Technology on the Hilltop: Expanding Classrooms with Digital Engagement

Buzz, buzz, buzz … MOOC, STEM, STEAM, flipping, blending, gamification, streaming, BYOD, 1:1, PLNs, Big Data, the Cloud…. The buzz words swarming around technology in education are mind boggling. Clearly, the opportunities presented by technology in the classroom are tremendous, perhaps limitless, but at Hackley, we have learned that the topic is far from monolithic. Rather than adopt a singular approach – beyond certain basics such as use of email and SMART Boards, Hackley has chosen to make a wide array of resources available to students and faculty, providing the professional development and coaching to help teachers implement the right tools to support their curricular needs. Students and faculty at Hackley have easy access to a wide variety of technological tools and platforms, but curriculum always drives the integration of technology in the classroom.  It is never technology for technology’s sake.

As the world changes in the information age, so does the classroom.  In our own lives there is a spectrum of integration and Hackley classrooms are no different.  With an expansion of academic technology support including dedicated hours from the computer teachers, technicians, and technology administrators classroom use of technology continues to thrive. Beyond the higher enrollment of students in computer science classes and the addition of courses like robotics, technology integration in all classes is on the rise. In many cases the digital is simply a replacement for the analog–writing on a SMART Board instead of a blackboard, digital text instead of typing, digital recording in Foreign Language–and such changes make our lives easier and have value.  Our faculty also implement technology in deeper ways, sharing SMART Board notes, delivering multimedia classroom presentations, using digital probes to gather data in science labs, creating lower school learning centers, and more. Laptop cart, iPad cart and computer lab use is at an all time high. In the Lower School, expansion of iPad use in the classroom necessitated adding a second cart to the building. Highlighting all the creative ways faculty use technology would fill a book. The exciting changes are those developing towards the high end of the spectrum, allowing teachers to accomplish instruction in ways they could not before. Here faculty are using tech tools which can transform the way they teach and as a result engage our digital generation (“digital natives” to use a buzz word) in compelling ways.

“Flipped” teaching describes a style of instruction where, in the basic model, students view the traditional lecture portion class as an online video for homework and then, during class time, work on reinforcing exercises with the teacher available for guidance and question answering. Another buzz word associated with this approach is “blended” learning where the teacher “blends” traditional classroom instruction with “flipping” techniques.

Use of this idea takes many forms at Hackley. At its most basic level it has been used for years by teachers who assign reading for homework and then lead discussion based inquiry into the text during class. Now, instead of using class time to show educational movies, many teachers assign video watching for homework on resources like YouTube and Discovery Education. Others create their own online materials. Using electronic whiteboard apps  such as Explain Everything, and ShowMe on their iPads, Latin teacher Rowena Fenstermacher and Spanish Teacher Emily DeMarchena record some of their lessons and post them online.  Rowena found herself flipping her own professional development recently. In an effort to transition her famous analog Jeopardy style buzzers to a digital tool, she implemented a tool called Socrative, that displays aggregate results of a quiz where students submit their answers to questions using a mobile device. Wishing to fully understand the tool, Rowena watched online videos on how to use it and loves the ease of which she has integrated into her teaching. “I feel like I have arrived in the 21st century,” states Ms Fenstermacher.

In 8th Grade Science, instructor Dan Lipin does not care what you call it but he is sold. Dan has taken his classroom lecture Power Point slides and digitally filmed himself giving his lectures using screencasting software, Camtasia.  He then posts those videos on class website created with Google Sites and assigns the students to view them for homework. How does he know they have watched the video? Dan also assigns students to complete on online quiz through to demonstrate their understanding of the material covered in the lecture. Simple, right? “It’s like being a first year teacher again” states Dan Lipin. The aggregate time to create the videos and online quizzes is the same as creating a traditional classroom lecture and homework assignments. He now prepares additional material for the new time he has left in the classroom. Previously he may have only had time for one lab per unit; now almost every class is an engaging “hands on” science experience. Throughout this new approach Dan sought feedback from students and families.  All of it informed and helped him shape this new instructional approach. While there has been a learning curve for both instructor and students, when asked if it was worth it, Dan replied “Next year, 7th grade!”

