Sunday, April 13, 2014

Grappling with Democracy and Technology in Teacher Ed

I have been trying out democratic practices in my Teacher Ed class for the past semester with the help of two researchers and my students. It has been a hard journey for all of us (well for me for sure). It feels very different, and the ways I think through instructional dilemmas are very different. At the heart of the change is redefining the relationship between instructor and students. The two components that I find most appropriate right now are participation and trust, and both have been supported by technology.

When I talk about participation, most students and teachers immediately conjure in their minds an orderly class and students raising their hand and waiting patiently to speak. This does happen at times in my class but that is not what I mean here. This semester I reworked my classroom interactions so we all would have as much time as possible to process together and think through instructional dilemmas. One of the best instruments for that was opening circle. In opening circle we raise a relevant question and everyone has to participate in the discussion at least once. At the beginning of the semester I initiated the discussion and we went around in a circle. At this point in the semester the topics are student generated and at the students request we stopped going around in a circle and instead they speak when they feel ready. This made for a much richer discussion and a sense of shared ownership. I think that this practice led to a very different relationship between me and my students that in interesting ways allowed me to discuss more things I care about, and say things I have never said to my students.

Trust is the second leg. The message I am trying to send my students is one of trust- in each other in me and in their students. An illustration of the ways trust can work is in group work. In our last class period we created annual plans for teaching reading and writing. It is a hard task and many of the groups were "frozen" for awhile. After spending their last few semesters focusing on the micro aspects of teaching, I suddenly asked them to zoom out and focus on macro structures. When trying something this new trust is a concern. My students have to trust me that they can do it (it was hard for them), they also had to trust that I will not grade them harshly. This is a really important point, in difficult/unfamiliar assignments students are looking for scaffolds and fear grading. Here, there was no grading to be done but students were still concerned with my evaluation of their efforts.

So where does TECHNOLOGY come in? Many people know that I integrate technology throughout my class. They have a sense that students in my class are always on their devices. They are not. In fact I would estimate that students are about 20% of the time on their devices- viewing documents, taking quizzes, creating presentations. Most of the time is spent on discussion, group interaction, and even some lecture (gasp) time. That said, technology has a significant part in what I am able to do in participation. I use discussion board to hear questions from all students. I can then have enough time to conduct opening circle and other participatory elements. Email and other communication have been used as a backchannel to discuss ideas and concerns in ways that I have never experienced in this class. It's been a challenge and I still wonder how my students see all of this.

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