Three years ago, when I was teaching 7th grade at an inner-city middle school, I got a subtle hint that learning was not linear. My first successful tech integration- PDAs in revision groups- pointed to larger possibilities.
I was using a protocol for student-led revision groups, which I learned in a graduate course on writing. The revision group protocol facilitated student-to-student talk in writing, and yielded strong, constructive feedback in the workshop. I was so committed to the protocol, I spent a few hours each week making copies so all members of the revision groups could carefully review and annotate peer papers.
At the same time I was becoming a fixture in the copy room, I was given the opportunity to use PDAs with my students. PDAs immediately made word processing more accessible to students in their independent writing. My students hunted and pecked on flimsy remote keyboards while they squinted at 3x5 screens. I no longer had to take my whole class to the computer lab or send students out of the classroom for an hour of typing. Perhaps more usefully, the PDAs could “beam” files from one device to another. Suddenly, revision groups required no preparation time at all. As soon as a student finished a draft or chapter, she could invite her peers to read the draft at my small group table. Seconds later, the draft was on every student’s PDA screen.
The beam feature made a satisfying little chirp when the file had been successfully sent.
Just as I was reveling in the success of my paperless, instantaneous revision groups, the silence of my writer’s workshop was broken. Like a group of canaries released from a cage, the flock of PDAs emitted muffled chirps.
"What is going on here?" I demanded. "We don't have revision groups scheduled for today," I announced in vain.
I caught a few students passing digital notes. "Do you like Juan?"
I caught many more sharing partial drafts, creative conclusions, and examples of strong imagery. I noticed that the need for formal revision groups decreased drastically. When students came to my horseshoe table for the teacher-organized, student-centered revision group, many had already read each other's papers.
My strongest writers had given one another feedback, too. They'd been in enough revision groups that they could independently provide the type of feedback I wanted.
When I reflect on that work now, I know that a key to my success was starting with the instructional goal in mind: I wanted to improve revision groups and I had a plan for using digital tools to do it. Since I began with a clear vision of how the technology would enhance instruction, the integration improved student achievement. I also realize that the benefits of introducing tech tools- in this case PDAs- went far beyond my goal of paperless revision groups. Then, as now, I learn the real benefits of tech integration by planning well and learning from my students.