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Iowa school district shows evolving roles of teachers, learners in tech-heavy classrooms

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/Teacher-student_Thumb1.jpgForget what you think you know about school libraries and the librarians in charge of them. The stereotypical book-lined room so quiet the still is deafening has been erased from Van Meter Community Schools, and in its place is a room still with books on the shelves, but lively with conversation as groups of students pore over and discuss applications for a never-ending flow of Internet-driven information. And instead of pressing her index finger sternly to her lips and hissing “Shhhh,” Shannon McClintock Miller, the district’s librarian-slash-classroom teacher-slash-technology specialist-slash human whirlwind invites the opposite. In her library, students might prop their feet on the table and lean back in their chairs, sip from water canteens once taboo in America’s public school classrooms, or roam freely about.

Chaotic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” fare without the school-skipping hijinks? Hardly, Miller says. Instead, this is what collaborative learning looks and sounds like in 21st-century schools.

“Why should they have to be quiet when they come in here?” she asked, making more of a statement than posing a question. “Acting out just doesn’t exist. They are actively learning, and that’s big.”

The paradigm of what a classroom should look like has shifted dramatically at Van Meter.

”Top-down authoritative teaching styles – and, in some cases, courtesy titles as teachers become peers, friends and resource facilitators – are out, along with desks arranged in tidy rows, all seats facing forward. In the classroom of the past, students memorized and regurgitated on tests the facts teachers presented in lectures. In the classroom of the present and future, students increasingly take personal responsibility for their own educations.

“We have given them respect,” Miller said. “They see themselves as having a voice in their education.”

Miler, who was one of five librarians nationwide selected to take part in the prestigious Cengage Learning/School Library Journal educational leadership summit last fall, says the difference is in the relationship between students and teachers, and students and other students – who may or may not be in the same state or even on the same continent.

Julia Albaugh, left, said Van Meter’s one-to-one laptop initiative has made her more thoughtful about what she posts online. “When you realize it’s public and people will be watching Van Meter,” that’s huge. Also pictured is school librarian Shannon McClintock Miller.

“Until people come to visit and spend time, they don’t always see what’s going on,” she said. “It’s about the relationship. It’s about how the thinking has changed. Every single day, I am finding new connections that make kids’ education more exciting. If our kids didn’t see this vision and they didn’t see what is so powerful about it, it wouldn’t work.”

The shift allows students to learn academic disciplines by following their own passions, not through one-size-fits-all lesson plans that assume all students learn the same way and at the same pace, or that they’re interested in the same things.

For example, eighth-grader Michael Kinley has 47 uploads on his YouTube channel featuring everything from how-to videos on popular games and Apple software applications – topics adult professionals and students alike find valuable – to how to remain safe on the Internet and other digital citizenship issues. Since joining the social networking site about two years ago, he’s had 3,470 channel views, 32,078 upload views and 95 subscribers.

Miller calls him Van Meter’s technology whiz kid.

“This is his passion, definitely,” she said. “Somebody could probably hire him now. He’s unbelievably, amazingly talented.”

Though four years of high school lie ahead, Kinley already knows he wants a career in a technology related field. Following his interests put him in touch with similarly engaged peers across the country and abroad. They meet regularly via an educational Web network that allows video conferencing and to discuss issues related to the video editing club they are forming so they can share their knowledge and, in effect, become teachers of each other.

“The biggest thing is being able to collaborate with people all around the country and all over the world,” Kinley said.

Witnessing history as it unfolds

The district uses what are called “Web 2.0” tools, applications that allow students to interact and collaborate with each other, and share and store their content in a virtual community. This virtual portal is the “classroom” for a Personal Learning Network class that Miller co-teaches to students in Philadelphia. About a dozen Van Meter students are involved, including senior Julia Albaugh.

For one of her practical applications of learning, Albaugh used Web 2.0 tools to create a real-time interactive timeline on her favorite musical group, Mötley Crüe, and to follow a timeline a Pennsylvania classmate created to track the civil war in Libya. Knowing that social media powered youth-led democracy movements in the Middle East is nothing short of exhilarating for Albaugh and her peers.

“It’s cool that you can start a revolution like that using social media,” she said. “Their voice was heard.”

Democracy isn’t at stake on this side of the world, but knowing that her voice is viewed as vital and valuable in the critical discussion of current events makes her eager to learn more about them, Albaugh said.

“We’re participating in history and collaborating with other people, not just sitting in a classroom hearing about it,” she said. “We can open our computers and get headlines and then have critical discussions about it. It’s good to have a voice and be able to say what you think.”

Even more gratifying, Albaugh said, is that “people want to hear your voice.”

Albaugh’s family moved to the Van Meter school district from Des Moines when she was a freshman. Initially dubious about the laptop initiative because it uses Macintosh computers instead of PCs and “I don’t like typing,” Albaugh now shakes her head at her hesitation. She uses technology to keep her on schedule and on task, sending reminders to her phone to “go home and study.” Her smart phone is paired with her school-issued laptop, so notes, vocabulary words and other resources she stored online are literally at her fingertips.

