Teaching with Tech How technology is shaping the classroom experience in today’s private schools
Photo: Mount Pisgah Christian School
Twenty years ago, when a teacher asked a student to go to the blackboard, it involved heading to the front of the classroom and writing with a stick of dusty white chalk. These days, when a teacher makes the same request, the student pops open a laptop to access Blackboard Learn, a virtual learning environment and course management system. It’s a stunning shift that illustrates just how prevalent technology has become in today’s educational environment, with students of all ages being introduced to innovations that are shaping the academic experience. And nowhere is this more apparent than in metro Atlanta’s private and independent schools, which have embraced the possibilities when it comes to tech in the classroom.
Getting Ahead of the Curve
At local area private schools, incorporating technology into the classroom experience isn’t simply a trendy thing to do. The effort has a very specific purpose.
“We set up our technology environment intentionally to reflect how students will engage with technology in the real world,” explains Ruston Pierce, head of school for Mount Pisgah Christian School in Johns Creek. “The reality is that for students to be successful in today’s world, they will need to be able to switch between different forms of technology, different systems and different programs on a daily basis. To prepare them to be well-versed in this type of transition, we introduce students to multiple forms of technology to help them be equipped for today’s fast-paced world.”
Dr. Sandra Varajic, middle learning technology teacher at The Galloway School in Atlanta, shares that perspective, noting that introducing students to a variety of technology in the classroom is beneficial because it allows them to “be aware of the technologies available [and] know how to use and apply them in today’s constantly changing technological world.” MariaPaola Jimenez, the school’s upper learning technology teacher, adds, “Technology is constantly evolving, and as educators, we must make sure we are up to date and aware of the latest trends and changes to be able to provide our students with the necessary tools and resources for them to understand, perform and be tech savvy.”
Ultimately, the goal is to prepare students for a personal and professional future that undoubtedly will be filled with technology, as well as for them to feel secure in their own technological skills. They need to have a comprehensive understanding of tech beyond social media alone, and the classroom is an excellent environment in which to explore the offerings available today.
Beyond the Basics
In recent years, the number of state-of-the-art tools available to educators has increased exponentially, providing them with the ability to engage and instruct students of all ages as they help them get ahead of the technological curve. Schools can select the specific resources that integrate well with their scholastic goals, giving them the power to put the right technology for their needs directly into the hands of both teachers and students.
“We tend to fall victim to C.S. Lewis’ ‘chronological snobbery’ and label as technology only the newest inventions like 3D printing, but today’s innovative technologies are tomorrow’s old hat. The educational goal dictates which tools to use, not the other way around, so the technology varies,” explains Dr. Doug Abels, head of school for Killian Hill Christian School in Lilburn. For example, at Killian Hill, each student in grades seven through 12 is required to bring a device to school; those devices, as well as other technologies, are then used very specifically in collaboration with teachers for review, research, communication, submitting projects and receiving assessments. Additionally, Abels continues, “Some classes still write poems on paper by hand while others are shooting and editing videos to put Shakespeare into the 21st century, collecting data with scientific data logging instruments, programming Arduino projects, building presentations to teach their classmates, tracking activity for PE using their GPS smartphones or using old-fashioned rulers, microscopes and Bunsen burners to observe the real world.”
“Technology is changing and upgrading rapidly. Today’s students and teachers have innumerable ways to explore, examine, review, drill, practice, collaborate and access information, beginning with the simplest app on their phones.” – Dr. Doug Abels, head of school for Killian Hill Christian School in Lilburn
Clearly, customization is key when it comes to choosing classroom technology. For instance, at Arbor Montessori of Atlanta, the regular use of technology is introduced in the seventh grade, with students using personal computers to type papers, learn Microsoft Excel and create presentations using Microsoft PowerPoint. They also study the fundamentals of web-based research so they can understand the difference between reliable and untrustworthy online sources. What’s more, David Tyler, adolescent program coordinator, notes, “Because there is a focus on independent research in the middle school curriculum, students might propose using additional types of technology for their individual projects. For example, one of our students created a video game that followed the journey of an emperor from Chinese history. Another student used Facebook as an original way to demonstrate the impact that women had on the Revolutionary War. She created individual accounts for five prominent women and wrote posts highlighting their actions and opinions about the war.”
At The Galloway School, the technology varies not only from subject to subject, but also by grade level. For instance, at the middle learning level, students have access to one-to-one devices like Apple laptops, Chromebooks, iPads, Android tablets and smartphones, as well as robotic technology for coding, such as Code-a-pillar, Bee-Bot and LEGO Mindstorms. For upper learning students, additional technology includes 3D printers, 3D scanners, laser cutters and augmented and virtual reality equipment like 360-degree cameras, Google Cardboard and Oculus Rift, among other resources. Instructors also play into the equation, with access to equipment like SMART boards, Promethean and Mimeo interactive whiteboards and Apple TV.
