Enhancing Education with Digital Tools in the Classroom

Especially now, with the rise of technology in the classroom, teachers have practically unlimited methods for teaching, assigning, and grading student work. Features within forums such as Google Classroom, Flocabulary, Read180 Universal, PowToon, NewsELA, etc., allow for student choice, engagement, and differentiation. While the options and methods are seemingly unlimited, there are a few things to consider when it comes to utilizing classroom technology effectively.  

To ensure that the digital classroom is an asset, instead of an obstacle, for students and parents, educators will want to address the following concerns before planning and implementing:

Is the technology adding to the student’s understanding of the material, or is it simply technology for technology’s sake?

If teachers cannot readily identify how the digital tool is adding a layer of complexity, relevance, choice, or differentiation, then the tool may be better utilized for another task. What we do not want is for the learning to be secondary to the digital forum. For example, if students are using PowToon or Prezi for an assignment, then the objective should be something related to summarizing, paraphrasing, simulating cause and effect, etc., since those are skills that the digital tools support. Those two particular digital tools are more geared towards public speaking or presenting, so an objective for speaking and listening should be a component, as well.

How much scaffolding or frontloading will the technology involve?

As teachers, we know that time is limited, as we are constantly moving students from one skill to the next. A worst-case scenario would be for the digital tool to become a “time-suck” in the unit. More than anything, the technology should be comprehensive and user-friendly, so that it does not become an obstacle for students to demonstrate mastery.

How much of the student’s grade will be determined by the proper use of the technology?

Again, if the objective is for students to relay research that they have gathered in a focused and organized way, then the technology feature is simply a small aspect of that task. Consequently, if the objective is for students to construct a timeline of a story and present the animation, then the technology becomes more of a vital component.

Can the use of the digital tool be optional?

Another recommendation when considering student choice is to provide the option to not use the technology to demonstrate mastery. For some students, technology can be scary because of their unfamiliarity with it. For others, computer or internet access at home may not be a possibility. Teachers should be wary of only using digital creations or submissions, as this would mean that some students can only work on an assignment or project in the classroom—not at home.

Are my digital posts, grades, and assignments easy to access and displayed clearly?

When using a digital classroom like Google Classroom, teachers should be sure to make their digital forum as accessible and transparent as possible. At open house or parent conferences, teachers should consider inviting parents to sign up to the virtual classroom. This provides parents with their own means of logging into and monitoring the virtual classroom. Guardian access also allows parents to set email alerts anytime a new announcement, assignment, or grade is posted.

This means that parents receive notifications in real time, as opposed to having to wait for their child to bring home the new assignment or rubric. Guardian access also allows teachers to post entire lessons, documents, and reading to the classroom. This type of transparency provides parents with a peek inside the day’s activities and lessons. With documents posted, there will also be a backup option for parents if their child has lost or forgotten the paper copy.

Note-taking November: For the Elementary Classroom

For elementary schoolers, note taking as a reading or comprehension strategy is likely unfamiliar, and for a legitimate reason many younger learners are just beginning to get comfortable in their reading abilities at this stage. Many children view reading as a mundane task; but, if students begin to look at the reading material as a vessel for knowledge, they may change how they read for such information. Reading skills, particularly the ability to extract, analyze, and interpret relevant material, can be improved as students learn proper note-taking practices.

For elementary-age learners, taking notes while reading probably seems like an added burden on an already difficult task. Therefore, when introducing the concept, be sure to frame the instruction with expectations, benefits, and models of how the note taking should look.

Note-taking Takes Practice

Explain that note taking while reading is a practice which will take time elementary schoolers should expect to practice this skill consistently before it becomes second nature. They should also expect their notes to be messy, which is why a pencil is a must. Begin the note-taking process by simply recording a stream of thought while reading.

Encourage students to mark up words and phrases which are:

  • unfamiliar or confusing
  • bolded, italicized, or repeated
  • indicate the author’s purpose
  • signify an important moment or realization
  • present an interesting fact or take-away

Use these opportunities as a means of teaching context clues — if the term is unfamiliar, ask students if anything around the word or phrase provides insight into the unknown word’s meaning. Encourage them to brainstorm and experiment with possible word meanings until they land on something that makes logical, grammatical sense.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask, “Why?”

