It’s Not About the Tools… Or Is It? #ISTE2016

Over the last few days I’ve been in Denver for the ISTE Conference, along with 15,000 or so other educators. This is a tech conference. Yeah it gets geeky. Every year I go to sessions or walk through the vendor hall and get frustrated at the pitches of next best thing that will change education (and usually cost you a fortune). I get frustrated when I heard proposals from friends that were rejected because they didn’t focus on an app or a website. I even wrote a blog post about it one year after leaving the conference.

Hand drawn ISTE logo

But if you know me, you know that when I see that I’m wrong I’ll be the first to admit it. You see a big part of learning during ISTE for me is from conversations with my brilliant friends who are also my mentors. During a late night convo with Dean Shareski and Brent Catlett about 1:1 and getting teachers and leaders to use technology, Dean said something that really stuck with me (not surprising, he’s had more influence on me than anyone else in this field). He said that, it has to be about the technology, we can’t just ignore what is there. And he’s right. Sometimes schools and districts get so caught up in changing the pedagogy and how we teach that we forget to show the what and how when it comes to technology.

Yes, we have got to change schools and what is happening in the classrooms. It can no longer be “sit and get,” students need to be creating, discovering the world beyond 4 walls of a classroom, and taking charge of their learning, I think everyone is getting this, but this cannot be at the level kids deserve without technology. We put so much time and money focusing on PBL and curriculum design but how much of that professional development includes new technology that can open doors for our students? Are instructional technology specialist in your district being tapped for this PD or is their PD always focused on “how to use” type training? I so often see the only time technology is used for PBL is to research and/or make a Google Slide to show what they know. If we are taking how we teach our students to another level, then we need to take how they use technology to that level as well.

Are you using robots to teach measurement, angles, and coding? Oh wait, most importantly, problem solving? Do your art students have an online digital portfolio? How often do your students collaborate online in a safe place? When you are teaching about a landform or country, do you just show pictures or videos or do you allow students to “visit” via Google Cardboard and now available Google Expeditions? Where in the country or world is that class that your class collaborates with located? How deep are your once a week digital citizenship conversations with students? Do you allow students to use Desmos for free when they can’t afford a graphing calculator? Did your students bubble in answers to show reading comprehension or did sock puppets give you a recap?

The technology is there, so much of it becoming so affordable and available. Everything I mentioned above is something your classroom or school can afford. It kind of is about those tools because without them your students loose that empowerment and can do those skills. Should the tools be your main focus? Should you plan your lessons around that cool new app? No way but you can’t use that as an excuse to not use it. Your students deserve better.

Middle School is Weird

I’m back. Or so I hope. I have been struggling with writing here. I have ideas but not the energy or time. Now school is out and summer is here, I will be finding that time.

Over the last few months I have been in a few situations that have all lead to conversations about Middle School students and what makes them different. Here in the US, middle school is some how the “forgotten” group in our education system. Even education prep mostly focuses on elementary or secondary (which is usually high school focused). But you see, middle school is this own special, weird, time that does not fit with either of those. I worry that this is the time we are losing the students because the education system does not support this group and I feel like those teachers get less support.

My only explanation for this, middle schoolers are weird. They are not just starting out, babies. They are not getting ready to move on to the rest of their lives. They are just the “Jan Brady” of education. The issue is, if we lose them now, we may not get them back.

A few months ago, I spoke at Bright Bytes Institute about Middle School and STEM. Here are just a few of those thoughts that I talked about that day.

Middle Schoolers are Awkard. Think back on your yearbook picture from middle school. Told you, awkward. They are not used to these new bodies they are getting. They fall because their feet grew before the rest of them, their clothes fit weird, the boys are usually shorter than the girls, they have braces… The list goes on and on. So try to remember that when you are dealing with them on a personal basis. This awkwardness leads to insecurity, the insecurity leads to being defensive, defensiveness leads to drama, drama leads to no one listing to anything you say in your classroom. There is a lot of drama, no one wants to learn in the midst of it. So be prepared.

Early Middle School is before stereotypes are ingrained in their mind. Middle schoolers have not yet developed stereotypes for “roles” in life. What I mean by that, they are not completely sold that computers are for nerds, choir is for girls, basketball is for certain races, etc. They are still open to exploring. This is the best time to give students a chance to discover what they love to do. Get girls hooked into a STEM class. Get athletic boys in a music class. Many middle schools have “exploratory” for electives where students rotate through a variety of electives throughout the year. Other schools have “club day” or “genius hour” to provide students with time to discover their talents and passions. While this happens at many grade levels, it can have most impact on middle school students.

They have been playing school for 6 years.  For six years they have gone from pre-school where they learned through play, to 5th grade where they are learning from texts, worksheets, and being assessed on tests. Not always, but in general. Moving to middle school gives them that opportunity to start over. They are in a new environment, new teachers, new classmates, so start new. This is a great place to break that learned schooling and give students chances to learn in new ways. Don’t use middle school as a place to prepare for lectures in high school. Use this time to REMIND students how to learn naturally.

They smell bad. If you ever walk into a you know that distinct smell. Shudder. Only thing worse than the smell, is that smell on taco salad day in 100F August after PE. But I’m not here to make fun, the smell, is their body going through puberty. When they go through this, yes hormones change. But those hormonal changes cause changes in their brains as well. These are some of the effects:

They lose a lot of short term memory. They really did forget about your test, their homework, etc. It is crazy that they forget. Also, it would drive me crazy that teachers would require the students to carry these planners to prevent that. The problem, they never remembered to bring the planner to class, if they did, they forgot to get it out and put the HW in there, and if they actually did all of those things, they would lose them in the locker. I’ve known teachers to give grades based on this. Is that punishing students for something they can’t help? My solution, use Google Calendar or Google Classroom. One thing they never forget, their phones. Really, just stop with the homework. They are not going to do it.

They are unorganized. They just are at that age. Open one locker, you will probably find at least 4 coats, 2 pairs of shoes, and enough socks for the entire football team. So please stop with notebooks with 5 tabs or all subjects in one. They don’t put things in the right tabs. They take the paper out and then just shove it in when the bell rings, etc. Just use a spiral notebook where they one a page at a time. And whatever you do, stop giving notebook checks for grades. STOP.

Lastly, a product of going through these hormonal changes, increase in oxytocin. Oxytocin has been called the “hug hormone.” In adults, it is released after, um, trying to keep this PG, “loving.” Maybe you get that. So this hormone causes our brain to need relationships. That is why people declare being in love after “loving.” In middle schoolers, it causes them to need relationships. Children this age will put relationships with others over academic success. So what can we do about this? If they need social interaction and need to be with others, then this is why group work at this age is more than just learning to collaborate. It is how they function. It fulfills that need. If you don’t, they will just talk and form those relationships while you are trying to have class, so have this need work for you.

So these are just a few things when thinking about middle school students. I could go one for pages and pages on why they are so unique. But who wants to read that?! If you are a middle school teacher, work with middle school teachers, or involved in making decisions about curriculum in middle schools, please keep their uniqueness in mind.

Lastly, can you solve this? I always wonder, was I this weird before I started teaching middle school and they rubbed off on me or do I teach middle school because I get the weird. I think all middle school teachers can relate to that question. More soon everyone and enjoy the start of summer!