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Jimmy Juliano

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on December 12, 2008 at 7:03:56 pm


Background: Bernotas Middle School


My walk through Bernotas Middle School was not unlike previous walks through the school – stopping to chat with other teachers in the hallway, observing students busily at work, and taking note of the “productive noise” that resonates from inside the classroom walls.  Still, this walk through the school had a bit more purpose than other journeys through the halls.  This time, I was taking note of the different technologies being utilized by students and faculty, keeping an eye out for instances of students utilizing digital communication.  I was fairly positive I would see many students and teachers using computers, but was unsure of how the computers were being used, exactly.  I imagined I would see numerous cases of simple word processing, an instructor utilizing a classroom PowerPoint, and maybe students creating PowerPoints of their own.  These were certainly my assumptions, although what I would eventually observe challenged my initial theories while still partially conforming to my expectations.


Bernotas is a middle school in Crystal Lake, Illinois that serves about 1,100 students.  The community is fairly affluent, and Bernotas is the recipient of more than adequate funding.  As a result, technology is readily available to students and faculty.  Every teacher has a desktop computer that functions quickly effectively.  Each 7th and 8th grade teaching team (a team is comprised of two language arts teachers, one math teacher, and one science teacher) has access to thirty-two laptop computers on a mobile cart.  However, this cart must be plugged into a local network source, as Bernotas is not entirely wirelessly equipped. Thirty-three Apple iMac computers exist in a basement lab that services 6th grade computer students and 7th/8th grade applied technology students, and these computers are solely for class use; other students may use them before and after school.  Finally, there are two computer labs that house about thirty-four PCs each and must be checked out in advance by an educator.  Once the students are online, the connectivity is usually not a problem.  However, the laptops sometimes require an extreme amount of time to be up and running, and the district server experiences frequent problems throughout the year.  Students often have difficulty saving files and accessing their individual network folders due to these problems.




Classroom visits


As I walked through the hallways, I wondered exactly how many of the many laptops would be in use.  Our administration consistently suggests to educators that these laptops should almost always be in use by a member of a team, so I was curious to see if the educators would put this suggestion into practice while keeping an eye out for other technologies, as well.  I peeked inside a 6th grade science classroom and the students were watching a DVD of Egypt with a focus on the River Nile.  Two doors down, a math teacher modeled problems on the board while students dutifully took notes while seated in their four rows of desks.  No real technological engagement yet (watching a DVD notwithstanding), and I moved ahead to a 7th grade language arts classroom.  Bulls eye – about fifteen laptops were in use, some shared by three students and others being used individually.  It seemed the students were working on a variety of projects, so I asked the teacher, Danielle Simmons, the types of assignments the students were working on.


“A lot of different things,” she replied.  “Some are creating alternate covers for books they are reading.  Some are researching information about the authors to include as part of a book review.”


I heard some music coming from one laptop as students sat around the computer in the corner of the room, relaxing on pillows with young adult novels in their hands.


“They are listening to a radio station, 101 or something,” said Danielle.


Q101,” kindly corrected one of the students before quickly going back to his book.


The students were clearly engaged, and our administration would be satisfied to witness this combination of technology, constructivism, and choice in learning.  These ideals have been pushed heavily by the administration, and Danielle Simmons was hitting all three simultaneously.


“Would you like a preview of our next project?” asked Danielle.


“Sure,” I replied, the students returning to their seats as Danielle fired up the digital projector.  She quickly pulled up a Word document that was supplemented with pictures pulled off of the Internet, complete with captions below each picture.


“As we move forward with our expository pieces, it is important not to lose the attention spans of our readers, because expository pieces can be construed as being rather boring to a reader,” instructed Danielle.  “While writing these pieces, I want you to utilize the same ideals you use in your reading journals – making connections to the text.  You will be pulling Jpegs online, inserting them into your text, and adding captions to the pictures explaining your connection to the photo and how it relates to your expository topic.” 


