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.
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.
“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.
Story and photos by Howard Goodman
Innovations for Learning has recognized eight organizations for their outstanding support of the TutorMate program.
The annual awards were sent to the recipients on Tuesday.
IFL picked one outstanding organization in each of the cities in which TutorMate operates.
Tracie Zettler was named “most dedicated” because she tutored twice a week after realizing that her student needed more help. (The standard requirement is to tutor once a week for 30 minutes.) If Zettler ever called and didn’t get an answer, she made sure to reschedule and call back until she got through.
Julia Martin was named “most inspirational” because “the level of detail in Julia’s tutoring feedback each week was amazing,” said Cary Zakon, national director for TutorMate operations.
“Reading them, it was so clear how much she cared about her student and also how much fun she was having with him. It was also clear that she was writing for the teacher’s benefit, too, and sometimes even included a message for her student there.”
The winning organizations were recognized for the following criteria:
- Outstanding and engaged support from our coordinators
- Meeting and exceeding tutor recruitment goals
- High participation rates in the end-of-year tutor/student meet-ups
- High levels of tutor persistence and dedication
- Notable atmosphere of collaboration within your tutoring team(s)
In reply, we’ve heard from some grateful and enthusiastic recipients:
Tracie Zettler, General Motors, Detroit, “Most Dedicated”: “I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed tutoring this year. I was terribly disappointed that I could not be at the ‘meet your student’ day but I received a card that my student (Daniel) made me and it brought tears to my eyes and a huge smile to my face. This was such a rewarding experience; knowing that I made a difference in this little boy’s life means so much to me.
“I was so shocked by my award today! When it came up on the screen, my eyes were as big as lunch plates! Thank you so much for that; I am going to print it and hang it in my cube next to the newspaper article of Daniel and I tutoring.”
Julia Martin, Weyerhaeuser, Seattle, “Most Inspirational”: “I’m very honored. And I was very fortunate in my assignment. The kids were highly engaged and the teacher (Cate Simmers with Arbor Heights) highly supportive. AND I didn’t have to deal with ‘yellers’ in the background at all which made my job really, really easy!!
“I’m really looking forward to next year!! (2013-14 that is!!)”
Joan Ai, Employee Engagement & Volunteerism, Global Philanthropy, JPMorgan Chase & Co.: “Thanks Cary, for your kind message and the award. The recognition is not necessary as we are glad that we were able to participate in such a meaningful program to benefit the children in your program.”
Stephanie Beck, Human Resources Manager, CBRE: “Again, thank you. We all loved the experience with the kids. Thank you so much for the recognition.
Lori Hulvey, Asset Quality Review, Comerica: “Thank you so much, Cary … this is so exciting!! Can’t wait to display this in the office.
Karen Veitenhans, Manager, Community Investment & Weyerhaeuser Giving Fund: “Hi Cary. I just wanted to weigh in and thank you … This is a such an innovative idea and great opportunity for our employes to have a significant impact on student achievement. We’ve been pleased with the positive feedback our employees have provided, and look forward to growing this effort. Thank you again for approaching Weyerhaeuser and providing us with the opportunity to engage our employees!”
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.
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
- 11 Dutch Schools To Open With iPad Focused “Steve Jobs” Learning (macgasm.net)
- Pros and Cons of Flipped Learning (meredith554.wordpress.com)
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
Some of the people who volunteered as tutors this year became pretty attached to the children they helped learn to read.
Take Lisa Mach. An engineer for the Port of Seattle, she tutored a first-grader named John at Seattle’s Martin Luther King Elementary School, speaking to him every week by phone from her desk at work, going over his lessons for a half an hour as each looked his reading assignment on their respective computer screens.
When it came time to meet John in person at an end-of-the-year party for tutors and students, however, Lisa had to be out of town. She felt badly about missing the chance. So she composed a card for John to be delivered in her stead.
She put a picture of herself on the cover. On the inside, she listed a dozen suggested “Summer Books After First Grade” and wrote a message:
I can’t be there to visit you at school today because I am on a trip visiting my baby grandson.
I sent this card to tell you what a really GOOD reader you are. I liked that you sounded out every single word until you knew what it was. I also liked that you used your voice and gave the words feeling. If the story was fun, you made it sound happy. When a boy or a girl was scared, you made it sound a little scary. Soon you can read longer stories about people and their adventures.
I hope you can visit the library during the summer and get books to read so you will be a strong reader when you go back to school for second grade.
Have a fun summer!
“I am really glad the card worked, though I sure would rather be there to meet him in person,” Lisa said last week in an email. “This is my first time with TutorMate. I have a small sense of what it might be like for teachers to say goodbye to their little ones at the end of each year.”
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: 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
Some 100 volunteers from 10 Seattle corporations and the Port of Seattle are helping impoverished children learn to read through Innovations for Learning’s TutorMate program — and the Puget Sound Business Journal has the story:
To read the entire story requires a subscription.
It gives a good background on IFL’s programs (“the brainchild of Seth Weinberger, a former Chicago attorney. Two decades ago he decided to do something about illiteracy among children in disadvantaged communities. His idea: use technology that makes computer games so vivid and enticing to help young children read well from the get-go.”)
And it shows the enthusiasm with which volunteers embrace the tutor experience.
Introduced in Seattle this fall, TutorMate opens a door to community involvement for busy professionals who can carve out 30 minutes a week to tutor a student online but not the additional time needed to travel to a school.
“It’s very hard to break away from the desk and the building,” said Martin, a senior business analyst with Federal Way-based Weyerhaeuser. “This really fits the bill for me.”
Thanks to writer Brad Broberg, for capturing the program so well.
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.
— photos by Dan Weisberg
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.
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.”
It’s the time of year for Innovations for Learning tutors to be making plans for end-of-the-year get-togethers with the students they’re helping learn to read.
About 1,300 adults are devoting a half-hour each week to communicating, via telephone and the computer, with children in low-income neighborhood schools. From their desks in corporations like AT&T and agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard, the grownups are giving first-graders some precious personal attention and encouragement to get them started on a successful path through school.
To cap the experience, the volunteers will travel to the kids’ classrooms to read stories, play word games, enjoy story-building exercises, and — very often — bask in the glow of the kids’ appreciation.
This year, the process for signing up and planning for these school visits is streamlined, thanks to a new computer program on the IFL web page for tutors that allows tutors to sign up with a click on the “RSVP” button and to see instantly who else among their coworkers is planning to attend. The new tool also lets classroom teachers and TutorMate coordinators see how many visitors to expect.
The new system went active earlier this month, thanks to crucial help from IFL’s partner for technical matters, Photon, based in India.
Until now, organizing the end-of-year visits was rather haphazard. “We never knew who was going to come,” said Cary Zakon, IFL’s director of TutorMate operations. “Now, it gives us some foresight. If we see that registration is lagging, we can send out reminders to the coordinators. And if we get fewer than three people signed up, we’ll cancel the event.”
Hopefully, that won’t happen very often. Because one thing that tutors, teachers and students all have learned — these are great events.
As one tutor told us after a visit last year: “It was so great to have an opportunity to meet our students — we had an amazing time! The students were so excited to meet us in person and and they loved the books and our token gifts.”
For more information on the visits and registering for them, click here.
Photo: JP Morgan Chase employees at classroom party, 2011. From IFL video.