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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: 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

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

See it now: How TutorMate turns office workers into allies for kids’ literacy

 

Check out this great new video about TutorMate, the project from Innovations for Learning that allows office workers help young children learn to read by giving just half an hour of their time a week.

The video was produced by Make It Better, a Chicago-area nonprofit that gave IFL its 2012 Philanthropy Award for “Educational Innovation, National.”

Enjoy it! And feel free to pass it along.

 

 

 

 

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

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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