Monday, June 10, 2013

I Hate Chalk


My name is Arin Kress and I'm a 5th grade math and science teacher in Ohio. Over the last few months something happened to me as a teacher. Something inspired and invigorated me. Something opened my eyes to a whole new world. In order to have an appreciation for my current frame of mind I feel it’s necessary to give a brief history of how I came to love educational technology, and it all starts with the most random educational tool you would expect: chalk.

Yes, chalk.

In April of 2006, I was a senior at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC. Like every other senior education major I was hoping to land a job before graduation. I got my first interview at a nice rural school in Lancaster, SC and I remember one part of the interview vividly. Toward the end of the interview the principal asked me if I was comfortable using a ‘white board.’

Ok, quick side story. There’s just something about chalkboards that are cringeworthy. Think about it. Most people would rank ‘nails on a chalk board’ extremely high on their ‘most annoying sounds’ list.  I'm guessing that most of you will avoid clicking the video below just because you know what it contains... Regardless, I still had to include it (I'm trying to make a point here!)

Well, in addition to this terrible sound, I have a terrible texture aversion to chalk (and cottonballs too but that’s another post for another day.) I hate the way it feels. I hate the way it writes. I hate the way it breaks in the middle of writing. I actually have a vague memory or some kid rubbing a chalk-filled eraser on my arm when I was a kid and AHHHH…Ok, to summarize - I HATE CHALK.  

So when I was asked in the interview if I was comfortable using a ‘white board’ I perked right up and said, “SURE, I would love to use a whiteboard!” I had visions of writing in beautiful bright colors on a dry erase board and not using terrible white chalk on a dingy green board. Luckily I just showed my interest in using a ‘white board,’ and I didn’t share this entire chalk hatred story with her!  I know we didn’t go into much detail about the actual use of the ‘whiteboard’ but I do remember assuring her that I was very excited about using one!

I guess my reaction to her ‘white board’ question was a little too good, because not only did I get the job, but to my surprise a brand new SMARTboard on wheels was rolled into my classroom during the second week of school. I’m going to be honest, I had heard of SMARTboards before, but I had never used or seen one used before. I still remember my students' faces lighting up when it was rolled in and smiling along with them because they were so excited! However, deep down I feared that my own lack of confidence with technology would hold me back as a teacher. So, I decided to do the exact opposite or what I would typically do with a new piece of technology. I decided to act like I had some idea of what to do with it and I tried to learn as quickly as I could!

In addition, the talk among the teachers was very interesting. Our school had only bought a few SMARTboards, and many teachers asked, “Why did Arin get one?” Most hypothesized that it was because I was a young teacher who could possibly catch on to the 'newfangled technology' faster than veteran teachers – but secretly I had a feeling it was because of how I responded to the infamous ‘white board’ question.  And, fortunately for me, the path that hating chalk led me down has been just as amazing as it has been unexpected!

Although I would classify myself as a technology amateur outside of the world of education, from my second week on the job I learned to embrace it. So, during my three year tenure in Lancaster, SC, I became a SMART certified teacher and conducted numerous trainings sessions for the staff at my school and others districtwide.  I became the teacher many would go to for technology help.  I served on the district's technology training committee while in South Carolina and after moving to Ohio, I have served on my district's Assistive Technology committee for three years. 

From the beginning, the SMARTboard opened my students’ eyes to a new way of learning. Their engagement kept me going, and their excitement challenged me to find better ways to use it. The SMARTboard was just my gateway to other pieces of technology though. Everything just began to snowball from that wonderful day my first year. 

And after seven years, it’s easy for me to see that my love for educational technology hasn’t waned. However, doing anything in the same manner for a long period of time can get boring – for both the students and the teacher. Sure, I had added to my 'toolbox' a plethora of educational tools to use, but I needed to change not necessarily WHAT I used to teach with, but HOW I actually taught...

Then, this past Spring I was searching for a way to rejuvenate and that's when it happened. I was at an ‘Assistive Technology’ meeting and someone mentioned ‘flipping the classroom.’ Honestly, from the little that I knew about it, it sounded like a lot of work, time and technology expertise. I again questioned my abilities as a tech user.

But, all of a sudden I had flashbacks to that fateful interview, flashbacks to the SMARTboard rolling into my classroom, flashbacks of my students’ eager faces to use something ‘new.’ I wanted that for my students NOW.  I wanted to be invigorated again, and more importantly, I wanted my students to be invigorated again. So I decided to take the leap. In my mind, a switch had been ‘flipped’ (no pun intended!)  I was ready to take the leap into the flipped classroom!

During our weeklong Spring Break, I did everything I could to research the flipped class model:
I read the book, Flip Your Classroom, authored by the flipped classroom pioneers: Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams. On my personal twitter account, I started following #flipclass, #mathchat, #5thchat, #tlap and found several amazing educators to follow - Chris Kesler, Chrystal Kirch, Delia Bush, Dave Burgess and Todd Nesloney. On twitter I found out about Sophia.org, Camtasia, Kidblog, Skype in the Classroom, Remind101 and much much more. I participated in a flipped class webinar on Sophia and I was hooked!

I became a tech junkie more than ever. The students embraced the change and seemed just as invigorated as I was! For the last eight weeks of school I tried out every new piece of technology I could get my hands on. The idea was to try out the various technologies this year so I could have a better idea of how or even if I wanted to use them next year.  Luckily, my students this year benefited too! Some students even would ask why I didn’t start fun activities like Flipping, Skyping or Blogging earlier in the year! I was honest with them. I either had just learned about the idea, or I finally decided to not let my fear of the unknown hold me back!

Now, does educational technology have its downfalls? YES! Does it need to be balanced with other sound, research-based teaching practices? YES!  But kids love technology, and if you personally don’t love it, find a way to EMBRACE it! It’s not going away, and honestly it can be a teacher’s best friend.

In future posts, I hope to talk more about my journey as a teacher and a self proclaimed lover of educational technology. I hope to honestly share my ups and downs – the good, the bad and the UGLY. I hope that through this blog I can reflect on my journey and realize that the journey that lies before me will be an amazing one as long as I’m willing to have an open and creative mind and put my students’ needs first. 

I hope that you too will reflect on your journey as an educator. How have you evolved as a user of educational technology? How have your students evolved as technology users over the years? Are you on a similar path as I am? Novice turned junkie? Do you see the benefit for your students, so you don't mind taking the leap? I hope that if you decide to read along you will find some lessons that I have learned and will share your experiences as a learner as well.

Lesson #1: Be open to unexpected opportunities – embrace them. Try to find the good in every situation!

So when life gives you an oversized touch screen on wheels – create fun interactive lessons!

And when you realize you may have unknowingly fooled your employer, ask a lot of questions, research as much as you can and act like you know what you’re doing - great things can come from it!

In the end, I’m glad I hate chalk and I’m glad I answered that interview question with such naive excitement! I love the path that it put me on and I’m hopeful of where the future may lead me!   

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