opinion

'A Cat is Not a Dog' and Other Advice for Blended Learning Teachers

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Editors' Note: We asked San Jose high school sophomore Audrey Mullen to share how she and her peers actually use various edtech tools and how they really feel about their teachers’ blended learning approaches. The result is a straight-from-the-source playbook that no blended teacher—or entrepreneur—will want to skip. And don’t miss Audrey’s list of four "tools that save my life," below.

The Good

Teachers Do Some Walking

I sit in the back of class when I can. As result, I see everyone’s iPad screens. Every day around the tenth minute of class, the screens start switching to social media. I see photos of friends at the beach or ugly selfies. You think we’re taking notes because we don’t look up and we seem serious. But we’re Snapchatting across the room or even the world. It’s like yawning; one person starts and soon everyone is doing it.

Teachers: Walk around during class. Stroll to the back of the room. If you could see what I see . . .

Give Us Games (aka, Make Learning Fun)

It is the final round of Jeopardy in Ms. T’s sixth period biology class. Winner takes all. It’s getting heated. With two minutes until the bell rings, it all comes down to the final question. “Cells” for 200 points or “Human Body Systems” for 250? We choose to go big. As Ms. T asks the question, our hearts race. She asks, we answer . . . we win! The bell rings, and we leave the room knowing no other class that day will be as fun or educational. And I think it’s educational specifically because it’s fun.

Teachers: If you make our hearts race, even a little bit, you are doing something very, very right. Come up with creative and engaging games. I Googled for ideas. There are millions.

Be Crazy, Hyper-Organized With Your Technology And We Will Love You For It

Mrs. C. was no one’s favorite teacher. She wasn’t nice, she wasn’t mean. She just didn’t have much personality. I probably would have forgotten her by now except for one thing: SHE WAS ORGANIZED LIKE NO ONE YOU’VE EVER MET. Mrs. C. was an Organization Queen. She put the entire semester on the calendar. Most teachers at my school do it by unit. Then . . . this was incredible . . . she put EVERYTHING on Canvas. I love Canvas; we all LOVE Canvas (see below). This seemed impossible: All the homework assignments, all the grades, everything was always right there.

The challenge for students is that some teachers rely on technology; others refuse to use it. We’re caught in the middle. Most teachers are in-between and it gets confusing very fast. But in this class, there were never any surprises. I was and still am grateful.

Teachers: Keep all your information in one place. Don’t go scattering it around in different apps. Whether it is Canvas or another learning tool, please make sure you know how to use all the features to assign work.

The Bad

A Cat Is Not a Dog; An iPad Is NOT A Computer

The iPad is a wonderful thing. But here’s what drives me crazy: Teachers expect it to replace the computer. Have you ever typed directly on an iPad? Kill me. Almost every word is a typo. Then those typos get auto-corrected. You end up with Marie Antoinette saying, “Let’s then ray bake.” You see my issue.

And don’t get me started on keyboards that connect to the iPad. The only good ones are super expensive, and they get destroyed in your backpack. Remember, even with all the cool new tech in schools, you still have me carry 45 lbs of books over my shoulder. Last year, my Logitech keyboard lasted 3 weeks before keys started to fall off. My Dad said it was my fault and wouldn’t get me a new one. After every other keystroke, “[ “ would appear. Sentences looked like, “Marie[ Antoinette, s[aid[[, let th[[em eat[ cak[e.” It was possibly the most frustrating thing ever. Did my teachers care? Not a bit.

Teachers: On behalf of millions of students everywhere, I beg: Don’t make us type on an iPad.

Pick Your Poison! Stop Juggling between Paper and Digital

What gets my goat? When teachers can’t decide between distributing online copies or physical copies. Make a decision. Stick with it. Be strong. Do I need a physical binder for this class, or not? Is last week’s assignment sitting on Google Drive, or is it in my backpack, where things go to die? I understand when a digital-first teacher gives me a hard-copy study guide; it’s because this specific test won’t be online. But when teachers constantly and randomly alternate between worksheets that are digital and paper, Audrey no buena.

