Make a Great Old-School Lesson Better with Technology

On January 1, I subjected myself to the horror of reading edu-Twitter, where people were coming up with the #oneword for 2018. So many were great words—mindfulness, belief, commitment. But then there were the ones that made me roll my eyes—”technology”, “1to1learning” (which isn’t even one word, it’s four!), and “paperless”.

Technology is great. But it isn’t a cure-all in education. Technology can enhance a lesson, but it doesn’t guarantee that a lesson works, or is even engaging.

Technology can enhance a lesson, but it doesn’t guarantee that a lesson works.

I don’t know when I started sounding like a broken record, but the phrase I find myself using so much lately is, “everything in moderation.” Don’t cut out all sugar—moderate your sugar. Don’t try to go from working out zero days a week to seven—try two or three. Don’t go to an all tech classroom—use technology to make a good lesson even better.

So with that, here are some good “old school” lessons that can be made better with technology.

Student Presentations

Though hard to believe, students did presentations in front of their peers before PowerPoint. And in a lot of ways, they were way better. Nearly every teacher has seen a student-created multimedia presentation that looks something like this:

Student presentations without technology can be great—you have students memorize their presentations, you avoid “butt-theater” (the habit of turning around to look at your slide and turn your butt to the audience), and you can save time by having students focus on content rather than formatting a multimedia presentation.

If you want to add technology, here are some ideas that will make student presentations better:

  • If using PowerPoint or Google Slides, tell students there can be no words on any slide. Only images that support what they are saying. Doing this makes sure that every slide is well thought out and meaningful, not just an outline on a screen.
  • Use apps like Flipgrid or Recap. They limit student presentations to a certain amount of time (Flipgrid is 90 seconds and Recap can be up to 5 minutes) so that students don’t make the mistake of babbling on forever.
  • Have students make a video. What are you really evaluating, their ability to stand in front a group and present, or their ability to synthesize and share information? If it’s the latter, having student-created videos is a great way to allow students to edit, revise, and refine their presentation to exactly what they want.

Image Analysis

One of my favorite strategies is giving students a picture of something and having them really study it.

Years ago, when I taught American history, I printed off copies of Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre and had students work in groups of four to really study it. They saw what you expect, “aggressive” British soldiers murdering “innocent” colonists. But as they looked closer, they saw other things—a dog, text on signs, facial expressions, and so many other details.

Image courtesy Library of Congress.

To take this a step further, my friend from #worldgeochat, Mary-Owen Holmes, has her students write short narrative pieces from the point of view of a person, animal, or object in an image. With the Boston Massacre engraving, you could have students write from the point of view of the British commander or the dying American, or you could get students to think even further and have them write from the point of view of the dog, the commander’s sword, or the smoke rising up from the chimney on the left. It’s another way to get students thinking about an image.

If you want to add technology to this lesson in media literacy, here are some ideas that will make image analysis better:

  • Use PowerPoint or Google Slides to block out 3/4 of the image. Have students do a see, think, wonder for each quadrant (what do you see? what do you think about what you see? what do you wonder about the image?). Then, reveal then entire photograph. A great source for pictures is the “What’s Going On in This Picture” feature from the New York Times Learning Network. The one below came from last week’s National Geographic Education blog!



  • Start with the image zoomed in and pull back revealing more and more of the image. As students see more of an image, their idea of what is going on changes.
  • Use the Library of Congress. They have so many high-resolution images that students can zoom in to see details that you would never notice at first glance. (Truth be told, you could use the Library of Congress images without tech as well, you just need to print them out.)

Socratic Seminars

If you’ve never done a Socratic Seminar, you really should. Though I teach 7th grade, I’ve heard of 2nd-grade teachers using them with just as much success. It gives you, the teacher, the chance to let students take the lead and discuss a topic.

The biggest issue that teachers have with Socratic Seminars is how to do them with a class if 25-30 students. It gets really difficult to have a “discussion” with more than 15 people.

Most teachers have solved this by having an inner circle and outer circle. When you are in the inner circle, you are a part of the discussion. When you are in the outer circle, you are observing and doing something to keep you on task. The outer circle can diagram the conversation, evaluate the comments being made, or take notes on the content shared.

Halfway through the class, the circles switch and the discussion continues. It works well with no technology at all. (It’s called Socratic Seminar after Socrates, and I’m fairly certain he didn’t have Chromebooks available for his students.)

If you want to add technology to it, here are some ideas that will help make Socratic Seminars better:

  • Use a backchannel site like Today’s Meet or the discussion features on your school’s learning management system to have the outer circle have a virtual discussion. They can have a chat about the discussion while it’s going on. It’s a great way to keep them engaged, and you can print off the transcript at the end to see if a shy student who didn’t say much in the inner circle had more to say in the virtual discussion.
  • Have Socratic Seminar coaching. Last Fall I began using Accountability Buddies in my class. You can read the whole post to find out more about them, but in the Socratic Seminar, buddies “coached” each other. One buddy was in the inner circle, the other was in the outer circle. They shared a Google Doc with each other. The buddy in the outer circle offered input to his/her partner, while the inner circle buddy just left their screen open to see what their coach was telling them. That input could be content-related, encouragement, or an observation about the dynamics of the circle. You’ll be amazed as to how much it helps the buddy in the inner circle to have someone rooting for them and trying to give them the help they need to be successful in the discussion.

So how do you take a traditional lesson and make it better with technology? Comment or reach out to me on Twitter (@cheffernan75). I’d love to hear from you!

Chris is one of our #worldgeochat bloggers. #worldgeochat is a professional learning network at its finest—a community of learners who work with each other and for each other. Join us Tuesday nights at 9 Eastern/8 Central—click here for a list of upcoming topics!

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