Digital Learning: Middle School Principal Uses Classroom to Research Best Practices

By Joetta Sack-Min

Educational technology is generally considered an asset for schools. But correctly integrating technology into a classroom curriculum and using digital devices to help students to learn in meaningful ways is a skill that continues to evolve--and challenge educators.

Megan Kinsey, Principal at Ridge Middle School in Mentor, Ohio, co-founded a research project at her school to help support both teachers and students as they use educational technology. The Catalyst project allows her and other educators to observe new technologies and instructional strategies as they are being used in a classroom. For this project and her commitment to lifelong learning, Ms. Kinsey recently was named a “20 to Watch” educator by the National School Boards Association.

In a recent e-mail interview, she shared her strategies for best use of technology in classrooms, training school staff, and what she’s learned from the Catalyst classroom.

LFA: Students today have so much exposure to technology outside school. How can teachers and principals ensure that technology is correctly used as a learning tool for their students?

Megan Kinsey: This is one of the greatest challenges that we face in the classroom when blending technology into instruction and providing 24-7 access to devices.  For most students, these devices are entertainment tools primarily used for gaming and streaming music and videos.

It is critical that teachers have clear classroom guidelines and expectations about device use in place.  Many of our teachers have developed an entry procedure that requires students to place devices in a common location if they are not used right away or they implement a procedure that requires students to close out of all apps. 

One of the best ways in which teachers can reinforce that the devices are learning tools is by creating units and lessons that require the device to enhance learning and to demonstrate to students they are increasing their knowledge and skills.  If student device use in their classes is primarily for digitizing worksheets and taking quizzes, the message is not being sent that the device is critical to instruction.  Students pick up very quickly on this and tend to not engage with the technology appropriately in the classroom.  Teachers need to be thoughtful in the use of the device and not simply use the tool for the purpose of being efficient and decreasing paper usage.  As part of this, students need to see that the work they are doing on the device is increasing their learning.  Immediate feedback and monitoring are needed to accomplish this.  Also, having students track their own progress toward learning goals is an effective way to demonstrate growth as well as make connections between the effort-achievement correlation.

LFA: How do you ensure that teachers have the knowledge and skills to use technologies in their classes?

Megan Kinsey: When bringing technology into the classroom, it is important to provide training to teachers in general device use as well as the effective implementation of blended learning strategies.  We are thoughtful in our professional development and work to center all of it around these two categories.  Our faculty meeting time is spent exploring instructional practices while engaging with technology to do so.  My modeling of new programs, device capabilities and making connections to classroom practices is critical in supporting teachers in their classroom.

I am a firm believer in making sure that teachers have time built into their school day to collaborate and refine their craft in “real-time.”  Our teachers have a Professional Learning Community (PLC) meeting, with a grade-level, subject-specific counterpart, one time per week and attend a Grade Level Meeting (GLM), core content area teachers of the same grade-level, one time per week.  At the weekly GLM, we set an agenda that provides time for the following:  Celebrations, Tips & Tricks and Collaborative Inquiry.  During the Tips & Tricks portion of the meeting, members of the team share out on what they may have learned in the last week either about their device, an app or program and/or an instructional strategy.  This quick and easy PD activity is extremely beneficial and one that our teachers look forward to the most in their meeting.  For the Collaborative Inquiry portion of the meeting, the team spends time looking at common student data and formulate conclusions or this time is used to learn from a colleague.  Since each individual member of the team is given the freedom to learn and explore independently, they come across a variety of tools and apps that are worth sharing.  Colleagues elect to learn something new and then teach the other members of the grade level.  Of all of the professional development offered, this is by far the most applicable, effective and empowering.

LFA: Tell us about the Catalyst classroom project that your middle school has undertaken. What have you learned from this and how has it impacted teaching and learning at your school?

Catalyst is our action research facility that provides teachers with the opportunity to engage in a state-of-the art teaching environment and learn about all facets of instructing in a technology rich environment. Part of the room is an observation area with two-way mirrors that look into the classroom.  There are also microphones set up in the classroom that can be heard and controlled in the observation space.

