Integrating Technology in the Classroom: Elementary

The widespread use of technology is a pivotal factor in today’s classrooms. Students are expected to proficiently access information in the digital world as early as elementary school. It is truly unbelievable how much digital information is being presented to students in and out of the classroom. For digital instruction to be effective, however, it must be planned for and utilized with specific and deliberate purposes. Technology for technology’s sake is not beneficial to student learning. Instead, technology should be integrated as a means to engage, enrich, and extend learning objectives for students on a regular basis. So, how can this be accomplished at the elementary level?

Cyber Safety

One essential concept for elementary students to learn is cyber safety. The unfortunate, yet unavoidable, truth that comes with digital technology use in classrooms is the fact that students become immediately immersed in a world with few boundaries. Aside from cyberbullying and cyberstalking, which have become simply newer, easier ways to spread hate, teachers and parents must concern themselves with protecting elementary-aged students from the vast information available. Luckily, schools have made it relatively easy for teachers to limit what students can and cannot access. In addition, technologies such as Lanschool allow teachers to monitor exactly what each student’s screen looks like, and close it out if need be.

An initial elementary lesson on technology use should involve safe searches, handling cyberbullying, and managing safe digital footprints—the digital output of a person’s online actions and behavior. Remind students, even at the elementary age, that everything we search, post, share, comment on, or “like” can be copied and shared with anyone.

Lesson Ideas

For elementary school, students may come into the classroom with varying familiarities when it comes to internet use. Begin with something simple, and allow opportunities for enrichment as students develop search skills. For instance, if students are asked to outline the week’s weather forecast, provide them with previewed links or suggested sites that remove ads and pop-ups. For the most part, schools’ firewall settings will alleviate this issue beforehand, but it is best to double check sites before pushing them out to students.

For students that are well-versed in the digital realm, allow them to complete something like the weather outline via Google classroom. Post a digital form of the graphic organizer as a Google document. Students with less familiarity with technology can use a physical paper copy of the assignment. This option not only incorporates student choice, but it also allows students to work on their comfort level and technology skill development at their own pace.

Another idea for using technology in the elementary classroom involves the common “word of the day.” Students can be provided with URLs for sites such as dictionary.com or merriam-webster.com in order to search their vocabulary terms. These sites also provide options to hear how the terms are pronounced and see examples of the terms used in sentences. Allow students to keep a running Google document of new terms with definitions, parts of speech, and sentences for context. Teachers can also “share” a document with the entire class via Google classroom, allowing students to add, edit, or comment as the class dictionary evolves.

Combatting Stress in the Classroom

Illnesses in the classroom are inevitable. The highly social aspect of the classroom is one of the great parts of education—students working and learning closely together. Unfortunately, the flipside to this is that germs are spread in these enclosed social realms very, VERY easily.

As many parents are well-aware, students fall ill most frequently during the winter months. Whether it be a cold, stomach bug, or full-on flu, students are most susceptible during the colder months because of the tendency to remain indoors, where germs are more easily transmitted. Physical illnesses, however, are not the only noticeable health issues in the classroom. As teachers, we are also well-aware of the fact that school can be a major turning point when it comes to recognizing mental health issues in adolescents.

Yes, Lysol and antibacterial wipes go a long way in the classroom in terms of keeping our students healthy. However, much like the invisibility of dangerous germs in the classroom, mental health issues can be even more difficult to detect. Of course, school counsellors are much more knowledgeable when it comes to formal diagnosis, but teachers should know what to look for as well. One major indicator can be how a child responds to stress.

Stress can have a major impact on student success and well-being. As much as we try to minimize stress on our students, academia inevitably puts young people into stressful situations. Stress-management is a vital skill for students to acquire in their primary and secondary years of school, but what does it look like when stress becomes too much? When is it overwhelming on a destructive level?

Extremely stressed students will appear extremely lethargic, disinterested, or sluggish in the classroom. This low energy is a physical response to stress, anxiety, and/or depression. When things become overwhelming, adolescents sometimes cope by “shutting down.” Lethargy is a means of “checking out” or evading whatever it is that is stressing them out. It is also a sure sign that a student is not getting enough sleep due to stress or worry.

