To Russia with ... Technology

Article excerpt

With any project, it's best to start small. I know this, but I have never lived my life that way, and that includes how I teach. I've always been the Judy Garland character who says, "Sure we can put on a Broadway-quality show in the barn in the backyard. Let's get the home economics, art, drama, and dance teachers to help us out."

What follows is an example of a technology-enhanced social studies project that may have started small but grew to take on the world. It was only later--when I realized that I was taking thousands of children on a virtual field trip to Russia--that I paused and panicked, but that hasn't stopped me yet. But before embarking on the project, I needed both a familiarity with technology and an understanding of the curriculum integration approach to teaching and learning.

Technology

Teachers today have any number of students who lack self-direction and motivation. On top of this, some students cannot read and have been promoted to a grade level where catch-up is all but impossible. Throw in the realization that now students have to pass end-of-grade or standardized tests to move up to the next grade, and things can appear pretty hopeless. We've upped the ante and cut down the safety nets. So what's the answer? That's my job, to help preservice teachers prepare for their classrooms. How do we build expectations, high interest, differentiated instruction, and alternative assessment opportunities into our classrooms?

Technology is part of the answer. I'm not one of those educators who says "just use the web," as if it solves all problems. Technology-challenged teachers may find, at first, that technology creates more problems than it solves. But just because we don't know how to do something shouldn't stop us from learning. Technology's only the tool--first we have to have the vision.

I believe strongly in self-disclosure: Technology scares the socks off of me, or at least it did. I can't say that now I'm so techno-savvy that I can do everything, but I understand the possibilities and can see how teaching in a technology-enabled environment can make my curriculum soar. Technology is a tool that enables me to teach things in ways that I never dreamed possible.

If technology is the tool, then it's important to know when and how to use it. This means more than taking workshops in Dreamweaver and PowerPoint. To really make a difference with technology, teachers have to start with the basics. They have to know not only how students learn, but also how they learn best. This means reexamining development theories. It means knowing students for their quirks, foibles, and outside interests. It means figuring out how to get students excited about a topic and deciding whether a particular approach will fly. Professional judgment is what I am talking about, and teachers don't need to be veterans to have it. Novice teachers sometimes have the advantage. They can see the "Broadway barn" in their mind's eye and are fearless risk-takers in their approach to teaching because they know that anything's possible.

It may be a little more difficult for me, a veteran teacher of three decades, to get back to my adolescent years, but I can always remember the feeling of being at-risk, so I design no-fail curriculums for my students. And technology is at the heart.

Curriculum Integration

I'm also a firm believer in the James Beane curriculum integration approach to teaching and learning. Curriculum integration encourages students to ask big questions and take on important issues. How better to ensure that students are motivated to learn and research than to examine the issues in which they have interest? Some readers are probably asking, "What if their interest doesn't match the standard course of study?" Remember, students aren't the only ones who can ask big questions and bring up important issues. …