Today on the Heinemann podcast, we’re joined by Kristin Ziemke and Katie Muhtaris to explore how we can make the most of technology with our students. Kristin and Katie are experts in using digital tools to build learning communities, and are co-authors of Amplify: Digital Teaching and Learning in the K-6 Classroom. They believe that digital literacy is necessary, and must grow from student ownership and creativity.
Our conversation began with the question: How we can shift our thinking towards using technology as a tool for more student centered teaching practices….
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Kristin: I think when we look at how we can use technology to engage and empower kids, it's really a shift in perception. What is school? How should it look? What could it look like? And what happens if we get out of the way and dream big and let kids takeover? Katie and I both see technology in the classroom as one more tool in the toolbox that we can use to personalize for kids, to differentiate, to find the right modality for different students, as well as ways to give them many different choices, not only in process, but in product, as well as getting them to do work that lives in the real world.
You know, so often what we've asked kids to do across the years is work that only lives in a school setting, and now we have the opportunity to publish every single day for an audience of peers, an audience of family, an audience of people that you don't even know. And to see your work living in the real world is a moment that changes you. You know, I think about like when our first book came out, I was like, “ohhh.” And I was in my thirties. But now if we give that power to seven year olds, that's just the way that they grow up and really start to see themselves as active agents.
Lauren: So that's a little bit of like what the work looks like, when you know you're doing it right and you're using technology in the right ways. Are there some other kind of indicators where you can say like, educators can say like, "I've got all this great technology and here's how I know that I'm using it to the benefit of my students." It's not just about having it.
Katie: I think that it's interesting because I think when I see examples of really meaningful, innovative technology use in the classroom, it looks the opposite of what you might hope or dream. I think frequently we assume that if kids are quiet and compliant, that learning is taking place. And I think that when I see classrooms that are noisy and bustling and energetic with purpose, of course, not like sheer mayhem, it's in that energy and purpose and noise that you kind of know that you've got it, because that's when kids are so excited that they are up out of their seats. And as long as we're alongside them and helping them channel that energy, then that's where they get to some really interesting stuff in the classroom.
Kristin: And I think to piggyback on that, when you see a teacher who is reflective and constantly asking why, why am I doing this with technology, how does this add a layer to what we might have done with a traditional tool across the years, and really looking at is this a time for technology or is there a better way to do it? Just because we have it doesn't mean we should always use it. And then I think the followup piece to that is, we know that this is different once we start looking at student work, and I think that's a huge area to address in the digital classroom. For years, we've built that physical writing continuum and teacher's lounges where we compare second grade work to fourth grade and hope that there's a big difference, but we haven't done our due diligence with digital work products. Instead we've said things like, "That's so cool," or "That's so cute." And we need to push beyond that and get to, that's so smart, here's how I know that. And so I think a lot more time needs to be dedicated to assessing digital work for understanding.
Lauren: Taking that into consideration, what would effective leadership in terms of teacher leadership for technology or you know, principals who are looking to assess teachers, like how does that shift the role for those folks?
Katie: Well, I think to start, the decision making process needs to begin with what's happening in the classroom, not what is being sold as the best new solution to whatever problem you may be having. I don't see kids needing to learn as an issue. I think some companies see that and they're always coming in and saying, "We have better data. We have this, we have that. Look at all these great charts and crafts you can get."
But really, the leadership has to start with spending some time in the classroom with the kids and being in their footsteps and using the tools that they're using and looking at it from their perspective. And then the leadership needs to shift and look at it from all the representative perspectives of all the students in the classroom, that I'm looking at the perspective of a student who has just come here and who is learning the language and I'm looking at it from the perspective of a student who is getting multiple services or interventions or adults working with them in some way, and I'm really thinking like, what does this look like from each one of those perspectives?
