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Tales of a One-to-One Laptop Classroom Newbie

By Alycia Zimmerman on October 2, 2013
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Since I began teaching, we’ve always made do in my classroom with four clunky computers and a shared (and very old) laptop cart. I know this is more than what many classes have, but I couldn’t help but enviously dream about those one-to-one laptop classrooms I’d read about. A similarly tricked-out techie classroom was on my teaching bucket list. Oh, what I could do if we had enough devices!

Fast forward to this school year, and my computing-classroom Xanadu is now a reality. No, I didn’t win a mega grant. I’ve cobbled together a ragtag collection of devices from DonorsChoose.org projects and cast-offs from my family and friends, as well as devices on loan from my students’ families. (I’m piloting an optional “Bring Your Own Device” program in my classroom.)

So, now that I’m on the side with the greener grass, I feel like I have an obligation to suddenly morph my teaching into The Jetsons'-Classroom-of-the-Future, and I’m not exactly sure how to make that happen! Sure, I’m pretty tech savvy and I scour edutech blogs. But I worry about making sure that the tech utilization in my classroom supports differentiated instruction, critical thinking, social development, and of course, works to meet the standards. I have all of these devices . . . now what?!

This isn’t an expert blog post. Not even an expert-in-the-making post. This is more a brainstorm — I’m going to share what I already have in the works, my next steps, and my pipe dreams. I’d also love any and all advice, cheerleading, practical tips, and cautionary tales. Please help!


What’s in the Works . . .

The Heavenly Cloud

My students are already writing on the computers (it’s way easier to revise than writing on paper!), graphing data on the computers, and more. And given that our laptops get passed around among the students and that they collaborate on their writing, I decided a shared “cloud drive” would be most efficient. It also allows me to check in on my students’ work without having to log onto their individual devices.

I created a Google account for my class, and I set up Google Drive on all of the computers in my classroom. My students are sold — they love that they can access their work on the drive from home and that they can collaborate with their friends from multiple devices. Yes, it was a pain in the neck downloading Google Drive on 25 devices — next time, I think I’ll solicit student experts to help — but the investment in time is already paying off.

Our class Google Drive allows the students to work from different devices and collaborate with each other.

Morning Routines 2.0

My students begin the day with a predictable morning routine — independent math work to start the day, a check-in with their reading partner, and class chores and jobs. Our class meteorologist looks up the weather online and posts the daily forecast for the rest of the class to see and analyze. Our data recorder adds the high and low temperatures into an Excel spreadsheet so we can graph weather trends. And reading partners check out and discuss the news on kids’ news sites like Scholastic News and Dogo News.

Even though we have enough devices for every student in my class, I still plan many activities to involve partner-computing to maintain a social element to this work. I like that our morning routine closely mirrors an adult routine — checking in on the weather, and reading and discussing the news. Once we begin our ePal exchange, I imagine that the students will also use morning-work time to check in on emails from their pen pals.

Collaboration makes computer research so much more exciting.

eReading with Storia

I’ve been using Storia in my classroom for eReading for two years now, and it’s always been motivating for my students — especially my reluctant readers. (Check out this blog post in which I share how I introduce eReading with Storia to my class.) With only a few devices in my classroom, one of the challenges we faced was that students could rarely find enough time with a device to read an entire chapter book on Storia. Now that we have plenty of devices, using Storia for independent reading is a viable full-time choice. It doesn’t feel like a novelty activity — independent eReading is now as natural (and accessible) as independent reading.



Some Next Steps

Stop Teaching the Tech Tools

I’ve tried an experiment twice so far this year. I pointed some of my students towards technology tools that I’ve previously taught with dedicated lessons — iMovie for movie making and Tagxedo for crafting word clouds. This year I simply informed them about the tool and said, “Figure it out, and let me know what you discover.” Yep, I really, truly did that. In the case of Tagxedo, a pair of students had it figured out in half an hour and were spreading the word among the other students about “this cool word art.” (I love academic gossip!) The pair of kids working with iMovie came and asked for help. I pointed them to an eight-minute YouTube tutorial that highlighted iMovie’s features, and after watching that they were off and running.

