Techie Teachers

Tech-savvy teachers build educational apps in pilot program

PHOTO: Lisa Larson-Walker/Slate
EDesign Lab members brainstorm ideas in group meeting. (Courtesy of Hsing Wei)

Dara Ross didn’t know how to write code or develop online software until she joined a pilot program that offered to help teachers use technology in the classroom last year. By the program’s end, the high school English teacher had helped build several of her own educational mobile apps, including one that assesses her students’ emotions after they read. Another one featured an animated robot that acted as a reading buddy.

She and five fellow teachers did that with the help of tech savvy mentors as participants in Digital Teachers Corp, a program launched last year by New Visions for Public Schools, a national non-profit organization, and as lab members in EDesign Lab, an initiative to bridge the educational technology gap between software developers and educators.

“It was valuable to work on education with teachers and technologists; I think that combination is not usually talked about,” said Ross, who teaches English as a second language at Brooklyn International High School. She became interested in incorporating technology in her curriculum when she started creating online videos for her students.

The EDesign Lab is entering its second year and looking for a new crop of teachers to join.

Getting technology into the classroom has been a slow process, in part because the people who develop software and build digital tools aren’t in touch with the learning needs of students. Participants in the pilot said the program helped them quickly bridge that divide by getting in the same room and working out problems together. 

“The main purpose of the lab is to enable the joint collaboration between two disciplines who rarely connect,” said Hsing Wei, a New Visions employee who was one of the program’s design facilitators and in charge of directing the lab. Wei said that teachers responded enthusiastically when they were approached to work on something that diverted from the traditional classroom setting.

The teachers had a yearlong partnership with mentors, who are software developers with expertise in developing apps and designing games. They met every other week after school or on weekends to share ideas on how to use technology to enhance their teaching skills.

“I would have never had that type of exposure of the kind of tips and tricks they taught us,” said Ross. Besides helping the teachers brainstorm and build educational programs, the developers gave Ross and the other teachers links to useful websites that they could make graphs and charts.

But the partnership also benefitted developers, who usually often have no experience teaching in a classroom.

“Everyone working in education software needs to run what they do by teachers because they’re the ones who are going to be using it,” said Scott Peterman, a lab member who acted as a mentor. “It’s a much richer environment and can lead to a much more productive way of making educational software when the teachers are in the room the whole time.”

The teachers in Peterman’s group began by asking their students how they could learn and still have fun. Many students mentioned the Discovery Channel television show called MythBusters, where scientific myths are tested through experiments.

Peterman and the rest of his team created the designs for a video-sharing website called, where students could pose questions and post videos of their experiments.

The other team created an app called the Reading Robot, which involved a small robot that could guide students as they read and ask questions about the material.

“The majority of students identified him as a friend,” said Nate Finney, a teacher at Columbia Secondary School. “This was part of the goal because they were trying to alleviate the stress involved with reading.”

For now, the EDesign Lab’s educational apps are still in test form. The emphasis is on forging the relationship between technology and teachers and allowing teachers to feel empowered to design tools they will use in the classroom, said Ralph Vacca, another design facilitator.

“Hopefully, funding dependent, we might be able to take one or two projects from this past year,” added Wei. “It’s okay if you don’t invest 100 million, it’s about the experimental process.”

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”