Summit schools teach 21st century skills with modern technology
October 5, 2014
At Summit Middle School, sixth-grade science and humanities teacher Nelle Biggs often encourages her students to take out their phones in class.
In the era of "just Google it," today's kids look to their smartphones for answers, and Biggs said modern phone capabilities can be helpful for teaching and learning. A fellow sixth-grade teacher added that students know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate times to use their personal devices.
"For the most part, students are pretty responsible," said Ryan Mihm, who teaches language arts and humanities. "I've never caught someone texting in class in three years."
On Monday, Sept. 22, Biggs and Mihm attended the Summit School District's first professional development session focused on technology.
All the school district's elementary, middle and high school teachers met at the Summit Middle auditorium for an after-school presentation given by technology consultant Leslie Fisher.
Fisher told the educators that her favorite tools are free and don't require downloading anything. She demonstrated programs and apps like Kahoot, Screenleap, Aurasma and Plicker.
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"QR codes are so 2011," she said.
What's cool these days are programs like Elements 4D, she said, which uses augmented-reality software to turn blocks labeled with chemical elements from the periodic table into moving, interactive images. It's something you'd imagine seeing with magic wands at Hogwarts.
Flashy tools can leave teachers feeling excited, like they've received new toys on Christmas that they may or may not use a month from now.
Bethany Massey, the district's director of assessment and technology, said that's not what it's about.
"It's not technology for technology's sake," Massey said. "Tools go away. These specific things go away."
Instead, the district aims to integrate technology in ways that benefit learning and instruction and prepare students for their adult lives.
Educators often talk of teaching 21st century skills, which isn't just a buzzword, Massey said. The phrase refers to state and national standards that require students to master using the Web and connected devices to effectively, safely and ethically communicate, collaborate, innovate, create and research.
The standards aren't the only reason teachers are using more screens these days. Kids are already using the technology, Massey said. "It's not pushed on them."
The district is working toward building a technology team at every school, she said, and a district-wide technology committee meets every couple months to envision which skills students should have upon leaving the school system and which resources they need depending on their age.
For example, laptops and desktops have been standard for more than a decade for older kids working on research papers, Massey said, while the district has recently embraced lower-cost tablets, like iPads and Chromebooks, for younger children.
In that vein, administrators initially thought 5- and 6-year-old kindergartners would benefit from iPad Minis, but teachers found the kids' tiny fingers hadn't yet developed the fine motor skills needed for the small screens.
ONLINE TESTING AND ONE-TO-ONE
One of the district's goals, Massey said, is giving students experience on different kinds and brands of devices; that can be a challenge, however, when it makes more sense financially to buy hundreds of devices in bulk through one supplier.
Last year, the district prioritized eliminating device deficits in schools, with a goal of eventually achieving one-to-one computing — in which each student receives a device for Internet access and digital learning.
The rush for schools to buy tablets and other computers comes ahead of a looming deadline for new online standardized tests, as part of the national Common Core standards. For the first time ever this spring, all the state's mandatory assessments will be online, and students will be required to take the tests on desktops, laptops or tablets.
In more rural, less wealthy districts, figuring out how to shuffle students and devices around securely is posing a logistical nightmare. Summit, however, will have enough devices to give the tests to all students in the same grade at the same time.
This summer, the central administration building was flooded with new devices ready to be sent out to schools. Last year, the district also prioritized improving school technology infrastructure by increasing bandwidth and Wi-Fi access.
Though the district is approaching that one-to-one goal, devices usually are kept in classrooms or rolled between them on shared carts instead of being assigned to individual students.
The one-to-one goal also helps teachers span the digital divide, said Julie McCluskie, district spokeswoman, referring to the fact that not every kid goes home to devices and Internet access. Teachers want all their students to be comfortable using the devices they will use when it comes time for testing in the spring.
At the beginning of this school year, Summit's kindergartners were given a national test, and teachers soon realized some kids had never touched a computer mouse before. The assessment became more a test of their comfort level with technology than what they actually knew, Massey said, and the district doesn't want to see that happen with the older kids taking more high-stakes tests.
One clear benefit of moving everything online is saving paper.
The district won't see dozens of boxes of paper tests coming in and out of the central administration building this year.
School libraries also have evolved along with the digital revolution. Librarians are now called media specialists, and Massey said they have become the go-to people for providing teachers technology resources, ideas and support.
Schools have also started moving to more cloud-based technologies.
At Summit Middle School, where principal Joel Rivera encourages teachers to go paperless, sixth-grade English and language arts teacher Ben Brown has his students complete their work online through Google Classroom.
Preparing kids for the 21st century workplace might be more of a challenge for teachers in the twilight of their careers who might've grown up with manual typewriters, McCluskie said.
In recent years, however, McCluskie said she has noticed more teachers taking responsibility for their students' tech skills.
Even the more old-fashioned educators see the value of newer technology, she said, because they realize students who aren't exposed to tablets or who don't have efficient typing skills aren't ready for most jobs these days.
Some parents have raised concerns about the hours a day kids now spend using electronics. Others have questioned major changes built around devices that didn't exist five to 10 years ago.
"A paperless environment is going to look more like people staring at their devices," Mihm said, and avoiding too much screen time must be the responsibility of parents.
Kids used to being surrounded by devices are more engaged when schoolwork involves technology, Biggs added, and teachers find new ways to use the advancements to incorporate interpersonal communication skills.
"We're building in the interaction," she said.
Mihm said he sometimes struggles with devices in schools because the technology he grew up with and uses in his personal life now isn't like what his students use in and out of class.
A quality teacher, however, meets students in their reality, he said.
At a debriefing after Monday's technology presentation, Mihm said he was excited to learn about programs that create spreadsheets automatically, which would save teachers time inputting data.
Brown said he values integrating new digital methods because though he doesn't know what technology will be used years from now, training kids with the programs and applications of today prepares them for the changes they'll face tomorrow.