3 inspiring examples of how teachers turn technology into relevance and make learning count.

Too often, we see teachers putting the proverbial cart before the horse. They find an app or tool they like, so they introduce it in their classroom. The students might find it cool and engaging—but if the teacher hasn’t defined why they’re using that tool, its integration has no clear, educational purpose.

If, instead, you begin with a learning goal in mind and choose apps and devise activities in support of it, then you’re on a path to meaningful technology integration.

To help educators develop a vision for using technology in their classrooms, here are a few examples of what great teachers do with these tools.

1. They Empower students through creativity

Shawn McCusker has been teaching high school social studies for nearly two decades. For years, he would have his students demonstrate their understanding of the great industrial philosophers by writing a comparative essay.

Two years ago, Shawn was involved in an iPad pilot program, and he gave his students a choice in how they would demonstrate their knowledge: Students could write an essay, or they could tap the creative potential that existed in their iPads.

One of his students created a 12-minute video tutorial comparing the views of Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Now, this was a particularly shy student, as Shawn recounts—and when students were demonstrating their projects and her video was about to play in front of the class, she conveniently went to the bathroom. She returned to a round of applause.

Shawn has a YouTube channel, and he likes to provide his students with an option to publish to an authentic audience. When Shawn’s student opted to post this particular video on YouTube, it garnered several hits. The student was so excited that she asked her teacher, “Can I work on this project some more? I’d like to improve my video.” (How many students typically ask, “Can I write another essay?”)

This student’s goal was to be the most popular resource on Adam Smith and Karl Marx on the web. And if you Google these industrial philosophers, you’ll find her video shows up in the top three search results—besting Wikipedia and the Library of Congress, among other sources.

Can you imagine the pride and motivation she feels in having this audience? Here, we have a student who’s so engaged in the process that she actually asks her teacher if she could work longer on her project. Here is a shy student whose voice isn’t always heard in the classroom, and yet she is able to shine by unleashing her creativity.

2. They connect learners.

Great teachers not only empower their students through creativity; they also connect their students to other audiences, giving their students a platform for putting their knowledge to use in a way that helps others.

Kristen Paino is a New York teacher who has helped develop a Global Book Series that includes books authored by educators and students from around the world.  Kristen solicits participants via Twitter and using the BookCreator app, they compile two-page creations in which students describe their school and their community. So far, there are a total of three books published in the iTunes Store.

By creating these global books, Kristen wants to demonstrate how classrooms around the world can come together to publish something unique and creative and learn from each other at the same time. One fascinating aspect of the project is that it has redefined the teaching of geography. As students hear from their peers in other parts of the world, they start to ask questions, like: Where’s Russia? Where’s Mexico? How do those countries compare to mine?

What was often a passive, teacher-centric process in which students memorize places and rote facts has been transformed into an inquiry-based process, where the students are asking the questions and driving the geographical exploration. Now, students want to look at a map; they want to learn more about these places.

3. They make learning last.

Years ago my then-16-year old stepdaughter arrived home from school and started pulling out cookware from the cupboards. All this while watching a movie on her iPod. ‘What is going on?” I thought.

Olivia was watching a cooking show created by two students in her advanced Japanese class. She was preparing to cook the meal herself. Olivia’s teacher had challenged the students to prove that they really understood new vocabulary. No test. No quiz. No worksheet. Their task was to create a product that communicated a persuasive understanding of the vocabulary. Since much of it involved things found in the kitchen, the students decided to create “Iron Chef” parodies and developed humorous skits using the vocabulary to teach viewers how to cook various meals.

Olivia is now 24 years old and taught English in Japan last year. She recounted a time when she had a Japanese colleague over for dinner. As Olivia was explaining to her guest how she prepared dinner her Japanese colleague interrupted and blurted out : “Wait! Olivia, your Japanese is not that good!”

Olivia is not fluent in Japanese, but she remembered the vocabulary, verbs, and idioms she learned from the “Iron Chef” video she and her students created. By her own admission, Oliva “can’t remember much of anything else” learned in that course, but seven years later the Iron Chef lesson is fresh in her mind.

In these classes, students are not going to forget the projects. That Adam Smith/Karl Marx video is going to stay with Shawn’s former student for a long time—not just the process she undertook, but also the content behind it.

As Shawn would agree, his former student knows the works of these philosophers inside and out. The video is simply a manifestation of her knowledge, made possible with the help of technology; it’s actually the hours she has spent reading their works, analyzing their arguments, and outlining her project that are the foundation of her knowledge.

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