Sparking a Passion in Students

Sparking a Passion in Students

Teacher training combined with mobile technology is significantly impacting students

It’s a December morning in a low-income stretch of Los Angeles County, and the children in Gabbie Monterosa-Ibarra’s fifth-grade classroom are reviewing a science unit on the weather.

A typical day in a typical classroom, with one big difference. Every student is using a tablet computer.

Each kid taps into an app called Nearpod, a kind of interactive Powerpoint. On each 10-inch screen, and mirrored on the big screen in the front of the room, they’ll see drawings and photos of the earth and sun, arrows indicating sun rays and wind directions.

During the lesson, all the students will sketch their own conceptions of how sun rays hit the earth, by using the tablets’ painting tools. They’ll take a quiz, using the tablets’ interconnectivity, to instantly gauge how much they’ve learned.

Monterosa-Ibarra isn’t leading the class. Three students are.

When Monterosa-Ibarra started her teaching career four years earlier, she never imagined that she’d be teaching this way — or that fifth-graders were capable of such sophistication. She didn’t see it coming even four months before.

But her school, Niemes Elementary, hard by a roaring freeway in Artesia, Calif., had decided to go “1:1” — one tablet for every child — and had the foresight to realize that for the project to succeed, for the technology to unlock all its hidden potential, it was of upmost importance to prepare the teachers.

Enter the Verizon Foundation. As part of its commitment to education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), it awarded Niemes a two-year grant to support teacher training in the use of mobile devices for education. The money paid for summer sessions led by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and for professional development throughout the school year.

So starting in the summer, Monterosa-Ibarra began an educational journey of her own. She al-ready owned a smartphone and a tablet. She loved them, but could she use them in her teaching? “It was daunting, I was nervous,” she said. “It was very overwhelming.”

The ISTE instructors set a high bar: Don’t use the tablets simply to replace an activity that students were already doing perfectly well with pen and paper. Use them “to innovate, and look for ways for students to show what they’ve learned,” said Maria Perez, a resource specialist  who helped lead the school’s move to tech. “It’s designed to engage your students in a new way.”

Without the training, the conversion would likely have been a disaster. “We’ve actually seen this in districts in other parts of the county,” Perez said. “They just went, ‘Here’s an iPad,’ and it hasn’t worked out. Now they’re having to backtrack because they didn’t prepare their staff.”

ISTE encouraged the Niemes teachers to explore, investigate and innovate. The Verizon Foundation provided money for “release time,” so teachers could huddle and exchange ideas.

And so they did. By doing research online, they came across Nearpod, the interactive Power-point app. It’s a tool for teachers. “I thought, ‘How great!’,” Monterosa-Ibarra said.

Then another Niemes teacher, Mily Chung, had the idea of letting the kids create Nearpod presentations. “I never imagined that they could,” Monterosa-Ibarra said.

But she tried it. She divided the class into groups of three and assigned each of them a portion of the weather unit to review for the entire class. She gave them framework of what to do. They’d have to identify the main ideas, put together a script, add drawings and video, and made up quiz questions. And then stand in front of the room and present it all.

On that December morning, one of those groups was conducting its lesson on wind, convection, and sunrays. 

At the end came a quiz that the presenters had created: Four questions, multiple choice. Kids made their selections and an app instantly scored the results.

A big green circle meant they got all the questions right.

All over the room, screen after screen: Big green circles.

“We hope you learned something today about the weather,” said one of the presenters, a fifth-grade boy standing tall in front of the class.

The Verizon Foundation, focusing its initiatives on science, technology, engineering and math education. Especially for children from underserved communities.


Because STEM jobs are growing at a rate at least double that of jobs in other fields. As many as 3 million STEM jobs are currently unfilled in the U.S., despite widespread unemployment. The sad fact is that too many Americans lack the underlying skills. In the most recent international comparisons, U.S. students rank 23rd among nations in science, and 30th in math.

For low-income students, the gap is even wider.

But imagine the rewards if that gap could be filled.

