August 7, 2013

Dear Otto: How do I teach [wild and crazy] 7th Grade Tech?

tech questions

Do you have a tech question?

Dear Otto is an occasional column where I answer questions I get from readers about teaching tech. If you have a question, please complete the form below and I’ll answer it here. For your privacy, I use only first names.

Here’s a great question I got from Patricia:

What are best practices for teaching technology applications in a computer lab? As a first year teacher technology applications teacher in a middle school (7th&8th graders mixed classes) I really struggled with engaging students to listen to assignment instructions prior to beginning an activity. Then once the activity started students would ask questions that had already been discussed if they had been listening. It was frustrating to have to repeat instructions 20plus times over again.

Middle Schoolers are a special breed. They definitely need to learn productivity software like word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, but–you’re right–it’s hard to get them to sit still. I’ve found it’s much better to give them big goals, general guidelines, deadlines, and let them go. I just finished editing a tech textbook for 7th grade and it includes units on problem solving, logical thinking, digital citizenship, programming. To teach these topics, you as the teacher engage students with Robotics, Scratch, games (select games that teach–i.e., Minecraft, Bridge Builder, SimCity), web-based communication tools (Animoto, Glogster, blogs, wikis). It’s self-directed, student-paced, so places responsibility for learning squarely with the student.
As general lesson guidelines, try these:
  • Flip the classroom. Provide resources to students on the topic (say, Scratch or robotics) via a screencast or a Google Hangout and then do a project using the skill during class time. Students will have to do the homework to be productive in class.
  • Use backchannel devices like Today’s Meet or Socrative–or even Twitter. Display feedback on the Smartscreen so you and students can track involvement
  • Focus units on inquiry, collaboration and sharing, and strategies used in all classes
  • Use domain-specific language as you teach. Don’t shy away from terminology like backchannel, programming, embed, widget
  • Use every tech tool you can for every activity possible. Show students how tech is part of daily activities, ingrained into your teaching. Use a digital online clock to track time. Take pictures with your iPhone. Scan art projects with an iPad app. Have students come up with more ways to use digital tools.
  • Expect students to be risk takers. Don’t rush to solve problems. Ask them to think how it was done in the past or what strategies might provide a solution.
  • If a student doesn’t like one of the tools you suggest, let them come up with their own. If they can provide evidence it satisfies the Big Idea and answers Essential Questions, let them use it.
  • Regardless of what you teach during the year, cover digital tools used by your school (blogs, Google Apps, Evernote, GHO), correct keyboarding, and how to be good digital citizens. These are critical.
  • Differentiate instruction for students. Be flexible, open-minded, and adventurous. One of techs biggest plusses is that it differentiates well for learning styles. Use it.
  • Collaborate with other 8th grade subject teachers on cross-curricular planners that involve technology.
  • Treat students as ‘authors’ and ‘doers’, rather than passive consumers. Consider a BYOD approach in your classes so students can use the devices they have easiest access to and are most comfortable with (if your school IT folks and infrastructure can support this). Encourage students to complete projects when most convenient for their schedules.
  • Assessment isn’t static—nor is it ‘bad’. Remember why you assess: 1) to see if students understand the lesson, 2) to see if what was taught can be transferred to life, 3) to help students prepare for college and/or career.
I use these in my 7th and 8th grade curriculum. If you click this link, you’ll find a table of contents (in the photo gallery).
I hope this helps! Let me know if I can answer anything else.
PS–If I lost you on ‘flipped classroom’ or ‘screencast’ or ‘Google Hangout’, leave a comment and I’ll go into more detail!
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Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. She is webmaster for six blogs, CSG Master Teacher, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blogger, a columnist for, featured blogger for Technology in Education, IMS tech expert, and a monthly contributor to TeachHUB. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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