GCSD tech mavens empower students

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Natalia LeMoyne smiles as she reviews pictures she took the day before on her smartphone while she was working with middle school students using Pear Deck to study ancient Greece. LeMoyne is Guilderland’s educational technology specialist, helping teachers in all seven schools effectively use technology in their lessons.

Deanna Barney-Sischo, who teaches first-graders at Pine Bush Elementary School, adapted an old lesson, “Journey Through Time,” to include the iPad. Her students researched evolving modes of transportation and, using an application called Keynotes, created presentations with interactive features like pictures and videos.

Molly Fanning, a seventh-grade English teacher at Farnsworth Middle School, works with one of her students. Fanning relates to her students through Google, using e-mail, Google docs, and web pages, and incorporates technology into most of her lessons. Her students create digital memoirs and work collaboratively on poems and essays.

Alicia Wein, an English teacher at Guilderland High School, runs a nearly paperless classroom, and helps others incorporate technology into their teaching. Some of the tools she has used are Edmodo, Google Drive, Classroom Calendar, digital assignments and discussion groups, digital drafting, digital paper submission, and digital feedback and evaluation.

GUILDERLAND — As the debate rages across the country and around the world over whether digital learning should supersede traditional teaching, Natalia LeMoyne is unperturbed.

Executives in Silicon Valley pay hefty tuition fees to send their children to a Waldorf school that banishes computers. Every student at a poor public school was given an iPad, yet test scores remained low. In a recent debate at Columbia University “More Clicks, Fewer Bricks: The Lecture Hall is Obsolete,” a professor who believed online courses could not replace the intimate interaction between students and their teacher argued against a professor who taught online and said he could reach more students in an online course than in 40 years on campus; the audience voted — electronically — to declare the clicks the winners of the debate.

LeMoyne, however, does not see an either-or choice; rather, she sees the teacher as still being essential to classroom learning but in a new role — as a guide, using the new technology to empower students.

“The teacher changes roles,” LeMoyne says. “She is no longer the source of information or knowledge. The teacher is a guide that helps students navigate information and to think deeper and use abstract reasoning.”

About a year and a half ago, LeMoyne was hired for a new post at Guilderland to help integrate technology into the classroom. This week, she is announcing winners — Deanna Barney-Sischo at the elementary level, Molly Fanning at the middle school, and Alicia Wein at the high school — of the inaugural Technology in Educations Awards, which are to be given every semester.

“Teachers at the beginning can be a bit apprehensive,” said LeMoyne of using technology in the classroom. “We want to encourage them.”

LeMoyne summed up her philosophy, saying, “Given the age we’re now in, having a teacher recite facts and having kids regurgitate those facts is not productive. Facts and information are a kid’s fingertips. A teacher’s job is to teach kids to evaluate, to use higher-order thinking levels.”

She also said, “Communication amongst teachers is what makes the light bulbs go off.”

Continuing journey

LeMoyne was an educator before she was a techie. She grew up in Colombia where both of her parents were university teachers.

Her father died young, at age 42, when LeMoyne was at the tender age of 15. Her mother was 38 — the age LeMoyne is now; her mother moved with her two daughters to Buenos Aires in Argentina to be with her only sister. “She was the only one left,” LeMoyne said of her aunt. “It was my father’s dying wish that my mother be with her sister.”

“It was tough,” said LeMoyne of having lost her father and being uprooted to live in a new city in a different country. She found solace in books.

After graduating from college, LeMoyne taught English as a foreign language. She eventually applied to the competitive Visiting International Faculty program, and was assigned to a school in North Carolina near Fort Bragg.

There, from 2005 to 2010, she taught English as a second language. “I was given computers in my classroom,” she recalled. Until then, she had used “a lot of real objects in her teaching,” noting, “Everything was handmade.”

She discovered, though, how useful the computers could be to her students when she found out she could record them. When a student heard his own voice and said, “I want to read again, Ms. LeMoyne,” she was delighted.

“I stumbled upon it,” she recalled. “Then we did video, audio, podcasts.”

