Simple Tools for the Digital Classroom

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The hardest thing for teachers to do is make the transition from paper and pencils to online media: Not enough computers, not enough knowledge, not enough time and a whole new way of doing things. We work with hundreds of teachers in the same situation and we offer this advice:

  • Take small steps.
  • Find a couple of tech-savvy kids in each of your classes to help.
  • Explore the digital world on your own.
  • Seek out people in the school or in professional development spheres to mentor you.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail.
  • Don’t be afraid if you don’t have all the answers – your kids will help.

Teacher Knowledge — Exploring, a few links

As a side note, there are ways you can speed up your learning with an hour a day, or, even, a few hours a week by subscribing to digital educator’s blogs (use Google Reader — click here for 5-minute video)or by, gulp, breaking into I use twitter to link folks to cool posts by students at our site,, but I also use twitter to follow folks who know a lot about digital education. As a start, you can follow me ,, but not to see my posts, but to start following some of the folks I’m following – many are leading experts. Their links and posts will help you explore what’s out there. (For a really basic video on what is, go here.


Student Blogging – Taking a small step

Lucy Gray has a great post here on November Learning which offers some simple guideposts, apps and links. I encourage you to read it. Rather than duplicate it here, I’ll just say what our experience has been and remember our first focus is writing and our second focus is digital civility and literacy:

  • Commenting has been key to the success and the YWP Schools Project digital classrooms. As I discuss in an earlier blog, getting kids to claim ownership of this digital space will yield great results and the secret to that is to get them commenting on each other’s work and sharing work outside of school.
  • Some software makes it difficult to easily comment on each other’s work or to see other’s comments or it puts the kids’ work out in the blogosphere where it is unlikely to get any feedback at all. Develop strategies to combat that.
  • Here are some links about commenting.
  • A how-to guide on commenting.

A forgotten aspect of getting kids to blog, is ensuring they have:

  • keyboarding skills; a site that recommends good tutorial software for keyboarding.
  • Adequate computers and/or Internet connection at home; many students do not, and offering these kids opportunity to access school equipment is a viable solution. (One teacher up here is actually organizing a project to refurbish corporate computer discards and give them to kids.)

So with commenting as a key aspect of blogging, here are a few recommendations:

  •  This is not shameless promotion; we are a small nonprofit and we do not yet have the capability of setting up classrooms outside of VT and NH, but will be doing a few national pilots in the coming school year. These sites are best thought of as “containers” that allow teachers to assign, critique and track all student work – even that done on outside Web apps; and allow students to respond to assignments, give and receive feedback and incorporate any multimedia they want. (For the techies among you, we use Drupal.) FYI, one 7th grade class using our sites this year has 48 students and, in 3 months has produce 669 posts and 1,449 comments to each other!
  • This software is relatively easy to use and set up. It’s free. But it does take some time and effort to do right; can a school tech person help? ALSO, there is wordpress-multi-user that may be an option for your school; it is also free.
  • Also a free service for student blogs; good functionality in being able to encourage commenting and see what others are doing.
  • While you can’t beat the price and it’s a great way to get started, it is hard to administer and track student work; it is also hard for students to build community or offer a flurry of feedback.
  • This seems more oriented to classroom management, but it’s free and people are using it for class blogging.

Modest cost alternatives

  • This has a limited free offering — storage is low and some advertising. But worth looking at. This service was great and free, but they changed the financing model.
  • This was also headed in a very nice direction — intuitive, free — but recently started charging. Check it out though; has many fine features.
  • The free version really is not that useful — little storage, to name one drawback — but paid is relatively inexpensive and offers some good features.

In upcoming posts, I’ll offer you thoughts on podcasting, using images, video commenting, slideshows and other experiences from our digital classroom experiences.

Geoffrey Gevalt is founder of Young Writers Project, a small nonprofit in Vermont that works with hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in an effort to improve students’ writing skills and digital literacy. To see the project’s work, or He can be reached at ggevalt (at) or 802-324-9537


  1. There are many great advantageous to the digital classroom. However, as someone with a 7th grader and 9th grader who also teaches technology to 6th graders and keyboarding to 4th and 5th graders, I have concerns about kids spending long periods of time in front of computer screens. Granted they are able to do much more writing at a computer keyboard than long-hand. However, kids have lost the art of “play.” It is very difficult for them to entertain themselves if they don’t have a screen in front of them. Also, there face-to-face communication skills are really lacking because they communicate so much through technology. There don’t see the how the power of their words affect others. It is almost as if they are removed from what they post. How do we utilize the many advantages of technology without creating isolated children who become isolated adults?

  2. Susan,
    What a thoughtful and important response and set of points.
    As someone who grew up with pencils and then typewriters I entirely get your point. There is not enough “play” which I also define as exploration. Added to that are the stresses of outcome performance and a more rigid set of requirements in schools that leave many of the kids, frankly, less than inspired.

    “Screens” can sometimes add to the problem. Particularly with younger kids who are not handy with the keyboard and not very good communicators to begin with.

    But here’s my turn, and it’s in severl parts.

    First, kids ARE spending much more time on screens and there’s little we can do about that. What we can do, though, is teach them about civility, tone and precision in expressing observation. Part of this, of course, is to get them to think about the power and impact of their words AND to help them understand what’s missing in the online exchange. Filling in the gaps becomes an important part of developing critical thinking and writing skills. The magic we are seeing in many of our digital classrooms is the true power of the commenting back and forth that truly inspires the authors.

    We have also found, interestingly, that kids feel the written responses online have more value, than face-to-face comments from their peers. “I expect my friend to say she liked it,” said one student to me. “She’s my friend. But if she writes it then I know she really means it.”

    Also, we encourage teachers to use the sites specifically for “fun” — quick 7-minute writes in response to a wacky picture, or a silly debate; we encourage the teachers to have kids post “whatever” from home. In one school a 7th grader posted a piece, with photo, ‘What do I do with this Justin Bieber cutout?’ It became a hilarious classroom wide project, contest and writing exercise.

    Finally, the isolation issue is a big one. But we are in Vermont where student isolation, particularly teen isolation, is a big issue not because of computer screens but because of geography. We’ve found that our student-led site actually brings kids together, helps them connect and collaborate and learn from each other in ways they never have before.

    But I say all this knowing that kids connecting with each other face to face is extremely important. As I sometimes tell the kids, HEY! Go outside! Go skating with a friend!

    cheers and many thanks for your response. Like a kid, I’m always inspired by hearing that someone read my thoughts.



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