Going (Digitally) Native

The new frontiers of technology in the classroom

East Side Monthly Magazine ·

I completed graduate school, and thus my formal education, about five minutes before the Internet became a thing. So I often wonder what it’s like to be a student now, when computers can be anywhere and often seem to be everywhere. Glorious, of course, with so much of the world’s ever-expanding knowledge at one’s fingertips, and terrifying, with the staggering, constant distractions of online life.

I am now the parent of school age, digitally native children. Along with nearly everyone else in charge of Generation Z humans, I constantly grapple with the role of technology in their lives. Internet delivery devices – computers, smartphones and tablets – threaten to distract them from building healthy relationships, resolving conflicts, developing strong interpersonal communication and using imagination to dig below surface boredom – not to mention reading a book or going outdoors.

But are the best minds of their generation frittering away in the throes of Minecraft? Perhaps not. Computers and their ilk may be more than diversions. Our ninth grade son’s learning is significantly supported by his devices. Most of his teachers have websites, and most of his textbooks are online. He reads, writes and communicates with classmates with his smartphone or whatever device is at hand. Of course, whatever device is at hand is also the delivery system for Instagram, Snapchat, texts, Twitter: an ever-expanding panoply of shiny social objects (and there’s that worry again).

In order to fret less and learn more about the ways computer-based technology can meaningfully advance learning, I attended the Highlander Institute’s fourth annual daylong Blended Learning and Technology conference. A Providencebased nonprofit, the Highlander Institute partners with Highlander Charter School to support professional learning and educational improvement throughout Rhode Island. Educational technology integration is one of the Highlander Institute’s areas of focus, and it was in dazzling display at the Blended Learning conference.

More about the conference in a moment. First, what’s blended learning? Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker, authors of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, write, “Done right, blended learning breaks through the barriers of the use of time, place, path to understanding and pace to allow each student to work according to his or her particular needs – whether that be in a group or alone, on practice problems or projects, online or offline. It preserves the benefits of the old and provides new benefits – personalization, access and equity, and cost control.”

At the blended learning conference, several hundred educators from Rhode Island and beyond gathered at the University of Rhode Island Providence Feinstein Campus to share ways they’re using this approach. Their electric enthusiasm communicated that classroom-based technology integration has the power to open up worlds of understanding to all students, supporting them to find their own paths to mastery and achievement. It felt tremendously gratifying to be in the presence of educators focused on evolving and improving their practice for better student outcomes statewide.

Because this is real life in real schools, a real frustration counterbalanced the obvious zeal. Technology implementation varies widely among districts, schools and individual classrooms. Wealthier districts seem to have more and better integration and access. Despite challenges that include funding and infrastructure, the Providence Public Schools take technology integration seriously. Pleasant View Elementary School, recipient of a Rhode Island Department of Education technology grant, is a national model, demonstrating significant student improvement as it implements blended learning. Such change is happening at other schools, such as West Broadway Middle School, and blended learning is at the core of two new high schools that the district will be opening next year with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Claudia Martin, a fourth grade teacher at the East Side’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, shared a bit of what it’s like to be a technology pioneer. Along with many of her colleagues, Martin focuses on differentiation and organizing her classroom to support various levels of learners. These learners move through lessons and units in varied groups that work with her, with each other, independently and with technology that allows them to synthesize knowledge, test understanding, collaborate, create and demonstrate mastery. “The rewards of differentiation are worth the challenges,” Martin noted. “It’s not easy, but it’s easier with technological help.” Her vision of powerful teaching includes a level of technology integration that she is working toward with whatever resources are available.

Great teachers can be even greater with the right technological support. We should be educating young people to thrive in a technologically rich world. Those who can harness that technology for the benefit of learning, growth, challenge and collaboration will be able to leverage their native digital literacy most powerfully.

Smart News
Calling All MLK Elementary Graduates!
Save the date: On June 18, 6-8pm, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School and Mt. Hope Learning Center invite all MLK Elementary alumni and their families to a reunion. Come to King to visit the school, see old friends, meet current students and staff members, and celebrate the role of a wonderful neighborhood school that’s been serving Mt. Hope and the greater East Side for nearly 50 years.

This fundraiser will celebrate the committed partnership between MLK Elementary and the Mt. Hope Learning Center. Proceeds will support Mt. Hope Learning Center afterschool programs, vacation/summer camps and more for King students. The evening’s events will include tours of the school, raffles, a performance from the Mt. Hope Step Team, great food, a special guest appearance by King celebrities (perhaps a Mr. Kane sighting!) and more.

18 Wheelers Headed to High School A Cappella Nationals
In March, the 18 Wheelers, Wheeler School’s co-ed a cappella singing group, won the 2015 International Competition of High School A Cappella East Coast Regional. They’re now headed to the national finals in New York City in April. Singing groups from schools in California, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina will compete for the Best in High School A Cappella. The 18 Wheelers group is also part of “Sing that Thing,” a new WGBH program devoted to choral music that will air in April and May. Congratulations and good luck!

First Day of School
For your viewing pleasure and planning needs, the Providence Public Schools 2015-2016 academic calendar is online at the Providence Schools website. The first day of school is slated for Wednesday, September 2. The December-January winter break is a full two weeks, though in response to this winter’s spate of snow days, February break has been consolidated into a long weekend. PPSD has identified Thursday, June 16 as the last day of school, followed by several “weather make-up” days – a prudent provision that we all dearly hope is unnecessary.