Aha! Moments

Ohhhhhh the Aha! moments.  As an educator I’ve witnessed more than a few.  It’s actually the most important part of my job:  setting up the conditions that will allow Aha! moments to happen.  When they happen to me, as opposed to in front of me, I really take notice.  I write about them, plan around them, and embark on new journeys because of them.  

The Aha! moment that started this latest adventure, my pursuit of a Connected Classroom, began in the spring of 2020.  You remember it:  the exhaustion, the fear and dread, the not knowing how to connect and learn and lead from a distance.  Or maybe you were further along in your technology integration journey and weathered the storm in a more productive way.  For me, it went something like this…

As soon as the pivot to at-home learning was announced I got right down to business.  I created slide decks containing links to video lessons that I painstakingly recorded using Screencastify with Google Slides.  I included levelled questions to engage all learners at their current stage of understanding and had fun add-ons like math art and puzzles.  I would share these through google classroom and monitor the progress.  I’d create, share and correct, create and share and correct.  I had back issues and carpal tunnel syndrome from the effort and I missed my students immensely.  While we met in Google Meets to check in, it wasn’t the same as the in-person learning experience.  I struggled to engage students in real time and the collaboration and building on each other’s ideas that is such a vital part of math learning was completely lost.

On my mind too, were the two students in particular that I hadn’t managed to engage much even in person.  While I worked hard and made strides in building a relationship with them, that hadn’t yet translated into any real learning or effort on their part. Once we were learning remotely – those two students were completely silent.  I was worried…but also exhausted, and out of ideas.  Something had to change.

I met with another teacher,  my trusted friend, Valerie Targett, and we tried to problem solve together.  What we were doing was not sustainable.  Even worse, after our hours and hours of attention and effort – what we were doing was not effective for many students.  Luckily, I was becoming more active on Twitter.  I had made the move from silent observer to casual and occasional questioner.  I heard mention of an ed tech tool that seemed interesting…Flipgrid.  While nervous to attempt something completely new from afar, I had to make a switch.  Feeling so disconnected from my class and so ineffective as an educator was zapping my strength. I needed to hear and see each member of my class.  Val and I made an agreement.  We would both try something new and report back in a week.  For me, it was time to give Flipgrid a go.

That experiment resulted in the tweet you see here:

Success!  I finally connected.  I heard voices.  I saw faces.  And they saw me and each other.  We laughed and joked and eventually collaborated on some math too.  It was magic.  But the best part – the Aha! part was when I noticed who had responded first.  Yup – you guessed it – my silent duo.  I literally had tears in my eyes as I watched and re-watched their thoughtful videos and rehearsed content.  They cared.  They finally engaged.  I just needed the right medium.  For them – it was Flipgrid.  

I realized too, the mistakes in my initial efforts.  I was trying to duplicate my classroom environment online.  Instead of looking for a tech substitute for my in-person activities,  I should be thinking about what I want my students to be able to learn and do, and look for the appropriate ed tech match.  Over the next year I have done just that.  I have extended my ed tech repertoire and in doing so realize how much there is still to learn.  Every time I try something new, I see a new set of kids light up.  While some students will learn in spite of what you do, (yes…I can admit that) I take special notice of what activities and tools allow my reluctant or otherwise exceptional learners to shine.  And like always, I try to offer choices in how students engage in and showcase their learning; only now the choices I offer include a few tied to technology of some sort.

I have learned how to create self-correcting activities like pixel art (Thanks Souad El Achkar!), and activities in Desmos (Thanks Erick Lee and Erika Swinemer!).  I’ve seen the limitless potential of Mathigon Polypad (Thanks David Poras!)  and watched ideas and proofs come to life with Geogebra (Thanks Shelby Strong and Tim Brzezinski!)  I’ve gotten nervous and excited along the way as I tested out my creations in classes and crossed fingers that they worked. While learning remotely kick started the process, it was the results that kept the technology integration going long after the at-home learning phase was over.

About 20 years ago I felt the same electric excitement for trying new things in the classroom.  It came when I was first introduced to using concrete materials and manipulatives for learning in mathematics.  The Aha! moments that arose, and continue to arise, from that enterprise have kept me glowing for two decades!  And now this – technology integration:  another exciting source of energy with endless possibilities.  My new adventure has begun.

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