Last spring, Haywood County reading teacher Sharon Clark joined 99 other educators from across the country as a PBS LearningMedia “lead digital innovator.” The program gives tech-savvy educators dedicated to using digital media and technology in their lessons a year of training. Clark, 46, was one of 30 teachers in the program who also attended a national conference about digital innovation and education in June.

Clark’s participation comes at a time when technology is reshaping what happens in Tennessee classrooms. Schools are preparing for TNReady, a new all-online test that is tied to the Common Core standards and replaces the former state assessment, TCAP. Schools are working now to fix any technology bugs and train students to ditch paper and pencil for computers. Last week, education officials announced that districts across the state, including Haywood, have almost all of the devices and bandwidth they’ll need for the new tests.

Chalkbeat spoke with Clark, now in her fourth year as a fourth-grade reading teacher at Brownsville’s East Side Intermediate School, to learn more about the benefits and challenges that come with using technology in the classroom and why the state’s estimation of schools’ readiness for online testing might be unrealistic.

What exactly does “digital innovation” in the classroom mean to you?

For the longest [time], teaching involved a textbook and paper and pencil, but we’re living in a technological society. We’re getting away from the textbook and we’re getting more into resources that are online. It saves paper and it’s less expensive. The biggest thing is, it’s global. So now instead of my students just interacting with the students that are in this room or in this building, they get to interact with students and authors and information all over the world. And that’s huge because we’re in a small rural community and some of them will never be able to afford to leave this small town. This is a way to connect them to the big world.

What happened at PBS’s “Digital Innovation Summit” and what did you take away from attending? 

Sharon Clark teaches in her fourth grade ELA classroom.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Sharon Clark teaches in her fourth grade English language arts classroom.

The way I describe it to people is it was a buffet. And on the buffet, of course you can’t eat everything. You focus on what you can use now and once you get these things down pat then you can delve into other things. It just helps you to constantly grow, constantly have something to feed into the students, constantly give them different avenues because the harder-to-reach students, the struggling readers, a lot of them have given up already.

They’ve always had bad grades, and a lot of them have had behavior problems so they feel like, what’s the use? But they have to come to school, and so I try to give them ways to be able to use their own creativity, to use what they like, what they’re interested in, [to] show them that they can still produce something, they can still design something. And so [technology] helps a lot because now they want to try it. In their minds, to a lot of them we’re just playing on the computer. I praise them highly and I reward highly for effort, because it makes them feel like, “You know, I can do something. I am valuable.” So I’ll ease a little more in and I try to make it where it’s a little challenging. Not to where it’s too hard, but it’s a little more challenging each time. And then I try and show them where they started at the beginning of the year: See, this is what you designed here at the beginning of the year and then I say, “Look at this. Look how far you’ve come.” It gives them hope, and it makes them want to try.

How else are you applying what you’re learning in the classroom?

I would go home with stacks and stacks of paper every night, and I don’t have the time to grade all these papers and sit there and try to figure out the handwriting and what they meant to say. With computers, students can just do the work online and they get automatic feedback. If I have to grade papers sometimes it may take me a little while, and they’ve moved on to something else. When I get papers graded I try to talk to students about it, but sometimes they don’t even remember what I’m talking about. If I have it set up in the computer as soon as they take their test it’s automatically graded. So they not only have the immediate feedback and we know right away whether you need to move on, whether I need to reteach.

So that helps tremendously. I don’t go home with these stacks of paper over the weekend. Which means on Monday morning I come back refreshed, I’m not frustrated and tired because I’ve been grading papers all week long, I already know what your grades are. Monday morning we’re ready to decide who’s going where. So it moves us along a lot quicker and a lot farther than if we were using a paper and a pencil.

Also, we’re using Edmodo [a collaboration platform for education] this year, so I just put a discussion online and they have to all answer the question. I can look quickly —because I also have the app on my phone — and tell who knows how to answer the questions that I’m asking. I can see where all the holes are so that I immediately know who I need to pull into small group and sit down and work on these areas. I’m not teaching the whole class everything every time, I’m just grabbing the ones that need this. Some people are more advanced and ready to move on, and I’m like, okay, if this student already knows how to write a great paragraph, then I need to move them on past what they’re doing while I work with my struggling students on just structuring a paragraph correctly.

You teach at a school in Brownsville, Tenn., which is a primarily rural area. Do your school and your students face any challenges with technology? How is your school preparing for TNReady, an exam that’s administered primarily online.

The trouble is we’re limited with technology, but it’s a technology[-based] test. One reason I use technology in my room so much is last year we didn’t fully implement TNReady, but we had already been introduced to it.

I have a huge issue, because we only have four individual laptops for the students to use. Each classroom has four and the internet works in some rooms, and in some it doesn’t. In mine, as long as we’re hooked to an ethernet cable we’re good, but there’s no  Wi-Fi in [my part of] this building. [The state says Haywood has all of the connectivity and 80 percent of the devices it needs for online testing.]

And with the four computers I have to divide it up where some students can work on computers and some students can work elsewhere. But if I’m trying to do an assessment for the whole class, it takes a while for everybody to get their assessment done because we’ve got to rotate and shift and some students take longer than others, so it’s a huge struggle.

The Android tablet Clark received from the PBS LearningMedia digital innovator program.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
The Android tablet Clark received from the PBS LearningMedia digital innovator program.

Not only that, PBS gave us an Android tablet to use in the classroom, but there is no Wi-Fi. A number of my students don’t have computers at home that they can use so that’s huge as well.

The children have no typing skills; they’re not used to being on computers. So I wanted to start early, giving assignments on the computer. And I’ve already been able to find some of the holes. Some of them don’t know how to use the shift key. So if you’re going to look at their punctuation and their capitalization, the question is do they know which keys to push to make a capital letter? If it’s online then the student doesn’t have to deal with trying to write a letter. Don’t get me wrong, writing letters correctly is important, but if your assessment is going to be online and they’re not going to test you on that then I don’t need to spend a lot of time trying to get you to make an “A” correctly. I need to make sure you know where that “A” is on that computer.

Students at East Side Intermediate Elementary in Brownsville, Tenn. watch a video during class.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Students at East Side Intermediate School in Brownsville, Tenn. watch a movie trailer of “Because of Winn-Dixie” during class.

Why do you think technology is so important to your students’ education?

All of my classes are called “the success team” because I want them to be successful and I call them that every day. It doesn’t mean they have to have a whole lot of money in the bank, if they can support themselves and take care of a family if they so desire or whether they decide to join the military or go to college or get a trade, I just want them to be successful in whatever they do. And with us living in a technological world, they’ve got to know how to operate technology. And here’s what gets me. We’re living in a technological society but it’s the schools that don’t have the technology that they need. So that’s backwards and I try to use it as much as I possibly can.

Aside from how to use new technology, what is the most important thing you’ve learned so far from this program?

I feel like I have an opportunity now to make an impact. To share what I’m learning because I’m not in a county that has a lot of funds [or] has this mega program that everybody is coming to see. We’re in a rural community, we have 100 percent free and reduced-price lunch [a measure of students’ poverty], but we can make it. It’s a struggle, but it can work. I think that’s the message I want to get out to the world. Use what you have, and make it work until you are given something else.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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