Tech Use

We asked five Colorado teachers how they use technology in the classroom. This is what they said.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Kindergarteners using the computer at IPS School 90.

Thousands of educators from across the country converged on Denver’s convention center this week to explore how technology can help — and sometimes hinder — classroom learning.

Digital devices and technology are commonplace in classrooms, from math lessons on iPad apps to more out-there experiments like using virtual reality to teach geography.

But as such practices have spread, detractors have emerged, too. One former teacher suggested in a Washington Post column that all technology be removed from the classroom. His rationale: Devices keep students from focusing on their work.

Chalkbeat caught up with a handful of Colorado teachers at this week’s International Society for Technology in Education conference, which concluded Wednesday.

For the most part, educators had a lot of good things to say about technology, saying it has revolutionized communication between students and created new ways to record students’ progress. Yet they also cautioned that it can be expensive and could create divides between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Here’s a sample of what the teachers had to say:

When using technology in his Skinner Middle School classroom in Denver, Kelsey Andersen makes sure not to coddle his students. In his eyes, the best way for a student to learn is through doing.

“I think that’s kind of the point. I don’t teach them how to use something, I let them go for it. I give them a little information on how to get started, and that’s it. For example, I’ll open up PowerPoint, and tell them I’d like a presentation on rockets.”

But there are limitations to getting some of the gadgets for his class.

“Cost is always a barrier. One-time purchases are easier to get. You can get a $1,500 grant to buy something, but then you need a couple hundred dollars in software to get it to run. It’s the the consumable costs that are a bit harder.”

Matthew Hunter is a third grade teacher at a very small, rural school district in Rangely, in northwest Colorado. He saw some ideas at ISTE he’d like to bring back to his school, but knows all too well the limits for a cash-strapped district.

“We’re trying to make sure we stay on a reasonable level. Chromebooks, maybe. The coding, the programming, we’re looking at that. We have to start at the most rudimentary level.”

Gwynn Moore is a teacher at Aurora Frontier, which serves students in preschool through eighth grade. She uses technology in her classroom to teach students different storytelling methods.

“The students make newscasts that are viewed by the school. I have students learning how to research information. They are learning how to be prepared to utilize many different types of technology.”

One pitfall teachers embracing technology should be mindful of, Moore said, is what happens after the last school bell.

“Let’s say a student doesn’t have access at home, then what happens?”

Students at Littleton’s Deer Creek Middle School make comics books using computer programs such as Photoshop. They find the storyboard process an arduous one, but Pamela Farris, an art and technology teacher, sees the value nonetheless.

“They hate it, but it really helps them figure out the sequence of events. They’re having to work together.”

Farris said the frenetic pace of technological change is also on her mind.

“Things become outdated. I gave one kid a DVD. He asked me, ‘What do I do with this?’ Really it’s the same projects. You just update them.”

Digital storytelling is one concept from the conference Linda Horne would like to emulate.

She teaches English language learners at Challenge to Excellence, a charter school in Parker that serves students from kindergarten to eighth grade. Horne already introduces her youngest kids to some digital work.

“With my little ones, we do blogs. I have video blogs of them speaking. I can share them with the parents. It’s a great way to document their progress.”

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya tribes. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.

COUNTING TNREADY

School boards across Tennessee scrap TNReady scores from students’ grades

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

As the school year comes to a close following the standardized testing debacle that concluded in Tennessee this month, many school districts have decided the scores won’t count toward students’ final grades.

Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, will take up the issue Tuesday when the school board meets in a work session.

Earlier this year, the district was one of about half of the state’s school systems that reported to the state it likely would not use the scores because the results were not expected to be received at least five school days before the end of the year. But that early tally was unofficial.

“The survey was just to let us know what they were planning for so we could have a sense of what districts were planning on doing, but it was not binding in any way,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Now, one by one, a growing number of districts are opting not to count the scores against students whenever the results are released.

This year’s online testing was plagued with a series of testing snafus, including login troubles, an apparent cyberattack, a dump truck cutting a fiber optic line and the wrong test being issued to some students. It’s the third year in a row that TNReady testing has gone wrong.

Bartlett City Schools decided during a special school board session last week not to use the scores on high school report cards after previously saying it would. So did the Franklin Special School District. The week before, Williamson County, Blount County, and Collierville school board members voted the same.

Millington Municipal Schools also will not be using the scores in that district’s final grades. But the district decided in December not to include the scores, said Stacy Ross, a spokesperson for the district.

“The decision was made because the scores from testing would not be back in time for final report cards,” Ross said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

It’s unclear of the 71 school districts that had initially said they planned to count the scores, how many have changed their minds.

Greene County is one of a few districts that has decided to count the scores as 15 percent of students’ final grades.

Before this year’s testing challenges, state law had required that the high school end-of-course exams count for 15 percent of a high school student’s final grade unless the scores came in too late for report cards.

But after the testing snafus, legislators left it in the hands of school boards to decide how much to count TNReady scores — if at all — toward students’ grades.

High school raw scores are expected to be delivered electronically to districts by May 22 and grades 3-8 scores are expected to be available by June 15, according to the state.