According to Pierce, it’s the combination of technology used by both teachers and students that makes a difference in the classrooms at Mount Pisgah. “Technology has evolved from being centered around teachers using the technology to teach and transitioned to students using the technology to show their learning through digital creations and portfolios,” he says. “This has also shifted ownership of the technology to the students’ hands, and many schools are providing an environment where every student has access to a device.” The school illustrates this position not only by providing teachers with instructional technology like mobile Surface devices and wireless Epson projectors so they can move freely and teach from anywhere in the classroom, but also by ensuring that one-to-one devices are available for age-appropriate learning at all levels. Students in kindergarten through second grade are able to use iPads, while those in third and fourth grade classrooms have access to Chromebooks. By middle school, each student is issued his or her own Chromebook. In the upper school, students can bring their own laptops into the classroom and access Microsoft and Google tools, as well as the learning management system Schoology. As with many schools, it’s a comprehensive approach that considers the needs of students at each stage of their academic journey.
“Technology is changing and upgrading rapidly. Today’s students and teachers have innumerable ways to explore, examine, review, drill, practice, collaborate and access information, beginning with the simplest app on their phones,” Abels says. “Being introduced to different forms of technology for the purpose of growth and exploration will give students the confidence to use the tools available to solve problems skillfully and expeditiously.”
“Technology use should be based in best practices in instruction, so while these digital tools enhance the options that teachers have, the core principles of teaching and learning are still the driving force of how teachers use technology,” – Ruston Pierce, head of school for Mount Pisgah Christian School in Johns Creek
Finding the Right Balance
Of course, while today’s schools must embrace technology to help prepare students for the future, they also must find the right balance between using those innovative tools and maintaining traditional teaching strategies. It’s a challenge that is fully understood by administrators and teachers.
“Technology use should be based in best practices in instruction, so while these digital tools enhance the options that teachers have, the core principles of teaching and learning are still the driving force of how teachers use technology,” Pierce observes.
According to Abels, “We put a premium on students accomplishing the intended goals for the lesson [at hand]. We then try to find the most engaging, memorable and enjoyable ways to get them to successfully reach the learning objectives. Often, that will involve some form of technology either in delivery, discovery or reinforcement. However, sometimes the best teaching tool is uninterrupted contemplation with no distractions. The key is to use technology as a means to a learning end. No amount of technology can make up for bad teaching. The essence of great teaching remains unchanged and will use the best possible resources available to meet the stated goals for student achievement.”
And as Tyler adds, “Our goal is to teach students that learning comes through many channels and sources. In Montessori, the three-dimensional learning that takes place forms the foundation for the abstract thinking that comes later in the student’s academic life. By the time these students reach seventh grade, they are developmentally ready to understand abstract concepts. Therefore, we introduce technology after is has been vetted and when it is appropriate. We try to strike a balance between the appropriate use of technology and the other myriad ways that students can learn using their five senses. Our approach is that technology is just one of many academic tools—no more, no less. Social media platforms like Facebook and Snapchat are some of the many ways that teenagers interact socially, but they do not replace face-to-face interaction.”
In addition to keeping students engaged in learning, educators must consider the ramifications of regular technology use, especially when it comes to student safety. For all schools, it has become a central facet of using today’s tech tools. As Varajic notes, “The largest challenge today with technology is managing digital citizenship and safety. Technology changes day to day, with new games, websites and other technological tools being released daily. We monitor student use of technology regularly and deliberately work with our students to ensure they understand and use digital citizenship at all times.”
Keeping It in Perspective
Without a doubt, technology has changed the educational landscape. Yet, metro Atlanta private and independent schools clearly understand how it fits into their individual goals and have worked diligently to ensure that students continue to receive the long-established, exceptional academic experiences that have become synonymous with them. They have brought tech into the fold thoughtfully and carefully, understanding how important it will be for students as they move into the future.
“It’s impossible to predict what will come our way with regard to technology,” says Sherri Breunig, director of communication and marketing for The Galloway School. “Technology will always be changing, and the rate of change will continue to accelerate. This reality means that, more than ever, educators have to be adaptable, flexible, lifelong learners who can respond to rapid change.”
That thinking applies to students as well. Abels concludes, “More than a set of packaged skills, we want our students to be lifelong learners who are able to adapt to whatever life situation they are faced with. Technology will be even more a part of the lives of our students when they graduate. We want our students to be leaders who understand the best way to accomplish worthwhile, eternity-altering goals.”