Teaching at the Intersection of Tweens and Technology

Awesome educator Heather Wolpert-Gawron takes us inside her classroom. As told to Suzi Parker.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron has been named a California Regional Teacher of the Year and the San Gabriel Valley Outstanding Computer Using Educator. (Photo: Courtesy of Heather Wolpert-Gawron)

Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Tweens are a fascinating species. They are awesome. They can talk about anything, but they still get excited about crayons and when the bulletin board looks different. You get the best of both worlds.

In a middle schooler’s brain, the world is all about them, and their world is very small. It’s me, me, me. It’s “tweencentric” and about the world of the tween—their friends, their families, their sagas. They don’t care about what’s going on in different generations, careers, or places, so it’s important to focus them on what is going on elsewhere, too. It’s up to teachers at all levels to have empathy as part of their curriculum and bring the world to students a little bit.

For teachers, middle schoolers are the last chance for teachers to nurture them in a different way. They are wired to be squirrelly and not make good decisions. Their brains are still developing. They want to try different things. They have the willpower to try different things. They have access to different wardrobes, and no one is making decisions for them. They are willing to dip into different pools.

School can’t be 180 days of babysitting; it has to be 180 days of engaging and learning. You’ve got to find ways to make these days valuable and make sure they keep laughing. They need to love it.

You have to throw off the mantle of authority. You have to say, “I am not authority. I am the person to guide you with the skills to use later on.” Content and knowledge is less important for students at this stage, but guiding students to places where they can find answers is a huge part of our job.

Of course, the online space is an important part of that. Students can’t function outside of school if they can’t function online. We have to ratchet up the focus of our schools on what kids will need in the future. I was a Shakespeare geek. I woke up, realized the online world was happening, and I wasn’t a part of it. If my students didn’t become part of an online world, they were going to be left in the dust. (I still have lots of pictures of Shakespeare in my room, so I didn’t give up the Shakespeare.)

In Heather's classroom, old and new blend: Student drawings of Shakespeare are seen above a blog assignment.

Now, I’m a brave user of technology. I take what I’m learning, what are the best practices that I know of in the classroom and online, and bring that to these kids.

I’ve developed a semester-long unit for my honors language-arts classes about superheroes. The kids will create superheroes and have to write a narrative, an informational piece and an argumentative essay on the science of superhero powers using TED speeches and science sites like NASA. Using science fiction or historical fiction, they will write an origin story. They have to have facts in them—that’s more Common Core. They’ll have a lot of Internet research. If your superhero flies, you have to find what happens to your skin if you are flying at 200 mph. The project blends science and writing.

They will have to write a newspaper piece in the third person around the first sighting of their superhero. Lastly, they will develop a website for a real cause that is near and dear to their superhero’s heart. They will write a persuasive essay and make an argumentative speech to the UN as their character about their cause. My class has a green screen, and we will put the UN on it just because it will make us laugh. And yes, I will demand costumes on their speech day.

The speech and debate team uses technology by creating digital portfolios that they can keep after eighth grade. They are creating a website. So I can flip around and see their progress and they have something to connect them to their work afterhours.

In middle school face-to-face is important, but working beyond the school bell is hugely important, too. In terms of preparing them for the requirements of a 21st-century career, they can’t be clock watchers. They need to be flexible and get the job done. They need to develop the patience and the persistence to plug through a problem even if they aren’t within school’s walls. I know when I’m pumped about accomplishing something for my job, I don’t stop working at it just because the school day’s over. My job is to help develop activities, assessments, and problems that they are pumped to solve and accomplish. Their job is to continue working to solve those problems regardless of where they are.

I’m also teaching remedial seventh graders. You never just want to teach honors. You forget what it’s like to work with or understand the needs of most kids, if you do that. The class is partly online. We see each other 45 minutes a day, but we all have iPads to reconnect in our virtual classroom where we share resources, collaborate using Google Drive, post discussions, reflections, and prompts. My school has let me develop this class for them that incorporates online strategies. That’s important. Some of these kids have never touched a computer.

When I took over the speech and debate team, it seemed stale. It was a nationally ranked team, but I felt like I wasn’t contributing to the momentum of the class. I started to try and weave in podcasting, but this took away for prep time for tournaments. There was pushback, so we ditched it. Now I have the remedial students doing news podcasts, so they get their voices heard. The segments might cover school news, teen talk topics, international news, perhaps a Crossfire-like debate. There might be interviews or reviews. It’s up to the kids.   

If we limit our remedial students to the basics, if we don’t give them a taste of the fun learning, why would they want to reach for bigger things?

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle-school teacher, a teacher trainer, writer, and author of Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers. In 2004, she was a California Regional Teacher of the Year and the San Gabriel Valley Outstanding Computer Using Educator in 2009. She now teaches a diverse population at a Title I California Distinguished School in the San Gabriel Valley, where she promotes “the new educative movement,” which uses 21st-century innovation and strategies, emphasizing the online skills students need for their futures.

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.

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