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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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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

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

Staff reflections: Jessica Nasset

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: Jessica L. Nasset, Teacher Ambassador in Seattle

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My dream was always of being a teacher. I can remember back in fifth grade asking my teachers if I could clean the chalkboards or help grade papers or to change out bulletin boards. I wanted to stay in at recess to talk with my teacher or go help out in another classroom.

I thought teaching would be the best job … and I was right.

To begin my quest to be a teacher, I attended Central Washington University where I received my Bachelors of Education degree in Elementary Education and Early Childhood Education. While teaching near Seattle, I attended Seattle Pacific University where I received my Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction.

From there I moved to Las Vegas, Nev., for a new adventure in teaching. After a few years, I knew that I wanted to continue learning how to be the best teacher I could be. With this in mind, I chose to complete the rigorous National Teaching Certification program from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.

After a year of hard work, I was very pleased to become National Board Certified Teacher.

I have been working in education now for 10 years. My teaching history includes working as a K-8 substitute, and teaching kindergarten and/or first grade in Title I at-risk schools. I have also worked with a private school to create and establish a new kindergarten program.

During all of this, I always made an effort to volunteer, plan and oversee school fundraisers, plan and implement school professional developments, participate in family academic nights and offer my help to other teachers who were striving to become National Board Certified Teachers.

With my educational experiences in and out of the classroom, I found a real interest in teaching other teachers about education. After checking in with many of my educational contacts, I came across a non-profit educational company that was looking for a Teacher Ambassador to work with the Seattle School District.

Let me just say that finding Innovations for Learning was another dream come true! I have been able to indulge in my interest of helping other teachers, yet still work with young learners as well.

Having just come out of the classroom and being new to the “coaching” aspect, I am finding that the variety of schools, teachers, students, and classrooms to be of great interest. I am lucky to be able to visit multiple classrooms a day and see the variety of teaching and learning that is going on. There are so many different personalities, that it is fun to get to know each and every teacher and to see their relationships with their students.

Telling stories of my past teaching experiences and listening to current stories about teaching and learning, from teachers and students alike, easily creates my own relationships with everyone and helps to include me in the classroom dynamic. Sharing stories, whether it is with teachers or students, is what grows relationships and connects everyone together into one big classroom community and I enjoy being a part of that.

As a Teacher Ambassador I have had the privilege of coaching other teachers in their quest to enhance their reading instruction and to help them engage their students by adding educational technology into the classroom.

I have found that being a Teacher Ambassador is very eclectic in its job description. I am a teacher, a co- worker, a resource guide, a cheerleader, a technology guru, a reading coach, a “problem fixer,” a counselor, and a friend. I am the person who will praise your successes, help with your struggles, and lend an ear or a shoulder when you are just too overwhelmed to do one more task.

If I can do these things, and do them well, my teachers and their students will be successful. If they are successful, it will bring about a new path for technology and coaching in education, and that will in return have a big impact on the future.

A lot of teachers have asked me “why do love your job so much?” Well … here is my answer: I love education! I love to learn (about anything – random facts are my favorite, though), I love to teach (by inspiring others to love learning), I love to talk about education/teaching, and most importantly, to help other educators create a successful classroom.

I get to indulge myself in all of those aspects within my job. Nothing is better than being able to support a teacher by boosting their confidence with praise or showing them a new teaching technique and seeing a new spark of passion for their teaching! When a teacher is passionate about their teaching, the students will be passionate about their learning.

Engaging students in their learning is a key factor for academic success. When I walk into a room at the beginning of the year and am introduced as the “iPod lady,” I can already see the interest in learning rise. Students are very interested in and knowledgeable about technology. To be able to give them a fun, interesting and engaging way to learn and practice reading is very rewarding.

It is this interest in learning for both teachers and students that motivates me to do my very best as a Teacher Ambassador.

Jessica Nasset

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