Category Archives: TeacherMate

‘With technology, they’re right there with it’

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Frances Curry, first-grade teacher, trying out a device that will help her students learn to read

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.  – First-grade teacher Frances Curry had an iPod Touch in her fingers and a pair of headphones on her ears. She peered at the three-inch screen, her fingers tapping.

Then she paused. And smiled.

“The kid reads a word,” she said, “and then the program tells him to say the word. And then the kid hears it back, in his own voice.

“And then the program asks them, ‘Did you read that correctly?’ “ 

She sounded as if she had experienced a marvel.

Would her students benefit?

“Oh, my God, yes. They love technology!” she said. “When I talk to them, it’s just …”

She fluttered her fingers — an illustration of an attention span floating away into thin air.

“But with technology, they’re right there with it.”

Curry, who teaches at inner-city Sunland Park Elementary, was sampling an Innovations for Learning program that her young students will hold in their hands, a small package of creative software that vastly improves the teaching of reading.

She was among some 45 teachers, reading coaches and principals who gathered after school last week to train for a major initiative coming this month to six Broward County elementary schools. All located in low-income areas in and around Fort Lauderdale, the schools are newly equipped with $76,000 worth of laptops, iPod Touches and MP3 players and a resolve to try a new approach to teaching reading to beginners.

They are the first of 13 Broward schools scheduled to adopt Innovations’ TeacherMate system this year — a bet by the school district that smart technology in the hands of turned-on teachers will make a dramatic difference in the lives of children who badly need the boost.

For two afternoons last week, the Broward staffers gathered at North Fork Elementary School to learn how to get started with the system, scheduled to launch in classrooms the week of Sept. 9. They reviewed everything from how to turn on an iPod to how to roll up a clutch of power cords. And most important, how to use the lively software to create differentiated learning plans for each of their students.

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Carmen Valdez, teacher ambassador, with books beginning readers will use

Michele Pulver, Innovations’ director of teacher services, came down from Chicago to lead the sessions. She was joined by teacher ambassadors Jessica Nasset from Seattle, Melinda Cunningham from Chicago, and LaVonia Martin-Chambers, Kim Sanders and Carmen Valdez from Fort Lauderdale. (Teacher ambassadors are Innovation employees who are assigned to specific schools. They back up teachers to make sure TeacherMate runs smoothly, and monitor the whole process of literacy instruction by modeling best practices and giving guided support.)

“You are the pioneers for a digital approach to learning,” Michele Rivera, the school district’s director of literacy, told the group at the sessions’ outset. She said the partnership with Innovations was designed to lead “to our ultimate goal: to get kids ready for college and the real world. To get them to work independently, collaboratively, to problem-solve and be technologically competent.”

The teachers broke into small groups to become familiar with three “stations” they’ll be setting up in their classrooms. At one station, up to 10 students will work on interactive word-building lessons, using iPod Touches. In another, a second group of kids will listen to a story from a narrator over an MP3 player while reading along from a book. At the third station, the teacher will interact personally with a group of students, teaching them decoding and comprehension strategies and guiding their reading practice.

After sessions that last about half an hour, the student groups will rotate from station to station.

Each student’s progress will synch via the cloud to the teacher’s laptop computer, giving her a precise read on how quickly each kid is learning each concept and allowing her to adjust the next lessons accordingly.

The Broward staffers sounded enthusiastic about their first brush with the system.

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Broward teachers getting to know the “Listening Station”

“I love how it blocks out all the other sounds,” said Chris Carney, principal of Bennett Elementary, after hearing a story read over a headset. “That’s going to really help some of our guys” — children who are easily distracted.

“We know that as soon as reading scores go up, everything else — the science and the math, the writing — they all go up,” said LaFerne McLean-Cross, assistant principal at Sunland Park Academy, which was an F-rated school two years ago, but saw 88 percent of its students make learning gains last year and hopes to continue the momentum. “That’s why we’re putting so much focus on this.”

