My district provided my 5th grade students Chromebooks in January. Since then, everyone from the cashier at the grocery store to my neurologist has asked me what I think. In short, I love them. Those little computers have transformed learning in ways that I never imagined.
Class discussions are actually exciting now. Before, half of the children participated. After receiving the Chromebooks, we read a Time for Kids article about a Medal of Honor recipient. Someone asked how a Medal of Honor is different from a Purple Heart. “I don’t know,” I replied. “You have the computers. Look it up.” All of a sudden, everyone was involved, leaning over each other’s screens, looking up all sorts of military and civilian honors, and calling out what they had discovered. My job suddenly switched from having the answers to suggesting more questions.
I had to start making advance arrangements with guest speakers. Was it okay for us keep our computers open? The students had begun searching for the answers to their questions as a speaker presented, leaving the difficult questions for our guest to answer. Chromebooks had elevated our classroom discussions.
They also changed how we responded to reading. Written responses used to be between teacher and student via a composition book that we handed back and forth. When we began posting responses in Canvas, other students started chiming in. Entire threads got going about the origin of bananas and who did what chores at home. Misunderstandings were corrected by other students. Everyone became a teacher.
During writing, I used to have time for a few individual conferences. Improvement was slow. Google Docs allow me to quickly check in, cheer for great effort and great writing, see who didn’t understand a suggestion, and require recalcitrant capitalizers to mend their ways while I waited. But my biggest surprise was that it solved the heartbreaking problem of the child who erases all of their work. When it happened in a composition book, there was little I could do, but on a Chromebook, “No, that was good! Don’t give up! Ctrl-Z, ctrl-Z until it comes back!”
Working in groups is much better as well. Now that all group members can work simultaneously in Google Slides, no one monopolizes the poster. I can watch them as they create, seeing who is contributing and who needs extra help. As well as physically walking around, I could virtually walk through each group’s work without having to dig through desks to find it. The time I saved allowed me to give much more thoughtful feedback. There was a tendency for children to accidentally erase each other’s work, so I adapted my cry to, “What happened to that page? Who erased it? Everyone hit ctrl-Z until it comes back!”
Google apps changed much more than writing. I got to the point where every time I was about to hand my students a piece of paper, I would think, “Why can’t we do this on our computers?” For our 5th grade culminating project, students used to turn in an entire binder of work, but this year, that binder was thin. They didn’t just replace the paper, however. They added pictures, videos, and links. Entering citations was much easier. They made QR codes that linked to large collections of their work. They also made some unfortunate font choices. I’ll have to make it a lesson next year.
Once the sheer volume of Google Docs threatened to bury me, I needed Google Classroom. It changed my entire paper flow. All teachers have students who don’t turn in their work, hoping we won’t notice. For each assignment, I either had to take precious learning time to check or I found out on the weekend when I caught up on grading. Google Classroom tells me instantly, not only how many are missing, but whose. What magic is this?
Speaking of magic, truly individualized instruction finally happened every day. Years ago, I tried this in paper form in an English learners’ lab class. It was exhausting to manage. Using Lexia for reading and DreamBox for math, students worked daily at their own pace on problems matched to their needs. It was a lot more fun than any paper I could copy. Students could choose what topic they felt ready to tackle and still saw me when they got stuck. Those programs became so popular that students would groan mightily when we returned to regular classwork.
Many other things became possible as well. We used online math manipulatives. Everyone could participate in Kahoots and AnswerGardens. We could choose eBooks for and dial NewsELA articles to each group’s reading level. Everyone could do their own Google or InstaGrok searches without having to argue or share. They even edited their own photographs.
Until we had Chromebooks, I never understood how my students longed to draw better. They had to choose five spelling words and draw pictures of them, mostly so I could find lingering misunderstandings like “rack” for “rake.” Once they had Chromebooks, they brought up real-life images to draw from. Not once did I ask for this, they did it on their own. They took their computer to Art for the same reason.
Perhaps the most charming change was how children reached me in off hours. I would notice new Docs in my shared drive titled, “My Book,” “Things I Want You to Know About Me,” or less fortunately, “My Favorite Cats.” Children who weren’t even in my class would work on a project and drop in into my drive to see what I thought.
Were there some regrettable choices? Of course. One student kept playing games, and another threw attitude at me every time I shut down her video viewing. A third used Docs to chat with a girl in another classroom, which I actually thought was pretty clever. I also gave away of a bunch of board games because inside recess is all about online games now. And no one will be allowed to draw a picture of the spelling word “string” ever again. Look it up if you must, but you have been warned.
Despite all of that, I’m not giving the Chromebooks back. We used them all day. My students thought more deeply, both collectively and independently. They wrote and drew better. They stuck with their work longer. This summer, my piles of handouts are getting a complete overhaul so we can surprise ourselves some more next year.