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‘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

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Human touch ‘makes all the difference’

Rocketship Education, a Palo Alto-based charter school network serving 3,700 San Jose students who are nearly all poor and speak little English, is showing strong results through its reliance on “blended learning” — a combination of traditional methods and computer-based instruction.

The network is getting a lot of attention for showing the way to an educational future that is very high-tech — perhaps, some say, to the exclusion of school-based learning altogether.

But after visiting the 640-student Rocketship Discovery Prep, policy expert Thomas Toch drew a different conclusion.  The secret of the school’s success, he says, is the intense involvement of teachers and parents.

Parents at Discovery Prep are asked to put in 30 hours a year of volunteer time — and most do, Toch says in an article for TheAtlantic.com. 

As a result, students have the sense that there are always adults ready to help, that their parents care about them, and that education is important. When I visited Discovery Prep, parents were reviewing young students’ rudimentary homework assignments, freeing teachers to spend more time on instruction.

The human element extends to more than instruction.

Each morning at Discovery Prep and the rest of the Rocketship network, everyone gathers on the playground for announcements and a sing-a-long. Students receive recognition and rewards for outstanding behavior and achievement and teachers and students (the oldest are 5th graders) sing and dance to songs by Michael Jackson and other pop stars, surrounded by parent-volunteers. In the same spirit, teachers greet every student by name as they enter their classrooms, a routine that Rocketship calls a “threshold invite.” Personal connections between adults and students are paramount.

“The younger and more disadvantaged students are, the more they need adults supporting them in many different ways, day in and day out — the more they need school to be a place rather than merely a process,” writes Toch, Washington director of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

“It’s this human element that makes all the difference for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who, in many public schools, need far more adult support than they typically get — and certainly more than they’d get online in the digital future that many are predicting for public education.”

Do you agree?

(Photos: Discovery website, via TheAtlantic.com)

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