“If you think about people who live in poverty, who are being raised by a single parent, who don’t have a mentor — you really wonder what it’s going to take to get them out of those situations. And the thing about stem jobs and stem careers, you make a lot more money if you go into a STEM career than a non-STEM career,” said Justina Nixon-Saintil, the Verizon Foundation’s director for education, who herself holds a degree in mechanical engineering.

“These are the jobs of the future.”

For this reason, the Foundation sponsors the Verizon Innovative App Challenge. It’s a competition that’s spurring students at more than 1,200 middle and high schools to invent apps for mobile devices. Or put another way, students as early as 6th grade are getting excited by computer coding and the requisite algebra — and getting themselves positioned for possible careers in the fast-growing field of computer science.

And to propel America’s classrooms into the 21st century, to weave technology into the very fabric of learning, the Foundation has taken the approach that is transforming Niemes.

It’s focusing heavily on the training of teachers.

“The typical middle-school teacher has 150 students a year,” Nixon-Saintil explained. “If we train the teacher, that’s 150 kids every year from an underserved school that will do better in the classroom, get better scores in math and science, and likely be more successful.”

School systems everywhere are rushing to bring technology into their classrooms. But those efforts can mean little if educators aren’t shown how to use it. “It’s been pretty well documented that one of the main barriers to integrating technology is a lack of teacher training and professional development,” said Brandon Olszewski, ISTE senior education consultant.

“Just buying a lot of devices doesn’t guarantee anything other than that you’ll spend your budget,” Olszewski said.

The simple fact, he said, is that “the integration of technology into teaching is not intuitive for a lot of teachers.”

“To see the technology blossom,” Olszewski said, “teachers have to know, 1) how to use the devices, and 2) how they can help you teach.”

To do this, the Foundation has designated a select number of Verizon Innovative Learning Schools (VILS). The program started in the 2012-13 school year with 12 schools, including Niemes. It has grown to 24 schools this year.

By design, the schools chosen have at least 40% of students eligible to receive free or reduced cost lunch,” said Yolanda Ramos, ISTE director of professional development services.

The results already look promising.

Last school year, 100 percent of teachers responding to a survey reported some positive effect on student behavior and attitudes, said Olszewski. One in three students improved in academic achievement. Four in 10 increased their problem-solving abilities.

Moreover 59 percent of teachers said they are individualizing instruction more now than they did before they started the VILS program — teaching more to each student’s individual pace. “That really, really helps kids and gets them to the next level,” Nixon-Saintil said.

And VILS students reported much more interest in technical careers, compared with students at non-VILS schools. “I do believe that the technology is engaging them in different ways, and they feel more confident about pursuing, science, math and engineering type of fields,” Nixon-Saintil said.

Those career decisions could be a long way off. But already, VILS and App Challenge students are finding themselves changed because of their access to technology.

Doors are opening for them in ways they never imagined. Doors they probably never even knew were there.

At Niemes Elementary this year, every fifth-grader and sixth-grader gets a tablet computer to use in class and to take home.

The kids use the tablets and apps to make videos. They use the tablet’s camera to record the steps of their experiments in science lab. They turn their reports into eBooks — combinations of children’s hand drawings and professional-looking fonts — and share them with classmates.

Teachers “mirror” what’s on an individual student’s tablet, displaying it at any time on a large screen for the rest of the class. This greatly expands possibilities for collaborations and discussions.

In math classes, students use an app called Screencast to capture the image on their screens while recording their voices as they explain how they solved a problem. It allows the teacher to understand a student’s thought process — a holy grail of math teaching.

Teacher Renny Sibiglia has connected his tablet to a classroom flat screen TV. Now he can write on his tablet from anywhere in the room and display it to the whole class.

“I can write math problems while walking around the room, rather than standing up there with my back to the kids,” he said. “It makes a huge difference.”

Fifth-grade teacher Mily Chung has flipped her classroom for math class.  When at home, her students use their tablets to study a math lesson. In class the next day, she quizzes them electronically, then checks the results instantly to see if they’ve grasped the concepts.

