Laurel Elementary is located in the heart of Silicon Valley, so it’s no surprise to see devices like Chromebooks making appearances on their tree-lined campus. The school’s official vision describes “confident students, passionate teachers, and an involved community.” With one visit, it’s clear they’re well on their way to achieving it, and that technology is helping them get there.
We visited Theresa Fox, Laurel’s Instructional Technology Coach, and Heidi Yamada, a 4th grade teacher at the school, to chat about the challenges of educational technology, finding right devices for each classroom, and how their tech-based Passion Projects are capturing their students’ imaginations. Later this year, we’ll return to see how the students’ Passion Projects developed. Stay tuned.
How is the tech program set up at Laurel?
Theresa: Our classrooms have had SMARTBoards and document cameras as standard equipment. Our K-2 classrooms use tablets, and our 2nd and 3rd grade classrooms share laptops and Chromebooks. This year, each teacher received a brand-new laptop and a teacher tablet. With the infusion of technology, the district also decided to provide each elementary school with a half-time technology coach. One key part of my role as a technology coach is to help teachers begin to implement projects that move into the “modification” and “redefinition” of learning on the SAMR scale.
How have you seen tech-integrated projects change the classroom environment?
Heidi: When it’s Deep Dive time and the kids are researching things they are genuinely interested in, the vibe in the classroom is so noticeable. They have authentic buy-in, and it drives their natural instinct to find out more. I love this feeling. Most importantly they enjoy the challenge of sifting through all of the information available to them.
Theresa: From my experience teaching 2nd-5th graders, tech-integrated projects almost always increase student engagement. They allow for greater personalization of content as well as the option for students to have more voice in how they demonstrate learning. I also believe that integrating technology projects fosters greater independence and help students to take more responsibility for their learning.
What are some of the challenges you face launching technology in the classroom?
Theresa: The greatest challenge we face with Chromebooks is learning how to use them as more than just pared-down laptops. Beyond writing, graphing data, or making slideshows, how can we tap into the potential for collaboration in Google Apps? How can we connect with other classrooms around the world? How can we help our students create projects that require powerful thinking and communication skills? This is a challenge that we’re thrilled to take on, however, because we can already see the way it’s transforming our experience as teachers.
Heidi: In the classroom, most of our challenges are logistics. We have about 50 minutes to work during Deep Dive, but setting out the computers and then returning them to the cart can eat away at precious research time.
– A student in Mrs. Yamada's 4th grade class carries a Chromebook back to her desk to start her Deep Dive research. –
How does technology change project-based learning?
Theresa: Project-based learning (PBL) is at its heart all about student-driven inquiry, and technology can be a great tool for helping students to pursue answers to their burning questions. There is also a “creation” aspect to PBL. Students typically create a project or presentation to share, and technology can help them find the best medium for their message, whether it’s a slideshow, a screencast, a podcast. Technology gives them more options to reach a broader audience.
Heidi: It allows our Passion Projects to be differentiated and student centered. Students can pursue anything they love or wonder about. They will share this knowledge and also feel a sense of contribution to the world with their individual projects, motivations, and outcomes.
How did you decide which devices were best for your students?
Theresa: We use tablets in the primary classes because they are so intuitive and accessible for children whose reading, writing, and fine motor skills are still developing. Laptops and Chromebooks are a better match for students who can type, and they also provide great options for collaboration on projects. That said, intermediate grade students certainly love the tablets, too, and have an even greater ability to use apps that tap into their creativity and critical thinking skills.
Heidi: With rapid rise of web apps, student choices to present to the classroom seem endless. For now, it is primarily being used to research. Our SMARTBoard and doc camera also allows everyone to collaborate as a classroom as we ask the class what questions they have about student topics.
How do you help classrooms integrate tech and learning? Do you have any advice on making the change smoother?
Theresa: Start with one tool that’s new for you, explore its uses and begin to implement it in your classroom, and then take it from there. I also think it’s critical to collaborate with a team of teachers. You need colleagues who will cheer you on when you take risks and try something new, who will help you troubleshoot when something goes wrong (because something definitely will!), and who might even be a mentor to you so can see how a new tool works in another classroom.
They speak the same language and see problems through the same lenses. When they truly need help, they will seek you out. By building a culture of students as “teachers” to others, especially in tech, it can truly be a collaborative, problem solving experience.