Elementary schoolers should also feel comfortable asking “why?” while reading. Encourage them to add question marks to areas of text they don’t understand or don’t see the relevance.

Model the Practice of Close Reading and Active Note-taking with Students Regularly

For the most part, note taking is an unfamiliar skill for elementary-age kids. When modeling the process, start small. Perhaps you begin by using a text that students have read before. This sense of familiarity will promote risk-taking and allow students to feel more comfortable tackling the text with their thoughts and observations. As you move through the text together, show them how to refer back to earlier notes if they have made connections or discovered an answer to a previous notation or question.

Inform Students of the Benefits of Note-taking

They will be surprised to know that notes can mean an easier time when rereading or skimming while studying. If students get in the habit of taking copious notes, most of the studying “legwork” will be done ahead of time. Their notes should also act as place markers, meaning any content which struck them as important or especially tricky should be highlighted to indicate that it is vital to review. Also, let young readers know that note taking is a deliberate practice ensuring focus, comprehension, and other active reading skills on behalf of the reader. If your mind is disengaged or drifting, there is no way you will be able to maintain substantial notes or annotations.

Teaching Self-Advocacy at Home Pt. II

In part I, we discussed how parents can introduce the concept of self-advocacy with the use of sentence frames, conversation pointers, and self-reflection. Once children begin to understand their needs at home and school, self-advocating becomes much easier.

Self-advocacy is all about speaking up. 

Listening is also a primary part of getting the information that you need. Therefore, when instructing children on how to voice their needs, parents should be sure to stress the fact that listening is a key component of self-advocacy. Whenever children ask a question, voice a concern, or seek a response, they must be prepared to listen and absorb the information that they receive. Parents can discuss how eye contact allows other people to recognize that they have your attention.

Additionally, body position and nodding are obvious cues that you are engaged and listening. All of these practices demonstrate active listening skills and help children fully absorb or comprehend the response or information that they are getting. When children ask a question, they should be able to paraphrase the response and formulate a follow-up or clarifying question if necessary. This demonstrates whether or not they were actively listening.

As young learners, children are just beginning to understand themselves as students, which means that their learning needs are somewhat unknown to them. Parents can ask questions like, “What are you good at?” “What do you often need help doing?” “How do you feel that you learn best?” and “When do you think that learning is the most difficult?” Answers to these questions will vary and change as children develop skills for managing their academic progress, but the ability to self-reflect is an essential component of self-advocacy.

Again, practicing sentence frames and hypothetical scenarios can help put children at ease when it comes time for them to advocate for themselves when their parents are not there to speak for them. Remind children that they can and should ask questions when they are confused about something, especially at school.

Parents can also coach children on how to ask direct and specific questions. As opposed to, “Is this good?” or “Is this right?” Children should practice zoning in on concepts that are true roadblocks. In narrowing in on the specific question or need, children will obtain a more specific and helpful response.

Parents should encourage children to vocalize their confusion, stress, worries, or desire for help readily. The whole purpose of school is to seek and gain knowledge and experiences that propel them forward. In this sense, the more children ask, the more they will know.

Explain to them that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. For exceptionally shy children, encourage them to speak to the teacher or adult off to the side or one-on-one, instead of in front of the whole class. This will ease them into the concept of self-advocacy by removing the peer attention and anxiety that speaking up in a full classroom may bring.

For children with IEP or 504 accommodations, parents should be especially clear with children about requesting their accommodations and supplementary aides. Of course, this comes with practice and familiarity with their own educational plan, however, children with specific learning needs benefit greatly from their ability to take an active role in vocalizing these needs.

Teaching Self-Advocacy at Home Pt. I

Self-advocacy is an essential skill for children to master, not only for their education, but for basic functioning and socialization throughout life. Parents can help children foster this necessary life skill by providing them with specific tools and practices to ensure that their voices are heard and understood—and the earlier children begin advocating, the better.

Self-advocacy is all about vocalizing one’s needs. However, the key to teaching children how to advocate for themselves starts with helping them to recognize their own needs. It is difficult to ask for help when you don’t know what exactly you need help doing.

