Sunday, April 3, 2011

A six-year-old-boy named Saulo taught me everything I need to know about using tools in the classroom...


I've been given the green light from my publisher to post the Intro to my book, Digital Tools for Teaching. I hope you enjoy it- as a bonus, I've hunted down the picture to the right of the kindergartener the story focuses on- Saulo. He's the one on the left (in the middle is Anthony and the cheeseball is Antonio).

Thanks to Saulo and all my students and colleagues for teaching me how to teach and reach others!


A six-year-old boy named Saulo taught me everything I need to know about using tools in the classroom.

The year was 1998 and I was fresh out of college, just a month into my first year of teaching/surviving as the only male kindergarten teacher in Moore County, North Carolina. Already I had seen and experienced things that no college prep course could have possibly prepared me for; the daily wailing of the still four year old girl (who wouldn’t turn five for another month), the tiny boy who was deathly afraid of the toilet, the brown-haired angel who had seemingly attached herself to my leg. I had seen, smelled, and cleaned up nearly every possible fluid that could be produced by the human body, but still loved every minute of my work.

Saulo came to me in mid-September as the latest addition to my ever-growing class (I started the year with 18 and ended with 24). His family had just arrived in our area from Mexico, where Saulo and his five-year-old brother Servando had never been through any schooling of any sort. The decision was made to put both boys into separate kindergarten classes- Servando (the lucky one) headed off to the wonderfully talented and experienced Mrs. Pratt. Saulo ended up with the first year teacher shmuck across the way.

The boys had never been apart from each other, knew absolutely no English, and had just started school for the first time. They were completely heartbroken. They screamed, they wailed, and they moaned. These tight-knit boys could hardly stand being apart, so Mrs. Pratt and I decided to try to alleviate some of this by setting up bean bag chairs in the windows next to our doors. Each day, these boys would sit on these chairs and cry longingly at each other through the glass, across the breezeway that separated them.

With each passing day, Saulo would become more and more a part of our class. Little by little, the crying slowed and this little boy would ease his way into our environment. I’d take toys and books over to his bean bag chair and even started moving the chair away from the door little by little in an attempt to bring him into the fold. After three weeks of steady weening, Saulo was finally ready to join us. The smiles and kind words of his classmates helped lure him in (and the snacks didn’t hurt either).

I could tell right away that Saulo was bright. His big, round eyes told the story. He was one of those kids that hang on every syllable, where you can almost see their brains working as they manipulate objects. Unfortunately in my classroom, we didn’t have many objects to manipulate! When I arrived as a late hire in July (school started August 9th), the room I walked into had been vacant and used for various summer camps and programs. In other words, it was trashed and ransacked. There were no books, no paper or pencils, and there were almost no manipulatives at all (just 16 unifix cubes, actually- which I still carry with me today as a reminder of that first year). Saulo, the rest of the class, and I made the best of what we had.

One thing we did have was a sand table- an old, splintery wooden box that held sand and was up on four legs so that my students could stand and play with the sand inside. This was where Saulo and I really started hitting it off. He loved to dig his hands into the sand, feeling the grains slide through his fingers. I started spending part of every school day with Saulo at the sand table. It was here that he first started to learn English. I would dig my hands into the sand and say “sand”, he would dig his hands in and repeat the word “sand”. I’d grab a cup and we’d practice the word “pour”. I’d throw some onto his arm, make a face and say “scratchy” and “arm”, then “wipe it off!” He mimicked everything and once again, his eyes told the story- he was getting it, right off the bat, one word after another. The kid was a sponge, plain and simple.

The other kids started noticing that we were spending a lot of time at this sand table and would join us as well. They picked right up on the game and started leading the way, thinking of different ways to teach Saulo new words. Loving this new interaction with classmates, I would step back and watch in amazement. The kids truly took over, Saulo grabbed on fast, and eventually at the end of the year would become my very best reader (at decoding words- the comprehension came later). Saulo went on from there to have a very successful elementary school career, eventually scoring a perfect score on his 5th grade end of course math exam and being highly respected by all his classmates as an extremely bright, articulate, kind soul.

