Student Engagement / Abigail French
When Abigail French first started teaching, the biggest technology innovation in her school district was a plan to put a desktop computer in every classroom.
French left the profession for nearly two decades to raise her four children and returned to the classroom four years ago. By then, everything had changed: The new initiative by the district was to give every student a Chromebook to provide digital equity.
“It was really overwhelming, to be honest,” said French, a 6th grade U.S. history teacher at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School in Woodstock, Va. “It wasn’t until this past year that I really embraced ... infusing [technology] in my lesson-planning and instruction.”
For French, technology has allowed her to give students a voice in their own learning.
“It’s connected to a shift in making the learning student-centered and taking the teacher out of that role as a lecturer,” she said. “My relationship with the kids has really developed into, we’re a team. .... [It puts] the students in the driver’s seat.”
Last month, she completed a unit in which students worked in groups to research the characteristics and contributions of the first five presidents. They retold the stories in the style of “notecard confessions"—videos that display a series of notecards to tell a story. The students filmed and edited their confessions using the app WeVideo, which enables them to add sound, music, and other digital effects.
“It was such a richer experience,” French said. In the past, she taught about the first presidents by showing a slideshow presentation and asking students to fill in a set of guided notes and a graphic organizer. That was boring, she said.
“I don’t want them to be passive learners sitting in my classroom, just hearing history facts from me,” French said. “I want them ... creating something, taking that information and using it as they learn other skills.”
This month, students were to research a 19th-century invention and then design a digital infographic to persuade others to invest.
Those kinds of technology-infused lessons are more memorable for students, said Patricia Fox, an instructional-technology resource coach for the Shenandoah County school district. She helped French design the project on the first presidents, in which students learned the content—as well as collaboration, creativity, and communication skills, the so-called new competencies.
French said the technology also allowed students who struggle with schoolwork to demonstrate their understanding and skills in a new way.
“It allowed them to really shine ... where they don’t always get the opportunity to,” she said. “That was important because everybody wants to feel seen.”
Differentiation / Buddy Morales
The ability to differentiate instruction is a valuable skill for any teacher. But for special education teachers, that ability is vital.
Just ask Buddy Morales.
Morales, a special education teacher at Colony High School in Ontario, Calif., works with students who have moderate to severe disabilities. Some are uncomfortable interacting with each other in class at the beginning of the year, he said. But often, technology helps them open up to others and share ideas.
“Sometimes they’re a little shy, but when they go on the forums on [Google Classroom], they’re able to have a conversation,” Morales said. His students can feel more comfortable typing than talking, so Morales has used the platforms to conduct class discussions.
Technology can offer powerful alternative pathways to reach students with disabilities “to help them actualize their own learning, to help them become self-directed,” said Jennifer Courduff, an associate professor at Azusa Pacific University in California who studies technology integration in diverse learning environments.
Morales, who has taught at Colony for six years, is a Google Certified Educator on campus. He teaches functional academics, preparing students for life after high school, to a class that can range in age from 14 to 22.
Many of his students struggle with reading. “Some of them can’t produce simple letter sounds,” he said. “They need pictures, or you need to really break it down for them phonetically.”
When they use Chromebooks in Morales’ class, students who struggle with reading use Snap&Read, a text-to-speech web plug-in. For students who can read and write more fluently, he uses the literacy platform Newsela, which offers news articles and other texts at different Lexile reading levels.
Along with traditional academic topics, Morales teaches life skills: how to compose an email or how to stick to a hygiene routine. He uses EdPuzzle—an app that allows teachers to splice videos with voiceovers, activities, and quiz questions—to customize YouTube tutorials and add in checks for understanding.
Some of the big tech companies have made strides in the accessibility of systems commonly used in K-12 schools, said Courduff, citing Google Classroom and Microsoft Office 365 as examples. In many cases, special education teachers can use these existing features to differentiate instruction for their students. “It’s more about repurposing a tool that’s currently in the hands of the student, or that’s currently at the school site, rather than needing to have something that’s added on or new,” she said.
Still, Morales said, when it comes to apps specifically designed for students with disabilities, “I wish there were more.”
Assessment / Whitney Lawrence
As most teachers can attest, grading can be a slog. But when 9th grade science teacher Whitney Lawrence began using educational technology tools to assess student learning, gone were the piles of papers that took hours to review and return to students in a timely manner.
A couple years ago, Lawrence began using tools like Kahoot, EdPuzzle, Nearpod, and Google Classroom to give students formative assessments so she could track their progression toward meeting standards. The change those tech tools have made to her instruction, she said, has been transformational.