Task avoidance is another layer of low energy exhibited by stressed students. This can be marked by missed assignments, a sudden drop in grades, or an increase in school absences. Avoiding tasks or school altogether is a more direct manner of evading the stressors. The issue, however, is that missed school will only result in escalating the problem of falling behind, thus increasing stress.

Repetitive or ritualistic behavior could be an effect of anxiety caused by stress. Often a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), the subtle routines become methods to self-soothe or irrationally alleviate stress. Students may also blink, tap, fidget, etc., as a distraction technique when they begin to feel overwhelmed.  

Sudden social issues are another sign that stress has reached an unmanageable level for adolescents. Because peer groups shift regularly and unpredictably, these “friend fluctuations” are difficult to distinguish as stress-related, or simply teenagers being teenagers. The key here is for teachers to recognize social withdrawal versus shifting friendships. A previously social or congenial student who suddenly appears lonely, withdrawn, or isolated is likely experiencing stress or anxiety. When this extreme introverted behavior lasts continuously for any length of time, it is important to look deeper at the situation.

Parent as the Teacher

The impact of parent involvement is immeasurable when it comes to student success. Decades of research indicates that involved parents are one of the main factors to a student’s educational success. As educators, we certainly recognize the extent to which parents are pivotal to our work in the classroom. A popular adage claims that “home is a child’s first classroom; parents, the first teachers.” According to data and experience in the classroom, teachers would almost unanimously agree to that notion—we cannot do it without the help of parents.

As educators, we must also be cognizant of the “parent as teacher” mindset that students unknowingly bring into the classroom. Kids only know what they see, hear, and live. Often times, a student’s behavior, manner of speaking, and opinions are greatly indicative of a few influential factors: friends and family. Parents intentionally and sometimes unintentionally teach or model certain behaviors or mindsets. When you do the math, parents are obviously the most influential figure in a child’s education. Any given year, children spend eight times as many hours at home than they do at school.   

That said, parents then become our greatest allies when it comes to knowing our students best. At the start of the year, many teachers prepare for the back-to-school night by creating some form of parent questionnaires. These small surveys or get-to-know-you cards inevitably get tossed in a drawer and likely forgotten. However, an easy tweaking of the questions could allow parents to “teach” their child’s teachers some of the vital information necessary for success in the classroom. Take a look at some questions that would allow parents to educate the teacher on their child’s learning styles.

How do you handle discipline at home? This question allows parents to explain what has or perhaps has not worked with their children in terms of behavior management. It also gives teachers some insight as to how familiar a student is with receiving consequences.

What activities or topics spark your child’s interest? How do you know when he/she is engaged? Both of these questions allow teachers to get some valuable background information as to how to best reach a student. Parents also provide teachers with the insight as to how a specific child displays interest.

How does your child exhibit frustration or stress? Again, emotional growth is something that children mostly develop outside of school among family and peers. Knowing exactly what it looks like before a child is pushed to the emotional edge will help teachers to recognize and ease frustrations before they become significant issues.

How much does your child depend on you for help with schoolwork at home? This question gives teachers an inside look at the level of academic independence and self-advocacy that they can expect from students. Of course, parents are always eager to help their children with anything; however, the level of support needed in the classroom is often reflective of how reliant the child is at home.

What is the best way to encourage your child? Like all of the previous questions, teachers can truly rely on parents as the experts when it comes to positive reinforcement and encouragement in the classroom. Some children respond to competition, while others may be more self-motivated. Some students like to know exactly how to manage time and assignments, while others prefer a more student-driven or creative approach to learning. Whatever the case, parents truly have the wherewithal to help teachers learn about their students quickly and accurately.

This expert knowledge of our students can really only come from one place—home. Therefore, when parents are more involved, teachers and students both reap the benefits of this sort of “insider information.”

Secrets of a Great Student: Part II

Great students have many characteristics in common—prioritizing, accepting challenges, adopting a positive outlook, self-checking, and advocating, among others. Of course, every learner is different, and what works for one will not necessarily suit another. However, here are five additional commonalities among great students.

