Using Technology to Foster Creativity and Authenticity

4 Aug

Many stages of the ILP provide fantastic opportunities for students to really show off some of their strengths while they simultaneously demonstrate their learning. Technology tools can give students options beyond using physical materials in their classrooms. Furthemore, online tools can help students reach authentic audiences beyond the classroom using mediums that best meet that audience’s needs. Technology tools can also be used to creatively share teacher reflections and best practices with colleagues and members of a PLN. The tools that we will highlight here have proven especially helpful as learners begin to contribute to the information on the web.


Perhaps Prezi’s most impressive feature is its ability to manipulate space. Many people equate it to a souped up version of Powerpoint, but that really is limiting the features that Prezi offers. Starting with a single canvas, users can add text, images, sound, and videos of varying sizes and orientations. The challenge is to organize all of those items in some way to demonstrate a topic or an argument; Prezi is an awesome tool for students to demonstrate their thinking as well, showing similar threads between ideas. Users can zoom in on different elements, and pan out to reveal how they all connect within the larger element. While this often requires the presenter to be there in person, it does have a sharing feature that allows a creator to grant an audience permission to the presentation after it is given.

Prezi also has a collaborative option so users can access and edit a presentation at the same time from different locations and assigns each user an image that indicates where in the canvas the user is and what he or she is editing. Sample Prezi


A tool for presenting images, Voicethread offers collaboration and audience participation features that make it a great option for group and individual activities and presentations. Students who are working with visual texts find it particularly useful as it allows them (and their peers) to analyze a text in multiple ways. With every image, participants can leave spoken commentary, record a video of them explaining their thoughts, write analysis, and point to specific elements of the image by drawing right on it.

Voicethread is also a fantastic tool for full classes or inquiry circles to use with a common visual text. In a Freshman Humanities class, students who were studying the Reconstruction Era for social studies and its artistic and literary counterpart, Realism, for English, used Voicethread to analyze elements of a painting as a text.

They synthesized their analysis of the painting with information they gathered from their history textbooks, a video about Reconstruction, and Realistic short stories, sparking discussion about the potential influences of historical events on literature and vice versa.

Video Editing Tools

Our world is increasingly visual; therefore, encouraging students to present their learning as videos is not only an accommodation of learning styles but also a necessity for future success. They can use images, videos, music, voiceovers, and text to analyze their work or create a product for the “So What?” Three of the more common tools are Movie Maker, WeVideo, and iMovie. Movie Maker is free editing software that can be downloaded from Microsoft; it often comes with Windows, so many students may have access to it. Movie Maker also allows students to upload their finished product online. WeVideo has a similar interface and tools, but is web-based through Google, which means it can be connected to Google Drive, Facebook, Instagram, and other applications for access to videos, pictures, and documents. In order to upload a video or share it with others, a small fee is charged, but there are educational accounts that can be created at a discount. Many students in Meg’s HIP class used WeVideo for their end-of-course “So What?” because it allowed them to show images of their learning plan, pictures of the class, and add voiceover explaining what they learned about themselves and inquiry. iMovie is Apple based and many students who are MAC users have access.


Probably the most well-known, most commonly used wiki is Wikipedia. It’s a starting point for many of our students when they don’t know where else to begin with research. With crowd-sourced articles and linked references, it typically provides thorough information about all kinds of topics. Similarly, wikis can be developed by students to share what they have learned with a broad audience.

Wikispaces is a platform that our students have used individually and in groups to create original content and provide references for their topics. One American Literature class created a reference page for their peers in other classes who were learning about different literary eras. See Figure 10.10 for a snapshot of their page about the American Enlightenment. In order to move away from simple reporting, they included sample texts for each period with brief teasers to their content, author bios, and potential text pairings.

Wikispaces page from an American Literature class:

These are just some of the many, many options available, and even considering a single tool, there are likely many, many uses for it, certainly ones we haven’t even considered yet. What are you using and how are you using it?

Collaboration and Communication

28 Jul

We’ve previously written about the importance of building a learning community. Students, teachers, and librarians should work to challenge each other, share experiences, and grow together. Technology tools can facilitate the ability to create that community because they offer options to connect, share, reflect, and question.

