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So Long, Academic Dead Zones


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When we were in school, there were certain moments that were considered to be learning dead zones. For us, these were times when a teacher showed a movie, or when other students were presenting their own book reports or science projects that we were not so interested in. The number one learning dead zone: absences. Whether you were sick or just taking a day off, when you were absent, you were absent from the classroom.

Teacher’s absences, too, whether for professional development or illness, were times for student celebration. When a teacher was away, movies were shown, and active learning took its own break.

Additionally, if you arrived home and did not understand a concept or assignment, well… you either just persevered without guidance, called a similarly confused friend (who, in this pre-cell phone world, may or may not have been home) or just gave up.

Our connectedness to learning was dependent on our ability — and our teachers’ ability — to be physically present in the classroom. While clearly, being at school is the goal, not being at school does not have to be the academic dead zone it once was. Technology can be used as a tool of connectedness that will fill these academic dead zones so that no learning time is lost, whether one is able to be present in the classroom or not.

Recently, our students worked on a collaborative project and one student was absent for multiple days. While not fully well, he was able to Skype into the classroom from home in order to participate in the group process. While this (of course) is not encouraged for students who are so sick they cannot participate, it is a way for this student to physically rest at home, while mentally remaining connected to the classroom processes, despite his temporary inability to be present in the classroom. It is also worth pointing out that in this instance, this was the student’s idea; he felt connected enough to the collaborative aspect of the project that he felt it necessary to be present, despite his lack of physical presence in the room.

When we were going to school, if a student was sick at home, that time became an academic dead zone. The student came back at a disadvantage, having missed out on in-class learning, and usually with “makeup work” (a.k.a. busy work) to do. With learning management systems and online class web pages, if students have an Internet connection, they can access teachers’ lesson plans and assignments remotely. It was such a hurdle to come back from school and catch up on piles of missed work; with these new technologies, students are able to stay current with what they miss when absent.

Again, clearly students who are truly sick need time to rest at home. But often it is possible to have a balance of physical rest while keeping abreast of what’s happening in the classroom as well; this way, students need not feel so out of the loop upon return to school.

Teacher absences were often academic dead zones as well. Of course we liked our teachers, but if a teacher was absent we either worked independently, read, or, even better–watched a movie. Often, this was just an excuse for students to mentally check out while the teacher was away. In order to mitigate this in our own classrooms, we utilized an online discussion for the students to participate in while we were at a professional development conference. Instead of just watching an episode of the John Adams mini-series in U.S. History class, students had to watch and engage in a simultaneous online discussion about the movie’s content. Instead of checking out, students were checked in–engaged in the content–despite our absence from the classroom.

Similarly, these online discussion forums, when proper protocols have been modeled, can be used to engage students during peer presentations. Student presenters can create their own prompt that they want the other students to discuss while they present; not only does this give the presenting student a more rapt audience, but it also allows the audience to engage more fully with the material instead of checking out into the learning dead zone.

While students used to be at a loss when arriving home not understanding the day’s homework, content, or project, students now have a myriad of options at their disposal to help them clarify expectations or material. Most students, if they have an Internet connection, are able to email their teacher, or, in many schools, access their teacher’s course information, lesson plans, and assignments online. Some students have the opportunity to connect with their peers or teachers through social media. Instead of students being academically isolated once arriving at home, there are now ways for students to remain connected to the material and to obtain the help they need to understand it.

While some may argue that this connectedness is problematic–that students need time to check out of the classroom–we would counter that these academic dead zones were not ever intended to be purposeful times of relaxation or a time to unplug; on the contrary–being in a learning dead zone creates frustration and isolation for the student. Technology has given students the gift of time for learning and has provided teachers with the gift of time for teaching.

While absences of either students or teachers from the physical classroom are inevitable, the academic dead zone that the absence created is now filled with possibilities. Technology has given us the tools to imbue each and every moment with purposeful teaching. Teachers can connect with their students in ways we were unable to do when growing up, students can be mentally present in the classroom despite illness, and teachers can create learning opportunities for students despite absence. Teachers are always fighting for more time. More time with the content, more time with the students, more time to learn. Technology has given us a tool to create time. We just need to know where to look for it.

Jody Passanisi and Shara Peters About the Author: Jody Passanisi has been teaching for eight years at the elementary and middle school levels. She has a BA in psychology from San Francisco State University, an MA in religious studies from the Graduate Theological Union, and an MS in education from Mount St. Mary's College. She has been actively involved in the DeLeT program at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, both as a fellow and a mentor teacher.

Shara Peters has been teaching middle school for two years. She has a BA in Modern Jewish Studies from California State University, Long Beach, and received her teaching credential from the DeLeT program at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. She is currently pursuing her MA in teaching from American Jewish University.

Shara and Jody are passionate about constructivist learning theory and, of course, incorporating new technology into the classroom experience. They are currently teaching in an independent school in the Los Angeles area. Follow on Twitter @21centuryteachr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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