1. Great students recognize the importance of learning. This may sound obvious, but education is not necessarily immediately appreciated by young learners. For many, school can be frustrating or boring—a negative experience at times. No matter how eager a learner, every student is going to be met with bouts of repetition, memorization, and deep focus—not always mentally-stimulating practices. However, academic success comes with the knowledge that learning can and should be a challenge—that anything difficult is going to come with frustration, but will be immeasurably beneficial.

2. Successful students step outside of their comfort zones to pick up new skills, hobbies, and talents. In the same way that we know that learning never ends, great learners embrace the idea of constantly trying to build their repertoire of knowledge. Whether it be a new topic, sport, artistic skill, social goal, or unfamiliar hobby, successful students are not satisfied unless they are soaking in something new. Their thirst for knowledge transcends what they know they are already good at—instead, they want to try for more. Great learners do not rest on their laurels, but rather recognize that past achievements are mere stepping stones for continuous growth.

3. Great students seek help from others. Much like advocating for oneself by asking questions and seeking help from teachers, learners work through struggles and difficulties by reaching out for assistance and advice from others. Whether this be advice from adults or peers, adolescents find success through collaboration and cooperation. The ability to recognize their own weaknesses as strengths in others helps students begin to utilize their peers. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness—this is a sign of self-recognition and self-awareness. To know what you need help with is to strive for more knowledge from others.

4. Successful learners are eager to teach and/or share what they have learned. As many educators know, mastery of content or skill is best exhibited when students are able to instruct others. To teach someone else indicates that a student understands the inner workings of a concept. It is a crucial opportunity to take information or skills absorbed and articulate the concept in one’s own words.

5.  Successful students practice creativity and innovation. Again, to step outside of the box is a risk and is not always comfortable for young learners. However, this ability to try a new way of doing something exhibits strength, confidence, and ingenuity. Learning is all about growth and development of skills and knowledge. Great learners know that there are multiple roads to success in any given goal. Whether addressing a simple math problem or mapping out a plan for the future, great students know that trails to success are paved individually and creatively.

Secrets of a Great Student: Part I

Being studious is not necessarily innate. Sure, there are some children that seem to take to academia more readily; however, there is no denying that children can improve their propensity for learning. In fact, an important notion of education is that learning is infinite—it is never “over” or “maxed out.” Since learning truly never ends, we can also presume that learners are always improving and growing. So, what exactly do great students do to achieve greatness in the academic realm?  

A great student is sure to prioritize. This is not always easy, especially nowadays when children are overscheduled like never before. Practices, rehearsals, tournamentsall of these activities are likely familiar to school-age children. Families today are packing as much activity as possible into any given weekday. And, as much as athletics, arts, music, and other extracurricular activities are an integral part of education, successful students know that academics must take a top spot on the list of priorities.   

Great students accept and embrace challenges. The wise saying “a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor” certainly applies here. Students who not only accept challenges, but readily chase them, exhibit a few strong characteristics of great students. The pursuit of something difficult means that students are not afraid or intimidated by failure. They are likely confident in their abilities, but also, they know that failure is often a valuable learning experience. The notion that struggle makes you stronger is one that great students try to keep in the forefront when faced with difficulty.

With the grit and hardworking mentality of a great student also comes a positive outlook. Great students not only embrace challenges as mentioned above, they also keep a positive mindset during their endeavors. Remaining positive is quite possibly the most difficult practice for great students. It is natural to feel let down or discouraged when things do not go as planned. However, great students harness those feelings and use them as motivating factors for moving forward—they turn lemons into lemonade, so to speak.

Great students self-check. They are able to recognize their weaknesses and areas of need in order to succeed. Because they are so in-touch with themselves as learners, they know how to study, organize, draft, and execute school work efficiently and effectively. They recognize when they have been able to retain information, and, conversely, when they may have zoned out or missed the mark. Being in tune with how they learn best ensures that time and energy is never wasted when studying or working.

Great students advocate for themselves. This type of productive accountability is often difficult to achieve in elementary school. Students with shy or reserved personalities tend to struggle with this concept at first—speaking to adults can be intimidating for them. As uncomfortable as it may be at first, great students learn to speak up, ask questions, and seek help when necessary. When students take initiative, this type of go-getter attitude also builds self-confidence.