I had this teacher, Mrs. F. She would make us do all our homework online. We would download it off Google Drive, then fill it out using Notability. This was all good. Until we had to turn it in. She had us print it out . . . every day, every assignment. See, Mrs. F. didn’t like grading online. Which is fine, but then you should make the commitment to only do paper and limit online.

Teachers: Don’t flip between online and hard copies. It’s hard enough to manage in one class, and a disaster when half my teachers do it.

When Good Personalization Goes Bad: R.I.P. Collaboration?

I went to ISTE 2015 in Philadelphia, where I participated on a panel called “Youth Voices in Edtech.” My biggest takeaway from this huge teacher conference was the focus on individualized and personalized learning. It’s not something we students think about. It sounds great for the most part, until you realize that everyone is off doing their own thing. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned group work?

There have been times where I have nearly murdered my fellow group mates while doing a project. In most projects there is always one person in the group who doesn’t do any of the work and everyone else has to overcompensate to make up for it. These are “work anchors”. But with each work anchor you learn a little more. A little about teamwork and cooperation. More than if you were working by yourself. It is crazy how we as students are losing the life skill of working together as each solo activity is assigned.

Teachers: I’m not exactly sure why this worries me. It is pretty deep. If you spend too much time trying to individualize my learning, will I stop knowing how to work with others? My goodness, at home we don’t even watch TV together. My sister and I go to our bedrooms, and binge on our own Netflix shows. Kids are already living individualized experiences. What I think we need more of are skills to collaborate.

Put Away the Phone

I was born in the age of technology, in the heart of it, in Silicon Valley. Technology is inseparable from my life. Most of us got phones as sixth grade started. We noticed it quickly got to the point where we were no longer hanging out together; we were just checking our social medias in the same room. So we hacked a solution. Now at lunch, we stack our phones like a Jenga puzzle. Whoever grabs hers first has to buy everyone ice cream. It’s a win-win situation.

Teachers: Save us from ourselves. Don’t go crazy with phone rules and regulations because we won’t follow them. Instead just stick with the basics—no phones during school hours.

More Please: Four Tools That Save My Life

There are some iPad apps that are simply horrible. (I’m talking to you, Google Slides). But others have been sent by God himself to help students learn. Here are four examples of the best of classroom tech.

Khan Academy: I have friends who don’t see eye to eye with me on Khan Academy. They still believe it’s the same math-only website their teacher made them use four years ago in sixth grade. Guys, please join us in 2015. Khan Academy has science, language arts, programming, and much more. I like to think of it as my partner in school. If a teacher’s lecture is hard to understand, I pop onto Khan. Often I only need 30 seconds. I visit the website maybe 20 times a week. I think I need to credit Khan Academy for 0.5 points of my 4.2 GPA (shameless bragging).

Quizlet: No one puts down Quizlet. Ever. It’s a life saver. We have the ability to share “quizlets” (short practice tests and flash card sets) with any other student, which makes our lives 1,000,000 times easier. It’s fast and simple. (Note to programmers: Make it simple! I don’t want to think about your technology; I want to be using it.). For my bio final last spring, a classmate made two quizlets and shared them with everyone. One had all the test questions we saw during the semester. The other was a vocabulary review. She was our hero.

Canvas: Have you ever seen the average high-school kid’s backpack? It is where Hope goes to die. Papers flying everywhere, sticky food wrappers crumpled at the bottom.

Then there’s Canvas, which is the opposite of the dark hole of my backpack. Canvas makes life easier. Last year, three of my seven teachers used it. This year, it’s six out of seven, and I heard the school is making it mandatory second semester. Everyone hopes so. Teachers, if you are still using Google Docs to turn in assignments, please remove yourself from the last decade and join 2015. It is efficient, easy and incredibly organized. Ten out of ten kids will recommend it.

Notability: And then God said, “let there be Notability.”

Notability is possibly my favorite edtech app of all time, and that is saying something.

Notability is an app that’s sole purpose is to be an easy and organized place to take notes (shocking). Unlike Google Docs, with Notability you can write the notes with your own handwriting—which makes it a great tool to fill out worksheets with. Also it syncs up with Canvas and Google Drive so that it is super easy to turn in home work.

Audrey, 15, is a sophomore at Presentation High School in San Jose, CA.

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