Agency of Education official visits Windham Central schools

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NEWFANE — An official from the Agency of Education dropped by several local schools to see how technology is being used in classrooms.

"There's a little pressure in Montpelier to check out what's going on in other parts of the state," said Windham Central Supervisory Union Director of Technology and Professional Learning Matt Martyn.

Peter Drescher, the agency's education technology director, wanted to hear about personalized learning examples, good technology integration and computer/device usage.

At NewBrook Elementary on Monday, he learned of a fish hatchery program in which approximately 37 schools around the state participate.

"That was great," he said before mentioning a robot program that elementary students in Marlboro were taking to. "It's nice to see schools in southern Vermont doing things like that."

Schools around Vermont host and train robots. They will all meet at the Robot Rodeo in May. The idea is to connect students through coding. Each school is expected to share one new achievement it designed and coded. The robot's coding should grow with each visit.

Marlboro School is hosting BB8, a type of robot made famous by the new "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" film.

Drescher's visit also involved stops at Windham Central Supervisory Union elementary schools in Dover, and Townshend, and Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School. Next on the trip was Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union in Bennington.

In fourth and fifth grade teacher Jason Gragen's classroom at NewBrook, Drescher walked in to find fifth-grade students learning about trout. Their eyes were all on a Smart Board screen in front of the room until they started assignments. Then they each had computers to work on. They were required to find five facts and have two sources.

After kindergarten, NewBrook students all have "one-to-one" access to computers, said Martyn, who finds the students take better care of the equipment when it is considered their own. Kids in fourth through sixth grade are allowed to take the laptops home with them. Parents sign an agreement and the students are responsible for any damaged or lost computers.

For the most part, elementary schools in Windham Central are able offer one computer for each student. At Leland & Gray, however, the ratio is closer to one for every two students in grades nine through 12. Eighth and ninth graders there have a one-to-one ratio.

"In the next two years, we'll finish this three-year rollout at Leland & Gray," said Martyn, meaning more devices are on their way. "In a lot of ways, it's a slightly more expensive textbook which gives a window into the future."

Changing information can be found on computers or devices as soon as it is available, he told the Reformer, adding that textbooks only have what's available at publication time.

"That's why we like them," he added.

The agency is supporting the movement towards one-to-one computer access.

"It would be great to see them taken home but we're not there yet," Drescher said, acknowledging the limits of Internet access at home. "Part of it is a balance."

Drescher said there's "definitely a time and place" for screen time and device usage. Media literacy was another important aspect needing attention when introducing more digital resources.

Tabachnick sees a responsibility to teach productivity and social skills at schools but also Internet safety and cyber bullying.

"Anonymity brings some behaviors you really wouldn't foresee," he said.

Taking a page out of a book from a colleague based in Indiana, Drescher is looking to set up an Instagram social media account for the agency. Schools or supervisory unions throughout the state would then sign up to "adopt" the account for a week or so and post "cool things," he said. Members of a different community may see those posts and get inspired to implement something similar.

Drescher said he was working on the state's Digital Learning Program Plan and wanted to include a section on facilitated environments. In classrooms, he has asked what he'd want to be in there if he were a kid. The answer: a teacher who is "present but not leading on everything."

He also wondered whether new teachers who may be "savvy about social media" knew much about technological integration in the classroom.

"I don't know if I can stereotype new teachers' use of technology," said Tabachnick, who says kids are doing a lot of sharing and editing these days while at least one teacher uses progress-driven data to inform their lessons.

"It's just interesting to think about," Drescher said.

New technology can be a huge barrier for some of the teachers nearing retirement, according to Martyn. Drescher said it was interesting to see some teachers being comfortable with their students knowing more about a given subject. That will be occurring more in the future with all the information available at kids' fingertips.

"Allowing that to happen in your classroom is a new frontier," said Drescher. "How do you keep up with it?"

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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