Handwriting Day: Classroom Accommodations for Students

Sloppy handwriting can be frustrating for students, parents, and teachers alike. Because some students’ writing is difficult to read, it may appear as though these students are lazy or careless. While teachers have undoubtedly encountered some “charismatic” writing styles in the classroom, it is likely that they have also met some students who truly struggle with a learning disability that greatly affects their ability to put words on paper—dysgraphia.  Dysgraphia is much more complex than just careless or sloppy writing. Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder or learning disability that affects a person’s written expression. It is characterized by difficulties with putting thoughts to paper in both an expressive sense and a physical sense. Children with dysgraphia may struggle with the thought process behind written spelling and sentence-writing or with the fine motor skills required to physically compose words on paper.

In every area of academics, students are going to need to write clearly, correctly, and somewhat quickly. However, a student who struggles with dysgraphia may find difficulty with one or all of these aspects of writing. Whether students must steadily copy notes in class, provide clearly written short answers, or compose accurate responses, it may not always be easy for students with dysgraphia to relay correct items onto paper. When this is a struggle, accommodations must be considered in order to ensure that students are able to access the curriculum and have a fair shot at success.

Below are helpful accommodations to help students who are diagnosed with dysgraphia. Consider, too, that a struggling student who has not been formally coded with this learning disability may still benefit from some of these best-teaching practices.

Teacher notes ensure that struggling students have accurate and clear notes. Depending on need, you can decide to provide an entire lecture’s notes, or modify it for fill-in-the-blank notes. Fill-in-the-blank helps to guarantee that students are not zoning out during instruction. Since they must follow along in order to fill in the appropriate notes, students are still motivated to listen and write certain important information down. Teacher notes provide students with essential information without the laborious and often stressful act of organizing and writing it all down themselves.

Outlines and graphic organizers—which most teachers use anyhow—prove to be lifesavers for students with dysgraphia who struggle to organize information. One processing difficulty that is often seen with dysgraphia is an inability to logically organize written work on a page. The thoughts are there, but writing them down becomes a roadblock. With outlines and organizers, students focus less organizing material themselves and more on the actual content.

A scribe is an accommodation seen with many students with IEPs or 504s; however, this can be used informally, as well. The learning expectation does not change at all—students must still answer correctly. However, instead of writing the answer or response, students respond orally for the teacher to record. Again, this accommodation removes the frustration of writing, but still ensures that the student has mastered the objective.

Providing student choice is another way to allow students with dysgraphia to circumvent written work. Giving students the option of the output or project they create not only increases student engagement, but it also ensures that students are given a fair shot at being successful. Instead of a written essay on a theme, for instance, students could create a visual representation. Students could also have the choice to give an oral presentation, prepare debate questions, or make a comic strip. Consider providing student choice for major projects or assignments to allow students with writing issues to shine in other ways.

Handwriting Day: Helpful Hints for Parents of Struggling Writers

Sloppy handwriting can be frustrating for students, parents, and teachers alike. The writing is difficult to read and appears to exhibit a lack of effort on behalf of the “scribe” or writer. Dysgraphia, however, is much more complex than just a careless or sloppy writer. Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder or learning disability in which the person’s written expression is affected or compromised. Dysgraphia is characterized by difficulties with putting thoughts to paper in both an expressive sense and a physical sense. This means that children with dysgraphia may struggle with the thought process behind written spelling and sentence-writing or with the fine motor skills required to physically compose words on paper.

Obviously, this learning disability can be greatly frustrating due to its negative impact on children as learners. No matter the class, a child is going to need to write clearly, correctly, and somewhat quickly. Signs that a struggling writer may have more going on than simple sloppiness are below. Of course, when identified and treated, children are better able to achieve academic success. With the help of psychologists for language-based dysgraphia, and the assistance of an occupational therapist for mechanical or motor skills difficulties, children are far more likely to succeed academically.

Signs to be aware of:

Is your child’s writing not only illegible, but inconsistent as well? If letters are “sloppy” but also varied in terms of size, shape, upper/lower case, cursive/print, etc., this may be an indication of dysgraphia.

