Being an elementary teacher at Brentwood Academy in East Palo Alto, Ca., I am constantly challenged with trying to differentiate to a wide range of students. In this year alone, I have students reading 1.5 grade levels above to students who are reading more than 2 grade levels below.
One of the challenges I have faced as an inner-city school teacher is physically getting the technology, and while many districts provide schools with laptops or tablets, my school has trouble providing us with paper--let alone technology. I have had to resort to grant writing and Donorschoose.org to obtain the technology that I use daily. Because of this, I do not have a 1:1 classroom, and need to find ways to maximize my technology use.
I see firsthand that trying to differentiate student work to maximize learning can be daunting. So, I always look for the most effective method for differentiation, whether that’s me doing the work, or relying on technology. There are a number of strategies for how to search for and test the best pieces of tech.
First, to find the most effective pieces of technology, I typically go to Demo Days and other tech events where vendors and app creators showcase their products. Like most things, there are apps and programs that don’t do what you initially thought they would, but giving them a try can be worth your while.
For example, even though I don’t have a 1:1 classroom, I still find it beneficial to test out 1:1-designed products, like the app FrontRowED (which provides differentiated and adaptive math instruction to students). FrontRowED is designed for a 1:1 classroom, but I have found that I can have my students rotate days in which they use it, or even use it as a differentiation tool. My students who understand and have mastered the current assignment simply use FrontRowED to challenge themselves with similar math concepts covered in class, or even get ahead for what will be covered. You never know how you might adapt a tool in your own classroom until you try it out.
Additionally, because technology is in a constant state of change, I mirror that change in my own classroom. To find the newest apps when they come out, I browse through the app store every now and then. I also use an app called Appsfire, which categorizes apps and showcases times when paid apps become free.
Upon finding tools, I play around with them; I want to make sure that I prevent my students from wasting time on a product that just won’t work in my class, whether it’s because I don’t have a 1:1 classroom, or it doesn’t meet my students’ needs. I create an trial account and try to imagine how I would utilize it in my class. If it is a math program, I compare it to other math programs I am currently using, and ask the following questions, such as:
How does this tool/program compare?
Could I supplement some activities for this tool/program?
Is it user friendly?
Is it adaptable?
Is it free?
For apps and programs I am still on the fence about, I let certain students (typically the students that I envision using the product) test the products themselves. After a session with the product, I ask my students what they thought; you’d be surprised how informative they can be! I have found over the years that teachers and students don’t always like the same things, and if a student doesn’t enjoy using an app, they won’t benefit from it as much.
Most of the products I end up using need individual student logins. Because I do not want to spend an entire lesson walking my students through the signup process, I simply enroll all my students beforehand. This can be time consuming, but it has proven to be quite effective as it maximizes students’ time with the product.
For some products that I simply love, but are designed for 1:1 classrooms, I improvise. I think about which students would benefit the most from using the product, and let them rotate through it. This allows for all students to get instruction, and still be able to challenge themselves.