Access Through Integrated Technology

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Over the past ten years, I have engaged with and learned how to use various forms of technology to support my personal life. Ten years ago, the extent of my use of digital technology was primarily using email to communicate with friends and family. Over time, I have learned how to use Facebook to communicate with long, lost friends, share lessons and documents with my colleagues using Dropbox and Google Docs, use a map on my phone to navigate the streets of New York City, and buy and read books on my iPad. While the evolution of technology has its positives and negatives, many of the tools I have learned to use have added to my professional and personal life.

Prior to this year, the technology I tried out in the classroom was limited to word processing to publish already written assignments and doing limited research on the Internet.  After teaching for more than ten years, I realized it was time to bite the bullet and explore and use technology in my classroom.

This is the story and process of how I engaged in integrating technology into my teaching. There were many successes and failures throughout this process, but I came away from this inquiry with excitement about the benefits of using technology and a feeling of urgency about equipping my students with tools to be successful in the ever-changing, digital world.

Student Response Video

I asked students: What do you like about using technology in the classroom? See the video below for their responses!


Individual Student Approach

When I first started using technology in the classroom, I was thinking about individual students and how to help them gain access to the general education curriculum. I had been working with these particular students in reading and writing for over two years. They had made significant progress over time, but I felt that both the students and myself were beginning to run out of steam and hit a plateau in their reading progress. I decided to take a step back and just observe and reflect on my students as readers and learners. Below are some of my observations, reflections, and ideas.

Observations of Struggling Readers

Activity One

Using my reflections and assessments of my students, I realized that one of the biggest obstacles getting in the way of my students’ engagement in reading was decoding. I started exploring different applications and tools that could be used on an iPad that would allow my students to digitally read or have the words read aloud to them. By removing or minimizing some of the struggles with decoding, I was hoping to focus some of my instruction around comprehension and thinking skills used when reading. My thinking was that I could support their phonics and word study during small group instruction; however, during independent reading, they needed to be engaged and practice other reading and thinking skills.

There are A LOT of programs and tools in the digital world and it became a bit overwhelming for both my students and me. I used my personal iPad with the students enrolled in the morning tutoring program to try out a couple of programs. These students worked with me to reflect on the effectiveness and fun of each application. I used this information to create a proposal to use the school’s iPads for my reading project.

iPad Proposal

My request for three iPads was granted. I decided to focus on using Reading A to Z (RAZ Kids). RAZ Kids has a lot of fiction and nonfiction, and Fountas and Pinnell leveled texts. It’s easy to use and can be used in a wide variety of ways to differentiate instruction. It allows students to read the text or have it read to them. There are also some tools that can be used to assess students’ understanding of what they are reading, such as multiple-choice questions at the end of a book and graphic organizers.

I have used this application during small groups and with individual students. For three students, we developed a routine together that would engage them during independent reading:

Activity #1: Task Card

Independent Reading Task

Book Title:  _________________________________

    1. Read/Listen to book on RAZ kids
    2. Read paper version of book
    3. Fill in the graphic organizer:

Activity Two

Activity One worked and engaged my students in reading again. They knew what to do independently and I was able to work with other small groups while they were reading. The fact that they were listening and then re-reading the book a second time, supported their growth with decoding and fluency. The graphic organizer supported the work on the main idea and summarizing, which we were continually working on in our classroom.

After some time, however, the independence and engagement began to fizzle out and I noticed these students begin the same avoidance strategies they had engaged in prior to using the iPads. I realized that I relied too heavily on this one activity. And just like any other learning, students require variety and engagement (even when there is an iPad involved). So, I decided to create a new activity that would work on some of the same skills and also hit upon the skill of re-telling what they had read. The below activity was designed to be spread over three days. Once the students finished their task of the day, they would continue to read independently or I would work with them in a small group focusing on other aspects of reading instruction

Activity #2: Task Card

Independent Reading Task

Book Title:  _________________________________

    1. Read/Listen to book on RAZ kids  
    2. Fill in the graphic organizer (Re-tell)
    3. Re-tell book or section of book using “Show Me”:

My students were able to quickly learn how to use Show Me on their own. They really enjoyed this tool that fostered their speech and retelling development. In addition, I had instant documentation of student work and progress over time.

Re-Telling of “The Buffalo Hunt”

Now What

Using technology to support students reading is a big undertaking.  I just scratched the surface and realized that the possibilities are endless.  It was important for me to involve my students in this process. At the end of this school year, I took some time to talk to them about using the iPads.  Through these conversations, I developed some underlying themes to using technology to support developing readers.

Whole-Class Approach

In January of this year, I took a course called “Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom.” When I came to this class, I was thinking about technology on an individual student basis in the ELA class.  While there were many valuable things that I learned through this course, I developed an urgency in using digital media to support all of my students with their speaking and listening skills integrated throughout all content areas.  As a teacher of English Language Learners (ELLs), infusing speaking and listening standards into my teaching is imperative.

The following learning activities were done in conjunction with our existing units of study in reading, social studies, and math.

Integrating Technology into Content Area Units of Study

Literacy Activities

My Media Literacy class professor introduced me to an Internet tool called Voice Thread. This is an application where students and teachers can upload, share, and comment on images through the Internet. What is particularly amazing about this tool is that groups or individual students can comment on images at the same time, using different computers. My class explored different ways to use this tool in the classroom. We discussed activities where students create presentations or activities where students comment on images or presentations. For this first activity, I decided to have the kids use the tool in groups of three to four to comment on texts and images. My main focus was for the students to use and understand how to use the tool.