If kids score well, they do independent work. If not, she’ll work individually to catch them up— or ask the kids who “got it” to teach those who didn’t.

She can feed her students endless math problems through a free, online program called IXL. Which, of course, they work on using their tablets.

“I’ve kind of stopped using the textbook,” Chung said.

“Last year our science scores went way up,” said teacher John Zawacki. He suspects strongly it was the tablets, though he does not yet have data to confirm it.

The tablets allow what textbooks do not, he said: The ability to find answers to almost any question instantly.

In traditional teaching, a student stops reading when he hits an “information wall,” Zawacki said.

But when the student can immediately attain the next-needed piece of information, he or she keeps going. “And what that does, it leads to another question,” the science teacher said.

Now his young students take data from a lab experiment and, with an app, turn it into a graph. Then they insert the graph into a report. “And they’ve made something!” Zawacki said.

“Showing your knowledge that way, with a good-looking product, is much better than showing it in a test,” Zawacki added. “When you’re on the job, your employer isn’t going to ask you to pass a test.”

“We did not want to automate what we already do with pencil and paper,” said principal Marialena (Meg) Jimenez, “but to enlarge teaching and creativity that will require the students to work at a higher cognitive level.”

That’s just what’s happening.

Victor Zapata is one of Monterrosa-Ibarra’s students. A polite, serious boy, he was always a good student. He couldn’t believe his luck when his family moved to the Niemes attendance area this year and he was handed a tablet for his fifth-grade schoolwork.

Ever since, he’s been on fire.

“He likes to read a lot, like five books a week, at least,” his mother, Elizabeth Macedo, said in Spanish as Monterrosa-Ibarra translated. “But now when he reads a book, he looks up summaries of the book whenever he’s done, he finds comprehension questions to quiz himself. He’s researching more — looking up other books by that author, things like that.”

With neither computer nor wi-fi at home, Victor begs his mother to take him school early, at 8 a.m., or to McDonald’s after school for the wireless connection.

She happily complies. “She thinks he’s going to become some kind of orator, because he’s so good with words,” said Monterosa-Ibarra. “He wants to write a book someday. He wants to be an artist.”

No one in the family ever set such a goal before.

When asked if she had a lot of hopes for Victor, his mother suddenly burst into tears. After she collected herself she explained: She had a daughter, Victor’s older sister, who died six years ago, at 16. The question had made Macedo recall her loss and the many dreams she had harbored in her eldest, who would now be in her 20s.

If Victor did become a writer, he would probably write self-help books, his mother said, because he’s so “principled, responsible, almost like a grownup in a kid’s body.” And, clearly thinking of his sister, “he’d love to write about what heaven is like.”

She had one more thing to say. “She wants to say thank you to Verizon for all the help in sup-porting us with these tablets,” Monterosa-Ibarra translated, “because it’s changed the lives of so many students in the school who don’t have access, and wouldn’t have it otherwise.”

Tyler Hopkins is a teenager with autism. But in Alexia Forhan’s science class, his condition is no barrier.

Forhan, the technology coach at Assabet Valley Vocational High School in Marlborough, Mass., 30 miles west of Boston, has 10 tablets in her classroom.

Because this is a VILS school, she and the seven other science teachers received intensive training in the best uses of technology in instruction. And now tablets are as much a part of science lab as beakers and Bunsen burners.

When students run a lab experiment in Forhan’s classroom, they do more than record the results in a notebook. They draw cartoons on their tablets explaining what happened, using visual thinking to show they understand. Next, using the tablets’ microphones, they record their explanations of the experiments, incorporating critical thinking and public speaking.

They work at their own pace. They help each other.

And in this environment, which taps a variety of learning styles and allows for individuals to proceed at their own pace, Tyler is thriving.

He is a talented artist and many class activities allow him to use this gift. He often finishes his work early, inspiring others in the class because they see him being successful. They feed off his energy.

