Starting With “Why”: How I Choose Digital Tools to Support My Students

by | 12.6.20

Jaime is a 3rd grade teacher in California.

I’ve always loved using education technology to support my students, so now that my school community is learning online, choosing digital tools to inspire my kids feels like such an exciting opportunity for me. But when I lead a PD session for fellow teachers on virtual teaching, I often hear questions like, “There are so many digital teaching tools! How are we supposed to know what to use when?”

It’s true – there are a lot of tools out there! But ed tech doesn’t have to feel stressful or scary – and as we find new ways to build virtual tools into our lesson plans, we can do so much to empower our students’ learning! We can all get comfortable choosing and using digital teaching tools by connecting them to our goals for our students and ourselves – and by trusting in our “why.”

When I share my approach with fellow teachers, I describe it as “designing backwards.” First, I ask myself, “What learning outcome do I want my students to achieve? If I were to explain why my kids were doing this activity, what would I say?” When I take that quick moment to set my “why,” I can work backward from that outcome – I can think about the tools that might get my students there. As a teacher, I want every tool to support three goals I always have for my kids: I want to encourage them to grow independently; I want to build up their learning skills; and I want to empower them to master standards.

Every educator is different, and your approach to promoting student success should be your own – but in recent months, ed tech has become so central to what we teachers do, and I believe the more we share our knowledge, the more we can do to support our kids! (For example, I know that sometimes, getting students to participate in online classes can be a challenge – so I’ve shared a good foundational resource on building up virtual engagement at the bottom of this post!) That’s why I’m excited to share my process of selecting digital tools to serve my teaching goals – and make a difference for my students:

1. Using virtual tools to promote voice and choice
If we want kids to become independent learners, we need to give them choices in how they learn. (I’ve included a link to a great, quick read on the power of voice and choice at the end of this post!) When I share an activity or an assignment with my students, they’re all going to be progressing toward the same learning goal – but if I can give them choices in how they explore new content and tackle new skill challenges, I can gradually get them to take ownership of their learning. For example, when it’s time to talk about a reading, I want each student to participate, but I also know that if I give them choices, they’ll engage with the material more deeply. Teaching in a virtual classroom gives me some really exciting tools for promoting that differentiated learning: I use breakout rooms in Zoom or Google Meet to create discussion groups, pair them with shared Google Docs or Slides and give each student choices on how they engage and what their responsibilities are. One student might be the group scribe, another might be in charge of making sure everyone has a chance to contribute – every voice is valued and supported.

2. Building learning skills by building ed tech skills
Next, I take a look at how comfortable my students are with using educational technology to learn. That’s a journey for all our kids, just as growing our own confidence with digital teaching tools is a journey for us educators. When I share a new project with my students, I want them to feel excited about getting started. So if it’s early in the school year, I’ll choose and model a tool we can use simply, so they’ll feel confident using it on their own – but I’ll make sure it’s a tool I can build on for deeper learning in the long term, too. The next time we use that tool, I can ask them to stretch a bit more – and that means I can get them to stretch a bit more in their learning, too!

To continue my example above, the first time I used breakout rooms as a tool to teach my kids, I gave them each a partner to work with, rather than a whole group, and that was the only tab we had open. Then we scaled up: I expanded group sizes and student roles. Then I added assignments that students open in a second tab and refer to with their group. Then I added collaborative docs that students open in a third tab and contribute to as they switch between the breakout room tab and the assignment tab. (I’m dropping some simple, evidence-based guidance on scaling up with ed tech tools below.) As my students become more skillful at using multiple digital tools to work independently and collaboratively, those tools empower them to become more skillful at really digging into new material. At every step, their ed tech skills boost their learning skills.

3. Using digital feedback to promote student success
Feedback isn’t separate from learning, it’s part of learning, and that’s why this third step connects right back to the first – to voice and choice. Just as I build choices into each learning activity, I build choices into each opportunity to demonstrate mastery – so that each time I provide feedback, I can celebrate and encourage each student’s individual progress. But when we’re not sharing a physical classroom with our students, we need to think a little differently about using feedback tools to really promote their success. And while providing live feedback can be a big part of our virtual teaching practice, it’s essential to provide guidance that our kids can hang onto and to which they can refer back.

Research suggests that providing feedback for kids to watch or listen to, rather than read, can be incredibly effective in encouraging them to keep trying and growing. (Catlin Tucker’s work really inspired me on this, so I’m sharing a breakdown from her below.) That’s why, when I’m ready to give my students feedback, I use a tool that lets me record myself navigating through their work and talking about what I see. When I need to make a correction, I can make sure my tone feels affirming and supportive. And I can really convey my excitement about what they’ve accomplished – I can say, “This is an incredible thought I’m seeing you explain here. I’d love for you to dive deeper into this idea, and I think it would be a wonderful project for you!” Sometimes I use a program called mote to record audio feedback; other times I use Seesaw to record videos, but it can also be done with Screencastify. These tools have been absolutely transformative for my students: They get to see and hear the moment when I get excited about their creativity and insight– and that gets them excited about rising to a new challenge. As they dig into new learning, they replay my feedback for encouragement, and it really fuels their passion for growth!

An ed tech tool is just a tool, and its meaning and value come from you – from the “why” you bring to every step of your practice. Next time you need to choose a digital tool, consider taking a moment to set your “why,” to center your goals for your kids – and to trust yourself as their teacher. When we take that moment to sharpen our confidence and focus, we can take another look at that cluttered, complicated field of tools – and home in on the technology we can use to really make a difference for our students.

Here, I’m sharing a few resources that inform my approach to teaching with tech, and I hope you’ll find them useful in your own practice, too:

We teachers can do so much to empower one another as we grow – so I hope you’ll share your ed tech journey with me and our fellow educators in the Teacher2Teacher community!

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