For the major part of many children’s lives, parents accommodate a child’s every need. Often times, parents are there to swoop into the rescue before their children even know that they need something. To begin teaching self-advocacy, parents will want to introduce the concept in small steps by encouraging children to first recognize then vocalize their needs.

Ask your child if he or she knows or recognizes the sensation of hunger or thirst. What does it feel like if you are starting to get hungry or thirsty? Do you hear your grumbling tummy? Do you feel agitated or restless? If you’re hungry, but I haven’t offered you a snack, what can you do to make sure that you get what you need? Similarly, ask your child to describe what it feels like when they are too hot, too cold, or need to go to the bathroom. Do you see goosebumps? Do you start to feel clammy or sweaty? Does your skin pigment, fingertips, lips change color? Does your tummy hurt or feel funny? Do you get jumpy or distracted?

These questions may seem overly simplistic; however, the idea behind such basic conversations is that your child begins to actively recognize what his or her body needs and when. These types of questions are especially important for children with autism because of the tendency to struggle to make observations.

Children on the spectrum may find it difficult to sense time or communicate frustration or other emotions. They may also experience an inability to perceive unsafe or harmful situations, which makes it difficult for them to distinguish their wants from their needs. Therefore, when children are aware of their needs, they can begin to vocalize them. This is especially important when children head to school and no longer have a parent to accommodate their every need at the drop of a hat.

Parents can then begin to instruct children on how to appropriately ask for what they need. Practice using sentence frames for different scenarios and discuss the difference between “I want” and “I need.”  Talk about how to distinguish between an emergency or an immediate need and something that can be met or accomplished later or eventually.

Discuss instances in which your child should politely say “no thank you” versus vehemently saying “no!” Instruct your child about the appropriate occasions and means of getting someone’s attention, interrupting a conversation, or asking a personal question.

By role-playing certain scenarios or conversations, parents can begin to prepare their children with positive communication skills and self-advocacy tools.

Five Fun Sensory Activities To Engage Children and Adults

Sensory Toys
Colorful shiny jelly set on the dark background

Sensory toys, games and activities have so many benefits to children with various additional needs owing to the multitude of ways these resources can be used. they can promote language development and reinforcement through storytelling.

Elevate Musical Instruments Percussion Kit for Children with Autism, Special Needs, Child Development plus Sensory Toy Activity Card
Elevate Musical Instruments Percussion Kit for Children with Autism, Special Needs, Child Development plus Sensory Toy Activity Card

For children with sensory processing difficulties sensory toys and equipment enables them to explore and encounter new sensations in a limitless but safe way. Gradually over time engaging is such activities can be used to help a child who is tactile defensive to explore different types of sensation.

Try some of these sensory toy games and activities with children or make suggestions to foster carers, parents and teachers to use some of these activities and games safely.

Learn Colours With A Sensory Bath

A Yellow water bath (or any other colour) can be the ideal way for your kids to learn colours.Having some sensory fun and learning the colour yellow in the bath with yellow water balloons and yellow bath water. The excitement and joy of this activity is priceless!

To add colour to the water you don’t need a lot of food colour, just a lid full under the the running water. Alternatively, if you do not like the idea of food colouring in your child’s bath you could use a bath bomb to colour the water. So much fun can be had from the children as they squeeze the water balloons into different shapes and drop them in the water.

Giggles and laughter all round as your child is learning colours. You could also place some of your child’s yellow coloured toys in the bath with them for further understanding.

Fluffy Snow Sensory Play

Making Fluffy Snow using soap flakes is a fun and messy sensory play activity. It is also a great way to incorporate a Christmas theme, especially if you live somewhere where it doesn’t snow. But it is fun and encourages a lot of learning, which is what it’s all about!
Kids will have the time of their lives finding fun ways to explore the fluffy mixture; squashing, feeling and playing with it.

To make fluffy snow you will need:
1 cup of Soap Flakes
3 cups of warm water
and a large mixing bowl

As you beat the mixture it multiplies, kids love to watch the transformation of the clear watery liquid mixture to a thick white blob. Then you  and your kids are free to play, explore and learn with the Fluffy Snow!