“I think I learn more and retain information more,” she said. “It’s an easier way to study and learn. It’s not just a teacher lecturing.”

The value of the initiative isn’t isolated to the ease with which data and information can be retrieved and processed into something useful, Albaugh said.

“I wouldn’t have thought two years ago that if I wrote something that anybody was ever going to see it, and now I can upload it and share it on Twitter,” she said. “It’s cool that people want to hear what I have to say, and that makes me think about what I am saying. I don’t want to do a project halfway. When you realize it is public and people will be watching Van Meter, that’s important.”

‘Some things are done better on paper’

Some subject areas are more relevantly applied to computer-based learning than others. “Math is the toughest to have connected,” Carver said, emphasizing that math literacy is also one area where America’s public schools need to do better.

“If you can’t read, that’s a scarlet letter,” he said, “but if you say you’re not good at math, there’s not the same stigma attached to math as reading. There should be. We’ve done it the same way for so long, and it’s not working. We need to tie it to something real-world.”

Annie Pettit, a high school math teacher, said she struggles with the right balance between textbook-based learning and computer-enhanced lessons that couldn’t be offered without technology. On one hand, interactive, inquiry-based learning can make subjects like math and science come alive for students, she said, but “some things are done better on paper.”

A first-year teacher at Van Meter, Pettit’s initial interview for the job was by way of Skype from Senegal, Africa, where she had been teaching for four years and relied little on technology because of infrastructure limitations.

“It’s a growing process for me because I spent the last few years oversees in Senegal, and you can’t go and buy a computer there,” she said. “I brought mine from the States, but I was working in a society where they don’t have electricity.”

Working to overcome what she calls “a big learning curve,” Pettit uses a free software package that bundles geometry, algebra, tables, graphing, statistics and calculus, and allows, for example, the manipulation of a triangle to give students a better understanding of the Pythagorean triple (a set of numbers that are the side lengths of a right triangle).

“They see it before I can tell them as a teacher,” Pettit said, “and that will help them remember it longer.”

She’s developing lesson plans around Excel software to enhance students’ understanding of difficult calculus-based mathematical principles. “Excel is set up based on equations, and equations are based on math,” Pettit explained. “If you understand math, you can understand Excel.”

In today’s data-driven world, students’ critical thinking skills are sharpened when they’re able to determine what data shows and how it can be applied to other situations. For example, knowing how Kelley Blue Book automobile values are figured can help students better understand how depreciation is figured and loans are amortized.

“These values in the Kelley Blue Book aren’t just pulled out of thin air, but based on an equation,” Pettit said. “When you understand exponential decay, you can make better decisions on what kind of loan you want and figure the interest.”

As the one-to-one initiative moves into its third year next fall, Pettit hopes to tackle more abstract concepts students typically wouldn’t encounter until studying college-level math.

“One of the most powerful things about math that we sometimes forget is that it’s a way to look at a situation and ask questions,” Pettit said. “When you have to deal with the abstract ideas, math is really messy. A lot of math, even abstract math, was invented because they needed it. They needed calculus. I think we sometimes we fall into a trap that if each individual student doesn’t need it, it’s worthless.

“But it can help explain something the kids may take for granted. They may not need to know how a satellite TV brings in the signal, but without the math, you don’t have the satellite, and you don’t know why TVs have changed, or why we have ‘black buzz.’ Do they necessarily need to know that to survive? No, but it’s something that can help explain something else that they see.”

Improving what many educators increasingly see as America’s failing grade in math requires not only a change in how mathematics subjects are taught, but also a move away from arbitrary academic calendars that can shortchange many students, especially those enrolled in difficult-to-grasp subject areas, said Secondary Principal Deron Durflinger.

“Most high school students could get to Algebra II if we allowed them to learn at their own pace,” he said.

Teacher certification is another potentially thorny issue state education leaders and elected officials need to address to make sure public policy catches up with schools’ efforts “to figure out what the new DNA of learning looks like,” Carver said.

Citing an example, some Van Meter students recently enrolled in an online calculus class taught by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor. Obviously qualified to teach the subject, the professor wasn’t certified to teach in Iowa so the credits didn’t count toward the students’ graduation requirements.

Teacher roles are changing

As the way in which information in core curriculum and other classes is offered changes, so, too, do teacher roles. “We’ll eventually move away from teachers leading instruction to being a resource,” Durflinger predicted.

The district’s teachers are solidly on board, but Iowa educators visiting Van Meter, regarded as the state’s go-to school for one-to-one initiative how-to, are sometimes skeptical about how adopting the model will change their jobs, Miller pointed out.

“They fear they will no longer be teaching,” she said. “Our mindset is just different.”

The philosophy at Van Meter is that learning opportunities are enhanced when students are connected to incontrovertible experts in whatever field they are investigating, and that helps teachers fulfill their responsibilities to provide students with useful information.

