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 Singing with Sylvia for Christmas

Local School Transforms Through 21st Century Tools

Local School Transforms Through 21st Century Tools
Thanks to Microsoft for partnering on this post.

It was the first day of the first week of summer break, and I already had a total of six conversations with my son about screen time and electronic devices. Can you relate?

A conversation I had later that afternoon with a local teacher librarian has shifted my perspective somewhat about how children can and should interact with technology, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Connie Davis is a Saskatoon mom who has been a teacher librarian for 18 years. She currently serves in this role at St. Mark Community School, where she has been a catalyst for some significant changes in learning techniques using technology.

“We are looking at different ways to teach our kids,” Ms. Davis explained. “Life isn’t chunked up like our school days were. It’s not how life works today. The old ‘factory model’ of how we learn in school – which mainly consisted of memorizing facts for tests and being done with it -- does not teach our kids the best skills to reflect today’s world or prepare them for future successes.”

St. Mark is a diverse school. As you enter its front doors, you will find a world map with nearly 50 pins to mark the countries from where students and their families have come. Approximately one-third are from immigrant families, another one-third are First Nations or Metis and a third are others from its west-side community.

In a classroom where half of the students may not have English as a first language, that barrier has been removed by the help of Bing Translator. Children with learning difficulties have been able to use Dragon Speech Recognition Software in the classroom to help him listen and compile class notes, making it easier for them to keep up with their lessons and not fall behind.

“It is amazing to see a child in Grade 8, who may not be able to read and write the way he needs to do for his level, come out of his shell and become a group leader,” Ms. Davis explained. “He is now able to participate in the projects that are happening and no longer needs the support of an educational assistant to do something different.

“Differentiation in education has been a big topic of discussion,” Ms. Davis explained. “Up to this point it has all been teacher led, which with 30 kids in a class, this can lead to teacher exhaustion. If personalized learning is set up correctly -- with 21st century learning tools from companies like Microsoft -- kids are able to set it up themselves, and the outcomes are amazing.”

Ms. Davis said that although reading, writing, math and science are, and must remain, cornerstones of today’s education, schools must go further to prepare students for 21st-century employment. Some of the skills pinpointed in the “21st Century Learning Design” include: critical thinking, effective collaboration, digital literacy, building knowledge and self-regulation.

St. Mark launched a pilot program with a Grade 2 class three years ago. Now in Grade 5, the students have been taught with the 21st century learning techniques and personalized learning with successful results.

Thanks to the support of Microsoft, this year St. Mark was able to obtain 30 Surface Pro 2 devices for its Grade 8 classroom. Microsoft also provided a trainer, not only to show the students how to use them for personalized learning, but also to make sure each received Microsoft IT Academy Certification. This Windows device and training allows students to experience accessibility and inclusive learning. 

Personalized learning is a total paradigm shift. While still tied to provincial curriculum, the learning model is self-directed. It has kids involved in deciding for themselves how they want to make sense of parts of the curriculum.

She gave the example of how the class studied the electromagnetic spectrum. The basic concept was introduced via textbook and You Tube videos. The students were then asked to explore it in ways that interested them. One child discovered a part of it was used to treat cancer patients, another focused on night vision technology, others focused on remote control technology, and so on.

The class worked independently and in groups to explore various careers in the field, create projects, organize a science fair and present information to students in Grade 4. They were encouraged to implement their learning through variety of technologies, focusing on the most efficient tool for each task.

"I encourage my students to effectively use all tools that they have," Ms. Davis said. "If pen and paper is the fastest and most effective tool for the task, then use it. We should not use technology just for technology's sake.

“The more connections you can make cross-curricularly and the more brain synapses created will help a child’s knowledge base solidify, and they have a better chance of retaining the information,” she said.

Most mornings, teachers work with students on math, writing and reading. With personalized learning, students are working throughout the day and teachers are watching, connecting and recognizing learning gaps so that they can quickly help students who might be struggling.

Each week, every student and teacher have “accountability meetings” to assess work and find out what the child might be stuck on. These students are empowered to ask questions and a sense of teamwork is built. “It is simply amazing to watch,” she said.

Ms. Davis describes St. Mark’s specific path toward innovation as somewhat “accidental,” and yet the opportunities obviously have been made possible by hard work and recognition as forward-thinkers in education.

She was awarded the Innovative Teacher Award in 2011, travelling to Washington, D.C., to compete against 700 teachers worldwide. At this event, she was able to connect with world-renowned speakers and leaders in the 21st Century Learning Design, which helped her to bring these new techniques to her school.

In 2012, St. Mark became an Innovative Pathfinder School through the Microsoft Partners in Learning Program. As such, Ms. Davis traveled to Prague to learn more about personalized learning and to gain support in making it happen in her school back in Saskatchewan.

Through networking at these events -- and with the technology support of mobile computer labs and Smart Boards in every classroom -- St. Mark teachers have co-taught classes with other innovative teachers around the world via Skype and have connected their students with others in the Bahamas, Ukraine, India and Hong Kong.

The increased technology is not without its challenges. “We crash our network all the time,” Ms. Davis said. “Assuming we don’t acquire any more technology, we still need seven more wireless points.”

She said this is an issue for the Saskatoon school divisions and the entire province. Saskatchewan, in general, does not have enough Internet allocations to support this type of access. To go further, she said would require community support and corporations willing to partner and provide access points.

Community support is one of the ways that parents can help enable 21st century learning opportunities for our kids.

Ms. Davis encouraged me, as a parent, to educate myself as much as possible about 21st century learning and educational technology. She also urges all parents to have ongoing conversations with their kids about self-regulation with technology and “digital citizenship.”

“Kids need to know that once you put yourself and your information online, no matter how many seconds it is up there, it is there forever,” she said.

Passive technology without education and self-regulation will not enhance learning, Ms. Davis explained. “Parents should encourage their kids to explore, ask questions, try new things. Don’t wait for someone to show you. Jump in, and find things out for yourself.”

This is the type of technology time I will strive to facilitate this summer and will do my best to support as my son heads into Grade 2 in the fall and throughout his education.

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