What happens when the iPad begins to collect dust?

Do you ever get so busy that anything nonessential gets pushed to the back of your mind? Of course you do. Me too. A quick review of the last six weeks includes: wedding planning, a new teaching job for the fall, an imminent move out of state, mentoring five first-year teachers... not to mention AP exam preparation for two classes, curriculum development, final exam revisions, myriad professional responsibilities... needless to say, my mind has NOT been on this blog, and unfortunately I've been a bit on auto-pilot in my iPad class as well. But I shook myself out of my glassy-eyed end-of-year semi-coma this week.

The final unit in my Spanish 4 (aka iPad class) is art. Last year I had my students create a virtual art museum using Voicethread and QR codes, which I am repeating this year (with more time and more success). Feedback from my students has been mostly positive, though they don't love Voicethread; in retrospect, we should have found a different app for the visual presentation, but I am familiar with Voicethread and... okay, I was on auto-pilot.

And it struck me late last week that I have gone about this summative assessment all wrong. The students are basically just doing a report on a painting and painter, but with fancy technology. My non-iPad class was able to do the same project with desktop computers. And they could have done it on paper with printouts of the paintings studied. What 21st century skills have my students really developed with this project? What have we done with iPads that could not have been done without them? Not much besides the novelty of creating QR codes and putting them up around the room, which is neat, but is just another way to deliver information--a flashier oral report.

The spark behind this epiphany was that I wanted to come up with a good prompt for a conversation to be recorded in the language lab, and I thought that it would be interesting if they came to an agreement about which art museum in Madrid to visit, using the information they have learned about the major Spanish painters. I quickly realized that this conversation topic presupposes a lot of information: what kind of art each museum houses, which paintings are considered the jewels of each museum, the different viewing experiences that antique and modern art offer, as well as opening times, ticket costs and other logistical information. Suddenly, I had not just a conversation prompt but a project-based learning experience that could only really be done on the iPad. Students would have to gather and synthesize information from multiple sources and maybe create a visual/multimedia presentation that they would use to convince their classmates that the museum and works of art they chose would be the most worthwhile to visit, and why.

Why didn't I think of that in April?!

Near-overwhelming responsibilities outside of the classroom aside, I think I had gotten into a rut. Tools like Showbie (see related post) are great for going paperless, managing workflow and integrating more types of media into lessons, but they also make it really easy to just distribute traditional activities wirelessly, without rethinking what you're actually asking the students to do. Though my students have been using their iPads every day, I think that in some ways our iPads have been collecting dust, because we've been relying on the same types of activities that I do with my traditional class. With this virtual Voicethread museum, students haven't developed collaborative or critical thinking skills in any meaningful way; they haven't explored their own creativity; they haven't evaluated information as much as they should have; and if the relentless questions about creating a QR code in class today were any indicator, they did not develop technology literacy either.

(On the bright side: I am no longer beating myself up for not bringing my "A" game at all times, because taking risks and making mistakes constantly will definitely bring one's ego down a few pegs.)

How do you shake yourself out of a teaching rut?