Carissa Peck loved essays so much as a child, she would break into her father’s bag at night, and read the papers his students filed in his English class. Discovering not all of her own students shared the same joy when she became an English language arts (ELA) teacher was “heartbreaking,” she said in an interview.
Not about to leave her students behind, Peck retooled when she joined Mater Dei Catholic High School in Chula Vista, California five years ago — and out went the five-paragraph essay. Instead, her high school students now create infographics, BuzzFeed-like quizzes and even virtual reality (VR) experiences to illustrate how they can research, write and express their thoughts.
“I’m just doing what teachers have been doing forever,” said Peck. “I find a way to get a hook so I get my students excited.”
Peck’s tool is technology — using sites like CoSpaces Edu and content learning system Schoology — to engage and empower her students. A big fan, or “addict,” as she said, of professional development, Peck also encourages fellow teachers to try out tech tools and devices, and will speak at any conference that comes to the the San Diego area.
That’s how she found herself presenting this week at the Schoology NEXT User Conference — talking not just about VR but also how to use more simple apps like ThingLink, during a session called “Virtually Not an Essay: Technological Alternatives to a standard essay assignment.”
While some teachers may feel nervous when asked to engage with technology, fluency in digital skills is important today for educators. Administrators, however, have an important role in giving educators time to practice with new tech tools, so they can use them with their students.
“Even when providers are eager to integrate technology into childhood education settings, they may not do so because they simply cannot find the time necessary to become comfortable with the technology and plan how to use it successfully,” noted a RAND Corp. research report from 2014.
Peck agrees and finds that one impetus she sees are teachers who won’t dive into using digital sites, particularly if they think their students have already passed them by in their own skills and understanding of technology.
“It’s unfortunate, but I understand it,” she said. She believes teachers need to remember that not only is it great for students to let themselves make mistakes — but that educators get to do that as well. To her, missteps are where wonderful surprises can happen. For example, students she once taught while working in Mexico created a video game instead of a standard book report. “There’s a certain amount of letting go with some technology,” she said.
Adam Larson, director of educational strategy at Schoology, the learning management system Peck uses at her current school, notes that letting educators tip toe into technology helps them grow more confident. “It’s about getting teachers to use stepping stones,” he said in an interview.
To Peck, a learning management system also allows her students post their work in a space that lets her evaluate their progress in her own time — even at home — so she doesn’t feel a time constraint to finish before the end of class time.
As for her students, using technology has, in her opinion, turned them into more passionate learners. Peck notes that she’s taught children who feel overwhelmed by finishing assignments, feeling thwarted by a fear of failure, particularly during high school.
“I’ve had issues with assignment completion, with kids just not turning something in,” she said. “But that rarely happens when they’re enjoying what they’re doing.”
While it’s easy to imagine Peck’s classroom a whirling media lab of VR goggles and computers, she’s still a stickler for the well-written essay. Call her an old-school teacher or a product of her upbringing, but she still has students produce standard writing assignments every year, knowing that their next teacher may prefer those.
“I do think it’s important to make sure kids are prepared for next year,” she said. “They also write essays, and I find their essays are better.”