Teachers, can we agree?
- Teaching and learning virtually any content is enhanced by tech tools, apps, programs, or resources.
- Most of our students are digital natives and we must support their need to build skills and engage these strengths that will translate to future education and employment opportunities.
In a perfect world, we would plan, train, and engage with technology to keep ahead of our students. But, since we clearly don’t live or work in a perfect world, we must attain and maintain a growth mindset for learning and implementing technology into our daily instruction.
Enter - colleagues who lead us on the technology teaching trail! I’ve met a few of these tech-savvy teachers and always felt awe for what they did to inspire learning. Ten years ago, I met a teacher with real superpowers - of the technology kind. For several years, Alex Tofte inspired 5th and 6th grade students and his teaching teams, and now he’s serving as a digital learning specialist for ISD 191, a large Minnesota suburban school district. Alex was that teacher who would whip up much-needed professional development or quick teacher training for any new tech program or tool accessible in our school. He’d present the most important elements and then launch us out into our own classrooms to give it all a try. His encouragement as well as his follow-through and trouble-shooting on the run made him a teacher treasure. Alex couldn’t keep his technology skills contained and he now supports students and staff with digital learning ideas, inspiration, and opportunities to take on tech every day.
Most - sadly, not all - schools have tech staff assigned to support hardware and software for many devices. But to have a trained teacher leading technology instruction is a true bonus. Here’s a glimpse of this educator’s dream - I want you to meet my tech teacher super-hero today. Alex agreed to share some tips and tricks from his technology teaching world, so let’s log-on to this quick Q & A!
Alexander Tofte, Digital Learning Specialist (DLS), Marion W. Savage Elementary School, ISD 191
What led you to this specific teaching role?
A passion for technology and love of teaching others. Quite a bit of luck as well! I have had many opportunities to experience and occasionally lead professional development focused on educational technology. My school district, ISD 191, has made technology integration a priority. My role as a Digital Learning Specialist is to support staff and students with learning opportunities that build confidence and knowledge for immediate application.
What are your favorite aspects of this teaching assignment?
Having the rare opportunity (and time) to explore and create the content we will be teaching. It’s an incredibly detailed process, often frustrating and exhausting - but very much worth it when you see that moment of discovery in a student and the pride in sharing their thinking.
What are some of the teaching roadblocks you face? And how have you responded to them?
It’s the little things, the “bugs” in my lessons, if you will. Some of them I can control and then adapt my lessons with the next round of students. Others are more of a challenge. Teaching kindergarteners how to log in to a computer with a specific username and password… that is a challenge! One of the roadblocks we faced was many students being unable to identify the letters and numbers, let alone find them on the keyboard. We tried colored stickers on certain keys, ensuring the font matched the letters on the keys, etc. But the best (and only) remedy we found was time, practice, and repetition.
What is one of the best outcomes you’ve achieved in your role?
Students and staff feel comfortable enough to ask me for help, whether it is related to technology or not. Being a specialist is fantastic - I love teaching and learning with virtually every student and staff member at my school. Helping other people brings me a lot of joy. It’s awesome to know that our students and staff trust me enough to ask for help when they need it.
What are the top 3 things you wish regular classroom teachers would do/know about using technology with students?
- Teach yourself - learning something new always takes a bit of research. Watch tutorial videos, read blogs, talk with other educators who have experience with the educational technology you are interested in.
- Your students are a resource to each other and to you. Rely on them to teach other students (and you!) unfamiliar or emergent technology.
- Things will go wrong. The wifi will be down, iPads won’t be charged, etc. Have a backup plan ready - a list of “unplugged” activities just might save you from a panic attack.
What’s your favorite technology teaching tool (app, site, program) right now? Why?
Tinkercad is a web-based CAD application for creating 3D models. These models can then be printed on 3D printers. Tinkercad excites me because it is easy to use, has built in tutorials, and reinforces STEM standards such as the design process. Our school recently received a grant for technology and a portion of those funds were used to purchase 3 entry level 3D printers. Students will be designing 3D models using Tinkercad, then bringing their objects to life by printing them.
What is your philosophy for teaching technology?
I believe in order to teach technology, or teach with technology, it helps to be patient, persistent, and passionate. Patient with the students/technology you are teaching, persistent in the use technology, and passionate about the subject matter that will be reinforced using technology.
What is your best advice (regarding technology) for new teachers?
Set high expectations for your students, especially in the area of digital citizenship/online safety. The earlier students learn about being safe and respectful online, the better. Engage their open-minded innocence and innate tech savvy to question the reliability and validity of sources like social media, the press, etc.
What is your best advice (regarding technology) for veteran teachers?
Embrace technology. Unfamiliar resources can be intimidating to learn, let alone teach another person. Take your favorite lesson, unit, or subject and extend it with technology. Just remember: you want your students creating something original to process their learning, not just playing games that are drill and practice.
Generally, what’s the best way for teachers to improve their own tech skills?
Find a resource you are excited to learn about and use it in your instruction every day. Once you get the basics down the first week or so, other questions about more advanced features will pop into your head. These can be researched immediately using the world wide web and implemented as next steps in any learning endeavor.
What is the most difficult tech skill you teach right now?
Digital Citizenship - specifically copyright and creative commons. When I’m helping students with research projects, it’s very much a “copy and paste” culture. There doesn’t seem to be knowledge of plagiarism, which leads to their projects having little voice… like a conglomeration of other people's ideas. It is difficult to teach elementary age students that ideas, stories, and most media are owned by someone. It belongs to somebody. It is my belief that copyright should be taught immediately, as well as revisited on a monthly/yearly basis. With younger students, there should be a focus on creative freedom moving towards copyright and ownership as they grow older and begin to use outside sources more often.
What is the most fun tech skill/lesson/unit you teach right now?
I have had the opportunity to use an educational version of Minecraft (MinecraftEDU) to reinforce a novel study on The Hobbit.
It’s an honor to engage with a teacher like Alex who’s working in his super-power zone and bringing forth best practices and tech inspiration every day. Consider these possible next steps or take-aways for yourself:
- You have a colleague like Alex in your district or your building and you need to get better acquainted or seek some collaboration.
- You’ve been wanting to learn and implement a special tech program or tool and now you know you can grab onto it and give it a go on your own - taking a page from Alex’s playbook.
- You can collaborate with your teaching colleagues and write up a proposal to hire a tech teacher like Alex to support all students and staff in your school. Don’t discount possible future district “tech referendums.”
- You can set your technology growth mindset to speed-dial and gear up for some professional development of the tech kind!
- Technology rewards are super-powered by motivation and inspiration.
Interested in learning more about technology for teachers? Looking to receive credit for exploring and learning ways tech tools can enhance teaching and learning? Enroll in Learners Edge Course 997: Tech Study which allows you to select a technology tool of your choice and then earn credit through an independent study of how you can utilize that tool with your students or colleagues.