Connected Learning Policy and Research Teaching Writing

Teacher Discoveries and Connected Learning



As an instructional coach within a large urban school district, and a teacher consultant at the Denver Writing Project, I have been struck in the last five years by the increase in the questions teachers ask about technology. It becomes harder and harder for me to separate the questions about literacy and learning from questions about technology with the way authorship and texts are evolving online. When teachers shift their instruction to work more effectively with the students in front of them and the tools newly at our disposal, the integration efforts hold potential for positive school change.

For example, Nancy, a middle school teacher in my district, discovered blogging with her students. In an online discussion group I facilitate with teachers about integrating technology, she shared how blogging informs her writing instruction.

Last year, we began blogging about life, personal experiences, whatever. I was amazed at the depth and creativity of my students when I showed them this portal for self-expression. We now have “Blogging Wednesdays”… After seeing my students emerge as reflective writers and thinkers, I wouldn’t want to go back to a medium where only I was the target audience, and there was no student buy-in.

Reading, lurking and learning as I do online, I relish the open access I have to the thinking of educators like Bud Hunt, Jim Groom or Will Richardson, who inform ongoing national conversations about blogging, specifically, and technology in education more broadly. But another critical part of my learning is in the classroom, where teachers like Nancy uncover for themselves promising practices by making discoveries with students every day.

Moving back and forth between learning online and learning with teachers face-to-face, the Connected Learning Principles proposed by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative help me make sense of these discoveries and changes I see happening with schools and learning. As a coach, the teacher learning that I support is a type of connected learning: The teachers’ endeavors to use technology are interest-powered, my coaching work is peer support, and our aims in the classroom are largely academic, when we push students to read and write with greater skill and proficiency with digital tools.

I see this nationally too: as a teacher leader in the National Writing Project’s Literacy in the Common Core Initiative, I also train my ear for the insights my national teacher colleagues gain by using digital tools in classrooms around the country. In this work too, I hear about classroom discoveries that paint a larger, hopeful picture of educational change and innovative instruction.

Sarah Woodard, a teacher consultant for the Denver Writing Project, makes discoveries about using video with her instruction. Though she jockeys for computer lab time and wrangles to access a laptop cart in the middle school where she teaches, hers is a virtually paperless classroom where students complete and submit assignments online.

I have found that when I create and post videos of instruction – using in-text citations, formatting documents, navigating research databases, etc., – students can access the video as many times as necessary (from home or school) and they are able to learn and apply the skills more efficiently and effectively because they are viewing the video (instruction) when they are ready and they can revisit the information as many times as necessary.

Her approach is increasingly networked, and the digital footprints of this veteran teacher will be just another type of peer support she provides to the teachers around her.

At Boise High School, Boise State Writing Project teacher consultant Rachel Bear makes discoveries about mobile devices. Though school policy discourages students’ use of cellphones, she permits her students to use phones to create maps and other visual representations of texts. When required to use passages from texts, her students use phones to cite from digital sources. Bear sees promise in their use of the phones in class, so she allows students to inform her thinking about why and when they use phones.

Learning alongside her students in class is a way of connecting learning. Her work with her students is production-centered and academically oriented. When she writes about her work online, she models full participation as a teacher-learner within an extended network of colleagues.

Asked about the promise he sees in digital tools, Hudson Valley Writing Project teacher consultant Jack Zangerle expresses excitement at how his 8th grade students use the web in their reading and writing. He makes discoveries about how teens collaborate, write, and publish online. Classwork is openly-networked: They use Google Docs to draft, revise and collaborate on writing. They share their work with the school community on Edmodo, an education-friendly social network, and they use Diigo, a dynamic social bookmarking tool, to collect and annotate digital texts.

Like Bear, Zangerle shares his learning online, publishing how he works to evolve the research paper in his production-centered classroom.

Using digital tools in the classroom for the first time this year, Denver Writing Project teacher consultant Jessica Cuthbertson discovers the creative inclinations students demonstrate online.

I catch them experimenting with fonts, word art, manipulating images and creating designs on the computer similar to “doodling” in a notebook. For example, one of my students “Googled” ME and then used my headshot from my blog to create a comic for me that manipulated the image and added text to it…it was all in good fun and he shared it with me as a “Christmas card..” They Google everything all the time, even when they have access to information in real-time!

Cuthbertson’s reflection hints at how working with new tools can lead to new insights about student talents and interests. Her student’s remix of Cuthbertson’s blog also marks our changing educational landscape, with texts and authorship evolving. It also serves as a fun reminder that Digital Learning Day invites us to give close attention to what our students can do and where their interests and passions can take them.

Though many instructional practices and classroom innovations deserve attention, and there is a great deal to learn online, on Digital Learning Day we ought to celebrate how, in a growing number of classrooms, efforts to integrate technology have teachers engaged as learners. When educators employ digital tools to refine their instruction, they make breakthroughs which inch our schools increasingly toward a connected model of teaching and learning.