“It’s really opened my eyes up this past year into how much time I [used to spend] grading—hours after work, just to the grind—and it’s opened up time for more planning,” said Lawrence, who teaches at Eagle’s Landing High School in McDonough, Ga. “The kids are more engaged. ... My lessons are really personalized and planned around the individual needs of the students based on quick data from a five-minute assessment that they took in class.”
Students can now track their own assessment data and make their own selections of lessons on Nearpod, based on what topics they need to practice.
“I have noticed more of an awareness from the students than ever before,” said Lawrence, who is in her eighth year teaching. “They know what their grade is and why their grade is that and how they got to that and what it means.”
The change in Lawrence’s practice has been supported by Robyn Williams, the personalized learning lead at Eagle’s Landing, who had gone through the same journey with tech tools a few years before.
Before Williams began using technology in her own science classroom, she would give students a weekly pen-and-paper quiz.
“The timeline to turn around and communicate that feedback with students, it was far too long,” she said. “I had to take a look back and say, ... ‘Am I really using this as a tool to increase their achievement?’ And the hard answer was no.”
Instead, students were stressed because of the weekly quizzes, and Williams was stressed because of the stack of ungraded papers on her desk. But once she started using digital tools like Quizizz, Google Forms, Nearpod, and EdPuzzle, she could give students checkpoint assessments every other day with just a couple of questions. It took the pressure off students and it gave Williams the data instantly, so she could adjust her instruction as needed.
Now, Williams is working with Lawrence and other teachers in her new role as part of a districtwide push to personalize learning through tech-enhanced instruction. In Henry County schools, students in grades 3-12 receive a Chromebook for the year, and K-2 teachers have a classroom set of iPads.
The focus on digital assessments has resulted in learning gains for students, Lawrence said. They have multiple chances to take assessments, which are graded automatically.
“As we’re working through lessons throughout the next few days, they’re able to refer back to their test scores, ... and it really connects the material better,” she said. “They’re making those bigger real-world connections, just having more guidance on the lower-level things they weren’t understanding.”
Parent Communication / Sophia Garcia-Smith
Second grade teacher Sophia Garcia-Smith sends notes home to the parents in her class in their native languages—even if she can’t speak those languages herself.
The digital platform Seesaw, which Garcia-Smith uses to share student work and message families, can translate messages into more than 50 languages. At Orchard Place Elementary School in Des Plaines, Ill., where 70 percent of students are English-language learners, this feature is invaluable, Garcia-Smith said. More than 20 languages are represented in the building.
Before she started using the platform, the elementary teacher had to go through a weeklong translation process for any notice she wanted to send home. “There was no spontaneous contacting of parents,” said Garcia-Smith, who has taught 2nd grade for almost a decade.
Spanish-speaking parents were also hesitant to call her with questions, she said, as it took time for the school to arrange a translator and schedule a meeting. Instead, parents often waited until parent-teacher conferences (where they knew they would have a translator on hand) before discussing why a student was struggling. And that was often too late to correct a problem.
So a few years ago, Garcia-Smith started helping parents sign up for Seesaw at back-to-school nights. Some parents don’t want to register with their phone number or email address for privacy reasons, so Garcia-Smith also sends home printed codes that parents can scan to see materials on the platform, without creating an account.
With the translation capability, parents are “no longer shy to reach out,” she said. She receives messages when a student has had a rough weekend, or if they had trouble with homework. “Those little tidbits of what’s going on—they’re great for a teacher to know,” she said. She estimates that she has regular contact with three-quarters of her students’ parents, compared with 30 percent to 40 percent before she started using the app.
Seesaw is just one of the parent communication tools that offers translation options—apps including TalkingPoints, Remind, and ClassDojo integrate these features as well.
Parents who aren’t facing a language barrier also say that more frequent communication helps them stay involved. Emma Rentas, whose daughter is in Garcia-Smith’s class, said seeing her child’s progress through the platform alerted her to a homework-completion issue earlier this school year.
Orchard Place knows that parents want more communication around academics and achievement, said Jennifer Bautista, the school’s principal. In a recent survey, for example, parents overwhelmingly said they wanted to know more about students’ math instruction. Strengthening family communication around academics is one of the school’s improvement goals, Bautista said.
Because parents can easily peruse student work with Seesaw, said Garcia-Smith, “they’re really seeing: In 2nd grade, [students are] coming out much better readers, or their math skills are so much better. And I feel like they wouldn’t know that with just a report card.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2019 edition of Education Week as Four Teachers Show Their Ed-Tech Solutions