“Tyler Hopkins is wonderful and the students have really taken to him,” Forhan said. “He has really raised the bar for many students and it has been a pleasure to witness this as his teacher.

“He truly is an inspiration to all.”

Forhan was the pioneer who brought technology into Assabet. A couple of years ago, she chanced upon a fight between two students in the hallway. She knew they were on the brink of physical violence. But before she could step in, one student threatened to take the other student’s cell phone and “crush it.” The student retreated immediately.

Alexia was stunned. That cell phone was the student’s life. She thought, “what if that love of mobile technology could be combined with teaching and learning?”

She was delighted when Assabet became a VILS school in the 2012-13 school year.

In one recent science class, a student scanned a QR barcode with a QR app to review a lesson on DNA. The students themselves had designed and developed the review.

Everything that students worked on, Forhan said, reinforced what they were learning. There was no rote learning or memorization.

One app, called Educreations, displayed students’ work on a smart board at the front of the class so they could instantly see each other’s work. “We’re doing more hands-on, technology-based lessons that involve problem-solving,” Forhan said. “We get kids to think about what they’re doing, step by step.”

Forhan believes the switch to technology has made her a better teacher. “You want an educator who keeps abreast of current trends and is aware of what the future holds,” she said. “These kids will be entering a world where they’ll need to problem-solve and collaborate.”

The VILS program has “helped us as a department to rethink the way we teach and the way students learn,” Forhan said, “and it has added a spark, a sort of inspiration, to our day-to-day activities.”

Last year, for the first time, not a single student failed one of Forhan’s science classes.

Meet King, Jhony, Rokia, members of a sixth-grade team from the Bronx that was one of 10 national winners last year in the Verizon Innovative App Challenge.

“These were probably some of the quietest kids in the school,” their principal, Catherine Jack-vony, said.

But now, said adviser Tammy Trudell, “suddenly they had a reason to step up to the plate, share their ideas and be assertive. They had a confidence that wasn’t there before.”

The Bronx Academy of Promise is a once-failing charter school that started in a hand-me-down building in the shadow of the 4 Line elevated tracks in the lowest socioeconomic congressional district in the United States.

Starting in 2012, a half-dozen sixth-graders teamed up to build an app to develop math skills for students in grades 4 to 8. They gave it a Greek-mythology theme and designed it as a game; right answers scored points, repeated wrong answers led to a tutorial. They named it Quest Math.

They worked on Quest Math after school. Trudell, a teacher, supervised. An adviser from Massachusetts Institute of Technology helped with the programming. Two kids worked as designers, two as developers, two as testers — the same groupings you’d find on a Silicon Valley team. One teammate did double duty as project manager, to keep the work on schedule.

The students had to decide for themselves what the app should include, how to troubleshoot problems. Trudell spurred them to think on their own.

The deadline pressing, they worked during lunch periods and took the teachers’ “early” bus to grab more time at school.

And they won. Each sixth-grader received a tablet, and the school got $10,000.

But it’s the intangibles that might have the most lasting impact.

King is now a self-assured seventh-grader, mature beyond his years, his brown eyes casting a serious gaze as he opens a laptop and explains the intricacy of his team’s app.

Before the App Challenge, neither he nor his teammates knew what Google was. Now they’re contemplating careers steeped in technology and science, areas in which America is sorely in need of nurturing young talent. Jhony said he might become a computer technician. King is thinking about programming. Rokia’s choice is surgeon, but her mother wants her to be a computer technician. 

Their success has had a ripple effect touching their classmates, students in lower grades, their families. King’s younger brother, in pre-K, has asked to use King’s tablet to practice writing and Jhony helps his little sister do math on the tablet, the younger siblings using the technology years earlier than their elders did.

At a board meeting held to recognize the winning students, a father said, “I never imagined any-thing like this. Now I know that this school is as good as New York City schools that have money.” 

Now, fifth-graders can’t wait for sixth grade and the chance to work on an app themselves. And the winning team is eager to help. They’ve decided to “pay it forward” by making the app available for free on the Google Play store, so students of little means will have access to it. King said he didn’t want any student denied the benefits of the app because a parent hesitated to buy it.

