how to read!” And she was just so excited about it. She was able to listen to the letters, and she finally recognized them.
I realized that we really need to look into how students learn and what tools are there for them. Students learn differently. Textbooks never worked for this student, but with this extra support she moved to a next stage.
Now I’m a principal, and we have been looking more and more into how to utilize technology to support student learning. We started a design challenge a couple years ago [to gather ideas]. One day during the middle of the design challenge, we had a fire drill. Students went out to the yard and afterwards, a first-grade teacher came to me and said, “My students are asking me. Can we have an extra 10 minutes?” I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “The students said, they loved [the design challenge] so much, but the fire drill took 10 minutes away. We want our time back.”
That was really moving to me because what I realized when we gave students choice to learn, to explore, they loved it, and they really dove into that work
Now, we hear from Sam Jordan, the education technology coordinator for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. He shares a pivotal moment in his career where students connected virtually with learners from around the world, and how they overcame language barriers through technology and what that taught him about student agency and engagement.
Sam Jordan: As an educator, and someone who is charged with looking at how technology can be best used within classrooms, I’m always looking for something authentic. There are a lot of things out there that are fun and interesting but they don’t necessarily bring us to an authentic experience, either as teachers and students interacting, or students to students.
I had an experience last year that was a pinnacle moment for my use of technology in the classroom. I got a chance to be in a classroom, and we were participating in what’s called the “Skype-a-Thon.” It’s a yearly event where teachers from all over the world reserve some time to connect through the Skype platform and either teachers or students connect.
In this particular instance, I had a bunch of fourth graders and we connected with some elementary aged students in Sri Lanka. The interesting part about this was the students in Sri Lanka didn’t speak English, and obviously the students in Juneau, Alaska, didn’t speak the language in Sri Lanka. And so we had this circumstance where students were looking to interact. They wanted to know about each other, and so the teachers started facilitate some questions and prompt kids to do this.
After just a few of the prompts that the teachers were doing on both sides, both in Sri Lanka and in our classroom, the students took over. They didn’t need language, they just started sharing.
I had students going around the classroom, looking for something that they were working on, and there was one particular moment that I just loved where the students in Juneau had been working on creating dolls with traditional dress from around Alaska. They sewed and they glued and they put these really wonderful dolls together, and they put them up to the screen and shared their dolls and described them. The students on the other side got really, really excited, even though they weren’t understanding what the words meant, they went away for a minute and they came back with their own dolls that they had been developing in their classrooms over in Sri Lanka.
There was this moment of real celebration on both sides where they realized they were kids halfway across the world from each other, doing the same activities.
The surprising thing for all the adults in the room was that it was a moment driven by students, where they decided on their own to do this interaction, and it didn’t take language at all. What surprised me the most about that experience was that the students, they weren’t in fear of not having language to connect. They could look at each other, they were smiling, they were sharing, they were gesturing. And they seemed to realize that really quickly. I don’t see that necessarily with adults. And so, it was just beautiful to watch. The kids got it really quick that to be human and have a human connection can happen in multiple different ways.
What I hope that people see is that kids really get very quickly the ability to connect in a meaningful way without the formalities of language. Given the opportunity, they are very willing to engage in a conversation with anyone even if they don’t have a common vocabulary, or a common language, that they find a way to connect and that they very quickly see the humanity in each other and that they celebrate it. They’re excited, they’re clapping and when I was in that classroom last year, they really came away with a sense that we had really connected with some other kids. It wasn’t an experience just on a screen for them. That they really felt like they connected with those kids and wow, we talked to those kids in Sri Lanka.
Up next is Erica Aragon, an instructional technology specialist for Soccoro Independent School District in El Paso, Texas. She describes a time when a teacher she worked with in the district created a new program for first-year English language learners that inspired students to make their own support tools for their peers.
Erica Aragon: In my job I support schools [with technology], and recently one of my teachers who was in his first year of teaching reached out because he was on a search for a simple digital tool to help for video creation. His goal for his journalism class was for students to create some kind of persuasive movie. It just so happened to be our first year as a one-to-one campus for eighth grade at his school. And, a couple weeks after working with this teacher, another teacher reached out to me, saying there was a student in her class who said, “I learned about this really neat digital tool, but I want to make one where it’s meaningful for me, and it’s purposeful.”
This was the student’s second year here in the United States; being a newcomer and learning the language, she wanted to belong in a community. So she created a program she called Growing Up, and it was an after school program to any students in their first or second year who are trying to learn English in the classroom. Emotionally, that can be very stressful, not only for understanding the content, but understanding what the teacher is asking for, or communicating with peers.
So, this student created her own after school bilingual program and it was like a domino effect. She spoke at our District Address that is hosted by our superintendent, Dr. Espinosa, and she was able to share her story to the community and to all the teachers that were there. It was quite moving.
I felt inspired because she referred to a teacher as her mentor, and it was the teacher that I had worked closely with, and I had no idea. I didn’t meet the kids the first time the tool was introduced, because I simply showed the teacher the video tool and how to use it. And that in turn inspired this little girl to be like, “I’m going to go ahead and make a video, so I can create this program for my fellow classmates.”
One of my goals as an educator is to make sure our students feel self regulated and self disciplined for the skills they’re gonna need for the 21st century. And what I think what’s really important is that she took that upon herself, it was her own idea, and she took ownership. And that’s what has inspired me: Knowing that, that one small moment that I spent with that one teacher, it blossomed into something very powerful.
Finally, we turn the mic to Melissa Dodd, the Chief Technology Officer for San Francisco Unified School District. She got her start in education and tech while working with schools in Boston and tells us about how her role taught her to be open to the uncertainty that sometimes comes with trying out a new tool or teaching method.
Melissa Dodd: Moving into K-12 public education was a phenomenal learning opportunity for me. I started my K-12 urban experience actually at Boston Public Schools. At that time I had gotten into the edtech space and how technology could connect and enable people to share across countries.
I took a job with Boston Public Schools, working in their instructional technology division, and it was eye-opening to work with teachers there. This was back in the early 2000’s, when we were really just beginning to think about and embrace technology in ways that could support teaching and learning. And I got to experience that newness with them, and all that scariness, that uncertainty. Wireless didn’t even really exist yet. There was something new here that we were trying to figure out together.
We’d go and visit schools and we talked to kids about how they wanted to learn, what they loved about learning and how they thought technology was going to support their learning. There was this little boy and he was probably in third or fourth grade, and he had these amazing ways that he thought technology was just going to change the world, and some of them came true. To see the way that he was able to think about the impact of technology, and what it would mean for him and how his eyes would light up, I carry that with me every time that I’m in a classroom or working with teachers or principals. How do we get that light in every kids’ eyes?
Technology is constantly changing. We can’t keep up with it, and that we shouldn’t try to. But there’s always an opportunity to learn, and if we put ourselves in a vulnerable space and we put ourselves out there in trying something new, it’s amazing to see what happens with other adults and with kids. It’s okay to not really know exactly what’s going to happen. Or you might have an idea of where you want to go, but you’re not exactly sure how to get there. And if you’re open and transparent about that, it’s amazing the support and partnerships that you’ll get along the way. So, just try.
This series was made possible, thanks to a partnership with Listenwise, an award-winning listening program that brings the most compelling podcasts and MPR stories to middle and high school classrooms.