Blogs with Aggregators

Blogs allow writers to reflect on current issues, share their thoughts, and initiate conversations by asking questions of their audience. They are unique mediums because they also allow writers to link to other writers’ works, alerting them that a conversation has begun. When I first started blogging at Flying Off the Shelf, I blogged with Cathy and my students. We encouraged them to write anything that they realized about themselves as learners, and we did the same. The posts weren’t graded. They were simply outlets. We know what you’re thinking–what’s the motivation for them to post anything? Truly, it was the accountability to the rest of the class. I then created a page on Netvibes, an online aggregator of published materials. I simply added a link to each student’s blog, which appeared as a small widget with the most recent posts for each student site. I then shared the link to the Netvibes page with the students in each class. Continue reading

Using Technology to Increase Accountability and Efficiency

21 Jul

Whether or not you’re using the ILP or some of its individual strategies, approaching learning through inquiry can be time consuming. This is especially true in the beginning stages as students learn how to go through the process and overcome challenges and frustrations. But in order for students to progress in their inquiry, we need to provide timely  feedback on activities and reflections which can be overwhelming, particularly when a teacher has 100 students all turning in about an activity a day. That’s not to say that the responsibility should rest solely on the teacher’s shoulders; there are strategies for peer assessment and even group or self-assessment that should be used to prevent the teacher from being overloaded and unable to provide timely feedback. However, when kids need their teacher’s expertise, there are several technology tools that can make this part of the process much more manageable and efficient while also providing easy ways to document student progress.

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How Technology Supports Inquiry

8 Jul

Former Hunterdon Central Information Systems Supervisor, and current BrightBytes CEO and Co-Founder, Rob Mancabelli once said that the only piece of technology that is 100% reliable is a chalkboard. It doesn’t have a blue screen of death, connectivity issues, or other glitches. But, Rob reminded us, it also doesn’t permit students to share their learning with an audience, connect with resources, and communicate with each other outside of their classroom. Using technology requires a lot of flexibility and daring on the parts of both teachers and students. Although the first class to ever use the ILP did so via handwritten plans, a few other early iterations of our ILP work occurred in classes that were a part of a 1:1 computing pilot, and initiative that really opened the doors for us as educators. Teachers involved in the initial pilot received training in the summer prior to students receiving netbooks.  During the training sessions, the small cohort of teachers met to discuss ways to rethink our teaching practices to make the most of the technology that was now available. As Heather pointed out in a blog post written after these sessions, simply providing a means for students to collaborate or share their learning doesn’t mean that it’s easily done:

During our 1:1 sessions, [the facilitators] focused on two significant things: changing the way we teach and, more importantly, giving us the freedom from fear to make these changes. They realized that the 1:1 program wasn’t about the netbooks and that it couldn’t start with lesson reform. It had to start with psychology. It took quite a long time, a visit from our superintendent, and a lot of support, but they did indeed allow our small group to break through the walls that so many of us construct around ourselves.

Students and teachers alike need coaching, reassurance, freedom, and confidence in order to get past the vulnerability that a connected classroom experiences. It requires willingness to share work beyond the immediate learning community, and that can open the possibility or the perceived possibility for judgment–a scary notion for many students and teachers. At the same time, we know that standing in front of the classroom and dispensing information was not going to work anymore either. With information at their fingertips, it seemed a waste of our precious time with students to spend it giving them content that they could easily look up. And so, we focused a lot of our instruction reform on inquiry as a means to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities the technology offered. Web 2.0 tools and the netbooks were supplementary to turning over responsibility to students; we saw technology as means through which our students could achieve their best, often times with more efficiency and collaboration.

Although for financial reasons we have since abandoned the 1:1 model at Hunterdon Central, we have moved to a Bring-Your-Own-Device policy in which students can use their personal computing devices in classes. We are fortunate to have about 50% of our students participating, and we have several laptop carts and computer labs to support those who are not participating. However, we want to be clear that this is not required for the ILP. Remember, Meg’s first use of the ILP was done without computers. And since then, Meg and I have taught classes with only an occasional trip to the library for students to use the desktops to find resources. Despite technology’s growing pervasiveness, it remains a luxury for many schools and unreliable equipment in others. All of the strategies and pedagogy associated with the ILP can be done without technology, but, if available, web-based tools, computers, and reliable internet connections can enhance the experience by allowing for collaboration, communication, accountability, creativity, and accessibility beyond the classroom setting. In upcoming posts, we will highlight a few tools that we have used to heighten students’ learning experiences with the ILP.

Reflecting to Discover

5 Jul

What we love about this type of student-driven learning is that often, students are making connections to their personal lives and creating meaning in a way that we would not be able to engineer. When we first created and began implementing the ILP, I’m not sure we foresaw how students would be moving beyond content to uncover bigger truths about life and themselves, but since then we’ve realized that creating an open atmosphere for learning allows students the space for these sort of discoveries.

For many students, it isn’t until they to think about the ideas revealed in their activities that they discovered a greater takeaway. By having multiple points of reflection, one student, Miles was able to synthesize multiple sources, develop respect for the sometimes arduous task of narrative writing, and eventually see how his learning during that particular unit taught him so much more than World War I or about Paul Baumer and his buddies in All Quiet on the Western Front. In his final reflection for the unit, Miles wrote that his work helped him to see the need for education reform.