The next seven schools are scheduled to get going with TeacherMate in a few weeks. Training for that staff is scheduled for Sept. 27, assuming that Title I federal money arrives on time. Innovations for Learning laid out the $76,000 needed to equip the first six schools, in the interest of getting the program off the ground.

In October, if all goes according to schedule, the district will add Innovation’s program of virtual tutoring, called TutorMate. It will link volunteers from corporate workplaces with first-graders for one-and-one sessions via the Internet.

Broward County Public Schools is in the midst of a fundraising drive, looking for $500,000 to fully equip the 132 classrooms in the 13 schools with hardware and seeking 620 volunteers to tutor children, remotely by computer hook-up for half an hour a week. For more information, please click here.

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Michele Rivera, Broward County Public Schools’ director of literacy, welcomes the “pioneer” staff who will be the first to bring digital learning to first-grade reading education in the Fort Lauderdale-area district

Story and photos by Howard Goodman

Staff reflections: Cary Zakon

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Cary and daughter Mira, now 14 months old

In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work. 

Today: Cary Zakon, Director of TutorMate Operations.

As I enter into my second decade with Innovations for Learning, I am as excited and motivated as ever to serve our mission.

I came to the organization after a few years as a budget analyst and a few more as a network administrator. Something felt out of balance at those jobs, so I tried my hand at working with high school students through a non-profit that taught young people how to refurbish computers. I enjoyed the experience, but it was not the right organization for me.

Then I had the fortune of being introduced to Seth [Weinberger, IFL’s founder], who offered a new challenge — to battle illiteracy by assisting inner-city schools in the task of teaching beginning reading. His proposal and approach made sense to me. At Innovations, we use technology to engage and impact a young student’s path early on. Seth had a vision and I found a happy home.

Seth hired me in February 2002 to help grow his program, and we did. As we grew, so did my role — from acquiring, refurbishing and maintaining equipment to training staff and students, benchmark-testing our students, and conducting program development sessions.  I have memories (and actual pictures) of my home filled with computer equipment. Seth hadn’t mentioned warehousing in the job description.

Along with two other coworkers, we began in Chicago neighborhood schools.  At times, it was a difficult to witness the impact of poverty on young students and to observe negative school cultures. But I also got to work with some extraordinary teachers and staff.

I was touched in a way that I have not been able to shake since.

I wanted to help. I wanted to offer something that could engage students and make the classroom experience easier. I loved seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces as they used our materials. I appreciated how our program helped some teachers gain better control of their rooms and gave more students their focused  attention.

We started to see successes, and students were clearly engaged with our software. The downside, however, was using refurbished computers—we were in a difficult cycle of receiving donations, refurbishing, repairing, and repairing, and repairing some more. The hardware portion of our program was not sustainable and had to change if we were to survive.

Seth had a courageous vision for our next phase. In 2008,  we began to manufacture our own handheld device. The goal was to create a device that was easy for a student to use, anywhere in the classroom, and easy for teachers to store,  charge,  distribute, and to adjust for differentiated instruction.

Getting into the manufacturing business and migrating our software to a new platform was an ambitious undertaking. Maybe too ambitious: Over the the next few years, we learned we were innovators but not necessarily manufacturers. When the TeacherMate hardware worked, it was fabulous. The glow of students reading stories, recording and hearing themselves for the first time, being thrilled at completing one of our word challenges — it was intoxicating. (Although, to be completely honest, it could have been the knowledge that so many kids were listening to my voice reading the instructions, comprehension questions, and second grade stories that was so intoxicating!)

But the reliability of the TeacherMate hardware in the classroom setting proved tougher than we’d hoped. Our answer came when prices fell for handheld devices made by other manufacturers. Today, our cloud-based management system works fabulously using devices like the iPod and iPad.

We have come a long way.

Though my voice remains prominent in students’ ears, my role is shifting. I now manage our corporate partners and support their volunteer efforts in our TutorMate program. Tutors play a very special role in giving students one-on-one attention and reinforcing the kids’ classroom work.

Imagine being a fly on the wall as a ring is heard inside a classroom.