Does your child ignore lines or margins on the paper? This is likely more than just a “rebel” move to disregard neatness. Children who regularly neglect the designated lines and margins are likely exhibiting an issue with spatial recognition—which accompanies the handwriting issues aligned with dysgraphia. Another observation to note is if your child begins writing in the middle or bottom of a clean sheet of paper. Again, failing to start at the top left of the paper could be a spatial recognition issue.

Does your child’s grip seem exceptionally strange or labored? This could mean anything from gripping way down on the pencil, almost touching the paper, to strained or slanted wrist positioning. These types of grips and hand positioning are not only uncomfortable, but they can also further discourage a young writer. If children do not correct their grip, muscle memory will become more challenging during occupational therapy. Children with dysgraphia may also slant or position their paper oddly while writing.

Is your child’s writing speed painfully slow? This could also be an indication of a larger issue. Because of the physical and expressive difficulty, children may write exceptionally slowly. The motor skills, combined with the difficulty with representing thoughts in written form, makes writing or copying a sentence extremely arduous. A child with dysgraphia may also lean very closely to the paper or watch the hand that is writing.

Building a Strong Vocabulary: Secondary Level

Comprehensive studies estimate that there are likely three quarters of a million English words, and this is a conservative estimation. With seemingly limitless options to choose from when speaking, writing, or reading, vocabulary acquisition is a vital, albeit somewhat disregarded, aspect of academic development. Surprisingly, many schools greatly limit vocabulary instruction after a certain grade, some even forgoing it altogether. So, how exactly can we foster a rich vocabulary for teens as they work their way through the upper grades?

Use theater practices or role play to encourage alternate ways of communicating. The idea behind these types of activities involves the practical uses of vocabulary. One major benefit, if not the most important gain from having a vast vocabulary, is the fact that it allows us to be chameleons, so to speak. The more ways that we can express ourselves, the better. Vocabulary is a key component when speaking for different purposes, audiences, or scenarios. When employing certain vocabulary, you are making a conscious decision about how to appeal to the person or persons with whom you are speaking. A sign of intelligence, as well as a major benefit for college and career-ready students, is the ability to alter speech and vocabulary for various circumstances. The more you can practice “playing” certain roles, the better.

Studies suggest that direct instruction of vocabulary does little to build an understanding. Word games, however, are a fun and easy way to practice building vocabulary at any age. Scrabble, Boggle, and crossword puzzles will provide students with skills to build a robust vocabulary. Even using an activity such as Mad Libs can help teens practice vocabulary use in a “play-like” format. Utilizing word games is a great way to build motivation and comprehension without making it seem like instruction.

Incorporating synonyms is another valuable manner of building vocabulary. When your teen is expressing emotions, prompt him or her to use other words beyond “mad,” “sad,” and “happy.” Expressions, actions, emotions—the categories are limitless for introducing synonyms. The point here is to provide as much exposure as possible. Even when speaking around your teens, introduce advanced or unfamiliar words so that they can hear them being used in everyday speech. When doing this, be sure to provide adequate context so that the new terms are rooted in speech or language that they already know. Otherwise, the new terms will be literally lost in translation.

Reading is a very obvious, yet necessary aspect of building a strong vocabulary. When adolescents encounter new texts, they are bound to face new terms, as well. Reading is a natural way to use context clues for vocabulary acquisition. Not every word meaning is going to be handed to a reader—the text will make the reader work for it. Encourage your middle or high schooler to recognize and pause when a word is not decipherable through the context. After rereading, if the word is still unidentifiable, prompt him or her to look it up. Nowadays, technology literally puts resources in the palms of students’ hands. Two seconds is all it takes to add that new definition or understanding to a teen’s repertoire.

Building a Strong Vocabulary: Elementary Level

Information gathered from the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary estimates that there are likely three quarters of a million English words, and this is a conservative estimation. With seemingly limitless options to choose from when speaking, writing, or reading, vocabulary acquisition is a vital, albeit somewhat disregarded, aspect of academic development. Elementary curricula widely limit vocabulary instruction after a certain grade, making it even more important to build up a strong foundation at home. So, how exactly can we foster a rich vocabulary for children at a young age? Surprisingly, age is on their side when it comes to acquiring vocabulary skills.