It is my belief that a blended-model of instruction is a preschool through twelfth grade model; however, the manner in which the classroom is designed and the instructional program is established is varied.  Initially this space was designed for the teachers within the middle school to learn from each other and refine their skills in a blended environment. The purpose of the separate observation space was to minimize distraction and keep the classroom as normal as possible to the students. As the time has gone on, the room has evolved into a district-wide space. During each quarter of the school year, a teacher in the district applies to be a part of this experience.  The selected teacher travels from his/her “home” building to Ridge Middle School four days per week for the duration of a nine-week period. 

Catalyst has provided a place for teachers to learn and grow.  This is not only true for the teacher in the classroom, but also for other teachers who watch and learn and district-wide staff who coach and work with the Catalyst teacher to navigate this new learning environment. As a result, we have learned a great deal about the role of the physical space in supporting the instructional program, which tools support learning the best and for the intended outcomes and goals and management strategies that are the most effective.

LFA: What can this project teach other school leaders about students’ use of educational technology?

Megan Kinsey: In this transformation, what I have realized is that teachers and administrators need to see these types of classrooms in action to fully understand them and prior to trying to implement or replicate them.  What other school leaders can take away from this project is that although our students may be comfortable navigating a device and trouble-shooting an issue with a device, their knowledge of specific programs and apps are limited.  This plays into a lot of the misconceptions about the Digital Native.  Time needs to be spent in the classroom and provided to students to learn a variety of programs at a greater depth. Doing so also helps students to see the connection between the device and learning versus simply consumption or entertainment.

Our focus has been with minimizing whole group lectures and turning more toward smaller group instructional groups and/or the implementation of stations and more independent, self-directed work.  Often times, teachers and administrators have doubt that students of all ages are able to navigate and work through this type of classroom setting and goals.  Watching Catalyst in action demonstrates that children as young as three and as old as fifteen enjoy this type of learning environment and thrive within it.  Learning is tailored more to student needs which increases engagement and empowers and motivates the student to keep learning.

LFA: Are there any promising practices or products related to educational technology that you feel are particularly well suited for middle schools? Are you seeing any trends that you think will take hold for the long term?

Megan Kinsey: Middle school students are unique groups of learners who need continual movement, engagement and change throughout a class period.  Because of this, when a teacher begins to plan instruction with the incorporation of technology, he or she needs to make sure that the students are not only using one tool and, if this is the case, the use is not daily.  When students can predict instruction (which is vastly different than being able to predict routine) they disengage.  For example, Nearpod is an excellent interactive presentation tool.  If a teacher really buys into this tool and uses it every day or around four times per week, students tend to get bored with it and the initial novelty and engagement wear off.  Changing it up with the tools and resources is okay.  That being said, there are so many apps and tools available that it can be overwhelming. I recommend that teachers start by selecting a few (3-4) anchor tools.  These could be something like Google Drive, Schoology (or some type of Learning Management System), Nearpod and EdPuzzle.  Once students can see how these tools impact their learning and the teacher understands these programs at a great depth and can extend their implementation to reach the Redefinition stage in SAMR, then it is okay to add more.

Something else to keep in mind is that students are very eager to learn and explore independently.  This is a victory in our eyes. When students find other programs that can be used to accomplish the same task at the same level, or better, our teachers embrace it, encourage them and take advantage of the opportunity to learn about a new tool. 

LFA: Anything else you’d like to add?

Megan Kinsey: Our transformation is really rooted in the examination of instruction and helping all students learn and achieve.  In talking with teachers, I work to start with examining what they want students to learn and then working backward to determine the assessment and how to get there.  In looking at the implementation of technology, teachers are encouraged to ask themselves if the best way to get students to the outcome is with technology.  Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes the answer is no.  What is most important is getting students to understand the potential that exists within them and their device and pushing each beyond what they initially thought could be accomplished.

Fostering creativity is another component that blended technology at a high level can bring to the classroom.  We want our students to produce and make, not just consume.  Teachers strive to provide opportunities for students to do things with the technology that they didn’t believe the device was even created to do.

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