Her principal urged her to show other teachers what she was doing. LeMoyne eventually became the technology facilitator for four different schools. When the grant money that had funded her post ran out, she looked for work that was closer to her husband’s family in Rochester, N.Y. He is now a physical education and health teacher at Stillwater and their children — a son in 10th grade, and a daughter who turned 11 in October — attend Guilderland schools.

LeMoyne is the instructional technology specialist for the district, a post that pays about $50,000 annually, but concedes, “Most teachers don’t know what I do.”

She describes her duties this way: “I support teachers and help them integrate technology. That is the baseline.”

She has an online calendar where teachers can sign up for time with her. She can help them create new lessons or take old lessons and “make them more engaging with technology.”

She believes that too many teachers are “stuck into spoon-feeding and regurgitation.”

LeMoyne concluded, “It is my job to challenge a kid’s mind.”

She gave an example of teaching a class about tornadoes. Rather than just have the students absorb facts from a teacher’s presentation, they could be challenged to do a project where they make a public-service announcement about tornadoes. They would then have to look up information on what areas are prone to tornadoes, learn the science of tornadoes, and figure out how people can prepare themselves.

“They have to understand information and apply information; it turns into knowledge,” she said. “Now students need to think about how to get a message across so it sticks.”

LeMoyne believes that, used effectively, technology can enhance learning at all levels.

One of the nominees for the Technology in Education Award, Shannon Clegg, a Spanish teacher at Guilderland High School, for example, scanned materials for her visually impaired student who uses an iPad to enlarge the materials.

In LeMoyne’s previous job, in North Carolina, a study showed that students studying English as a second language, regular-education students, and special-education students all improved their reading, compared to control groups, using iPods.

Tangiblefluency.blogspot.com, one of several blogs that LeMoyne writes, speaks to this issue. She also blogs on project-based learning, on everyday education technology, and on teaching with Chromebooks — all at blogspot.com.

Levels of learning

Asked if a certain amount of rote learning — multiplication tables, for example— isn’t needed in order to reach those higher planes of knowledge, LeMoyne responded, “Our brain learns in different ways.”

She distinguished mechanical learning, which involves repetitive patterns, from higher-order thinking levels.

LeMoyne said that technology can help with mechanical as well as higher-order learning. She cited the example of Vivian Donnelly, a high school algebra teacher, who has created videos of lessons to help students with their homework.

LeMoyne pulled up on her computer screen a lesson that Donnelley created on the quadratic formula. She pointed out that a struggling student could listen to that lesson again and again until it was understood. The lessons are also useful for students who have missed classes or who want to review.

LeMoyne is well aware of cognitive development from her days in the classroom.

She says she misses the everyday interaction she had with students when she was a teacher, “just caring for them,” she says.

She speaks excitedly about being in a sixth-grade classroom the day before, working with the students on using Chromebooks — personal computers made by Google that store data in a “cloud” accessed by an Internet connection.

LeMoyne keeps in mind her sister’s engineering job when she deals with students. “She constantly has to collaborate; they meet virtually,” she says of the other engineers her sister works with.

So the Chromebooks are used “to get good information and do collaboration online.”

Asked if students without computers at home are shortchanged, LeMoyne said, “Teachers are aware of that. Digital work is usually completed during school hours.”

Last Thursday, LeMoyne participated in a virtual conference, “a Google hangout,” with teachers in Manchester, Conn., on the use of Chromebooks in the classroom. Having the Chromebooks constantly at hand, she said, “changes dynamics, discipline, and methodology.”

Guilderland started using Chromebooks last year in a pilot project at the high school. Teachers applied to receive a full set of 30 to use in their classes. Nine carts were distributed, some in more than one subject — in special education, Spanish, English, social studies, chemistry, math, and English as a second language.

Discipline was one of the topics discussed in last Thursday’s virtual conference. Rather than passing paper notes in class or whispering to each other, students can simply communicate on their Chromebooks.

The solution, said LeMoyne, is software that allows the teacher to see thumbnails of the students’ screens on her screen.

