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“Long-overdue technological revolution” under way in education: The Economist

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A revolution is under way:

At its heart is the idea of moving from “one-size-fits-all” education to a more personalised approach, with technology allowing each child to be taught at a different speed, in some cases by adaptive computer programs, in others by “superstar” lecturers of one sort or another, while the job of classroom teachers moves from orator to coach: giving individual attention to children identified by the gizmos as needing targeted help.

In theory the classroom will be “flipped”, so that more basic information is supplied at home via screens, while class time is spent embedding, refining and testing that knowledge (in the same way that homework does now, but more effectively).

The promise is of better teaching for millions of children at lower cost—but only if politicians and teachers embrace it.

So says The Economist in its current issue.

The British-based news weekly takes a global look at what its headline writer calls “e-ducation.” What it finds is mostly hopeful. (“Used properly, edtech offers both the struggling and the brilliant a route to higher achievement. The point is to maximise the potential of every child.”)

But it also notes that “edtech will boost inequality in the short term, because it will be taken up most enthusiastically by richer schools, especially private ones, while underfunded state schools may struggle to find the money to buy technology that would help poorer students catch up.”

[That passage underscores the importance of  Innovations for Learning’s mission: We work in America’s largest urban — read “cash-strapped” — school districts as a nonprofit seeking to make tech-based education in the primary grades as available as possible.]

It’s an excellent overview, showing the impact of a phenomenon that has started in America and spreading across the world. It’s well worth your time.  Here’s the full version.

Illustration: The Economist

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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

fiske

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

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.

Frank's command post

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: Tahra Tibbs

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: Tahra Tibbs, Teacher Ambassador in the District of Columbia

Tahra Achieve2As an educator first, it brings me sheer delight to serve both teachers and students as an Innovations for Learning ambassador and coach.

I have the pleasure of unlocking the door of doubt, confusion, resistance and fear, and partnering with teachers to ignite change.

This partnership is an integral component to properly cultivating change and nurturing a spirit of excellence in the classroom. Therefore, at the foundation of this relationship with the teacher is trust. My non-threatening approach encourages teachers to see me as valuable resource and team member.

I was a classroom teacher for five years, mainly in Virginia. From 2007 to 2012, I worked for Achieve 3000, a private company that provides web-based tools for teaching literacy, training administrators and teachers in the Washington, D.C., metro area, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

I joined Innovations for Learning in July. Now I coach teachers to use our TeacherMate literacy-learning program most effectively, and help them become better reading teachers by serving as a resource and partner in the process of learning.

I love to visit classrooms and hear the captivating hum of engagement.

It is such a joy to see students on-task, interacting with games and activities on TeacherMate. I smile from ear to ear when I sit next to students in their comfy spot in the classroom and hear them “echo read” in Story Read and Record. This is a program in which students hear a page being read to them, and then are recorded as they read the same page aloud. They listen to the playback of both versions to see if they had read it correctly.

To hear students use phonetic clues to sound out words, then see them gleam with elation to hear the fruits of their labor!

We celebrate together with high-fives as learners match the correct rhyme unit and prevent an animal from missing the trampoline in Circus game. (That’s an activity that uses the names of animals to teach students how to identify the initial sounds of a word.)

The teachers are also beaming with excitement, as they scan the room and see their students purposefully engaged. When the class is so productively occupied, they are able to focus on the small group of students in front of them with differentiated, targeted instruction. I have observed that teachers who have established a good classroom management plan arrive at this place sooner.

It is my goal to make this model environment I have described the standard in all the classes that I serve.

I embrace the challenge and anticipate the adventure with great expectation!!!

Tahra Tibbs
tahra@innovationsforlearning.org
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