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Technology in Education: Student Engagement Through iPods

I enjoy talking with older people who have never taught in a classroom. The conversation usually starts with a sentence like this: “You teach in high school? I don’t know how you do it!” Once that fact is established, my interlocutor generally meanders through all the ills that have befallen our public schools over the past decade, me occasionally muttering my own opinions about my profession (which are usually countered with a ” Well, in my time…” dismissal). We come to the end of our conversation with my new acquaintance, sighing and then summing up the broad issues of today’s teenagers by saying something along the lines of “Kids just aren’t the same these days.”

While I smile politely for most of the conversation, secretly (or not so secretly) disagreeing with many statements, I tend to agree with this last statement: children ARE NOT the same as ours. days. It’s almost dizzying to think how much our world has changed in the past decade (use the size of a cellphone as a measure if necessary). How could we expect our young people to stay the same? Their world is a world of texting, tweeting, google and Facebook, and none of those things were common knowledge (let alone common verbs!) when I was in high school, even though that was it. only ten years ago. Instead of lamenting that today’s students don’t respond to the standard method of teaching, we should meet them on their own playground, integrating technology into our daily practice. With this thought in mind, I structured my classroom around the use of iPods, and I quickly learned that dedicated educators have the ability to unlock so much educational potential through a tiny device.

I became the shepherdess of about thirty iPod Touches as if by chance; I was a young English teacher and my school district had just received a grant to place these devices in English, math, and science classes preparing for our state’s standardized tests. The cart looked like R2-D2 from star wars, and it had a slot for each numbered iPod that came with a cord that connected it to the cart itself; this allowed bulk charging and syncing of iPods. Inside the cart, I discovered that I was also equipped with a Macbook, a digital presenter, and a wireless hotspot.

Instead of the excitement I’m sure I was supposed to feel (oh the right to be one of the first teachers in the district to be part of this new wave of education!), I was completely freaked out. Nothing in my limited teaching experience so far, let alone my college education classes, had prepared me to handle or use iPods with my students. What was I supposed to do with this stuff? Weren’t they just for listening to music and playing casual games? What was I supposed to do if a student was dating one? Besides, what was stopping them from coming after hours and getting the whole cart out? I was besieged by thoughts of mass academic failure, followed by the inevitable termination of my teaching position, and I considered myself very unlucky indeed to be chosen for such an “honor”.

I finally overcame my terror and created a system where each student was assigned an iPod by their place in the class. Students and parents signed a waiver at the start of the school year acknowledging that they would be responsible for half the cost of the iPod if theirs were to go missing or be damaged beyond normal wear. Each office was furnished with an iPod “parking space”, which was simply a laminated sheet of paper that had the outline of an iPod that included the iPod number assigned to that office and the rules for using iPods ; when the iPods were not in use, students had to turn them face down in their parking space. Students had to pick up their assigned iPods from the cart when they entered the classroom and return them during cleaning time, about three minutes before the bell rang. Because I was teaching five separate sections of tenth and eleventh graders throughout the day, this system made it easy to manage devices and also kept students from just playing with their iPods while teaching.

My first foray into using iPods was very simplistic, but it eventually turned into an effective research project. Using just the Safari app, I asked students to research various facts about our next author and answer questions on a worksheet. This first project turned out to be a bit too basic (and a bit too much like looking for facts in a textbook), so we added another element to our next project. When we started our unit on Zora Neale Hurston, I created a modified web quest by simply searching informative websites and saving the links to my PortaPortal website. I then created a shortcut on the iPods to my PortaPortal site. The students were placed in groups and tasked with creating “Farcebook” profile pages which were to include posts, biographical information and friends that would have been included if Zora Neale Hurston had a social networking site like Facebook. Different variations of this project became a regular occurrence in my class because my students felt like they weren’t doing “real research” because of the format of the final product, and they were much more willing to find the information. using iPods than they did. had been when doing a similar project using printed materials.

After this first success, I started to study more specialized applications. I soon discovered that some simple (and free!) games from the App Store could be used as quick and effective ringtones (or warm-ups). Just before our standardized tests, my remedial students started using Miss Spell’s Class for the first five minutes of class every other day to revise commonly misspelled words. Students recorded their scores on index cards that I collected for attendance credit at the end of class. We also often started class with Chicktionary, a game that involves rearranging letters to spell different words; I asked students to write down a word from their game that they didn’t know, then use their dictionary app to find the definition. Depending on how much time we had in class, I could extend this activity so that students had to use that word in a sentence or ask a partner about the meaning of the word. We also used the Grammar Up app to review concepts before an assessment.

For my more advanced students, I started a class blog that allowed us to create “silent chats” where students could use their iPods to answer discussion questions. I would ask a question on the site before class started, and students would respond in class by commenting on the post and then responding to posts from their classmates. I’ve shaped this activity in a few different ways, including asking students to use certain sentence structures in their comments (i.e. you should use a compound sentence in your post) and also asking them to post their own questions for the class to discuss “in silence”. This activity became a favorite of my students because it allowed quiet students (who didn’t speak at all in regular discussions but often had wonderful ideas) to express themselves, and it was also fun to see how time a class of twenty-five tenth graders could sit together in a room and be verbally quiet as they interacted with each other on their devices.

I also used iPods as an easy way to differentiate teaching. My eleventh grade remedial class had students receiving special education assistance as well as students who were reluctant to cut it from the regular level course. Because of this wide range of ability levels, it was often difficult to manage the behavior as students either got bored because the instruction was too slow for them or started to act like a mask for not grasping the concepts as well. quickly than others. By putting an audio copy of the books we read in class on each iPod and creating reading guides that highlighted the concepts we discussed in class, students could work at their own pace as I walked around the room. and that I was helping individuals. . The reading guides eventually turned into something of an Easter egg hunt, with questions such as “After reading Chapter 2, go back to page 5 and copy the impersonation example used there.”

In addition to the techniques I’ve detailed above, I’ve implemented iPods in a myriad of other ways. Google Docs helped me create simple multiple-choice (and even short-answer) assessments that could be completed on iPods; these gave me an instant picture of how the students were doing with the concepts we were discussing in class. The PDF functionality of iBooks allowed me to download copies of my PowerPoint presentations so absent students could come in and copy notes quickly. The preloaded camera app allowed my students to take photos and videos of group projects. The QR code reader allowed me to create scavenger hunts where students scanned codes, were sent to sites or videos, and answered project questions. The best part was that I was only at the tip of the iceberg; I can’t even begin to imagine what these devices could do in other disciplines and grade levels.

Now, with all that said, I’m not saying the iPod Touch is the last word in student engagement; in fact, by the time this article is read, this technology may be completely obsolete. iPads, Android devices and other devices have just as much potential; I just talked about my work with the technology that was made available to me. The bottom line from my experience is that as educators, we also need to be innovators; we cannot stick to the same class strategies and expect engagement to come naturally. The classroom must transform and change with the rest of the world.

If a reader is looking for a place to get started with technology in the classroom, I hope this article has provided some helpful tips as well as some inspiration. However, I also hope that this article will quickly become outdated as teachers continue to develop new approaches. Using media that students are already comfortable with to engage these young minds in important class work just makes sense.

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