Were students digitally communicating? How could digital communication be improved?


As Danielle continued with her lesson, I smiled and nodded at her as a thank you gesture, and exited the room.  Technology was certainly being utilized in a variety of activities, but what was the relationship to digital communication?  The correlations were not entirely clear on the surface, as students were mostly using computers as technological tools to more easily complete an assignment.  Author research and book cover creation were not tasks that required a computer – they were simply tasks made easier and more engaging through the use of a computer.  Granted, students were communicating their ideas artfully and more poignantly through technology, and this seemed to be a part of the trend of digitally performing these tasks as opposed to more the more traditional pencil and paper method.  I reasoned this was a part of the present and future of schools right here – using Internet and computer software to more easily create and edit fairly standard classroom assignments.  The expository pieces supplemented with pictures and captions seemed to follow this line of thinking, as well – an assignment that could be accomplished without a computer, but now becoming more standard while using online and word processing tools.  Nevertheless, the nature of the expository assignment intrigued me, as the addition of pictures and connections to the students’ pieces seemed to form an interesting relationship to language arts reading strategies, digital communication, and digital literacy.  According to Digital Strategy, digital literacy is "the ability to use digital technology, communication tools or networks to locate, evaluate, use and create information."  Students will, indeed, communicate to their instructor, their peers, and themselves more readily personal connections to non-fiction pieces.  The laptops allow students to perform this standard reading task much more efficiently, and in doing so improved upon their reading prowess as well their digital literacy skills.














To the left is a sample "Text-to-Self" Connections worksheet. The same principles of this worksheet can be applied to multimedia/digial projects by the students providing hyperlinks to articles, videos, and websites where connections are made.  The students can provide captions explaining their connections, making for a more interactive, personal, and engaging 21st century learning experience.







I couldn’t help but think if students took this assignment a few steps further by inserting hyperlinks and other multimedia into their texts and captions, so readers could actively engage with their text and connections.  Being a language arts class with a focus on reading strategies, perhaps the students could make use of adjunct questioning in their pieces and communicate their knowledge and understanding utilizing 21st century technologies.  In his book, Learning and Instruction, Richard Mayer makes mention of adjunct questions. These are questions that can be inserted into text and can serve forward or backward functions (Mayer 333). Forward questions inform the reader what to pay attention to in subsequent portions, while backwards questions give readers the opportunity to assess what has already been read (333). These questions can enhance comprehension by “helping the learner pay more attention to the material, focusing the learner’s attention on certain types of information, and, when used skillfully, guiding how learners organize and interpret the material” (333).  


A teacher could utilize this method in the classroom with a program such as iMovie.  For example, instead of simply showing a 40-minute video in social studies from start to finish, the educator can splice up the film and insert adjunct questions into the film. This will certainly assist students in focusing on the material, as well as assist in analysis of the information. Furthermore, students can create their own digital media projects on their expository topics with a focus on adjunct questioning, easily manipulating multimedia materials that highlight their understanding of the curriculum as well as fostering their use and practice of the questioning strategy. The students can lead class discussions and guide the other students in a way that truly showcases mastery of organization and communication of key academic traits.


Ms. Simmon's students were certainly engaging with digital communication, although they were more dipping a toe into the pool than jumping in headfirst.  Other language arts teachers I saw were using digital tools in the same fashion – a 6th grade language arts class were creating timelines of historical events; an 8th grade writing class was writing poems and stories on laptops; a 7th grade history class had recently finished the film “National Treasure” and was locating famous American symbols online to be used as part of a PowerPoint to showcase their connections to the discovered information.  A 7th grade language arts class was in a computer lab using Microsoft Publisher to create faux newspaper articles concerning the fictional piece “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe.  Again, students were communicating their knowledge more efficiently and effectively using digital devices, but still only scratching the surface of the capabilities.