A 7-year-old (our student greeter) pauses whatever they are doing to answer a call on the tutoring laptop. With a few clicks, they help a classmate connect with their tutor. The student starts a 30-minute reading session with a caring adult. The computer screen flashes the pages of a story that the tutor controls — the same stories that the student is reading in class on his or her handheld device. Students practice words, acquire fluency, gain confidence, and learn to read

Watching this happen in real time is precious. Knowing that the world is filled with caring volunteers, and that corporations are willing to donate employee time to reach out and make a difference gives me great hope. I am thrilled to help our TutorMate program flourish.

I appreciate doing work that is meaningful to me in an open, thoughtful environment. IFL has fostered this approach from Day One.  Seth proved to be a mentor, leading with vision, tenacity, and plenty of patience. It’s been exciting to have new coworkers come aboard who share a similar sensibility and drive. We now truly have a community, people I want to talk to, people I want to assist, and people who want to assist me (which is especially helpful as I navigate work being a new dad)

My patient life has mirrored IFL’s patient approach. We are not in a rush, but we will both get there.

— Cary Zakon

Tutor: ‘I am very proud to be part of it all’

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With the school year ending, many Innovations for Learning tutors are visiting the classrooms to meet in person the children whose progress in reading they’ve been guiding long distance, via telephone and computer.

Jacqui Howze, an administrative assistant at the law firm DLA Piper LLP in Chicago’s Loop, remotely tutored a young boy at Fiske Elementary on the city’s South Side. Her office is in a gleaming office tower created by famous architects. At Fiske, 95 percent of the children are classified as low-income.

She visited the classroom the other day for the first time — and loved it so much that she sent this note to the teacher:

Good morning Mrs. House,

I would like to thank you for allowing me and the Innovations For Learning tutors to visit your classroom yesterday.  It was the highlight of my day!

I enjoyed meeting Kavin and the other children. You have a wonderful group of students who display a passion for learning and who have respect for you, their fellow students and their school.  I am very proud to be a part of it all.

I would like to say Kudos to you for the way you handle your class and for all that you do for those lovely little minds.  You too are wonderful!

I look forward to tutoring next year and I would like nothing more than to continue to tutor Kavin, but in the event that I cannot, I know that whomever I tutor will be just as bright and eager as Kavin.  Thank you again Mrs. House for having us and I hope to visit your classroom again next year.

Have a wonderful Summer!

Jacqui Howze

The teacher replied:

Hello Jacqui,

What a beautiful note! I was very enthusiastic, as were my little ones, to meet you guys as well! With your support, my kindergartners have skyrocketed in their levels of reading and writing. I know because all of the skills that you worked on were revisited by me and I saw the major jumps.

It feels so great to know that all of the hard work is seen because I am working constantly to keep the kindergartners at a higher level than the  norms. I am so grateful to TeacherMate/Innovations for Learning and my students were eagerly waiting for your calls/sessions. I watched them go from dependent, curious minds to independent, conscientious thinkers, still curious (smiles).

I, too, agree that you should stick with Kavin and the other tutors should stay with their little ones. You can definitely track the growth by following. Thanks so much and talk to you soon…

Tenesia House

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— photos of Fiske Elementary by Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun-Times

Staff reflections: Seth Weinberger

DSC_0032 - Version 2In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work.

Today: Seth Weinberger, founder and CEO. A good account of Seth’s background and history with IFL can be found here. 

He wrote the following a few days ago, as an email to the rest of the staff. It stands so well as a statement of IFL’s potential and purpose, we wanted to share it with everyone:

 

Today I observed a Chicago south side first grade classroom in a school that is 97% African American, 75%+ low income, and on academic probation.  The teacher is a first year novice.  Two-thirds of the students entered her classroom below grade level literacy.

Against these enormous odds, here is what this teacher achieved:  the LOWEST group is near Level I (grade level).  The middle group is reading second and third grade chapter books, and the highest group is independently reading Charlotte’s Web, a classic TEACHER read-aloud book.

This teacher has enthusiastically embraced the TeacherMate System from the start of the school year, and credits it for much of her success.  She is also a natural teacher, and will be a star if she stays in the profession.

