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Lori Mathys: Technology—Providing “Revolutionary” Ways to Learn

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March 20, 2012 07:40 pm


It’s an exciting time to be a 5th grader, when the whole world is literally at your fingertips.  It’s no wonder that my students love to learn; when what they learn is created by their voice and technology connects my classroom to people and places that are more “live” than what we read in books.

Recently, my students were learning about the American Revolutionary War, a typical topic of study for upper elementary students.  As we were reading about the fascinating people who once met in the taverns, we learned that a popular activity of the time period was to hold ballroom dances, which were magnificent affairs!  One of my students asked, “What if we had our own Revolutionary Era ballroom dance?”  And from that moment, our study of the Revolutionary War times took on a life of its own.

As one of my students said, “I learned how to do the waltz and the Virginia Reel.  I learned not only the steps but also working together as a team.  I learned so much from these lessons.  I learned the manners how the gentlemen would escort the ladies.  We’ve learned so much about the Revolutionary Era such as The Sons of Liberty, The Stamp Act, Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, what they ate back then, and Paul Revere.  It was all better by learning how to dance.”

As a teacher, I didn’t know much about ballroom dances of the 1700s, but together with my students, we were able to reconstruct a dance and create the feeling of life in the 1700s by using technology resources to transform our learning.  We examined primary source documents from The Library of Congress to design our invitations and researched the manners in the 1700s.  We listened to music from the time period online and interacted with the Curator of Education at Gadsby’s Tavern to learn more about the 18th century.  All of our learning about the Revolutionary time period was synthesized into the project, creating a powerful way to experience the time period.

When administrators or teachers hear about what happens in my classroom, they often ask, “How do we replicate that in our classrooms, or how do we get teachers to ‘learn’ how to teach this way?  Although there is no magic how-to formula, this method of teaching begins by empowering the students to ask the “What if?” questions and then using the power of their questions to structure an engaging learning experience.  Allowing for the students to have a voice in what and how they learn and standing back, as the teacher, to facilitate the learning is the basis of the instruction.  Through technology, the resources to support great teaching and learning seem to be endless and reach far beyond our classroom walls.

Sometimes I hear my classroom described as “less structured,” which is something that surprises me.  Learning in an inquiry-based environment where the students are empowered in their learning, allows for a higher engagement and deeper thinking, but it must be highly structured to ensure success.  Before we can engage in open-ended projects, my students must learn how to work in an environment of respect, cooperation, self-motivation, attention to a task, and learning diligence.  When my classroom runs like that “well-oiled machine” so that it looks like students are searching the Internet on one side of the room, drafting stories on the other side, filming a video on a third side, acting out a play on the fourth side, and holding an organized debate in the center of the room; I can see that it may look unstructured to the untrained eye, but to me; I see students engaged and learning.

I wish I could describe the feeling for me when I watch my students so engaged that they can’t get enough of learning, when they beg to have more time to work, research, create, synthesize, and share.  I smile every time they ask, “Can we do this again tomorrow?”  That’s the power of making learning come alive, and it’s possible to make this happen in every classroom.  It’s an exciting time to be a 5th grader, when technology lets you to soar beyond the classroom walls everyday.

Lori Mathys is a fifth-grade teacher at Chesterfield Elementary School (Missouri) and a member of the Digital Learning Day Educator Working Group, which provides leadership on the Digital Learning Day toolkits and outreach development for teachers and administrators across the country. To learn more about Digital Learning Day, visit the Digital Learning Day website.

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