“To have someone come in and teach from the site is much better than if I was going to teach them,” Miller said.

As an example, she said that lessons on how to properly add citations to research can be mind-numbing for students. So instead of offering a static lecture she knew wouldn’t engage students and would include information they wouldn’t retain, she connected them in an interactive session with Neal Teparia, the founder of a software company whose automatic bibliography composer takes many of the redundancies out of reference citation. Millions of students a month use the software, offered free to public schools, to cite sources for their papers.

“He treated us like we were actually smart, instead of dumbing it down,” said eighth-grader Josh Ladehoff. “It was valuable. Neal clarified things we might be confused about, but treated us like we had the ability to figure it out.”

That’s “huge,” Miller said.

“Since this started, I think the overwhelming thing all of us think is how great this journey has been – the open-mindedness with which we work together as a team,” she said. “It’s allowed the kids to become leaders, and we are more resources asking ‘how can we make this work for you?’”

Keeping students safe

Before Van Meter students could open their laptop computers, “step through the looking glass” and enter a powerful online learning portal, smart filtering technologies had been deployed that gave them open access, but also provided real-time protection against the dangers of the virtual and sometimes anonymous world.

School board member John Seefeld said district officials were thorough in their investigation of firewalls and other tools to block sites where inappropriate materials could be accessed. The district took the added precaution of partnering with Des Moines Area Community College’s Electronic Crime Institute, a first-of-its-kind program to educate students about cybercrime and cyberterrorism, to “make sure we only had appropriate Web sites available and the had the 24/7 ability to screen any computer,” Seefeld said.

Van Meter students know that file-sharing settings mean technology director Mike Linde could, at any time and without notice, spot-monitor their on-screen activity to take control of their computers remotely. And they’re keenly aware that inappropriate use could mean they wouldn’t be allowed to take their laptops home at the end of the day. Without the devices, they’d have to do their schoolwork in the school computer lab, on their own time.

Students can’t access their Facebook social network accounts during school hours, and Linde can monitor chat settings. Not blocked is YouTube, an online video sharing site with an ever-growing library of videos reflecting not only pop culture, but also history, science, technology and just about every other topic a student might be interested in. Educators tout YouTube as an exceptional interactive educational resource that greatly increases the vehicles through which students can learn, but the vast reach of the video collection was cited by one family as the reason for enrolling their two children elsewhere. The parents contacted The Dallas County News with concerns that students could use school-issued laptops to access pornography at the YouTube site, but declined a request for an interview.

District officials don’t take such concerns lightly. “When we have a situation, we have our forensic computer people go into computers and screen,” Seefeld said. In the two years of the one-to-one initiative, significant problems with students accessing inappropriate material haven’t surfaced, he said.

Carver said no amount of precaution will stop some students from making inappropriate choices and he acknowledged “there is a fear factor about that.” But students can also access inappropriate materials through more conventional resources, Carver said, by looking up words like “incest” or “beastiality” in the encyclopedias that are typically found on school library shelves.

“Our thinking is disruptive because it goes against the establishment and creates an educational experience that no one has ever attempted,” he said. “There are still pockets of fear, and we have some kids whose parents don’t want them to use laptops.

“In the absence of knowledge, you make up knowledge,” Carver said. But he’s confident that the world Van Meter has opened for students is safe. “Our attorneys have told us that we have done our due diligence and have safe environmental filters,” he said.

The school district accommodates the wishes of parents who ask that their children not be issued laptop computers. About a half-dozen families opted out of the laptop program in its first year, and that number has dwindled to only a couple of families this year, Carver said.

More common than fear their children will access inappropriate material, Seefeld said, is worry that students aren’t responsible enough to care for the devices.

“We still have some ‘my child will not be mature enough to handle it 24/7,’ and we still have some ‘gee, should kids learn in this new-fangled way?’” Seefeld said. “This is a powerful tool for kids to learn and socially network, and they’ll treat it with more respect than their cell phones. Kids say to me, ‘don’t let them take my laptop away, I love to learn this way, I love to create this way.’”

“If we tried to go back to the old way of doing business,” Carver agreed, “we would have a revolution.”

Educators recognize the delicate balance between openness and safety. But because online communication has become so important socially and professionally, they say it’s better for students to become aware of the dangers of the Internet now and learn how to navigate it safely and responsibly. That includes not only developing respect for the permanence of their online footprint and recognizing the Internet’s viral nature, but also identifying inappropriate behavior and content and knowing how to respond to it. The district’s emphasis on digital citizenship begins in elementary school and continues until graduation.

“When you open up the world, you bring in the good and the bad,” said state Department of Education Director Jason Glass, named by Gov. Terry Branstad in January to help reform Iowa education. “There are online predators, bullies and inappropriate materials. Educating kids that these threats are out there, and that what a student publishes online exists forever is something that we need to be mindful and thoughtful about.”

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