A little-known fact about language is that it cannot only be heard before birth, but some studies indicate that infants even begin to equate meaning to words in the womb, as well. Even more impressive is the rapid rate by which school-aged children learn new words after age six—an average of 20 new words per day! This information proves that it is never too early to work on improving vocabulary.

Studies suggest that direct instruction of vocabulary does little to build an understanding. Word games, however, are a fun and easy way to practice building vocabulary at a young age. Scrabble, Boggle, crossword puzzles, etc., will provide children with skills to build a robust vocabulary. Even using an activity such as Mad Libs can help children practice vocabulary use in a “play-like” format. Utilizing word games is a great way to build motivation and comprehension without making it seem like instruction.

Incorporating synonyms is another valuable manner of building vocabulary. When your child is expressing emotions, prompt him or her to use other words beyond “mad,” “sad,and “happy.” Expressions, animals, actions, colors—the categories are limitless for introducing synonyms. The point here is to provide as much exposure as possible. Even when speaking around your children, introduce new or unfamiliar words so that they can hear them being used in everyday speech. When doing this, be sure to provide adequate context so that the new terms are rooted in speech or language that they already know. Otherwise, the new terms will be literally lost in translation.

It is also important to note that it is not necessary to correct children’s speech on a regular basis. The interesting part of “kid-speak” is the subconscious thought process behind youngsters’ common grammatical errors. For instance, it may be adorable when we hear children say things like, “I goed to the store with Mom today.” No, “goed” is not grammatically correct, but it does exhibit the attempt to use the past tense verb of “to go.” Instead of blatantly correcting their error, subtly replace their “goed” with “went.” This slight shift in language use will demonstrate the correct grammatical usage without frustrating them with constant corrections. Once they have mastered the grammatical usage, synonym work becomes even more helpful. Did you “go” to the store with mom? Or did you mosey to, rush to, visit, meander through, peruse about, etc.

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The Value in Letting them Fall or Fail

It goes without saying that a strong support system at home can mean all of the difference when it comes to student academic success. Yes, parents play the most influential role when it comes to motivation and achievement. However, one flipside to the supportive and involved parent is when caring becomes coddling. Circumstances vary from family to family, and even from child to child within the same family—what helps one learner could hinder another. However, at a certain point, it becomes obvious, especially to educators, that some students have simply never been given the opportunity to struggle.

Given the opportunity to struggle? Why, you may ask, would any parent or teacher want students to experience such an opportunity? The reasoning is quite simple: children whose parents fix their every problem, mend their every snag, intercept their every challenge, become reliant instead of resilient. When speaking of mountains, hurdles, or obstacles, it is of course a natural response for parents to want to absorb or shoulder those struggles—to ensure that their child sails smoothly through their education. However, as Franklin D. Roosevelt so eloquently stated, “Smooth seas never made a skilled sailor.”

Roosevelt’s quote rings astoundingly true in an educational sense—a child who never encounters difficulties, challenges, or “rough waters” while learning will be ill-equipped when it comes to real world difficulties. Failure is not something that parents anxiously await; however, there is much to be said about the resilience of a young learner when he or she knows that failure is a necessary part of the learning process. Without the difficulties, a student will simply expect “smooth sailing.” Much like the inexperienced sailor, these learners will likely capsize at the first sign of rough waters ahead. Instead, parents must be willing to, however reluctantly, stand aside and allow their children to navigate the obstacles on their own. This is no easy feat—it is against all natural inclinations to watch their own children struggle. But, in these moments, it is important that parents find comfort in the fact that these “failures” or challenging times are securing a child’s ability to recognize self-advocacy, independence, self-reliance, responsibility, self-confidence, and motivation. The gains are truly infinite when children learn to stand on their own two feet.

Now, of course, there will always be occasions when a student may need help to keep his head above water. As a parent, you will recognize these instances in your child’s education better than anyone else. When this happens, step in as the experienced captain or simply provide a little bit more of a guiding light. But remember, as they say, experience is the best teacher, and the worst experiences often end up teaching us the greatest lessons.