Dialogue between teacher and student has always been a central tenet of Hackley instruction. Small classes, extensive extra help and accessible caring teachers are a part of our culture, also creating a climate of student to student intellectual exchange.  “Interactive” is another technology buzz word describing the transfer of information between computer and user through input and output. At Hackley, faculty use technology to extend human ”interactivity”, taking advantage of the opportunities we gain through flex time and space. While there are always limits on when teacher and students can connect with each other, faculty now create spaces with “Web 2.0” (an old tech buzz word) tools that are available beyond the classroom.

Google Docs (now called Google Drive) allows for the creation of a web based document where multiple users can contribute. Many teachers, mostly in the English and History departments, have adopted this as a tool in the writing process. Beyond basic collaboration, the tool allows editors to insert comments and see a time stamped history of revisions. Simply sharing a document online is nice, but a Google Doc allows for simultaneous, live collaboration. Students can see their teachers typing into their documents online. Often this leads to an impromptu “chat”. History teacher Stephen Fitzpatrick comments “I can think of no other experience that allows me as a teacher to observe the writing process unfold as students are literally putting thoughts on paper. I find, especially at the middle school level, that students crave and value the instant feedback provided through the comment function.”  Richard Robinson routinely comments on student papers on Google Drive; students who are online at the time he comments are able to see his words appear on their screen, creating the opportunity for “real time” conference. Doc Rob notes that, “Such real time conferencing during drafting and revising allows feedback where there once would have been much less opportunity for it, thereby allowing students more opportunity to refine crucial elements of their writing such as theses, topic sentences, analyses of evidence, etc.–and thus allowing students more opportunity to succeed and to develop confidence in their ability to do these things well.”  In addition, because the comments are immediately accessible, the feedback loop between student and teacher is more immediate.  No longer is there a stark separation of processes and possession in the writing timeline – in which the student wrote a paper, teacher collected the paper in class, teacher wrote comments,  teacher returned paper in class.

Google Drive also became a vital tool supporting exam preparation.   Seventh grade science teachers Melissa Boviero, Dan Lipin and Dan McElroy held an evening exam review session in a Google Doc shared with the entire grade.  Students typed in questions and other students responded with the answer. The teachers monitored the interaction and chimed in with clarifications when necessary.

The “Blog” tool is quickly gaining momentum at Hackley.  In a blog authors post writing and responders post separate comments. The result is a threaded conversation about the author’s post. Responders to the original post can have their own responses. Mostly notably implemented by the school newspaper The Dial, classes such as Literature of Social Comment and other school functions such as the recent trip Casten Trip to Barcelona also started Blogs. The new Water Ecology and Environmental Writing seminar just went public with their blog, located at  In English 11, teachers post a short writing prompt, the student writing is a responses to that post and then BOTH teachers and other students can respond to the student writing. Another time/space freedom advantage of this platform in particular has been expanded student participation. Students who may not normally contribute in a classroom setting due classroom dynamic or lack of class time can take the time to add thoughtful comments on their terms. Eleventh grade English teacher Chris Arnold noted via email that the blog tool “has  provided an appealing medium for some of my quieter, more introspective students. Not every student who is passionate about literature likes to dive into the give and take of a classroom discussion. These same students leap at the chance to articulate their ideas in writing. They respond with equal intelligence to comments from classmates, creating a vibrant dialogue without any prompting from me beyond my initial prompt.”  These examples are not the only ones and one article cannot do justice to the dedication many Hackley faculty have to enhancing their courses by integrating technology. Chinese teacher Roy Sheldon has students practice writing Chinese characters on iPads, Drama teacher Meredith Maddox provides instant feedback on student acting by digitally video recording classroom performances, Beth Retzloff records read-a-long audio tracks for her Kindergarteners to use with classroom books and English teacher Anne Siviglia recently had a homebound student attending class via Skype. This list goes on and on.

Some believe that technology will empower students to learn on their own, that they will simply go to the internet, navigate to Khan Academy or iTunes U and absorb the knowledge. The difference between knowing and understanding, however, is a good teacher. The point of transformation available to us now exists around time and space.  The ways in which tech tools allow teacher to reshape their time with students and restructure how they can interact with students in their learning is the real transformation.


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