Technology Counts 2016: Transforming the Classroom

Teacher Tech Leaders: Nicholas Provenzano

Students in Nicholas Provenzano’s Digital Seminar class at Grosse Pointe South High School in Michigan learn programming to control humanoid and spider robots.
Students in Nicholas Provenzano’s Digital Seminar class at Grosse Pointe South High School in Michigan learn programming to control humanoid and spider robots.
—Brian Widdis for Education Week

As an English teacher who codes, the author of The Nerdy Teacher blog believes digital education must span subject areas.

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Step into Nicholas Provenzano's high school English classroom and you won't see a dusty chalkboard or students scribbling in notebooks.

Instead, his classroom is mostly paperless. He has a set of iPads, and most of his students have been taking notes with Evernote for four years now. The app, which students can use to organize and access their notes, has been a game changer, he said.

Excitement creeps into Provenzano's voice when he talks about new technology in the classroom. He's 36 and has been teaching in Grosse Pointe, Mich., for 15 years, and during that time he's experimented with countless digital learning tools.

"[An English class is] not where you typically think of finding 21st-century technology in an all-inclusive environment," said Moussa Hamka, the principal of Grosse Pointe South High School. "You go into his class, and he's really embraced the role of technology."

Provenzano was one of the first teachers at his school to build a web page for his classroom, to replace the bulky television in his classroom with an LCD projector, and to pilot the use of iPads in the classroom.

"I've always been one step ahead in trying new things," he said. "I'm an early adopter."

Provenzano has made a name for himself in the ed-tech community through his blog, The Nerdy Teacher, where he shares resources and insights he's learned in his classes. He has more than 54,000 Twitter followers.

He has also created a "maker" space in his school's library. Initially, he was hesitant that this project was outside his subject-area domain. Then he read more about the maker movement and its emphasis on STEAM— science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.

"I'm an English teacher, I'm the A, and I need to show people that," he said.

Hamka said the maker space serves as an "open-air environment" where students can access the latest technologies, like 3-D printers.

Provenzano is currently writing a book about the maker movement to explain the benefits to teachers from all fields. For example, the maker space is where students introduced him to Raspberry Pi, a programmable computing device.

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Now, he's a Raspberry Pi-certified educator and has even hosted a competition in the school's maker space, where students used the Pi to address an identified problem, learning coding and app creation along the way. He's seeking to introduce Python, a programming language which also can be used with the Raspberry Pi, into his English classes.

Technology, Provenzano said, can help students reach a higher level of learning. But that's not to say frustrations and failures no longer occur.

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"I could write a book about all the things that don't work," he said. "You've designed an entire lesson using the iPad, and then the WiFi crashes, and you have a very expensive paperweight. But [all teachers] are good at adapting on the fly."

Provenzano is also a technology-curriculum specialist at his school and coaches fellow teachers on tech integration. Hamka said he led the school's transition to Google Apps for Education and hosts lunchtime training sessions.


Provenzano credits technology with boosting his own professional development. He shares resources with teachers across the country through his online network. "I'm a better teacher because of this community," he said.

He has leveraged those virtual connections into speaking gigs at education conferences and consultations with both districts and technology companies.

Provenzano said he's learned that when it comes to tech use in schools, "there are pockets of amazing things going on." But overall, the country has a long way to go, he said.

Tradition meets innovation in Nicholas Provenzano’s classes at Grosse Pointe South High in Michigan.
Tradition meets innovation in Nicholas Provenzano’s classes at Grosse Pointe South High in Michigan.
—Brian Widdis for Education Week

There's a major divide between the haves and have-nots in education, he noted, pointing to the struggling Detroit school district, just 20 minutes from Grosse Pointe. "When you're talking tech, you're talking money," he said. "There's no way around that."

Most of Provenzano's projects have been funded through grants—he's lost track of how many he's applied for.

Technology, he said, can be a great equalizer. To prepare students for careers, Provenzano said schools must do a better job of teaching critical thinking and problem solving. In this sense, coding is an urgent need, he added.

"Coding is the new foreign language," he said. "That's the thing that kids will have to know to do anything in any job create things, build a website, make things work."

Vol. 35, Issue 35, Pages 10-11, 14

Published in Print: June 9, 2016, as Teacher Tech Leaders: Nicholas Provenzano
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