Scented Rice Sensory Play

This activity is a great way to create a sensory play table with all kinds of tools to explore with.

To do this you will need:
Rice
Strawberry essence and food colouring
a range of scoops, shovels, sifts, funnels or anything else
and a large container

This sensory play is unconstructed and allows kids to explore freely. It is great for all ages, from the very young to the big kids. It’s even therapeutic for the adults, we all love to play! This can be a several person activity which requires teamwork, social interactions and problem solving. Experimenting with new things to see what happens and exploring cause and effect are very beneficial.

Garden Water Park

Kids absolutely adore water parks, so with it approaching the summer holidays, a garden water park is an upcoming must! They are a lot of fun for kids, it gets them outdoors and active also secretly encourages many learning opportunities.

You can set up a range of different themed stations for kids to play and explore. One of these can be a Water Balloon Pool, a sensory toy play pool which includes about 35 balloons filled with water. Cheap paddling pools can be purchased from local stores. You can also purchase water squirters for as cheap as cheaply or you may already have a few hidden in the shed! Another popular ideal sensory toy is to use a long sheet of plastic such as a shower curtain and add washing up liquid to create a DIY slip ‘n’ slide.

With little money you can turn your back garden into a water park!

Sensory Play With Jelly

Ooey, gooey, slushy and messy! Playing with jelly!

Playing with Jelly is a sensory activity for kids to explore their senses the many wonderful textures and qualities of jelly. Yummy too!

You will need:
Jelly
An assortment of plastic containers
Tray or container (to put the mess in)

Explore the senses with your child, talk about all the wonderful describing words of how the jelly feels in your hands; squishy, sticky, slippery, slimey, sloppy and smooth. You can explore other senses too: how it smelt, what it sounds like and how colourful it is. This is a great way for your child to learn some new describing words.

We provide sensory activities and products for social workers, parents and carers in the UK and USA to support work with children and adults with special needs including trauma. Visit Elevate Training and Development for more information and our Social Work Continuing Professional Development Online service for more ideas about direct work with service users.

Education and Training Versus Experiential Learning

Having recently spent the weekend co-facilitating a leadership programme and then attending a job interview for a part-time communications position at a high-profile charitable organisation, I find myself reflecting on how much I do and have done that I haven’t actually been educated or trained to do.

I began learning to facilitate about twenty to 25 years ago, using my counselling training — communicating through questioning and reflective listening one on one — and applying it to a group situation. The process maps almost seamlessly — all that changes is the content, from an emphasis on personal issues and feelings to social issues and opinions (though feelings also often feature predominantly as well).

1176923_50609724When deciding to apply for the communications role I realised that, though not specifically, communications has featured in just about every role I’ve undertaken to date, but I’ve never trained in media or communications. From managing publications for the Human Rights Commission in the mid-90s, to promoting myself as a comedian, to writing and managing several blogs and websites for Diversity New Zealand and Diversityworks Trust, I’ve done it all, from traditional media releases to social media and networking.

The only other formal education and training I’ve  engaged in was school in the 70s and 80s, followed by two years of social work training in the early 90s.

Of course being self-employed builds the muscle for self-directed learning — anyone who has run a small business, particularly one that’s service-related, knows that you say, “Yeah, I can do that,” first and work out how to do it later.

Furthermore, particularly in the last decade or so of the internet’s existence, there’s probably not a single professional skill or attribute that hasn’t been blogged, tweeted, Facebooked or YouTubed about — and the twenty or thirty different ways of doing it.

Which brings me to the point I want to make. Formal education and training often focuses on only one or two “right” knowledge and ways of doing things, whereas experiential learning clearly highlights there is no single “right” information or way to do anything.

I’m not advocating against formal education and training — my schooling, counselling and social work training have served me well, not to mention various generic leadership and professional development programmes I’ve done over the years.

But in a world that is requiring people to hold far more breadth than depth of knowledge and competence, it’s useful to take stock of those secondary skills you pick up along the way in employment. They may pave the way to fascinating new careers, without the cost and time needed to formally retrain.

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