But this software goes far beyond allowing the teacher to monitor students’ electronic note-passing. It helps the teacher tailor lessons to individual students. She can see, at a glance of the thumbnails, who is struggling or falling behind and, without embarrassing the student by verbally addressing the problem, can communicate to the student through the Chromebook, perhaps sending a different lesson.

Last Thursday, LeMoyne worked with Rebecca Wlazlo’s class, using Pear Deck to teach about ancient Greece. Wlazlo used multi-media slides interspersed with questions to keep her students engrossed.

“The cool thing was, the kids didn’t have to look at the big screen,” said LeMoyne. “It went into each of their computers.”

As the students typed their answers to the questions posed, the responses showed up on the big screen. So, for example, when they were asked at what age Spartans sent their kids to the Army, the 27 students could see a chart form on the big screen as they answered the multiple-choice question. (The correct answer was age 7.)

An open-ended question — What was the main purpose of education in Athens? — led to brain-storming. As students typed their answers, their responses were posted to a big wall where everyone could read all of the responses.

“The teacher could see what every student was thinking and guide the conversation,” said LeMoyne. “She could also see who was not responding and approach them.”

She contrasted this with traditional teaching techniques. “You couldn’t check that they were understanding,” she said, recalling how, when she was teaching, she used to try to read her students’ faces. “Now, you know,” she said.

“In my ideal world,” concluded LeMoyne of Chromebooks, “this would become a textbook.”

Winners

The Technology in Education Award winners were chosen by the district’s technology cabinet, which meets monthly and has representatives from each of Guilderland’s seven schools.

Barney-Sischo, for example, “adapted an old lesson, “Journey Through Time,” to include the iPad,” said LeMoyne. Her first-grade students at Pine Bush Elementary School researched evolving modes of transportation and, using an application called Keynotes, created presentations with interactive features like pictures and videos.

Last year, LeMoyne went to Barney-Sischo’s classroom and taught the students how to use Keynote with a final presentation for their parents.

This year, Barney-Sischo shared what she had learned with another teacher, Joy MacManaman, who created similar projects with her students.

“First-graders are still working on fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination,” said LeMoyne. From playing video games, she said, they often have an intuitive sense that pushing a button will bring results but they have to learn to organize pictures.

LeMoyne believes there will always be a need to teach students to form letters by hand rather than just typing them on a keyboard. In fact, she described new technology that turns handwritten words into typed text, and she said more tablets are now coming with writing styluses.

She also described iPad applications that allow young students to use their fingers to trace shapes on a screen.

Seventh-grade English teacher Molly Fanning is the winner from Farnsworth Middle School. She helped plan the use of laptop carts in the school, and is teaching, with Steve Wolf, a tech forum called Google Me This! Fanning relates to her students through Google, using e-mail, Google docs, and web pages and incorporates technology into most of her lessons. Her students create digital memoirs.

“She created a website to pool all lessons and materials,” said LeMoyne, which is especially useful when students are absent from class.

Fanning has also created a platform for her students to work collaboratively on poems and essays. “One of the heavyweights is peer review,” said LeMoyne. “It helps students become better writers.”

English teacher Alicia Wein was the winner at Guilderland High School. She was lauded for running a nearly paperless classroom and also leading her peers.

Some of the tools she has used are Edmodo, Google Drive, Classroom Calendar, digital assignments and discussion groups, digital drafting, digital paper submission, and digital feedback and evaluation.

“Edmodo,” LeMoyne explained, “is a social educational platform; it feels like Facebook but is secure for our students.. It allows live discussions to take place.”

As a reward for the three winners, LeMoyne said, “We wanted to help them fulfill their wish lists for their classrooms or for professional development…They all wanted more technology.”

The elementary teacher got five iPads for the classroom. “I taught her to use them as a center to have kids rotate,” said LeMoyne.

Fanning, she said, “wanted a way to capture video so kids could edit it,” said LeMoyne. “We got her two iPad Touches, two mounts, two tripods.” She explained, this would make steady filming easier as students conduct interviews.

Wein wanted an iPad to project on the projector, said LeMoyne, explaining, “She has applications that let her show worksheets.”

“We have outstanding teachers here,” LeMoyne concluded. “They are updating themselves every day with this huge technological initiative.”

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