Does your program differ from what other educators might do?
Theresa: I don’t believe our program is all that different. We’re fortunate to have extra funding from our PTO and our school foundation, MPAEF, which makes it possible to have not only extra devices, but also subscriptions to adaptive software, like Lexia Core 5 Reading and DreamBox Math, that provide true differentiated learning experiences for our students.
Heidi: Passion Projects are not new. However, in the past they have been given to the GATE students or students who need “challenge” work. Allowing every child to pursue a passion or interest is one of the best ways to foster the love of learning. One of the lowest students, a student that was in special day last year is pursuing the question, “How does a lizard’s tail grow back?” He can’t wait to answer it, and soon many 1st graders will be lining up to hear his presentation! Imagine what this will do for the 1st graders he teaches and for this student in a teaching role!
What role do parents and families play in technology-based education?
Theresa: At Laurel, we try not to push too much technology on our families. We do believe in limiting screen time, and we also believe that kids should spend time at home playing and connecting with their families. But it’s always optional and left up to the judgment of the parents.
Heidi: They are excited to see their kids engaged. The students are so independent when it comes to tech, but the parents will see it all in action in our Passion Project Conference.
What is the most challenging part of implementing a tech program?
Theresa: I think time is the greatest challenge. It takes time for teachers to learn how to use new tools, and it takes even more time for them to plan lessons and units that integrate technology in transformational ways. As we ask more and more of our teachers, they get stretched even thinner, and it gets harder to find the time to implement these changes.
Heidi: So far it’s been nothing but fabulous. I foresee road blocks with finding accessible information. We have students who want to build specific kinds of robots. We have a student who is obsessed with “Dr. Who.” We have a student who loves Clash of the Clans. With these passions being quite new or very specific, finding the information they need that is written at a 4th grade level is going to be challenging.
What’s the most powerful part of tech at Laurel Elementary?
Theresa: I think the passion project in Heidi’s classroom, and the ways in which we’re collaborating together to have technology enhance the project, are a great examples of how a technology coach can serve to support and encourage teacher growth and student learning.
Heidi: CHOICE! There are days when I have told students how math is done, what books to read, and what genre to write in. Allowing students to choose their topics, their research, and what they create to share it is very powerful… perhaps even life-changing!
What values do you hope are reflected by the program?
Theresa: At Laurel, we’re expanding to a second campus in a year, so we’re re-visioning who we want to be as a school.
Heidi: We’d like to foster self-confidence, collaboration, purpose in this world, self-esteem, success, grit, rigor, failure, the ability to pick yourself up again, and most importantly, resilience. There are going to be some tough times, but we will fight through them! We want to allow the students to experience all of the above at their own level.
What type of milestones do you hope students reach?
Heidi: Foster the love of learning and being more comfortable with challenges and failure.
Are there any tools or software that you’ve found particularly helpful?
Heidi: Google Classroom, Symbaloo, WebVideo, Video Scribe, Powtoon, Prezi.
Heidi: We are hoping to discover even more at the Napa CUE conference.
How has education changed with technology? How has it stayed the same?
Heidi: Differentiation! Everyone can do something different and it can be easily monitored and looked after. Information can be extremely current and up to date. Conversely, information can be tainted and jaded and dangerous. The world has become so much smaller. Kids still love to seek out their passions, but now they can actually pursue it in a way that can lead to their “Awesome.”
Are there any best practices you can share about designing an impactful technology in the classroom?
- Let the students discover the tech.
- Focus on digital citizenship. For example, provide search engines that create a safe place to search topics.
- Let the students teach each other and observe how they learn today (it’s different!)
- Use student failures as ways to celebrate new learning. (Remind them, this is one of the best ways of learning. As Edison put it, “I have not failed; I’ve only found 10,000 ways of that won’t work.”
- Create paths for students to show they can make a difference in this world. Give examples and opportunities of how when acquiring new knowledge, especially in depth, it is their responsibility to share it with others and add to other’s lives, as well make a change.
Editors Note: This profile of Laurel Elementary is the first in what we hope will be a recurring glimpse into how real educators are using technology in the classroom. If there's a topic you'd like to see us cover, add it to the comments below. If you know of an educator who is doing something amazing with technology, let us know by sending a message to email@example.com.