Not every teacher is a natural, and not everyone will embrace our system, but this teacher has demonstrated what is possible.  And what is possible ought to be what our goal is.

Every student reading, most students flying.

— Seth Weinberger

IFL off to a high-altitude start in Denver

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At most Innovation for Learning end-of-the-year get-togethers, tutors travel to schools to finally meet the students they’ve been helping each week over the Internet.

Denver did it differently.

On Wednesday, buses delivered children from two elementary schools to the city’s Janus Capital Group headquarters for a rooftop party.

Some 40 first-graders from the two schools, College View Elementary and Cheltenham Elementary, lined up for fruit, cookies and a book  — and then sat down with the Janus employee who’s been helping them learn their ABC’s. Together, they started the kids’ summer reading.

Denver Public Schools used IFL’s offerings in five classrooms this year as a pilot. Plans are to expand to 20 classrooms next year, said Dan Weisberg,  national director for IFL’s TutorMate program.

All the volunteer tutors came from Janus. The Denver Public Schools Foundation provided invaluable help in setting everything up.

It’s clear from the pictures that a good time was had by all.

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Kids line up to receive a book. They could choose one of three that Janus made available to them.

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— photos by Dan Weisberg

U.S. lags far behind in pre-school

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The United States is lagging far behind much of the developed world when it comes to enrolling children in preschool programs.

The U.S. ranks 24th and 26th among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in the enrollment and three- and four-year-olds, respectively, reports the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank:

While the U.S. enrolls just just 69 percent of its four-year-olds and 51 percent of its three-year-olds, other countries enroll nearly all of their young children in preschool programs.

But it isn’t just enrollment where America falls behind — it also fails to keep up in other areas, such as when children begin school, how much it spends on preschool, and the teacher-to-child ratio in its early childhood education programs.

The gap between the U.S. and other countries leads to gaps in achievement later on in childrens’ lives:

Japan, for instance, enrolls nearly all of its four-year-olds in preschool programs and outscored the U.S. by 40 points on the latest international test of fourth-grade math, CAP notes.

In the U.S., state-level pre-kindergarten programs have led to substantial gains for children compared to those who don’t receive early childhood education. Children in Tennessee’s state-funded program, for instance, “saw a 75 percent improvement in letter-word identification, a 152 percent improvement in oral comprehension, a 176 percent improvement in picture vocabulary, and a 63 percent improvement in quantitative concepts.”

But the U.S. isn’t just lagging behind countries it traditionally competes with. Emerging industrialized countries are also setting loftier goals and standards for the enrollment of children in public preschool programs, while the U.S. hasn’t followed the same path:

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Here are more details about pre-school in America and the Obama Administration’s $75 billion proposal to boost enrollments.

We at Innovations for Learning believe fervently in the importance of early education. We are impelled by the knowledge that too many children are starting school without the necessary foundations.

We’re working hard to bring our TeacherMate® and TutorMate® programs to school districts across America in hopes that every child can learn to read in the primary grades.Because we want to give every child the chance to succeed later on.

— Infographics from Center for American Progress

 

 

IFL takes big step into Broward County, Fla., classrooms

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In one of its biggest expansions yet, Innovations for Learning’s programs are headed this fall to 120 classrooms in Broward County, Fla, — an aggressive effort to teach some 2,160 young students to read.

The Broward County Public Schools, based in Fort Lauderdale, announced the partnership with IFL today. The initiative is to begin in August, when the fall semester begins.

Plans call for scores of digital devices — laptops, iPads and iPod Touches — to be provided to kindergarten and first-grade classrooms in some of the county’s poorest neighborhoods. The non-profit IFL will share in the costs for the equipment, as well as support staff needed to make the program run smoothly.

Robert W. Runcie, Broward’s superintendent, is an enthusiastic supporter of the initiative, which relies on 21st century tools and old-fashioned one-on-one attention from caring adults to bring reading skills to children who would otherwise lack the readiness to succeed in school.