“When you see yourself as needing something, and you turn that around and are in a position to give something to someone else, the feeling that comes along with that change in role is worth millions,” Mr. Trudell said. “This opportunity gave the students the confidence to see a future for themselves because they made that transition.”

The Bronx kids’ horizons expanded with each new step. When working on their app, they learned about graphic design and programming, including the workings of a program’s front and back ends: the display and the coding. They dealt in “if-then” statements and became adept at troubleshooting errors and bugs.

After winning, the six students presented the app at the National Association of Elementary School Principals conference in Orlando. There, they saw high school students working on robotics, a field previously unknown to them, which enlarged their understanding of engineering.

Rokia, the main presenter in Orlando, is far more articulate as a result of the experience, the principal said. The shy Jhony is speaking aloud as never before.

Standing up and explaining their app in a professional manner, “like the high school students did who also were present, gave them hope that someday they could be one of those students applying to college,” Jackvony said.

“They were able to think that anything is possible and the sky’s the limit. Also, they can now think, ‘What I do is important. I have a voice. I don’t have to scream it, but I have something to say.’”

Teachers aren’t the only ones who can be apprehensive about technology entering classrooms. Parents can be doubtful.

Chris Romero, a bank branch manager, was skeptical when he heard that all Niemes’ fifth- and sixth-graders were to receive tablets. It sounded like a waste of money.

“We thought it’s not going to be beneficial and it’s not going to be a good investment,” he said, even though he and his wife had tablets of their own. “And I think most parents felt like that.”

Wariness was indeed widespread, said Principal Jimenez. When Niemes held Parents Night last year, the educators wanted to address the issue head-on.

So much had changed about Niemes’ classrooms in a short time that teachers realized they couldn’t show off students’ work in the same old way. In the nearly paperless classrooms, it wouldn’t make sense to post the kids’ reports and drawings on a bulletin board. Instead, they had parents pick up their child’s tablet and use it to scan QR barcodes that were displayed around the room.

The codes opened up pages on the tablets, and there was the kids’ work: well-organized notes, reports that looked almost professional, colored diagrams, little movies.

The parents were wowed.

“The positive outcomes couldn’t be denied,” Jimenez said. “The parents, well, they didn’t need any more convincing.”

As for Romero, his attitude changed as soon as his daughter, Candice, brought that tablet home.

The girl, entering the fifth grade last fall, had not been doing well in school. She had trouble concentrating, Romero said. Her reading comprehension was poor. The parents sent her to a therapist. Hired a tutor.

But when her class at Niemes began using tablets for lessons, “from the very first day she be-came very excited doing her homework,” Romero said.

“She was teaching herself. The tablet gave her the ability to focus. And she wanted to get 100 scores each and every time.”

Now Candice looks things up all the time, all on her own. She stunned her father by revealing a career choice: Veterinarian. She even wants to own a few veterinarian clinics.

“She said, ‘Dad, I could make over $100,000 a year.’ I went, ‘How do you know that?’ She said, ‘I looked it up.’ She’s pulling up this information,” Romero said, delight in his voice.

“It’s giving her a real good foundation overall. Not only with the math, but it’s given her a vision of her future. She knows everything costs money and she pulls up that calculator and she sees how much things cost, how much she needs to make — it’s definitely changed my daughter for the better.

“Her mother and I each work 60 hours a week, and the tablet is like having a tutor at all times, right there with my daughter.”

Those problems Candice had with concentration? Gone.

“It’s a 360-change. We’re really proud of what she’s becoming,” the father said.

Here’s how much of a difference it’s made to the family. Before the school year started, the couple put in an offer on a new house in an up-and-coming area of Southern California. It marked a big step up for them.

But then they learned that the new school district wouldn’t have tablets for its students. And they withdrew the offer. Candice is doing so well at the VILS school, they hated to give it up.

They decided against moving.

“Niemes is the only reason we backed out from buying the home,” Romero said.


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