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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"I'm not going to show you how to do it..."

After reading my own words in previous posts and reflecting on my teaching practices with young kids and technology, I tried something sort-of new recently.

1st time using a brand new application!
As part of our digital citizenship instruction in 3rd grade, my students are going to create posters for the computer lab using Comic Life 2. When we learn a new application, we usually spend some time looking over the menu, toolbars and general layout of the program before we get to work. At times, I break skills down to the very basics, as I did with using 4-button mice with Google Earth, but for the Comic Life unit, I took a different approach just to mix it up and hit a few other learning styles. While Digital Citizenship posters will be our final project, we start by making a simple poster of ourselves (I wrote about last year's experience here). On our first day with the program, we did the overview together, then the kids got to work choosing a simple template, taking some pictures of themselves, and dragging words around the screen. I gave them each the checklist of required elements for their first poster. This was done during the final 15 minutes of class, so we didn't get far.

A week later, when the kids returned to technology class, I set up a slightly different work environment. We briefly reviewed how to find their files and quickly looked over the buttons and techniques we learned previously. And then I told them they had the remainder of the class to continue their work (and hopefully finish it), but I wasn't going to show them anything else about how Comic Life works.

"I'm not going to show you how to do it...I'm not going to teach you anything today."

Insert dramatic pause here. 

The first reaction I heard sounded something like this: "WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU AREN'T GOING TO TEACH US ANYTHING? YOU'RE THE TEACHER!!" I laughed a little bit on the inside, but addressed some students' panic with further explanation. I told them that the day was going to be "an experiment." Other than showing them where the help menu lives, I wasn't going to give them any direct instruction on how to use the tools in Comic Life 2...and they were not allowed to ask me for help. They could, however, share ideas and new tricks with the student sitting next to them, so if one learned something new, they could spread the wealth, or if they needed help, they could ask for it from a peer. They just couldn't ask me. Now, for some of my students, this was uncomfortable, and I heard more than once the beginnings of my name being called out followed by "never mind," as they turned to their neighbor for some advice.

Some of the discomfort was mine as well, as I yearned to jump in and show them some cool tricks, or answer their questions and fix things for them. Teachers are natural question-answerers, and the restraints I'd put in place were just as hard on me than my curious 3rd graders. I was holding out on them, however, because I really wanted to give them the time to explore on their own and find out what they could learn themselves, unburdened by the constraints I might place on them, or limited by my skill or vision, or held back by fellow students who don't all naturally pick things up at the same pace.  I wanted to give them the opportunity to teach each other and perhaps I might learn something new as well (the upgrade to Comic Life 2 happened over the summer so it was somewhat new to me, too).  Kids, whether they know it or not, teach me constantly, and developing this shared learning space is important to me. I also believe students retain more of what they've taught themselves through trial and error...I know I do. Teaching yourself something new is greatly rewarding and empowering, and after reviewing my teaching strategies from previous projects, I wanted to give the kids the absolute freedom to try whatever they wanted and just see where it took them. 

Though I tried to "set up" the environment and clarify expectations enough to keep things manageable (the concept of a free-for-all day in the computer lab is somewhat fraught with peril), the kids, once again, exceeded my expectations. They dove right in and got to work, and the room was unusually quiet for the first 15 minutes or so. As they started to discover new techniques or hit roadblocks, I heard several "How did you...?" and "Try this!" conversations happening. I was still very present for their learning, wandering the room and observing their interactions with each other, complimenting their skill and problem-solving abilities, and offering general encouragement. One student in particular was experimenting with tools no one else had discovered yet, and he quickly garnered a few kids in his corner to be taught something new. The end of class time is almost always met with a few declarations of "Aaaawwwww, I'm not done yet!" This day was no exception, and it was exciting to see how much they had accomplished. 

A week later, I asked them for feedback on the grand experiment. Did they like it? Was it frustrating? Should we try it again? Responses were generally positive, and some were downright thrilled that they had gotten a chance to learn things that I didn't teach them. A few pointed out their frustration at not being able to ask me for help, and though I sympathized, I think it was a great opportunity for them to develop some self-confidence and self-reliance, that they could effectively manage their own technical setbacks. Later that day, a student who would normally ask for help (or more accurately, ask for affirmation that what she was doing was correct) got stuck and just couldn't move on without my input. When I turned it around and asked her "What do you think you should do?" she had the answer right there, and a look dawned on her face of suddenly realizing that she didn't really need to ask for my help. That moment was priceless.

We decided as a group to try a few more of these experimental days during the rest of the year, and we want to build in more time to allow sharing of newfound skills with the larger group. I had initially asked the kids what they do when they get a new video game or toy that requires assembly. Do they read all the directions first? Or do they just dive in and try it out? It's always a surprise to see how they answer, but many of them, like me, learn through experimentation. We do this in class every day, mind you, but I think setting aside a special time just to explore on one's own has tremendous benefits.

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