Teaching Students to Teach Themselves
Teaching Students to Teach Themselves
A connected educator integrates a variety of tech tools to help her fifth graders develop the skills they need for college.
By Susan Convirs
When today’s 21st-century learners enter college and the workplace, they will be expected to read complex informational texts independently. In many high schools, teachers continue to provide various forms of scaffolding, such as teacher assistance, classroom discussions, summaries, or simplified texts to promote reading comprehension; such supports, however, usually aren’t provided in a university setting. Beginning at the elementary level, teachers can provide opportunities for students to develop these important life skills: comprehension of complex text and independent learning.
Learning on their own, without an instructor, is an acquired skill for most elementary school students. Almost limitless resources exist online for today’s learners. Outside a structured learning environment, though, many students struggle to locate informational resources that are appropriate for their age and reading level. Additionally, since children are often completing a worksheet of pre-assigned questions, they frequently fail to develop the skill and the curiosity to ask relevant or open-ended questions. A first step toward fostering both academic stamina and independent learning can happen at the elementary level by providing digital access to both content and assignments.
I’m a fifth-grade teacher at Balboa Gifted/High Ability Magnet Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and my students and I were fortunate to be part of the 1:1 iPad program for the 2015–2016 school year. In the fall, I began searching through a variety of apps and online platforms to use with my students. I wanted to replicate aspects of the physical classroom that would be enhanced by technology, such as content-based lessons, in-class and homework assignments, and the ability to build a classroom community through social interactions. I settled on Google Classroom because the students each had an e-mail address that would be compatible with this platform.
I wanted the children to be able to access assignments digitally, so we downloaded several apps that allowed the students to write on PDFs and submit their work digitally to me. Depending on the device, the children have used Type on PDF and DocHub most frequently.
Additionally, I hoped to find web-based content-based resources to use with the iPads. As a long-time user of Kids Discover’s print-based social studies and science materials, I started using their Kids Discover Online portal as soon as it became available. The students also access “Scholastic News” through the Scholastic app. They watch YouTube videos and TED Talks on curriculum-based content, they read primary sources through the Colonial Williamsburg site, America Online, and the Library of Congress, and they create digital projects to demonstrate understanding with many of the Google tools, such as Docs, Slides, Forms, and Sites.
A feature of the Google Classroom LMS that I particularly appreciate is the ability to group a variety of resources together to create a digital “lesson.” For example, when teaching a lesson on the Puritans, I posted the link to related articles on Kids Discover Online, as well as images from Google, a video from YouTube, a piece of music believed to have been sung at the first Thanksgiving, a primary source document of John Winthrop’s sermon, and a PDF containing a reflection question that I had created to assess for understanding following the lesson. Integrating a variety of resources helps me guide students to content across various disciplines. By listening to and studying music, for example, the children were able to extend their understanding of the Puritans and their values.
Having the assignments presented and submitted digitally helps me and the students keep track of their work. Each child can easily go online to complete missing or late assignments, and I can easily see who has submitted his or her work. Now, the students and I spend considerably less time locating “lost” papers and identifying the owners of the “no-name” papers. Additionally, because the Kids Discover Online resources are associated with each assignment, the students don’t need to hunt for reading materials to complete their work. Once they have their devices, they can access the resource material to look for answers. Then—in the same place—they can access the assignment itself. The students can then submit their work whether they’re in the physical classroom or somewhere remote.
I have also introduced the students to the procedure of a “flipped classroom” to support independent learning. Students can access both content and resources from outside the physical classroom to begin practicing how to learn on their own, without an instructor or the scaffolds he or she provides. Through numerous experiences with independent learning, the children have increased their academic stamina when it comes to reading and comprehending complex informational text. The ability to access everything they need in one online location is also beneficial for students who are absent from school; these children will not fall as far behind in content material, since they can see what the rest of the class has covered in their absence.
Finally, the students enjoy the social aspects of Google Classroom. Through this platform, we have worked to strengthen our classroom community and to develop digital citizenship. Initially, I saw that my students needed direct instruction on different forms of digital communication. We discussed and practiced sending and receiving classroom-appropriate communications. The children benefitted from instruction that demonstrated how texting a friend is not the same as sending an e-mail to a teacher or making a public classroom comment. My goal is to give all of the students the opportunity to develop positive digital citizenship and to create a digital footprint each of them can be proud of.
For all of us who teach and learn in the 21s century, change is inevitable. Wherever we find ourselves on the educational continuum, we are all moving away from the whiteboard, paper-based classroom. Using a combination of tech tools allows me to provide access to a rich variety of content presented at a complex, yet accessible, reading level. This, in turn, encourages the young scholars in my classroom to develop the academic stamina they will need for success in middle school and beyond.
Susan Convirs is a fifth-grade teacher at Balboa Gifted/High Ability Magnet Elementary School in Northridge, CA.