The day-to-day classroom experience of a middle school teacher begins something like this: students hurry to their lockers, arrive in your classroom, say “hi”, and then consult their technology – immediately. After all, checking Instagram or Facebook is likely more important than what’s on tap for the day. You can ask Chris to stop texting and Jenny to stay off social media all you like, but it’s more important to understand the connection between technology and humankind. So what is it about a small screen that makes life so engaging for students? For me, the answer is communication.
My name is Adam Swanson and I teach grades seven and eight English at Alexander’s Public School in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. My progressive school heavily promotes the “Bring I.T.” (Internet Technology) philosophy, which bodes well since nearly all grade seven and eight students have their own device, be it a tablet, smart phone or laptop. From the multitude of applications and programs available on my students’ I.T., Edmodo is the tool that is used most often for my students to access resources and demonstrate learning. What I truly enjoy about Edmodo is that it can be used it to administer the simplest of tasks (e.g., an entry pass in the form of a quiz) or to organize an entire unit (e.g., by submitting assignments, or sharing resources in my library). As an English teacher, I strive to find activities to foster understanding and engagement among my students. By their nature, literature circles are excellent in accomplishing the former, but in prior teaching years I struggled finding an avenue to make them engaging to students.
Enter Edmodo. I theorized that if students were engaged by communication and their I.T., I could use my online classroom to cultivate their interests while developing their knowledge about literature.
If you are not familiar with literature circles, students are put into small groups and complete a variety of roles that help demonstrate their understanding of a novel (e.g., discussion director, connector, artist, summarizer, etc.). A class typically switches between independent reading and discussing novels collaboratively. The very nature of literature circles fits perfectly with Edmodo’s small group function. Therefore, my first course of action was creating a small group for each novel and adding students to those groups depending on what novel they were reading. With my online platform ready to go, I needed to change the way students interpreted the classroom setting; communication couldn’t be restricted to the circle itself, discussion had to continuously occur. To encourage frequent collaboration, I told my students to have Edmodo open on their desks while they read so they could see each other’s ideas and comment accordingly. I also created a list of weekly discussion questions (e.g., “If a movie were to be made based on your novel, what actor/actress can you visualize playing the main character?”) and asked students to answer them while reading.
Figure 1: Small groups on Edmodo
The impact of this teaching strategy has been incredible. From an engagement perspective, collaborating on Edmodo changed how my students viewed literature circles. Upon reflection, one student mentioned the following:
“I find it way easier to communicate my ideas with my literature circle on Edmodo. I can see how my group is reacting to parts of the book while they happen, and it creates a much better conversation. In previous years, we had to write all of our literature circle work on paper, and it wasn’t as fun or as good of a conversation.”
Figure 2: A typical, student-led conversation during independent reading
I was able to see students share their ideas in “real time” and the level of critical thinking increased with each class. Because Edmodo fostered communication, my students’ critical thinking improved because of their daily collaboration. When one student asked a question or answered one of my weekly questions, all members of the group jumped on board and transformed an idea from a seed to a tree with many branches. As weeks went on, my students were discussing how Shakespeare influenced teenage literature and the pros and cons of publishing novels. Another group demonstrated very high-level critical thinking when they criticized the now-popular, female lead characters. As an English teacher, it was incredible to see young minds thinking and collaborating such mature ideas.
Figure 3: Increasing Critical Thinking
As a young educator, I have a goal of regularly improving my teaching practice based on what’s referred to as the SAMR (i.e., Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition) model. At the heart of SAMR is redesign lessons to lead students to previously inconceivable learning opportunities. Thanks to Edmodo, I have modified an age-old practice like literature circles and transformed it into a student-led, collaborative and engaging activity.