His final reflection, while not especially specific to his progress in answering his essential question or his progress with specific skills, does reveal his understanding of the creative process as well as the dispositions that helped him get to an obviously optimistic and satisfied place by the end of his inquiry. His takeaway of self-guided, “vertical growth” led him to a “So What?” proposal to change the way students are educated at his school, advocating for more of what he calls “free creation.” This call to action about education is not something we would have predicted from a unit about WWI and narrative writing; however, because the content combined with Miles’ unique view of the world, he was able to create something truly individual.

Embrace Differences as Opportunities

9 Jun

In many traditional classes, students explore topics that have commonly accepted answers – causes and effects of the Civil War or symbols in To Kill a Mockingbird, for example. Inquiry can fall into a similar pattern if students ask questions they already have an answer to. They use their time to find sources that simply support their ideas, and they may ignore sources that contradict their thinking. Rather than discover what a wide range of people think about a certain topic, they limit their learning by finding something they already know (or think they know). With the ILP, we ultimately want students to find information from a variety of perspectives and synthesize them in the reflections. That means students need to see differences as unique opportunities to expand their thinking because they’re learning something new. In many ways, this goes against human nature. It’s a tough job, but Smith, Appleman, and Wilhelm (2014) argue, “It’s on us as teachers to create classroom environments that honor diversity, that require students to work together in various configurations, that confront them with multiple perspectives on various issues, and that help students interrogate themselves and their own positions to develop new angles of vision” (14). Hearing differing opinions is one thing, but “interrogating” ourselves is extremely difficult. So, how can we teach students to use differences to form “new angles of vision”? Let’s start at the beginning of a course.

Although it’s the end of the school year, and we’re thinking more about final projects than we are about the start of a course, it is a great time to consider how we can better set our students up for success, and for that, we have to go back to the start. Over the first few days of every course, teachers often orchestrate ice breaker activities to help students get to know each other–a great exercise in learning a little something about people who will eventually become a community of learners. In order to make the most of these activities, however, some teachers who use the ILP require students to connect with people who have different interests or people who surprised them in some way. I use an icebreaker adapted from an exercise that Giselle Martin-Kniep uses with adult learners. Students write the following on individual post-it notes:

  • Three experiences they have had – one on each post-it
  • Three passions they have – one on each post-it
  • Three areas of expertise – one on each post-it

All in all, students create nine post-it notes. On the sticky sides, participants write their names and then they hang them in designated areas throughout the room. Everyone else is then asked to survey the post-it notes and find one at each station (experiences, passions, expertise) that seem interesting to them but not the same as something they wrote down. Below are some samples from a junior-level English class. 

They can then look on the back of the post-it to see who wrote it and find that person. Next, they need to introduce themselves and ask two questions about the person’s response. After everyone has met three people, they return to their seats and share what they learned about their peers. At the end of the exercise, students write a brief reflection: If they spoke with  someone they already knew, they are asked to consider how this new information shifts the way they see that person. If they spoke with someone they didn’t know well, they are asked to consider what impression this makes on them. By going through this exercise, students begin to think about how perception can change based on information they gather and even how perceptions can stick if someone is unwilling to consider new information.

“Have you read this book?”

31 May

A couple weeks ago, I sat down with one of my seniors to conference with her about her reading activities. I started by asking, “What are you learning?” She dove right in, talking about how the author had introduced the main character and explaining what she thought the theme might be. The ideas spilled out quickly, until she started to question why he included certain details. She grew frustrated, saying, “Well, have you read this book?” I knew she wanted the answer to be “yes,” so that I could come to her rescue and guide her to some understanding about the author’s choices. But I hadn’t the read the book, so I couldn’t ask her the exact guiding question to get her there. I had to think broader, asking lots of “Why?” and “How do you know that?” questions. Eventually, our discussion led her to some resolution and she felt satisfied and prepared enough to move on to her next activity.

In reflecting on this experience, I’m so excited that my student even got to ask that question. When I first started the ILP and my students were venturing into independent reading, they had the expectation that I had somehow read every book; they were absolutely gobsmacked that I couldn’t tell them the answer. But now the culture at Hunterdon Central is shifting to the student as the expert on the text, not the teacher. This speaks to the comfort that my colleagues and our students are starting to feel about letting go of the traditional model that the teacher is all-knowing about the text. This shift started with student choice in terms of reading but is now a part of learning in general. My students are finding information about ideas I know nothing about— how cool is it that I get to learn as much as they do?

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