Technology plays a vital role in elementary classrooms.
Jenks West Elementary students Ellie Onorato (Pre-K), Finley Combs (K) and Wyatt Franco (K)attend school at the Grace Living Center nursing home in Jenks, Okla. Photo by Laura Araujo
An “ed-tech” movement is connecting educators across the nation—those in rural Oklahoma and those in inner-city school districts alike.
The high-tech devices at their disposal, once found only in science fiction films, are reaching elementary children where they are and are enhancing the student learning experience.
A cold rain falls outside the William Gay Early Learning Center in McAlester, Okla. Inside William Higgins’ pre-kindergarten class, however, it is warm as 4- and 5-year-olds are active during the morning “center time.” A few boys and girls are busy at the building block station on the classroom’s rainbow-colored rug. Others are seated at tables, working on puzzles, playing with dominoes and coloring pictures.
To one side of the room, two boys sit at a small wooden table, very focused. They are using Kodable, an app that teaches basic computer programming, on two of the classroom’s iPads. Two girls occupy another center and they use iPads to creating a stop-motion movie with dinosaurs. The rest of the class rotates through a third iPad station where an “Osmo” learning device challenges them to spell their name.
Unlike ever before in history, a new generation of children is being exposed to technology from an early age. From toddlers who easily navigate smart phones and iPads to elementary school “YouTubers,” this technology-engaged generation offers educators a new set of opportunities and challenges.
And teachers like Higgins are responding. An “ed-tech” movement is connecting educators across the nation—those in rural Oklahoma and those in inner-city school districts alike. They are sharing knowledge and ideas and empowering one another to use technology in their classrooms. The high-tech devices at their disposal, once found only in science fiction films, are reaching elementary children where they are and are enhancing the student learning experience.
Excited to Learn
Higgins’ pre-k students are excited to use the class’ iPads. He says many of the students in the low-income district don’t have access to this technology at home so they look forward to coming school.
Higgins himself wasn’t raised around technology; his family first got a computer when he was a junior in high school. However, after that he became fascinated by technology and invested in learning more about it. As a teacher, he wondered, “If technology makes life easier at home, why can’t it help at school too?”
And it has. Higgins says engaging the kids can sometimes be challenging, but using the class’ 10 iPads is an easy way to get them involved.
“If they don’t want to be here it’s difficult to get them to do anything,” he says. “When they want to learn they’re more attentive and have better behavior.”
Higgins, who serves as the technology mentor for his school, was awarded the 2015 Statewide Touchstone Energy Cooperatives SKIE Award, recognized for his transformative use of technology in the classroom. This award, and other grants, have provided funding for the iPads and MacBook Pro laptops, now found in each classroom at the Early Childhood Center.
Higgins’ passion for his kids shines as he invests time in creating lesson plans that use their high-tech classroom equipment, often networking with other educators via Twitter to share ideas. Last year, Higgins’ students grew a “QR Garden.” They lined the hallway with colorful flowers they created. In the center of each flower was a QR code. The kids scanned the codes with an iPad and learned about colors, numbers and letters.
Higgins has observed how technology has taught students problem solving skills and has encouraged them to be more creative. The kids regularly enjoy learning coding through apps like “Flappy Bird,” learning to write and spell using a letter tracing app, and learning basic robotics with Higgins’ sphero robot.
“A lot of people think of technology in the hands of kids a babysitter,” he says. “With a small amount of help and perspective, kids can do things you’d never imagine. It’s pretty amazing.”
Planning for Technology
In the suburban school district of Jenks, Okla., creating a district-wide technology plan was a critical step in equipping the school with technology.
Jenks West Elementary Principal Suzanne Lair says much of the district’s funding for technology comes from bond funds. “We’ve been very fortunate to have parents and community members who regularly pass bond propositions,” Lair says.
As part of the technology plan, each of school district’s seven campuses has an Instructional Technology Contact Teacher on site. This teacher is available to help colleagues integrate technology into their classrooms, provide trainings and assist with troubleshooting.
Angela Timmons is the technology contact for Jenks West Elementary and was recognized by PBS as one of three Oklahoma Digital Innovators in 2015. She teaches in a multi-age first-“These kids are the ‘iGeneration.’ They don’t remember a time without technology,” Timmons says. “Technology is the way to engage them.”
Timmons’ students regularly use Skype to read with a classroom in Missouri via video chat. She challenges her students’ geography skills with “Mystery Skype,” which connects them with students around the world. They receive clues to help them guess where the other students are located. Last month Timmons’ students took a “virtual field trip” to the National Dinosaur Monument in Utah, where a park ranger took them on a live tour of the dinosaur quarry and taught them paleontology basics.
“With limited funding for field trips, this is a free way for the kids to see and experience really cool things,” Timmons says.
According to Timmons, digital tools also help students who may be behind in certain areas. For example, students who have difficulty writing due to their fine motor development are able to produce stories digitally on Google Drive. She adds that the kids are excited to share their stories with a global environment.
“If they write for the teacher they won’t produce what they would when they are writing for the outside community,” she says. “It gives them more purpose to know other kids can read what they write.”
Creating Cutting-Edge Classrooms
James Elliott is the assistant superintendent of the Coffeyville, Kan., school district, where he oversees the district’s Information Technology program. During his 14-year tenure, the rural, low-income district has been on the cutting edge technologically.
Despite the fact that the school’s classrooms are equipped with the latest technology, Elliott, a Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative member, says the district’s most important investment is not in equipment—it’s in people. For the teachers, the district provides training, coaching and funding for technology.
“We are teched-up,” he says. “We expect high-level uses of technology, but if the technology is there and you don’t know how to use it, it’s a waste.
“If we see teacher struggling or if they are not using technology in classroom, we have a technology coach who sits in their classroom and formulates a plan to help the teacher integrate technology into their lesson plans.”
Teachers are encouraged to explore innovative ways to use technology in the classroom, and if they have a particular need, the district offers stipends to purchase those items. In turn, they are expected to share the results with their colleagues at one of the school’s 40, hour-long technology trainings offered each year.
Elliott says the focus on technology enables students to take charge of the learning process; teachers serve as their guides. The school has a saying, “two before me,” which reminds students to identify two resources to try and answer a question before asking the teacher. This instills confidence in the students, from an early age, to use the technology that’s available at their fingertips.
“If we don’t teach kids how to learn, to teach themselves, we’re not doing them any benefit,” Elliott says. He believes teaching students to solve problems is critical to their education, and the ability to use technology is a vital part of equipping students for the workplace of the future.
“Change is going to happen. We can either embrace it or resist it but it will happen,” he says. “Our challenge is to change with change.”