For Ken Halla, technology in the classroom is not only a great way to engage his students, but it’s a part of his responsibility as a teacher. Halla, a social studies teacher, was one of the first of his colleagues at Fairfax County Public Schools to use netbooks in his classroom as part of a county pilot. This year, Halla and his colleagues are pleased to see their school make the official shift to digital e-books school-wide. For Halla, switching to digital is one of the many ways a good teacher needs to change and adapt in order to better serve the students.
“Twenty three years ago I spent a year earning my master’s in education. My methods class was taught by an amazing teacher who was nearing the end of her teaching career,” says Halla. “She taught me a wonderful array of teaching techniques, but more than that she told our class that good teachers reach their students in the way best suited for the learner and not the way the teacher learned as a student.”
For Halla, this has meant changing his delivery almost every year, which he believes has not only improved his craft, but also better taught his students. “Adapting my teaching methodology is why I started my blogs (US Government Teachers’ Blog, World History Teachers’ Blog, US History Teachers’ Blog) as a way for others to more easily find content in social studies and be able to use the free technology available on the web.” Halla’s blogs are making a difference for other teachers: his blogs have a combined 48,000+ views a month and a searchable database of 3500 posts.
What is your proudest professional achievement?
While working full time and raising three children I have managed to find the time to earn a Ph.D. in Political Science, become a Nationally Certified Teacher, and in the last five years start and post 3500 entries on my three social studies and technology blogs
But these are not my greatest accomplishments. During my 22 years of teaching I have educated 3100 students in the classroom, another 1400 as a track and cross country coach and another 500 teachers during in-services. Between these 5000 students, I hope I have inspired a desire to learn for the sake of learning, to be hard-working and organized enough to reach all of one’s goals in life. If this is true of even a few pupils a year, then this is my greatest professional accomplishment.
Can you describe the teacher who most influenced you?
I had the good fortune of growing up around the world. While I was in 8-11th grades, I attended the American School of Paris where I had many terrific teachers. One of them was Chris Chater, who this year is finishing up his last and 45th year of teaching. Chris was always enthusiastic about his music classes and made people like me who have absolutely no musical ability excited about playing an instrument. More recently we reconnected as we have both grown as teachers so our classes reflect the needs of the digital generation. Thus, Chris’ desire to change and adapt is still an inspiration to me in my own teaching to this day. To that end I have now taught 14 different courses in 22 years and have created a paperless, collaborative and semi-self paced environment for my students.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education today?
The amazing thing about today’s world is that one can learn how to innovate simply by getting on the World Wide Web. Weekly I check my professional network which includes my Twitter, Google+ and Netvibes’ accounts. But I also find new ideas and inspiration from e-mailing friends, using Skype or Google Hangouts or even just meeting with them in person. But using these resources I have developed the knowledge to not only teach literally dozens of in-services on integrating technology in the social studies classroom, but I also have created a class for teachers where I can work with others more in depth. In turn I have shown my students how to be more innovative in the classroom.
My Vision for Education
One day all of our students will have interactive lessons where the teacher will walk around the room connecting information, helping pupils do their work and making sure that the necessary learning is being done correctly and where appropriate, collaboratively. Classes will be self-paced and conclude with interactive assessments that measure students’ ability to find and use online resources to answer probing questions. Companies like Knewton are already working with educators to create customized classes such as I have described. But it will take more than cutting edge companies. If the FCC can create free bandwidth for everyone, it will positively impact my lower income students. Likewise, as we go to more cloud computing, we will be able to see lower price delivery devices which will mean that students will be able to bring their own laptop/tablet devices to school (as they are already doing with their smartphones) and will not worry about cost or theft.
Digitization of our classrooms will not mean replacing teachers with computers, but rather helping make our students more capable, better prepared and more excited about embarking on a lifelong journey of learning which will improve the workplace, our democracy and the interconnectivity and equity of our world.
Glimpse Into My Classroom
I have not yet reached a sustained self-paced classroom, but I am moving there. For example, in my World History I class last week, my students watched a short video on the decline of Rome at home. Then in class they went through this Prezi DBQ on Rome’s decline. The students answered the questions in groups using Google Drive about each document and then commenced to writing the essay. When the draft was done, they used shared the assignment electronically with a friend to get feedback. During the entire process I moved around the classroom checking the thesis paragraphs and topic sentences. Likewise, when we studied the Greek gods the students created Fakebook pages creating fictional conversations between the gods that showed understanding of each one’s powers.
In the US government class, we have been using multiple sites for assignments such as this one where my students had to predict the electoral college returns this past November. As a result, when we Tweeted during the presidential election returns, many of my students were able to call the election before the television channels. Another time I teamed my government classes with several US history ones to “solve” the budget, Medicare and Medicaid problems in the US. We did it even though some of our students never met and had classes on different days and different periods.
Timeliness is even more important in my AP Comparative Government class where we just read the globalization and democratization papers put out by the College Board. Before a class last week I created a blog post that connects the two papers to the recent hacking by the Chinese (one of the AP Comparative countries) military that has been the news the past two days thus reinforcing the key concepts on the AP exam and connecting the material to real life examples of a country (China) we study which will improve retention. To save time while our laptops were booting up, I had the students use their smartphones to access the sites.
I tend to believe that “no” is just another way to spell “yes.” There are tremendous obstacles to digitizing the classroom, such as changing teacher techniques, getting buy-in from administrators (and money for teacher training as well) and parents. Students are more trusting of well-prepared teachers and willing to follow their lead. There is also the tremendous cost to digitization and while digital devices are coming down, school systems cannot bear the burden alone of giving devices to all pupils. It also means additional costs for bandwidth, maintenance of technological equipment as well as people to maintain the infrastructure for such changes. Likewise we have to revisit the FERPA and COPPA laws to be able to use more Internet sites in the classroom while still protecting our students. We also need to update how we test our students so they can use the Internet to answer thoughtful questions (another expensive proposition). For those of us on the leading edge, none of the changes are coming quickly enough, but they are bringing the first real changes since the Industrial Revolution created our one-room school houses.
About Ken Halla
- Current residence: Alexandria, Virginia
- Education: William and Mary, B.A., Simmons College M.A.T., Boston University M.A., George Washington University Ph.D., National Board Certified Teacher (Secondary Social Studies)
- Website I check every day: I check my Twitter, Google+ and Netvibes feeds each day.
- Person who inspires me most: Anyone who takes a positive risk for their passion.
- Favorite childhood memory: Family walks in many different places around the world.
- Next travel destination: Salt Lake City (AP Reading)
- When was the last time you laughed? Every day. Why? It is more fun to laugh than be angry or stressed out.
- Favorite book: The First American by HW Brands
- Favorite music: Classic rock
- What is the best advice you have ever received? Always do your best (from my parents).
- Your favorite quote or motto: None, I am more of a show-by-doing than using quick quips.
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