21st Century Study Buddies: Transforming Teaching and Learning for Today's Students and Tomorrow's Teachers
"You still use scantrons?!"
This shocked question from a friend of mine who works for a technology company sums up the behind-the-times nature of teaching many observers find as a major flaw in our public schools. In the spring of 2006, when I was completing my second year teaching fifth grade at a public school in Harlem, it was a sincere frustration with this outdated learning environment that led me to propose a technology project to integrate Personal Digital Assistants1 into the everyday life of my classroom.
With these PDAs, which are also referred to in class as Study Buddies, I proposed the RiseUp Project to create a learning environment that would provide instant feedback on student performance — thus allowing for timely, data-driven instruction. Our Study Buddies would offer an engaging tool to support student learning across content areas and throughout the school day, a class-space and cost-effective device to bring 21st century technology skills into our daily learning, and provide a portal through which students could journey daily beyond their classroom walls.
PDAs help me learn because we have folders…to work on assignments we just look in our PDAs and open up the folder," said Khamarii, who would beam vocabulary words to other students' PDAs within his reading group.
As a result, the RiseUp Project was funded through a $20,000 technology grant that year and now, six years and over 150 students later, these same 32 PDAs and supporting equipment are being used by another class of 25-plus fifth graders to transform the teaching and learning in our classroom. The RiseUp Project has evolved as a meaningful way for my students to learn, even as they provide experience to prospective reading teachers through a web-based teaching residency in which undergraduates have weekly one-on-one conversations via email with my students.
The RiseUp Project: Helping Prepare Tomorrow's Teachers
For the last three years, I have designed and directed this web-based reading mentorship program between my fifth- graders and undergraduates in an education course at a local college. Over the course of the semester, my students and their mentors correspond weekly about a story I read to the class, which the mentors have already read. The emails give students the opportunity in a one-on-one setting to practice their reading skills and strategies in an exciting, inspiring medium while giving the undergraduates experience and practice guiding their mentees towards meeting the reading objective for that week.
Win-win! The professor included submitting the emails as part of the course requirement and discussed student responses in class as well.
Being able to improve her handwriting by using the transcriber was one of Damahya's favorite ways to use the PDA, along with improving her math skills on Flash Math, a PDA math game.
Over the years, the mentorship has taken on a variety of formats. In the first year, students at one college supported their fifth-grade mentees' reading skills development, while undergrads at another college helped students flush out articles they were writing for the school paper. This year's mentors continued the one-on-one guidance, plus a mentor was assigned to work with each of the reading groups in our classroom.
This web-based mentorship provides prospective teachers access to our urban classroom to experience analyzing and supporting the reading skills. It also minimizes the troubles both parties would suffer in organizing schedules and finding classroom space for weekly on-site visits. In a post-mentorship survey, the feedback and effectiveness of this web-based mentorship proved to be extremely positive:
- 75% of mentors said the mentorship was as or more meaningful to their learning experience than other projects they've participated in;
- 100% said they'd likely participate in a similar mentorship in the future; and
- 80% said they would enroll in an introductory teaching course with such a mentorship.
This high degree of satisfaction was shared by students, who looked forward to corresponding each week with their mentors. And while they appreciated getting help with their reading work, perhaps most importantly, as fifth-grader Essence said, "Having them help us… makes me want to go to college."
We chose Windows Mobile powered PDAs — specifically Dell Axim X51s — rather than a desktop, laptop, testing-clicker or iPad sized tablet for a few reasons. As an assessment tool, the PDA is about the size of an index card, which is the average size of most standardized test assessment questions. A student can view a full question on the color screen, as opposed to most clickers, which are black and white and limited to the answer choices. The PDAs also offer students experience with Microsoft software Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Internet Explorer, the dominate desktop operating systems most students come into contact with at school and at home — especially urban students who likely cannot afford Apple products.
Angel became an expert at using Excel to track his grade point average and was always excited to show others how to plug in the formulas, improving math skills in the process.
The index-card sized devices fit nicely on the student's desk alongside notebooks, textbooks, worksheets and other learning tools. Even better: handheld devices don't obstruct the teacher's view of the students the way desktops and open laptops can.
As the RiseUp Project project has grown, so have these hand-held devices. Small tablets increase in technology, yet stay at affordable prices. For example, most tablets now have cameras, so the web-based mentorships can include video chatting. Our fifth-grade team acquired a technology grant at the end of last year for one seven-inch Android-powered tablet for every five students, which equals out to about four tablets per classroom. (See footnote below for why we chose Android devices over iPads2). Video chatting between the mentors and small reading groups has become a centerpiece to this grant proposal.
Technology can never and should never be thought of as a replacement for a caring, educated and well-trained adult working in person with a student. However, the more we know about the diversity of learners and learning styles--compounded by the extreme range of skills within the classroom--the more that strategic, creative use of technology can support teachers in meeting the learning needs of each student.
1 PDAs stand for Personal Digital Assistants. The ones we use are similar to Palm Pilots but instead are powered by Windows Mobile and made by Dell Computers.
2 For anyone who might be considering tablets, we chose the Android powered tablets because they come in a variety of sizes, are significantly cheaper than iPads, are designed to work with the free Google Apps for Education accounts we have, and a lot of our curricula have web-based tools already available to us that require Adobe Flash Player software which does not work on iPads.
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