Transforming Urban Middle Schools With Chromebooks and Google Drive

Guest Blogger: Ron Gamma (@RonGamma) is an Assistant Principal at New Design Middle School in New York City.

As a middle school assistant principal I have spent much of my time working with both our school leadership team and department leaders designing new initiatives with the goal of fostering 21st century skills amongst our students. I am a firm believer in what Tony Wagner views as “survival” skills for careers, college, and citizenship. In Wagner’s book The Global Achievement Gap, a great deal of his research centered on conversations with CEOs, managers, and business leaders in the United States and around the world. The question he posed to these leaders was simple: what qualities do you look for in potential employees? What skills really matter in today’s job market and do our schools truly address these skills? As a school leader I am constantly assessing how well our school is equipping our students with the types of skills that Wagner views as essential for survival. During the past two years, our school has focused on increasing student access to technology inside of the classrooms with the hopes of better preparing our students for high school, college, and beyond. Our most vital tool has been the Chromebook and the easy access that it provides to Google Drive. Below is a short analysis of how we have used the Chromebook at our middle school through the lens of a few of Wagner’s survival skills: 

Critical thinking and Problem Solving: The challenges of the 21st century will continue to grow more complex with each passing year. Preparing students to tackle these problems will require the ability to ask difficult questions, analyze various viewpoints, and create solutions using evidence as support. Our students use Chromebooks and Google Drive while working on day-long projects that our school uses three times a year as assessments. We call these assessments Foundations. During Foundations Week our students spend each day focusing on one subject area. From a student’s perspective, s/he spends a day as a mathematician, one day as a scientist, one day as a historian, etc. The assessments involve hands-on experiences while students address real world problems. In all subject areas we have seen the Chromebook used as the primary vehicle for students to conduct research and collaborate using Google Docs and Google Slides in order to prepare final presentations and essays.

Collaboration: As noted above, collaboration is a key component of daily lessons as well as our Foundations Week. The Chromebook has allowed for a seamless transition between working on a project individually to working with peers. All students at our middle school have Google accounts and become accustomed to using the tools that Google offers within the first few months of 6th grade. When our students are creating a written piece such as an argumentative essay around current hot topics, it is crucial that students collaborate. This not only includes peer editing, but also the communication of ideas and viewpoints on pressing issues that leaders around the world grapple with. Google Docs and the Chromebook have helped tremendously in linking students together during the collaboration process.

Effective Oral and Written Communication: The ability to communicate ideas and discuss and solve problems requires a strong sense of communication (both oral and written). To compete in the job market of tomorrow we need to equip our students today with strong communication skills. Chromebooks and access to Google drive offer a very easy platform for students and teachers to work together on written assignments. The use of Google Docs allows students to receive teacher feedback instantly, both in and out of school. Many educators discuss the advantages that Chromebooks provide when it comes to improving written works and written communication. What we have been increasingly impressed with is the use of the Chromebook to assist in improving oral communication as well as developing students into global citizens. During the 2014-2015 school year, our 6th grade students took part in an initiative called Project Pupil (funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). Project Pupil is an online tutoring platform that our students used for math with tutors who are based in India. Our 6th grade students used Chromebooks (accompanied with headsets) to work in small groups with an individual tutor. The platform allowed for collaboration on math problems through discussion. Initially our students struggled and they found it difficult communicating with a teacher that was not standing in front of them. Over time though student math performance improved, which was in part attributed to their growth in oral communication. The use of the Chromebook undoubtedly contributed to the success of this program.

The examples above are only a small sample of how the Chromebook and Google Drive have become a fundamental tool for the middle school students at our school. My goal as an administrator is to continue to be creative in how our school prepares students for careers and a job market that cannot be predicted. One thing is certain…as technology evolves, the world evolves with it, and as educators we must create an environment that is reflective of a 21st century world.

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