6th grade computers and 7th/8th grade applied technology


My classes – 6th grade computers and 7th/8th grade applied technology – were engaged with many activities throughout the course of the same day.  6th graders were creating “Choose Your Own AdventureKeynote stories, effectively creating a template for their stories, pulling pictures off of the Internet, and making use of hyperlinks in the stories to guide readers in the right direction.  7th graders were using iMovie to create digital stories, while 8th graders were programming Lego robots using Mind Storms software to complete an obstacle course.  Reflecting on my own activities for the day, were my students utilizing digital communication?


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Students had to program their Lego robots to maunever through this obstacle course.


Certainly, my 6th graders stories were greatly enhanced by placing them into Keynote and manipulating text to create hyperlinks.  Readers would click on different parts of the story, and it would lead them down different paths to different endings.  This is certainly possible with pencil and paper, but the students were genuinely excited to work with computers to complete this task.  The 6th graders seem to be reaching the point where they expect to use computers to complete such tasks, and I am happy to be ushering in a digital communication as the norm for students to express themselves creatively. 


The 8th graders were practicing problem-solving using elements of math and science to reason the most efficient way for their robots to complete an obstacle course challenge – a communication of knowledge in a hands-on,

digital environment. 


Finally, the 7th graders’ digital stories are prime examples of artistic and personal communication using digital resources.  Some examples of digital stories created include a personal story on a student’s cat, a written and narrated picture book, and a moving piece on a student’s journey to overcome a brain tumor.  In his piece, “The World of Digital Storytelling”, Jason Ohler writes, “Creating a digital story taps skills and talents – in art, media production, storytelling, project development, and so on – that might otherwise lie dormant within many students but that will serve them well in school, at work, and in expressing themselves personally” (Ohler 47).  Ohler describes perfectly the proficiencies honed through digital storytelling, and how the combination of skills readies students both academically and personally in a 21st century, digital environment.  Students communicating with the world using these tools “help [them] become active participants rather than passive consumers” (47).



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A short video outlining the key principles and elements of a digital story.



Conclusions on Digital Communication at Bernotas


Bernotas Middle School has the technological tools in place for students to make leaps in 21st century digital communication, and from my observations in day walking the school, I can say that these tools were certainly being put into play.  Every single language arts classroom I observed had laptops in the hands of some students, and a variety of tasks were being performed.  The computer labs were busy with students, and engagement and commitment to these tools were being demonstrated by both the faculty and students.  Most students were completing assignments and projects no-doubt possible without a computer, but the computers allowed students to communicate artistically and academically more effectively and with additional amounts of engrossment.  Many of the assignments I witnessed could be improved by having students extend their learning into areas such as hyper linking and adjunct questioning, for example, and as computers become more the norm in classrooms the assignments will undoubtedly be more reflected upon and positively modified by willing teachers that become more comfortable with the software and digital communication in the 21st century classroom.


References and Links of Interest


The Boston Historical Society. The Boston Massacre Files. [Online] Available: http://bostonhistory.org/sub/bostonmassacre/game.html [2008, December 7]. (This is a fantastic website for students to engage with that utilizes adjunct questioning - check it out for a great example of reading strategies meshing wonderfully with 21st century learning!)

Florida Online Reading Professional Development Project. Making Connections. [Online]. Available: http://forpd.ucf.edu/strategies/stratText.html [2008, December 12].

Gratigny, J (Producer). (2008, January 15) Producing a Digital Story [instructional video]. Retrieved December 12, 2008 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lYorRznpq0

Digital Strategy: Glossary of Terms http://www.digitalstrategy.govt.nz/Resources/Glossary-of-Key-Terms/

Lego [demonstrative video]. Retrieved December 12, 2008 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9Wuxncx_1I

Mayer, R. (2003). Learning and Instruction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Ohler, J. (2006). The World of Digital Storytelling http://www.jasonohler.com/pdfs/digitalStorytellingArticle1-2006.pdf


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