Because when we can put ourselves in the shoes of the students, we start to see what's meaningful or what could potentially be meaningful about the work they're doing, or we see the lack thereof. We see how defeating it can be if we're being asked to do something mindless on a computer screen. It just as defeating if they're being asked to do something mindless on a sheet of paper over and over again. And so I would love to see our leadership and administration spend more time in classrooms before they make those decisions. And not just a cursory like fly by, but really roll up your sleeves and get down on the carpet with all the boogers and fuzz and like live it, because that's the only way we can really grow is if we always have the students at the forefront of every decision we make.
Kristin: I think some of the best administrators I know have done just that. Taken up a Chromebook and said, "I'm going to be in fifth grade this week and do everything kids are asked to do on a device." And I think that's the most forward thinking learner mindset, because what we see all over the place is that typically administrators have not taught in classrooms with devices because it's still very new.
And so if you've been a coach or an assistant principal, you might not have that experience. You're trying to coach kids and teachers. And so the best principals I know absolutely walk the walk and live the life of what kids are doing. I think when we nudge teachers down the line of digital learning, there has to be a lot of trust and a mindset of try it, you know, if it doesn't work, we'll have another go with it in a different way. And so when I think about those principles that I look to, they're the captains of try it all the time.
I think quality administrators also employ a differentiated PD model. We know we need to differentiate for kids. We need to differentiate for our adults as well. And so whether it be two choices, that's enough, but giving people some say in how they want to guide their learning, and then creating a culture of adaptation and learning. Things are going to keep changing, and it's going to change, you know, Moore's law, at a much faster rate than it has in years past. And so continuing to learn and being flexible enough and modeling that flexibility for educators is important.
And I think just like I believe our teachers need to be out there talking about what products and software and hardware that we need, our administrators need to be speaking about that as well, because one of my concerns is that curriculum and tools and devices and applications are being determined by developers and companies, not educators. And so I think the educator voice in that space is so critical, and that's why Katie and I are constantly trying to go to things like South By Southwest or have meetings at Twitter or anytime someone's asking to get a conversation about do we need this in classrooms, how do we know, why. So to constantly be looking for that pedagogy based reason.
Katie: I think another piece with administration too, and it's a little bit of a two sided coin, right? Because on one hand, I appreciate administrators who encourage and support their teachers to be innovative and to take risks, because I think as a classroom teacher you need to know that support is there for you to try new things with the tools and with the devices. At the same time, I think the administrator, and in some buildings the administrator might be the only person who can be the think partner to help a teacher think through the meaningfulness of the work that they're doing.
So it's important that we, you know, we don't have to know everything about technology in order to use it as a tool, but it's important that we keep in mind that we're not overly impressed by something that seems so amazing. Yes, it's amazing that it's getting going, and what else is there? What's behind it? How have the students been impacted by this? And to not shy away from those conversations.
You know, if we're having, like Kristin said, that meaningful conversation around looking at digital student work, then we don't just get stuck at, whoa, look at the digital books they made, these are so awesome, and we actually start to analyze, well, how did the students transfer the skills that they learned in the last two writing units into this book, and did they transfer? If they didn't, why not? What scaffolds could we put in place? How could our teaching look different in order to make that transfer? And I think that having the space and the time for those professional conversations is so important, because without the reflective piece, we lose a lot of potential for the tool.
Lauren: You know, I think you're talking a lot about schools who maybe have a lot of this technology and could be using it a little bit better or learn how to use it more deeply, and that just makes me think about like how that's really a position of privilege, right? What if I'm in a school that doesn't have a big budget for tech? What are some ways that you can bring technology into the classroom or some ways that you can create access for your students anyway? Do you have some tips and tools?
Kristin: I think one of the things that's really exciting about this work is that we are very quickly closing that digital divide across all socioeconomic groups. So looking at schools having more and more devices gives every child the potential to find that just right fit for them. However, Katie and I say that 90 percent of our instruction happens by modeling stuff, and so if you have one teacher device and a projector, you can do those online think alouds. Okay, so I'm going to go to this kid safe website and search T-Rex, and then look at this. Three million results pop up. Can Ms. Z read three million things about T-Rex? No. Okay, so refine that keyword search, which means say more about that. And so we're going through those habits of mine that kids can then internalize. When Katie and I first started with this work, we didn't have many devices either, and Katie always jokes that she had to turn one of her computers on with a paperclip by like unwinding it and sticking it in the power hole on the back, right?
