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Upgrades – Part I

I recently attended a conference that was so inspiring, it would leave just about any educator with a pulse on fire to try new things in the classroom: Preparing 21st Century Minds: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Skills for the Future.  The conference introduced me to a rich, large community of educators who are incredibly deliberate about employing teaching methods that take into account how students learn best and what skills they will need in the future.  The presenters are so mindful about how to really serve our students, tapping into what is important to them while providing them with an engaging environment to learn and explore.  The experience was invigorating, renewing my passion to keep my teaching relevant, fresh, and meaningful.

I am a relatively new teacher, reaching the midpoint of my fourth year in the classroom.  While I don’t feel like being the new teacher on the block confers many advantages in a field where experience counts, I used to think I had a tiny edge when it came to technology.   I was proficient in managing a course web page, had students completing virtual labs, and became reasonably skilled with my SmartBoard.  However, this conference left me with the unshakable feeling that some of my most thoughtful, timely (so I thought!), original lessons were already collecting dust.

While no teacher can be expected to reinvent the wheel every single year, education leader, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, implores educators to be mindful about consistent “strategic improvements” or “upgrades”  in the classroom.  She was one of the best presenters at the “Preparing 21st Century Minds” conference.  She is a dynamic speaker who advocates for thoughtful use of technology in the classroom.  I think she has tremendous insights and is worth listening to:

After hearing her speak, I began contemplating how I could perk up some tired lessons. Hayes Jacobs notes that making the type of improvement she suggests really “is something that anyone can do Monday.” Anyone, including me.

Thus, I took an older assignment and worked with our school’s Director of Curricular Technology to make such an “upgrade.”  For several years, I have been using a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles, “The DNA Age,” from the NYTs as a springboard for discussing ethical issues associated with DNA technology.  It has always seemed like a nice way to cap off my biotechnology unit.  I like it because I see students realize that their technical knowledge can not only inform their own opinions on issues that matter, but it also helps them to better understand those of others.

In the past, students have worked in groups to orally present the articles and the ethical dilemmas they raise to their classmates.  In a world that practically revolves around the internet, the place to publish, process, and discuss information, a simple oral classroom discussion didn’t seem like the most engaging format.   Thus, this year, I decided to host the class discussion on Edmodo, a free Web 2.0 site that enables students to interact in a safe online environment.  In my next post, I hope to update you on how I set up the assignment, what I liked and didn’t like about Edmodo, and what type of online discussion the assignment generated among my students. (Upgrades Part II)

Have you made any interesting upgrades this year?  Please share!