I’m realizing that nobody teaches me how to use tech tools — I figure it out through trial and error, and when I’m stumped I turn to message boards, help-screens, or YouTube. And I feel pretty proud of myself when I learn how to use a new tech tool. Maybe I’ve been cheating my students out of that feeling when I model technologies step-by-step? Going forward, when they are stumped, I’ll teach them where to look for answers, but I’m through with the hand-holding. (That knocks out one of my Four Tips for Computing with Kids. I still stand by the other three tips.)

Open-Ended Technology Anchor Activities

Anchor activities are those “I’m done, now what?” activities — simple time-fillers, long-term projects, and meaningful independent work. We usually build an evolving list of possible activities for each subject area. Now that we have plenty of devices in my classroom, this opens a whole new area for possible anchor activities. I’m trying to figure out how to make these techie anchor activities productive (as in “producing something”) rather than consumerist (i.e. playing a learning game.) I’ve taught computer programming using Scratch in the past as a dedicated unit. I’m wondering if it would work as a less teacher-directed anchor activity? Blogging as an anchor activity? Do you have suggestions for me?


My BHAG (“Big Hairy Audacious Goal”)

I want to move away from “technology projects” and move towards using technology to facilitate learning in better, deeper ways. Edutech writer-thinker Marc Prensky writes at length about focusing our teaching on “verbs” rather than “nouns” — that is, focusing on the thinking we want our students to do, not the tools that they will use. To make this possible, he argues that the teacher needs to assume the role of mentor-guide, rather than lecturer, and that we need to let the students figure out how to use the tech tools themselves to accomplish their learning (with guidance).

So, while I’ve taught plenty of “tech projects” in my classroom, quite often my teaching focused on how to use a technological tool, (a noun, per Marc’s lingo). I’m interested in exploring how to empower my students to use technology to “teach themselves.” I don’t want to update my teaching to incorporate technology — I want to overhaul my students’ learning because of what technology makes possible. Um, is it okay to admit that my goal scares me?

Call for Help

If you have a one-to-one classroom, please share what works for you! And even if you don’t have a plethora of devices, I’d love to brainstorm with you. I’m excited at the possibilities to transform my students’ learning with our newfound access to technology, and I’m scared of squandering the opportunities. Please help me along the way!

I hope to share more while I’m on this journey. If you want updates about my future blog posts, follow me on Facebook or Twitter.  

Comments (4)

Alycia and Kate: I don't know how much you consider what you're doing to be "blended learning", but I just found out about this MOOC. If you have time, perhaps you'd want to sign up? I think I'm going to!



Alycia: This is awesome! I LOVE your attitude - on every angle! Mazel tov... this is SO awesome.

I'm not a teacher, just a friend of Alycia's from college, but I'm really interested in education technology and "blended learning"... particularly how it can change the game for students and extend teachers' time and attention to where their expertise is really needed (facilitation like Alycia describes here, tough learning hurdles, helping students who are stuck, etc.). I have been doing a lot of reading about cool edtech startups, so now that I know you are pushing hard to create a fully digital classroom, I'm going to go dig up some of the companies I've read about and send them your way!

Good luck, and I'm excited to start following your blog!


Well this is really an interesting post. I hear teachers complain about lack of computers all the time--and it feels like you just moved past the negative spot and said "I am going to try to get to a place where every kid has a computer." Kudos to you for the positive approach! Education needs more go getters and doers like you.

I'd love to know the breakdown of your devices--how many desktop, laptops, tablets etc? is there a mix of PC and Mac? How is that going for you?

Storage? Any security issues with the devices?

Management ideas to share? I am just thinking about charging the computers--putting them away every night--getting them rolling in the morning.

Are they all online or just some of them? How are you supporting online access?

I especially like the fact that you are steering the kids to a tutorial to learn how to use the apps and software. Trial and error is terrific-- I hope you will post the iMovie that the kids do.

My only tip is that there are always some "racehorses" in the class-the kids that this all comes naturally to. I set them up as my experts--but I made sure there was a balance for the advanced kids as well--so that they were able to pursue some higher level activities without constantly being relied on as the experts...

Thanks as always for the great post!

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