Katie: And that's the true story of how my hair got curly, people.
Lauren: Hot wiring your own computer.
Kristin: That's right. Don't try this at home. But I think what's really powerful about that is if you have one teaching device and then maybe an old janky computer and an iPad Generation Two, you can partner kids up and you have a station for six students with just three devices. And the collaboration that happens in these partnerships is so deep and powerful because kids do support each other. Two heads are better than one. And the process that they go through, taking turns and interacting gives them so much more content knowledge and understanding of a tool than if they were working independently. I think our belief is that whatever you have, use. Try something. And if you only have a few devices, make it some type of center or a station model.
There was a time where I had one teacher laptop and then I had a little student dusk at the edge of the coat room that kids would go and just record video. and it was like Bravo TV video confessional but with first grade students, and kids would have so many great ideas and then they'd finished their video and go get the next child in class. And in a period of an hour, I would have 30 different little conference moments where they're one directional conferences where I could listen in to kids thinking and then follow up with them at a later moment. So devices are ideal, but I don't think anyone should feel that there's a barrier if they don't have many or several.
Lauren: What's going on with technology and education that you're loving, or conversely that you're not loving so much? Where is it headed?
Kristin: When I look at what's happening with technology in education, I am so excited most of the time because I think it's the best time to be a teacher and for sure the best time to be a student. Anything that you're curious about or wonder, you can find more information about that topic. And specifically as an early years teacher, I think about all those times when I taught kindergarten and kids wanted to learn about volcanoes or sharks, but there wasn't a leveled reader that was available to kindergarten students. And I would staple together books and cut out pictures from periodicals and paste them in. But now students can go and look at a Youtube video and watch five minutes all about sharks and build a ton of background knowledge. So I feel that learning is not limited to what you're able to decode in print anymore.
I think video is a huge affordance for the classroom. I don't think that we've done a good job teaching kids how to read video as they need to. Employing those comprehension strategies that Steph Harvey and Anne Goudvis talk so much about, but in a video. And so Katie and I have really been trying to use a lot of the language of reading as we approach digital products. So read that video, go back and reread, infer about this infograph, you know, what do you see in these images? And so giving lots of layered options that are also familiar to students is super important moving forward. But I almost feel like it's that carrot on a stick for kids, where give them a little bit of information and then they keep going in search of the information, which helps them become better readers and writers along the way.
Katie: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think it's an exciting time to be a teacher, and I'm a parent as well, so I certainly have those conversations about media consumption and you know, how it's being used and concerns, and am I frying my kid's brain by letting them watch some kid open up toys on Youtube? Maybe, I don't know. But I think there's so much innovation out there and I think that it's a time where we're really seeing people emerging and coming together in a way that they haven't been able to do in the past.
So with all of those negative things that we fret and worry about, there's all these amazing positive stories out there that we have access to now, and it's just a time where we can really broaden our horizons and understanding of the world and develop empathy for one another and understand and have those inquiries around topics of passionate interests, but then have that push and pull to understand it in ways that we never even imagined.
I think the voice too is huge. You know, kids have access to tools that give them automatic journalistic powers, so we need to harness that because we're then honoring and connecting our kids with an audience that shows them and can give them feedback that their work is so meaningful and important to the world we live in. It's not just an assignment that they're turning into a bin that's not going to come back to them for weeks, or for some of us may be months with coffee spilled on it. You know, that there's real work to be done.
And I also think that, you know, we live in a time where it is a civic imperative that kids know how to open up a device and understand how to make sense of what's there and to filter it and to look at everything with a critical eye and to question and then to take what is the best of that and to stand up for what's right and to have a civil discourse online. I mean there's so much there that we really, as educators, we are responsible for teaching that.