Now, I want to be perfectly clear here- I had no idea what I was doing. I was just a guy trying to survive and make the best of the situation at hand. I had no training in working with Spanish-speaking students. I had no idea how to incorporate tools or utilize them correctly. I truly was a big doofus that was simply blessed with a ton of patience and a love for children.

I had no way of knowing this at the time, but that experience with Saulo completely shaped who I was to become as an educator. It taught me everything I needed to know about tools and how they are to be used in the classroom. You see, sand is a learning tool. So is a cup. So is a smile. Everything on the planet has educational value- it just takes imagination to discover it. It’s not the tool you are using with a student, it’s what you do with the tool. It’s what you accomplish. It’s the learning that it triggers. Sand is just sand. A cup is simply a cup. A book is just paper. These things are nothing without the guidance, support, and imagination of a teacher.

The younger me unwittingly did some things right with Saulo. First, I identified a tool that was already engaging to the student- Saulo was fascinated with the sand and how it felt. Next, I connected the tool to the primary learning need of the student- Saulo needed to learn English first and foremost, and the sand table served as the vehicle. Finally, I turned the process over to my other students as they became interested and let them lead the way, while I fell into the background as support. This allowed for greater learning for Saulo as well as a sense of leadership and empowerment for his classmates. This is not rocket science- it’s what we do as educators every day. We take a tool and mold it into a vehicle for delivering a relevant, engaging learning experience.

In today’s classroom, the tools we have at our disposal are changing. If you haven’t already seen an influx of technology into your school and classroom, then get ready- it’s coming your way! Schools reflect society and there is no turning back from the technological age we have entered. Right now, in your classroom, you have students that are already engaged by technology outside your walls. They use these types of tools every day in meaningful ways. Like the sand that was already engaging to Saulo, technology can be the gateway between your students and their learning needs. Ignoring a tool that could be the key that unlocks a child’s potential should not be an option. Embracing technology tools with your students can open up a wealth of learning that may otherwise go untapped.

For too long, we as educators have looked at technology as an end rather than as a means. We’re amazed that we can write with our finger on an interactive whiteboard, we’re astounded that we can video conference with someone halfway across the world, and we’re fascinated with the idea that you can connect with the internet via a tiny computer that fits in the palm of our hand. Technology can often seem incredible. For our students, however, technology is not magic. The internet is not magic. It just is. They look at technology in a whole new way- not “How does it work?” but rather “What can it do for me?” Google Earth is not a cool collection of amazing satellite images- it’s a way to find a new route to a friend’s house. Video conferencing is not an astounding new way to communicate in real time with people across the world, it’s a means to understanding another person’s culture. This is a powerful shift that I urge you to attempt to similarly adopt- move away from the “how/why” of technology and more towards the “what”. As in, what can these technology tools do for my students?

If you’re like most teachers, you understand that technology in the classroom is headed your way and you are quite aware that technology is an increasingly relevant tool in your student’s lives; you just haven’t had the support you need in order to use it effectively. Your district or school, like most I have seen or experienced, has probably put an emphasis on obtaining equipment rather than training teachers on proper use. The result of this is a school with a lot of great equipment that teachers do not have the support to take advantage of with their students. This book aims to give you that support.

There are many tools within this book that will get you started on the path of incorporating technology into your classroom effectively, but this book is not about tools. It’s about learning. It’s about connecting your teaching to the tools that are relevant to your students. It’s about creating a relevant, engaging learning experience. The 30 technology tools herein are simply cups and sand. The four supporting chapters are simply guidance for you in how to mold them to meet the needs of today’s students. It’s up to you to provide the courage, imagination, and determination needed to make an impact. The world is changing, your classroom is changing, your students are changing, and this book looks to help you meet these changes head on.

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