At Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber in Overbrook, (from left) Ngozi Enwereji, Wesley White, Cristian Fernandez and fellow students in a tech lab are designing and building a set of petal-shaped modular computer desks for their classroom. (Photo: Harvey Finkle)
Every student has a Chromebook and a school email address. They work on a constant string of projects, alone and in teams, posting their work on the school blog. Technology is infused in everything they do.
But SLA remains the exception, not the rule. Brodie Bauman, a lanky SLA @ Beeber sophomore, smiled as he recalled his elementary school’s setup.
“We had a bunch of crappy Dells, and we just did typing classes all day,” Bauman said. “It was horrible. If I was working with somebody, it was the guy who happened to be next to me.”
Fortunately, his school, a charter, had solid academics; he earned a coveted SLA spot, and now he’s in his element.
He’s online when he wants to be. He’s got an internship with the Water Department, he likes geometry class and the bench he built, and he and his friends are teaching teachers to soup up their Chromebooks with Linux.
“We kind of figured it out on our own,” he said. “The teachers were like, ‘Oh, that’s cool!’”
Stories like that reflect the standard to which all schools should aspire, Hertz said.
“Once you start teaching with technology, you’re no longer the person in charge,” she said. “You don’t hold all the knowledge anymore. That’s a huge shift. You have to completely reimagine the way learning looks. Now kids can just Google it. You don’t have to stand up there and teach it.”
‘I learn from them’
If SLA is the gold standard, John B. Kelly is closer to bronze.
“We have a laptop cart, and it’s not always functional,” said Stephen Flemming, a 3rd-grade teacher in his eighth year at the Germantown elementary school. “There’s spaces for 24 computers, but now there’s only 10.”
Kelly’s ed-tech profile is typical of neighborhood schools. Hardware is limited: Jennings’ class has a single desktop for 26 students (“You have to schedule things”). Only some classrooms have smartboards. The Internet can be balky, the computers creaky.
But the laptop cart stays busy and visits all the grades. Flemming’s 3rd graders squeeze in every minute of screen time they can, and like Bauman at SLA, they try to teach him a thing or two. When he suggests one batch of reading or math programs, they’ll go online and find more.
“They like looking and telling me what’s out there,” he said. “I learn from them as much as they learn from me.”
Flemming’s wish list for Kelly isn’t long: more tablets, more computers, more smartboards.
But he and his colleagues aren’t waiting on the District for everything. “A lot of us are going to social media to teach,” he said. “We’re using Instagram and Twitter to post pictures and homework.”
Parents and kids alike respond, he said. “They comment on pictures. They’ll use it. … At 3rd grade, they’re already on social media.”
District officials are leery of that kind of freelancing.
“I think teachers have to be very careful on social media with children,” said Fran Newberg, deputy chief of the District’s Office of Information Technology.
Principal Chris Lehmann at SLA’s main campus “is the beacon of how phenomenal it can be to use social media to engage kids. But I tend to be very cautious,” Newberg said.
Then she paused: “Maybe that’s a downside.”
Newberg knows educators have no choice but to feel their way through unfamiliar territory, not just with social media but with all forms of technology. The field is evolving fast, and the pressure is strong to step up.
The good news is that the next level isn’t necessarily a huge leap.
In Northeast Philadelphia, a financial gift is helping Ziegler Elementary go from the bronze standard – computer labs and occasional laptop time – to what could be called the silver: integrating technology into classroom lessons and projects.
The four-year grant of just under $1 million – about $250,000 a year – allows Zeigler to add a full-time technology specialist and outfit itself with plenty of high-quality technology, with an emphasis on the early grades.
Now some 1st graders are doing things that their parents can’t.
“Believe it or not, we’re coding,” said Kim Adair, the teacher whose job it is to bring tech into every classroom. “Kids are actually getting it. It’s amazing to watch.”
Ziegler is one of two schools to receive the grants, raised from two funders to replicate the literacy model of a private school, AIM Academy in Conshohocken. Kindergartners and 1st graders all have iPad carts. First graders code with a picture-based software program based on the Angry Birds video games. Older students do research and video projects.
In one, 8th graders filmed themselves doing mock high school interviews, and then watched and evaluated their performances.
“One girl finished [watching], and I said, ‘What did you see?’” Adair recalled.
“She said, ‘I had my hand on my hip the whole time.’ I said, ‘What does that signal to someone?’ And she said, ‘It’ll tell them that I have an attitude problem.’”
The student got it – and her next video was better, Adair said. It’s just one of many potentially life-changing lessons she sees constantly.
“I explain what they’re doing, and they help each other,” Adair said. “It’s not always about me. They’re building social skills.”
Still, with all the pressure on schools to meet test-score standards, she fears for creative programs like hers.
“They’ll hire more literacy teachers, and the tech teachers will get phased out,” Adair said. “[They’ll] say, ‘You must teach Lexia.’ They won’t get to see the spark in the kids’ eyes when they do the crazy projects I do.”
‘It’s bubbling up’