So it is an exciting time and I understand, you know, there's some trepidation. I think that companies have really wanted to pigeonhole technology as a place where kids can build skills in isolation, like skill building. Boom, okay, you're not good at fractions, great, here's a million fraction problems, until you get good at them. Is there a place for that? Sure. But it's a micro place in comparison to the power of students being authentically inspired by a piece of media and then reading all these texts and images, yes, and print books too. Like we haven't left the books behind. In fact, you know, we have more books than ever before in our classrooms.
And then taking that and collaborating and doing something with it and making a difference in the world around them. And sometimes that's advocacy and sometimes it's teaching or raising awareness. Sometimes it's designed thinking. You know, we start to see like what is the role of STEM play in that, and are we designing for a better world. One thing that we can do to address some of the nerves around this work is to find those mentors who we think can help us sort of take those first steps into this work, whether that be someone you follow on Twitter or someone in your building or a published author or a colleague who you admire, find someone that is starting to do this thinking and starting to do this work, and it doesn't have to be perfect.
In fact, you could find someone to go together on the journey and then just try one thing, pick one thing and then analyze it and talk about it and see how it went and ask yourself questions like, okay, at first we thought this, but now we think this, and what did the students learn from this, and how do we know? What evidence do we have? Okay, what's our next step? Let's try something next.
And just taking it bit by bit, because you can't do it all in one giant push. Like this year I'm going to be amazing at technology. You have to just take a step at a time because every class is different. Every year is different. The tech changes, you know, new apps, new programs, suddenly something that you loved got bought out or stopped supporting, and you're like, no, my best tool is gone. Or something that wasn't so great suddenly got some updates and you're like, wait, this is the thing I've been waiting my whole life for, where has this been? I definitely have some tools in my back pocket that I think that about on a frequent basis.
Kristin: I think ultimately it's not really about us, right? Like as the adult in the room, it's not about making decisions that make our life easier or that are good for us or that we think we would like to do. It's really about the kids. And as I've looked at this last couple of years, I think we all, and myself included, really need to talk less and listen more. I think we need to look to kids and see where they're going or what they need in that moment and then plan accordingly, and I think we need to ask them.
We do have these amazing tools that allow kids have a voice and give feedback all the time, but are we doing anything with that feedback or are we truly listening and empowering them and saying, "Okay, yeah, if that's what you guys want to do, let's try it. Let's plan it out. Let's have a process for it." And at the end of the day, it should look differently than when we went to school. You know, it shouldn't be, I think in my mind all the time, Ferris Bueller's Day Off when Ben Stein's like "Bueller? Bueller?" We look, and there's still classrooms that look very similar to that, and kids with that glazed over look. We can do better, and it's exciting to do better, and it's fun, and our kids can help us. So whether you find a teaching partner or some students that you want to try something with, listen.
Learn more about Katie and Kristin at Heinemann.com
Katie Muhtaris has enjoyed teaching and learning with her students in the Chicago Public School system for the last eight years. She is Nationally Board Certified as a Middle Childhood Generalist and holds a Master’s Degree in Teacher Leadership. In addition to her devotion to her students, Katie also leads staff development in person around the country and digitally around the globe on Inquiry-based learning, technology integration, and reading comprehension strategies. Katie is the author of the blog Inquiry Live in the Classroom where she writes about her day-to-day teaching practices and seeks to connect with educators around the world.
Kristin Ziemke is an urban school educator and the author of Amplify: Digital Teaching and Learning in the K-6 Classroom and Connecting Comprehension and Technology. Since establishing her own consulting company in 2011, Kristin has worked with schools around the world to develop learning experiences that redefine school. Recognized as an international expert in literacy, inquiry and technology, Kristin leads school teams to develop curriculum that is student-centered, personalized and authentic. Currently serving as a resident teacher and learning innovation specialist for the Big Shoulders Fund in Chicago, Kristin has been recognized as an Apple Distinguished Educator, Golden Apple Foundation Fellow, National Board Certified Teacher and Emerging Leader by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She is currently writing her third book and her work has been featured by Apple, EdWeek, Mindshift and Scholastic.