“This initiative is critical because students who do not master the art of reading by the end of first grade are severely impacted, across all content areas, throughout their academic career,” Runcie said in a statement. “Early intervention, that is personalized to each student’s needs, is critical in improving the rates of students who enter our second grade classrooms as proficient readers on or above grade level.”

United Way of Broward will help in the effort to recruit volunteers from the business world to tutor the children, giving one-half hour a week to help them with their lessons remotely, using the Internet and telephones to communicate from their work places to the kids’ classrooms.

“This is a one of a kind program in our district that leverages technology to maximize personalized literacy instruction and provides a unique opportunity for community leaders to tutor students in a manner, which minimally impacts their schedule, “ said Dr. Marie Wright. the district’s executive director, for instruction and interventions.

Innovations for Learning is equally excited.

“Broward is the rare example of a large urban school district that was able to see an innovative idea and move it through their process with enthusiasm and move it through quickly,” said Barbara Gilbert, IFL’s national education director. “Normally, it gets very complicated and take a long time or you have departmental issues. Broward had none of that. It was very collaborative.”

— Photo (left to right):  Seth Weinberger, IFL Founder and CEO, Dr. Marie Wright, Executive Director, Instruction & Interventions, Broward County Public Schools, Superintendent Robert W. Runcie, Broward County Public Schools, and Barbara Gilbert, IFL National Education Director.
Photo and story by Howard Goodman.

Staff reflections: Caryn Weiner

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In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work.

Today: Caryn Weiner, Co-editor, Publications.

I have known Seth Weinberger, Barb Goodman and their family for many years and had the pleasure of watching Seth’s wheels turning as he conceived and incubated what is now, 20 years later, Innovations for Learning. 

Our children were young, and Seth, Barb, and I helped to found a nonprofit preschool in Evanston, Ill., that focused on inclusion. For years after that, Barb and I worked as partners in a volunteer capacity to raise funds and awareness for our venture, all while raising our families.

I didn’t know 30 years ago how my work and personal life would intersect and come full circle.

My first job after completing my masters degree in social work was with a YWCA program in the Uptown neighborhood in the Chicago which housed an early childhood Title XX daycare program and an after-school program for school-age kids.

My next job was as a therapist with adolescents and families at Response Center in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. I also worked closely with the schools in the area presenting programs and workshops for students and parents, as well as school staff.

I also had a stint for many years as a Roving Reader, a program founded by the Foster Reading Center in Evanston to promote literacy and now part of Child Care Center of Evanston. It was originally designed for school-age children, but by the time I joined, the program focused on early literacy skills — the building blocks for future success in school.

I visited a number of daycare homes twice each week. My job was to expose the kids and their daycare providers to quality literature and to offer stimulating and enriching experiences related to literacy.  

Over the years, I formed lovely relationships with the providers and watched as their charges grew up and moved on to kindergarten. My hope was always that I had left them with a love of books and reading.

Then, four years ago, I had the good fortune to join Seth and the amazing IFL staff, part time, as Barb’s work partner. Our mission then was to grow the online tutoring program, which today is known as TutorMate. That program grew, and as new full-time staff came onboard, Barb and I stepped back. 

To watch TutorMate develop into the program it is today has been amazing.

Back in the day, Barb and I did trainings in person with a slide show. The program itself was much less interactive and dynamic. There was no help desk, no online sign-up nor phone conference training, and there were way more bugs!

Still, each time we went out to talk with or train volunteers at their workplaces, it was quite clear that something wonderful was going on.

Tutors loved being part of their students’ lives each week, and their coworkers were hearing about it and wanted to participate, too. Heartwarming stories about tutoring and its rewards were being shared. And when Barb and I went out to visit classrooms and had the privilege of meeting the students and teachers, that was just further confirmation.

We spent lots of time online and on the phone with tutors and teachers: training, helping with scheduling, troubleshooting technical issues, and getting to know them personally. Many are still with the program. Compared with the scope and quality of today’s TutorMate, they were pioneers!

