Technology has come a long way since Jennifer Garetto joined the staff of Avery Coonley School in Downers Grove 13 years ago.
“When I started … we had a Palm Pilot program,” she says. “We’ve seen how technology changes, and those are long gone. We keep evolving into better programming and better equipment, from eighth grade on down.”
The school, where she is a middle school teacher, has a 1:1 program, so each student has his or her own tablet.
“We call it a classroom without limits, so you can do things at home or at school. Learning doesn’t have to stop when they leave the classroom,” she says. “Teaching has changed, because they are digital natives and we no longer have to teach them the technology. If you look around our school, the way teaching and learning has really changed.”
That natural familiarity with technology allows teachers flexibility in what they teach and how they teach it, and it allows them to use new, innovative programs to enhance learning. One such program used at Avery Coonley is the FUSE program, created by the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. The program challenges students with STEAM projects — each project builds on the prior project, so students have to work through and “level up” to get to the more advanced, “cooler,” challenges.
“Kids can take on different challenges like design a dream house, 3-D print something or design a roller coaster,” she says. “It doesn’t mean they’re doing it all on the computer, but it’s all housed there. The kids absolutely love it, and it’s well-aligned with their thinking style.”
Carolyn Wilson, director of education for Alt School in Chicago, says the school uses technology to help teachers do their jobs better. It also has developed a unique system to enhance student learning and keep parents informed about what they are learning and how they are learning it.
The school system, which will open a Chicago campus in September 2017, goes from preschool through eighth grade and features small, multi-age classrooms. The Chicago location will be the 10th school nationally, Wilson says.
“Our screen time is for our teachers to make learning more effective and efficient,” she says. That way teachers can spend more time with individual students or small groups of students, helping them meet their individualized goals.
The learner Portrait allows teachers to create a complete picture of who that child is, what that child is experiencing and how he or she is progressing. It also allows teachers to log what their interests are, what “habits” they have and the ways they think and interact.
“In our Portrait, we can see where children are in their journey towards competency, and also see where they are in developing habits like resilience, collaboration, creativity and ethical thinking,” she says. “It’s a seamless way to allow educators to know the child and plan for learning that’s right for them, and they continually add to the portrait so it continues to grow.”
While the Portrait of the child shows teachers where students are now, students and teachers work together on a Milestone program, which creates learning experiences, called “playlists,” that monitor where the student is currently and what milestone they are focusing on meeting.
“It’s a seamless way of understanding who they are, create a learning experience for them that’s just at the right level of challenge, and assessing their progress. It’s a seamless work flow,” she says.
Parents also have digital access to things curated for them either at the school level, the class level or the individual level.
“It’s a snapshot that becomes a piece of a mosaic that you build on in a systematic way that we understand the student more deeply,” she says.