Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Heidi Hayes Jacobs on the Challenges of the 21st-Century Classroom

Last week, in part one of our interview with education expert Heidi Hayes Jacobs, we heard about how American educators can revise their literacy instruction to become more active, engaging, and ultimately effective. In part two, Heidi reveals how educational technology, including the Visual Thesaurus, can help keep pace with 21st-century students.

VT: We've seen a YouTube video of your presenting Visual Thesaurus. Where were you?

Heidi: It was in Oklahoma at a State Education Conference, and I was presenting with Alan November. We had about 500 people there.

VT: After demonstrating the Visual Thesaurus, you challenged the teachers by saying: "Or don't do it. Hold on to those color-coded flashcards. There's nothing like those cards!" Can you elaborate on that contrast and how you think the Visual Thesaurus could fit into your notion of Active Literacy practices?

Heidi: Oh, it's my pleasure. It's one of the reasons I really was thrilled that you invited me to be interviewed. We have a clearinghouse at our new website, Curriculum 21. In our clearinghouse, we have tagged Web 2.0 applications, which are interactive applications that we think teachers could use to replace old-style strategies and approaches with better ones to get students more engaged and to increase their learning curve. The very first site that I wanted on there — and we have hundreds — was yours, the Visual Thesaurus. And the reason is I've seen it work. It's incredible.

You go in to a group of students who are bored out of their gourd from looking up words or copying them down or looking at the blackboard, and you turn them loose with Visual Thesaurus. You can ask them to investigate alternative words where they're writing, and they can write more descriptively, with an increased power of words, with new adjectives or adverbs. You give them the Visual Thesaurus, and not only are they lit up by that tool, but they start to find their own "favorite word" list, which they can obviously store there. They can start to look at parts of speech and learn so much. And it's exciting, it's interesting, it's arresting; it shows word relationships in a way that honestly no classroom activity could come close to by using just cardboard and paper. Flashcards are pieces of cardboard or index cards, and you're wrapping a little rubber band around them. The little sound of the rubber band is great, but it doesn't work as well as Visual Thesaurus.

Now, one caveat is that I think some students are going to need more guidance and more assistance. I've seen that too. But really, I have seen students who are just not interested in words given an opportunity to work with the Visual Thesaurus, and it has been exciting, expansive. They start to make discoveries. And whenever I've shown it to a teacher group, oh my gosh, they just want to go to it immediately. I use it a lot in professional development. I'll have a group of administrators, and I'll put in a word like reflect or collaborate or leader, and it starts to shed light.

Words really do shed light. I just find all in all, it's a fantastic way to engage not only students but professionals in learning how to start to use Web 2.0 and how to use those resources strategically. And that's the point, it's strategic use. You don't just say, "Hey, go at it."

VT: Some teachers shy away from technological tools because they're insecure about their level of technological savvy or lack thereof. Even though they may see the potential, getting them to take advantage of technology in the classroom can be tough.

Heidi: I think what you describe is real. One of the things I've written about in the past comes from the notion of differentiated instruction. We've all heard of that. I'm a believer in differentiated staff development. Here's how I'd pose it, and this actually comes from Curriculum 21. I think every school should commit to one replacement, one upgrade, one old strategy replaced with a 21st-century strategy. Otherwise, they should be changing their mission statements to say, "We're a 20th-century school." But that means that faculties need to get some differentiated staff development. Let's say I'm a good teacher, I know curriculum, I know kids, but I'm uncomfortable with technological tools. The professional development should be to get an IT person or just another colleague to sit with me and to show me how to use it.

But here's the ultimate key. Web 2.0 applications, or any uses of digital tools, should come through the curriculum door. I think that when it is posed as a technology issue, some folks recoil. They have difficulty. It isn't about that. This is a tool that will help your kids develop more command of language, and it's better than what you're doing, so let's learn how to do it. And I'll sit down with you and show you how to use this tool, and you're going to try it with your students. It also means your students have a teacher who's willing to learn something. The key is not to say this is all about technology, or that you have to be Bill Gates in the classroom. The idea is to help and assist, and the reason to do it is it's better. I really believe that these are tools to support curriculum, not the other way around.

This isn't just English teachers. For example, I spoke at a keynote dinner at the National Science Teachers Association last month in Philadelphia. It's a wonderful group of people. And I showed Visual Thesaurus, and I asked how would science teachers use it. They went nuts — they loved it because they could see all the stuff about root words and terms and how to play with it. Here's my point: instead of going in and saying, "You need to use this tool," the other way is to say, "Here's a tool. You get your faculty or department or team together. How might we use this really effectively with our students?" When teachers can see how to use it, then they want to use it.

So I think it's a combination of making it more collaborative and showing how a great tool could replace something you're currently using. And it's a matter of teaching people, especially those that are somewhat hesitant with technology. That means that you have to make commitments, and I feel strongly about that. I think schools have to commit to moving. We're not moving into the 21st century, we're already in it. The key is to do it in a thoughtful way. We have to show compassion for teachers, but we have to be unrelenting. No one would take their own child to a doctor who was using standards or medical practices that were 20 years old. So the point is, how do we help people move into it? It's one step at a time for a lot of folks.

You can see Heidi talk about the Visual Thesaurus here. And to read more about her work, please visit her author page.

Click here to read more articles from Teachers at Work.

The first part of our interview with Heidi Hayes Jacobs.
Vocabulary OUT LOUD
Getting inspired by Heidi's "Active Literacy Across the Curriculum."
An excerpt from "Active Literacy Across the Curriculum."