In my second year of teaching, I decided to spice things up by adding a PhotoStory component to my This I Believe imperialism project. Now, PhotoStory has all but gone the way of the dodo, but at the time, it was an easy to use product that allowed students to combine photos, music, title slides, and narration to create a “movie”. To say that the technology integration went smoothly would be an egregious overstatement. Over the course of two weeks, my students and I encountered: students losing their work due to corrupt files, saving to the wrong spot, lack of storage on their student drive, lost flash drives, missing pictures. And, that’s just the “saving” portion of the tech piece. Upon reflection, I realized that I had failed to separate my tech skills and my content knowledge, which made it difficult to determine if non-meeting standards students were unsuccessful due to: lack of technology know how, misconceptions of content knowledge, lack of media skills, limitations of the medium/hardware, and/or lack of content knowledge.
I vowed that on future technology projects, I would always take time to teach the technology or the medium prior to working on the content-embedded project. Not only would I save myself headaches, but also my students would be better producers and creators of content projects. Given the push of Common Core for students and teachers to be creators and producers of media, we must stop to consider the skills that our students have when they sit down at the computer. If we merely insert technology into a project, we will not be doing our students nor ourselves a service. We must find the perfect balance between complexity of task and complexity of content that keeps our students engaged in rigorous but doable intellectual work.
This is the same consideration that we must remember when implementing text complexity that Alisa wrote about in February. Her post reminded me of a simple rule “complex texts require simple tasks and simple texts require complex tasks” that I carry with me thanks to Ron Wagner and Morgan Larsen who presented at a Common Core Teacher Librarian Cadre. What I realize, now, is that this text complexity rule should be applied to anything in the classroom by replacing the word text with content. Illustrated below are examples of how this might play out in a 9th grade Humanities classroom.
So, what does it look like to apply this Task vs. Content complexity balance to my original Imperialism project? Today, Photo Story is not a standard Windows program, and I have migrated to using Windows Movie Maker. While a more complex program, the students have produced far better products and I have used far less Advil when presenting and teaching this project. After presenting the project and rubrics, we take one computer day to simply learn how Movie Maker works from creation of project to finished product. Yes, the students complete a project on a new platform in 80 minutes! To make this happen, I created guidelines for myself.
My Tech Guidelines
- Create a list of tech skills required to produce project.(ex.: importing pictures, saving a project versus saving a final product, adding effects)
- Accept these won’t be projects to write home about.
- Give the students a fun topic that’s easy to think and see (simple content).
- Have backup content ready for the tech assignment.
- Keep track of the types of errors that students make in order to troubleshoot the final project.
- Do not assess the students on this one-day project; it’s practice and should be open to making mistakes.
- Move students forward even if they aren’t ready to move so that an entire project can be completed.
For my practice day, the students are told to produce a movie (complex task) about their dream vacation(simple content) and that the movie won’t be graded (low stakes). They are given about 15 minutes to find pictures or scroll through the common pictures on the shared teacher/student drive. Once the timer buzzes, we move as a class forward so that we can practice the technology skill of importing pictures into Movie Maker. Then, we get 10 minutes to mess with transitions and adding text slides. This practice continues as I break apart the project into manageable 10-15 minute practice steps. When the bell rings, I have final projects in various states that inform me of what my students know and which students will need more technology coaching.
Why do I believe it’s justified to take one day out of a unit to teach a technology program using a non-content based subject? The thing is that students’ minds will already be taxed by the content or reading. So, don’t overload them with learning new technology and learning content. Plus, it proves to be a great formative assessment to scaffold the tech learning for whole class, small groups, and individuals as the project progresses.
As a side note, my number one best piece of advice when learning and teaching technology is to tell the students “if you wonder what a button does then press it, see what happens.” Unlike Willy Wonka’s wonkavator, no button is going to magically send us soaring through the glass ceiling into the atmosphere. Nor is there a self-destruct button on the computer that will make the computer burst into flames.