Task:  After reading aloud the short text “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros, students discussed and explored three symbols (an onion, a tree trunk, and the wooden dolls that fit inside of each other) that the author used. Below is the VoiceThread that the class created:

Lesson Plan

Unit Plan: “Eleven” by Sanda Cisneros

Blank Unit Planner

Social Studies Activity

Students in our class do a lot of work around making observations and inferences about images to explore Social Studies Topics. Since they had done work with VoiceThread in ELA, we wanted them to create VoiceThread presentations using images they explored throughout a unit on Westward Expansion. They had been doing a lot of writing in a research-based essay unit about the topic, so my co-teacher and I felt this would be another modality for the class to demonstrate their understanding of the topic.

In heterogeneous groups of three to four, students created a VoiceThread presentation to demonstrate a sub-topic within our overall topic of Westward Expansion. Groups were required to find and download at least three images, write a summary about how the images connected to the group sub-topic, and present it orally into VoiceThread.

Math Activity

In math, the students often work in partnerships to create posters around a whole class problem. These “class problems” have multiple access points for all students. After students have created posters, we have what we call a “Gallery Walk” when the partnerships go around and “read” the posters and write constructive “post-its” about the math on the poster.

The goal is for students to learn, question, and defend their math thinking. The lesson after the gallery walk is a “Math Congress,” where we use two or three posters to highlight a new concept or strategy as a class. My co-teacher and I had realized that the “Gallery Walk” portion of this process had become less authentic for the students learning. They rarely read the post-its that their peers wrote and the comments that they wrote were not focused on mathematical thinking. We decided to use VoiceThread as a tool to support our “Gallery Walk” to focus on mathematical thinking.

In partnerships, students viewed math posters created by classmates around a class problem involving how to divide a recipe for trail mix. As they viewed the posters on VoiceThread, they were required to comment on at least three posters with comments about the math, and questions or responses to someone else’s comment

Dividing Fraction Unit Plan

Now What

As the end of the school year quickly approached, I wanted to take some time with my students to reflect on the effects of integrating technology into the current curriculum that we use. Through a community circle with my class, the students had an opportunity to share how they felt about some of these activities with my co-teacher and I.  I took away some big ideas from what they said that I hope to use as I plan my teaching for the following year.

School Context

This inquiry takes place in an ICT (Integrated Co-Teaching) Classroom. This setting is an inclusive classroom with one special education teacher and a general education teacher who collaborate together in all subject areas to teach a class with special education students (up to 12 students) and general education students. There are 32 students in this classroom, 12 students identified with special needs. Nine of the students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) are also considered English Language Learners (ELLs). In addition to the nine students who receive both special education services and English as a Second Language (ESL) services, there are six students who are identified as only ELLs and currently receive ESL services. This overlap of services and needs of our students highlights the need for creative and diverse ways to engage and instruct students.


Responsibility with Technology

A couple of weeks into using iPads and laptops in the classroom, I started to notice some problems. The students were treating these expensive tools poorly. They were not putting them away properly. Students were taking pictures of each other during group work and sometimes even changing the background screen. During one VoiceThread activity, one of the students recorded an inappropriate message. My co-teacher and I realized that part of our responsibility was to teach about the proper use of technology with our students. In addition, our students are growing up in a world where the words and images they put on the Internet are permanent and can impact their future. With these things in mind, we created a “Technology Agreement” that we required their parents and the students to sign. In conjunction with this, we also had many conversations about the responsibility and privileges that go along with using technology.

Flexibility with Technology

While integrating technology into the classroom brought many benefits to the classroom, there were many days and lessons that did not go according to plan.  The Internet was down, we couldn’t get the computers we requested, the application we were using couldn’t support so many users, and many other issues contributed to my frustration when trying to integrate technology. Sometimes I even found myself in front of 32 fifth graders not quite sure how to troubleshoot a problem.  As teachers, we have to learn how to roll with the punches, using technology is no exception.  There were days when I had to scratch my entire lesson and the students had to write their VoiceThread comments using old fashioned pen and paper. Sometimes, I would change what we were doing with laptops or iPads. Through these experiences, I feel I have developed flexibility when using technology that supports my students’ growth and my own personal growth as a teacher. If anything, I am teaching my students how to be flexible.

Humility with Technology

Teaching young students using technology can be a little humbling.  It has taken me months to navigate VoiceThread and RAZ kids. I still am not quite sure how to upload a picture with VoiceThread. Every time, I have to watch the “How To” video to remind myself of how to do it. One thing that I was surprised by was my students’ capabilities in using these tools.  They figured out how to search for a picture, download it to the desktop, and upload it onto their VoiceThread faster than I can open up my email. It was amazing and humbling to see my students at work. Many of them do not have the Internet at home, yet their independence and speed at which they use technology are astounding. I found myself constantly asking students for help when I would not know how to do something.

More about the author: Janice Manning

Janice Manning is a fifth-grade special education teacher who works in a New York City School in Brooklyn, New York. All of the ideas and work that went into our exploration of technology in the classroom were done alongside her co-teacher Susannah Weiss-Ortiz. They have worked together for four years, teaching both fourth and fifth-grade.