5 Questions for English Teacher (and Early Adopter) Mary Collie

Mary Collie teaching creative nonfiction

Mary Collie is one of Marin Academy’s early adopters applying new technology to the classroom. At MA, she teaches English I, Journalism, Baseball Literature, and Creative Nonfiction. Mary also coaches the girls water polo team and serves as faculty advisor to MA’s newspaper, The Voice.

1. What have you learned so far from having new technology tools in the classroom?

The first thing is that sometimes students are able to figure out things more quickly than I can. For example, in my English I class, one of the iPad applications wasn’t working. It was slightly frustrating until one of my students said, “You just do it like this,” and it worked—I hadn’t thought of it in that way before! In some ways, the kids are way ahead of me. In other ways, there is still a lot for them to learn. For example, my students often see the iPad as something for just social and entertainment purposes. One of the hardest things is trying to shift their mentality into seeing that it’s also educational. It’s similar to the introduction of laptops in the classroom ten years ago: students were distracted at first, and now they see using laptops as a great way to work.

Marin Academy students viewing materials for class—iPads are educational as well as entertaining!

One fun thing that I have done in class is having students write on their iPads and then putting their work on the screen to share on the spot. Using iPads to project students’ writing in real time raises the stakes a little. It’s kind of like a scrimmage: it’s not a game because they’re not turning it in to me for a grade, but it’s also not just a situation where a student thinks, “Maybe she’ll call on me, maybe she won’t.” There is a little more focus that requires a little more engagement. These exercises also take less time on the iPad. Last year, each student would have to grab a pen, walk to the board, write on the board, and so on. The iPad cuts all that out so that students are still doing small group work, preparing a thesis statement, working with each other, etc., but it’s instant. We can talk about everyone’s work in one class period instead of missing some people because we run out of time.

2. When I first began teaching, English papers were handwritten, much the same as when I was in high school. As word processing became more accessible in the 80s and 90s, it really changed how students learned and were evaluated. Do you see new technology changing the way that students write?

Creative nonfiction students taking a break from their screens

Our students are still typing, but it’s easier to do in-class writing. This year, my freshmen have done all of their in-class writing on the computer because the logistics have been easier with our new equipment. I wanted to assess my students’ real-time writing because that’s how I can really see their skills. A student can take a paper home and get it polished by a friend, a family member, or a tutor, but it’s hard for me to assess their true ability outside the classroom. Now our students, who have had computers around them for years, think more fluidly when they are typing as opposed to writing by hand. That’s true for me, too. I don’t expect them to have a final draft in one class period, but it’s certainly faster when they are typing.

The mechanics of the evaluation process have also changed. Students do in-class writing, get feedback, and put it in the course’s dropbox. I pick it up, read it online, and do all of my grading on the iPad. We don’t use paper anymore. All of their handouts are online too. I used to have a folder of students’ papers that I would have to schlep around. Right now I have 72 pieces of writing on my iPad. It’s great.

3. How do you teach students to write?

Sharing work in order to build their writing foundation

Part of teaching ninth graders is helping them improve their writing skills, and that can be slightly formulaic. For example, I want students to understand that they need a statement, proof, analysis, transition, concluding paragraph, and so on. That doesn’t encompass all types of writing, but it’s very helpful in structuring an analytic essay. Students really vary in their level of experience: while some students have been writing five-paragraph essays since second grade, other students have never done any analysis. These writing formulas level the playing field a little and lay the foundation. Once students move into sophomore year, the foundation is so strong that they can experiment with more intricate and mature text. By the time they get to my creative nonfiction, they know that to really write well, you have to know all of the rules so that you can break them.

4. From your perspective, are there any that losses associated with technology that trouble you? 

In-class writing

In my journalism class, we have moved The Voice to be online-only. One loss is that we no longer design for print. Because our school computers have Photoshop and other design programs, they could still learn these skills on their own, but it’s not part of my teaching anymore.

I think that people equate technology with ease rather than just simply being different, but I wasn’t expecting technology to make teaching any easier. That’s an important piece to remember. It also doesn’t necessarily remove any substance. With the newspaper, for example, all the content is still there—we’re just getting our news out a different way.

5. As an early adopter, part of your charge is to experiment, and even fail. What’s that like as a teacher?

Reviewing student writing

I like it. Failure was the topic of my speech at graduation last year—I think that’s the only way you can learn. In teaching, your content can challenge you, your students can challenge you, or your method can challenge you. All three can be overwhelming. I feel very comfortable in the content that I teach, so changing the method is a good challenge for me. I say “I don’t know” all the time to the students, and I’m totally comfortable with that. I think they respect that because teachers don’t know all the answers all the time.


About Travis

Head of School, Marin Academy.
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