Thursday, December 29, 2011

Technology in the Classroom

Although technology is present in almost every part of our lives, most schools still lag far- behind when it comes to integrating technology into classroom learning. Often technology in school is reduced to students attending the computer lab once (or twice) a week, accessing some instructional sites or playing some educational games. Others, perhaps the most advanced, teach students a few basic computer skills and the use of some software. However, properly used technology –especially in schools with highly impacted by poverty-rates, high influx of English language learners and/or low-achievers- will help students to close the achievement gap while offering them the opportunity to acquire the skills they will need to survive in the highly technological society of the 21st century.

In order to be effective, teachers need to incorporate the use of technology across the curriculum, enhancing the learning process, and supporting curricular goals. Adequately implemented technology in the classroom supports the “four key components of learning”: active engagement, group work, interaction-feedback, and connection to real-life experiences.

Technology is also the most efficient and productive way to differentiate instruction. Using technology tools such as videos, presentations, power points, recordings, etc., teachers offer a myriad of strategies that address the needs of different types of learners. Teachers can also expand the learning experience by assigning technology-enabled project learning, individual or in group, offering the opportunity for “true assessments” beyond the traditional paper and pencil tests.

“Learning through projects using different technology tools allows students to be intellectually challenged while providing them with a realistic snapshot of what the modern office looks like. Through projects, students acquire and refine their analysis and problem-solving skills as they work individually and in teams to find, process, and synthesize information they've found online.” (Edutopia, 2008.)

Technology also enhances teacher-student and student-student relationships. Using technology tools and a project-learning approach, students are more likely to stay engaged and on task, increasing academic achievement and reducing behavioral problems in the classroom.

When technology is effectively integrated into subject areas, teachers become true  classroom’ “facilitators”, moving away from the traditional “banking” system (using students’ brains as depositary of their knowledge, Freire, 1970) and instead they lead  their students to perform  their own discoveries, connecting these with their own experiences, and consequently making learning more meaningful and enduring.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Role of Paraprofessionals in the Classroom

For the last three weeks or so, I’ve been participating in a very interesting discussion about the role of paraprofessionals in the classroom. In the discussion forum of a popular online social network, a group of teachers, reading specialists, special education teachers, and other classroom professionals have voiced their opinion, and often their concerns, about the tasks that paraprofessionals are assigned to perform, often involving more responsibilities that they are prepared for.
One of the major preoccupations is that it’s not uncommon for paraprofessionals to be assigned to work with struggling learners or students with behavior problems. Of course, this translates in the fact that our neediest students are usually supported by who has less expertise in the classroom. Why do teachers opt for it? The simplest of the answers is that as teachers we’re often overwhelmed with other academic and non academic issues including assessments, record keeping, focusing on those students who supposedly have better opportunities to hit the benchmarks, etc.  so we opt for the easiest, yet not the most efficient, alternative of assigning our paraprofessionals to work with our struggling learners. Needless to say that these decisions for the most part do not come from classroom’s teachers, but from the “pressure” of school and district’s administrators caught in the standardized testing frenzy that are drowning schools across the country.
In spite of the vast research sustaining that in order to effectively close the academic gap of low- achievers – including struggling readers, English language learners, students with learning disabilities, etc- they need of the knowledge and expertise of specialized professionals, these students spend most of their one-on-one or small-group instruction with  paraprofessionals who as well intentioned they might be, lack the knowledge and expertise necessary to determine the academic needs and establish meaningful activities that will help them to overcome their learning gaps.
While it is true that there are wonderful, caring, and well prepared paraprofessionals; it doesn’t mean that it should be their job to determine the scope and sequence of the academic, or behavior, interventions required by struggling learners. For the most part paraprofessionals don’t know, and shouldn’t be their business to know, how to use diagnostic tools to figure out those moments when misconceived learning patterns arise and learning gaps become evident in students’ performance.
Thus while the use of paraprofessionals in the mainstream or special education classroom is an invaluable resource for teachers in order to assist the specific learning needs of their students, it’s important to take into consideration that it’s always the teacher’s responsibility to determine, plan, revisit, and modify the intervention plan and the strategies needed to provide their students with the they need to overcome whatever learning gaps they might have.  Important part of this planning should be conferencing with the paraprofessional, so both, teacher and educational aide, are on the same page as for the objectives, resources, and strategies being used.  Similarly important is to offer paraprofessionals continue professional development so they can not only understand how a specific intervention should be carried out, but also for them to feel as part of the team, taking in consideration their input and observations to support, extend or modify the intervention plan(s).
Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Differentiating Instruction

One of the most complex challenges faced by today’s teachers is to provide students with the kind of instruction that match their learning needs and styles, align them with grade level academic standards, district requirements, and school goals, we name it "differentiated instruction." Amid a myriad of assessments, overload paperwork, and other professional duties, we teachers need to find feasible ways to meet the individual need of our learners, whether they are below grade level, above grade level, or at grade level. The old way of “teaching to the middle” is not longer acceptable. We can’t afford to leave in the dark those students who need extra support to reach their learning potential, nor should we waste the special talents of our high achievers just because they learn effortless.
According to Tomlinson (1997), effective teachers using differentiated instruction by matching tasks, activities, and assessments with their students' interests, abilities, and learning preferences. Effective teachers provide appropriate levels of challenge for all students (instructional level +1, Krashen 1973), including those learners who are behind and those who are advanced in their learning objectives. Teachers who offer differentiated instruction give their students several different paths –learning options- for them to access the core concepts and show their understanding. Though it’s important to remember that differentiated instruction doesn't mean to "water down” the curriculum; ALL students need to have access to ALL core curriculum. Thus it is important to plan intentionally and efficiently in order to offer diverse learners a variety of strategies and techniques that match their individual abilities.