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McGuffey Middle School uses technology to give teachers more freedom in the classroom

Better access to learning tools for rural students

For students in places like the McGuffey School District, technology can go a long way toward inspiring teachers to add creativity and personalization to lessons. But in this largely low-income and rural district, many students don’t have access to learning devices like home computers, and high-speed online access in remote areas of the district is limited.

Teresa Engler was a McGuffey Middle School science teacher for the past 30 years and recently became a technology coach, and she has seen the impact of the district's shift from computer labs to Chromebooks. Before that time, the district’s 166 teachers had to make do with two computer labs across four schools—each one equipped with about 25 PCs.

"Teachers would have to take turns signing up to use the lab, then spend time moving students to the lab," Engler recalls. "By the time you do that, and take five minutes to log in to PCs and five minutes to log off, students are left with about 20 minutes at the computers."

When the district received a grant from Digital Promise, an education nonprofit, to purchase about 170 Chromebooks in 2013, the transformation to personalized and student-led learning began immediately—including using Google Workspace for Education tools such as Classroom and Sheets.

"Google Classroom really opened the door to personalized learning," Engler says. "We got right on board with using it to modify lessons for individual students, or comment on their homework if we wanted to help them understand the lesson better."

Because students can access Google Workspace for Education tools from any device, they have the flexibility to work from anywhere, such in study halls, on bus trips to and from school, or at home. "Students who lack internet access often have phones with cell service," Engler says. "We have a bring-your-own device policy at our schools, so students can access links sent through Classroom by the teachers, and do their homework from anywhere."

Starting conversations with teachers about technology

Education leaders in the McGuffey School District could see how Chromebooks and Google Workspace quickly engaged teachers and students.

"Students became much more excited about learning—and they wanted more from us teachers," Engler says. "We could see how the technology was opening up new opportunities for students to take charge of their own learning. And teachers were eager to try new things, like using new apps and extensions in their classes."

In summer 2017, Engler was accepted into the Dynamic Learning Project (DLP), a program designed to help instructional coaches become transformation leaders in schools and give teachers hands-on support to use technology in powerful ways. In addition to attending the summer DLP training workshop, Engler was paired with a DLP mentor for monthly meetings and regular phone conversations. Throughout the school year, Engler worked with teachers to understand their classroom challenges and how they could be solved using different kinds of technology. As a result, students received an enhanced classroom experience.

The value of the DLP training, Engler says, was not in learning the ins and outs of Chromebooks and Google Workspace for Education: She and many other McGuffey teachers had already become Google Certified Trainers.

"It's not just knowing about the tools—it’s what you're doing with the tools," Engler explains. "I learned how to start conversations about technology—how to use guiding questions to help teachers set goals and stick to those goals." Engler also learned how to support teachers in adapting technology tools to suit their own needs and those of their students.

"Every teacher does things differently," Engler says. Her job as coach was to support teachers as they tried new ideas and cheer on their efforts, even if goals fell short of success. "I learned how to give teachers the confidence to take risks," Engler says. "When teachers have a coach they're more likely to fail forward, because they have support."

The DLP training inspired Engler to encourage teachers in risk-taking. She started a program called "Pop-ins," inviting teachers to visit classrooms to see other teachers' innovative ideas for student engagement in action. For example, one of the Pop-ins featured McGuffey Middle School teacher Christine Bywalksi's student "mood board," on which students place emojis and talk about how they're feeling each day.

Engler is also awarding teachers with badges when they try new tools like Flipgrid and Nearpod on their class Chromebooks. She adds those badges, which she creates herself, to charts outside of every classroom at McGuffey Middle School.

"The students notice the badges and talk about which apps their teachers have tried out in class," Engler says. In addition to badges, Engler recognizes teachers by tweeting about their accomplishments and handing out coffee mugs and t-shirts. That recognition matters, since teachers like to see how their peers are making

Teaching students about online safety

As Engler guides teachers and students in getting the most value from technology, she's also conscious of the need to help them navigate the Internet in a safe, smart, and positive manner. In a DLP training session, she learned about the Be Internet Awesome (BIA) program, which teaches students about online safety and digital citizenship. She was inspired to spread the word to other teachers and to students about online safety and digital citizenship.

During the 2018-2019 school year, Engler helped the middle school’s 7th and 8th grade teachers add BIA lessons through Pear Deck. "We're training students on the need to log out of applications, and to avoid sharing personal information with anyone when they're online," Engler says. This way, students could prevent potential attempts at someone else accessing their accounts after. Engler is also teaching 8th grade students how to use Kidblog, a student publishing platform with moderation tools to help students safely share their writing.

"The BIA lessons help us talk to students respectfully about subjects like cyberbullying," Engler says. "The students take the online safety discussions very seriously—in fact, they've learned not even to tell teachers their passwords!"

Chromebooks' automatic updates help teachers keep the devices safe for student use, as does working in the cloud with Google Workspace. "Teachers don't need to worry about updating the laptops themselves," Engler says. "And once we teach students to log out of the device, we can share Chromebooks all day."

Greater freedom in teaching and learning

As Engler visits middle school classrooms, she can see how technology has transformed the teaching and learning environment. "I love that teachers are taking charge of their own professional development," she says. "And they are more likely to let students create projects themselves, instead of just handing students worksheets to complete."

Students now view the entry of a Chromebook cart with excitement. "Every time I walk into a classroom, students say, 'we're going to do something fun today,'" Engler says. "The technology allows us so much freedom in our classrooms—it's unlike anything I've seen before."

"Every time I walk into a classroom, students say, 'we're going to do something fun today.' The technology allows us so much freedom in our classrooms—it's unlike anything I've seen before."

Teresa Engler, Technology Coach, McGuffey Middle School

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