Today, my role is a bit in flux as Seth’s wheels continue to turn and new projects and ideas form. Barb and I are now working on communication projects and the annual report. I look forward to whatever my new role with IFL will be – and to watching the organization grow.

Staff reflections: Frank Spranze

DSC_0025 - Version 2In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work. 
Today: Frank Spranze, Help Desk Manager.

I’m known at Innovations for Learning as a tech guy, but I’ve done a little of everything over the years — from restaurant ownership to law enforcement to mortgage brokering, as well as computer repair and maintenance.

I came to IFL in the summer of 2009 to fill a temporary position doing TeacherMate field installations in Chicago Public School classrooms.

My position has morphed. Now it’s mainly online tech support for our TutorMate program. My main task is to provide real-time support for our volunteer tutors and students coast to coast. I work from a bank of computer screens in suburban Chicago, communicating to dozens of classrooms every school day.

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Frank’s command post

Keeping that all going has its challenges.  When you combine kids and personal computers, you’re going to have lots of little things go wrong: adjusting the volume, resizing windows, closing programs that students open by accident.  Children often change settings on the PCs in the classroom, sometimes disrupting tutoring sessions in mid-session, or prevent them from starting.

I have created my own systems to keep us afloat. My mornings are filled with preparation, preparation, and more preparation — making sure I am properly connected remotely to all the classrooms, for starters.

As you might imagine, new technology is not always 100 percent, so we are almost always finding ourselves thinking outside the box when trying out solutions. And I’m always communicating with teachers to correct problems or fix the settings themselves.

Although I provide support to so many, I myself receive support from many team members. This goes a long way to getting to our collective goals.

My perfect scenario is seeing all the processes of tutoring flow together to create that great tutoring experience.

Every year there are certain classrooms, teachers and tutors who just get it. They come together time after time to get their sessions up and running, like a mini orchestra. From these observations, I can always predict which classrooms are excelling, it’s a pleasure to watch it unfold. That makes my day.

My goal is to see more of those classroom-tutor-teacher combos excel as they get it.

Frank Spranze
frank@innovationsforlearning.org

Staff reflections: Sybil Anderson

In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work.

Today: Sybil Anderson, Teacher Ambassador in the District of Columbia.

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I came to Innovations for Learning in October 2011, after retiring from a long career in my hometown District of Columbia public school system. I taught for 25 years and coached teachers for seven more years, including as a Reading First literacy coach.

What I’m doing now is much what I did as a literacy coach, with the addition of  TeacherMate technology.

Among other things, I support teachers with guided reading, create bag-of-books with “just right” reading levels and help with classroom management and room environment. I  also aid teachers in the use of iPods and MP3 players, as well as computers used for TutorMate, troubleshooting technical issues that may arise.

I’m there, too, to lend a listening ear and to model and share best practices to all teachers and support staff when needed.

What motivates me is my love for teaching and helping children by way of coaching and supporting teachers.

I really enjoy interacting with teachers in a supportive manner, sharing, networking and giving feedback because I know how overwhelming it can get as a classroom teacher. To a teacher, having support can make all the difference.

What also motivates me is seeing the excitement and enthusiasm of teachers and students from having the latest technology — technology that’s equipped with literacy support that’s kid-friendly, teacher-friendly and fun.

The teachers love it because it requires little planning and no paperwork, it’s highly motivating for students, the feedback is immediate, and they can access the data from home or anywhere to track students’ progress.

One of my goals is to help teachers feel successful in reaching and teaching their students through the use of technology in the classroom. When this happens, they will in turn help their students succeed and achieve the district’s goal of bridging the gap in literacy.

One example: Ms. Frizzell, first-grade teacher at Randle Highlands, is new to TeacherMate. She is a young, fresh teacher and very excited about the program — especially the technology. She beams and bubbles each time I walk in her room to give her support. She always has something positive to say.

She said her students were more excited about the MP3 players when they received them than the iPods. Now, they are equally excited about both. She welcomes new ideas, suggestions, any and all collaboration, teaming and especially the tutors in TutorMate.

Sybil Anderson

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