The School District’s strategic plan includes a technology initiative. Thanks to that initiative, and support from teachers and students, technology now plays an essential role in teaching and learning.
By Jennifer Kuhel
After the second period bell rings at Shaker Heights High School and the students in Advanced Placement Spanish V settle at their desks, teacher Kimberly Ponce de Leon gives the class their first instruction.
“Sacar un dispositivo,” Ponce de Leon tells them. Translation: Take out your device. Some students pull out iPhones and others open Chromebooks.
For past generations of students who learned a foreign language by memorizing grammar rules and conjugating verbs aloud, the notion of utilizing a tool that has the capability to provide quick answers may sound like the easy way out. Not so, says David Glasner, Shaker Heights Schools executive director of Curriculum and Instruction.
“Education and learning look so different now from when most of us were growing up, but this is what learning should look like,” he explains. “Learning should be inquiry-based and our students should be using technology to collaborate in the classroom and to explore.”
To the casual onlooker, Shaker Heights Schools’ traditional collection of neighborhood school buildings evokes feelings of nostalgia, but what’s happening inside the buildings is very much 21st century learning. Four years ago, the District’s five-year strategic plan included a technology initiative to implement tools that support instruction and organizational efficiency. Today, thanks to that initiative, broad support from teachers across all grades and subjects, and to Shaker’s students, technology plays an essential role in enhancing learning experiences and preparing students for their lives ahead.
It’s All in the Planning
John Rizzo, executive director of Technology and Media Services for Shaker Schools, says that the District’s Technology Plan takes the long view and is both multi-faceted and flexible.
“In this case, there’s no terminal event that we’re shooting for. Technology is always changing and evolving,” Rizzo says. “And there’s a cost to it, so we evaluated early on whether we would treat technology as a cost or an investment.”
The most significant investment made by the District came in 2015 with its purchase of Google Apps for Education (now known as the G Suite for Education), a suite of Cloud-based productivity tools which enable students and teachers to collaborate and interact seamlessly and securely across devices.
In collaboration with Director of Professional Learning Erin Herbruck, the teachers created training options with ongoing support. “Teacher learning on the G Suite is ongoing, sustained, job-embedded, classroom-focused, and intensive – the criteria for high quality professional learning,” says Herbruck. Today, more than 70 percent of the District’s eligible teachers have participated in Google Training. As an International Baccalaureate PreK-12 Continuum District, collaboration between students and faculty, and among all staff , is key. Rizzo says the G Suite for Education supports collaboration among these groups every day. Teachers assign work to students through Google Classroom, provide feedback on writing assignments through Google Docs, or perform group data analysis in class using Google Sheets.
Similarly, students can access teacher resources through a classroom website, collaborate with classes in other buildings and school districts to share knowledge using Google Hangout, or develop a group presentation in Google Slides.
“We intentionally trained teachers and equipped them with devices before launching the suite with students,” Rizzo explains. “This way, our technology helps teachers and students solve problems, rather than create them.”
With two full school years and full implementation of the G Suite, the District is currently in the process of rolling out the next step in the technology plan: one-to-one pairing of District provided Chromebooks to students.
“Students and teachers have had the opportunity to use these tools in class and at home, so we have an understanding of how far we’ve been able to come with the G Suite,” says Glasner. “We’re at a point where now we feel that one-to-one can take us to the next step.”
Among the next steps is the i3 Initiative, a collaborative effort of the District, the Shaker Schools Foundation, and community members with a focus on Inquiry, Imagination and Innovation. i3 reinforces the District’s IB goal of preparing students to solve problems and think critically while supporting increased integration of design learning experiences, Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math curriculum for PreK-12, and accessibility to and use of leading edge technology and tools across all classrooms.
“We need to make short-term gains, but take a big picture approach to investment in curriculum and technology,” Glasner says. “Looking ahead, our classrooms must be designed as collaborative spaces with improved access to technology, and our course offerings must be aligned with 21st century needs and demands.”
Teaching with Tech
From the District’s youngest students through High School and in all subject areas, teachers say the impact of technology even beyond the G Suite has been profound. High School engineering teacher and science department chair Joe Marencik has been teaching at Shaker Heights Schools for 29 years. “One of my main goals has always been to give our students the confidence to solve real-world problems and we’re still doing that,” he says. “But how our students get to the end result has changed.”
Data collection and analysis that previously required graphing points using pencil and paper can now be imported quickly into Google Sheets. “Now we can really analyze trends and perform quick, meaningful, and more interesting analyses of data through statistics and charts.”
Marencik also has seen an increased interest in the High School’s tech-heavy design and engineering classes. Th is year, 45 members of the freshman class enrolled in Introduction to Engineering, an elective. When the class started a dozen years ago, there was only enough interest for one section. And today, nearly 50 students are enrolled in Engineering Applications, an upper level class taken by students interested in STEM careers.
Boulevard Elementary School kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Shaw says that technology also leads to positive practical changes. Last year, Shaw accepted an opportunity from Rizzo to pilot a product called Classlink, a single sign-on platform that enables teachers and students to use one username and password to access the District’s digital resources. Th e software is a game-changer for Shaw because she’s able to spend more time on instruction and less time helping her students remember their passwords, which can be challenging and frustrating for five- and six-year-olds.
She adds that what the District’s younger students lack in ability to memorize multiple passwords, they make up for in skills. “They’re so advanced and they have an intuitive understanding of how to manipulate a screen,” Shaw says. “Today’s kindergartners have grown up with Alexa and Siri, so they’re used to getting answers.
And the good thing is that I see them asking more questions because of it.” Lomond music teacher Cynthia Steiner has found that technology encourages students to learn from other students, especially with interactive apps like Aurasma, an augmented reality platform that brings pictures to life. When Steiner’s fourth grade students learn how to play the recorder, they use Aurasma to make troubleshooting video tips for each other.
“It’s funny how if a classmate tells another student in a video how to correct a mistake and I’ve told them the same thing, they’ll listen to their classmate,” Steiner says. “One of the benefits that I’ve found is that we’re getting away from the teacher doing all the talking and letting the kids have some autonomy with their own learning. They all already know how to use the technology and they’re teaching each other how to problem-solve.”
For Ponce de Leon at the High School, technology has played a leading role in changing the way foreign languages are taught. “We’re not just teaching translation and grammar like we used to. In fact, we don’t even call it ‘foreign language’ anymore. We call it ‘language acquisition’ because that’s what our students are doing,” she says. “In all of our languages and at all levels, technology enables students to see more, to hear more, and to connect more with the language and the culture.”
In the classroom, that means watching YouTube videos of native Spanish speakers from around the world so that students can hear authentic accents. Other language classes Skype with peers halfway around the world and form lasting relationships because they continue their chats beyond the classroom on social media or texting apps. Still others utilize apps like Quizlet to sharpen skills with digital flashcards and games. “Technology truly prepares our students for an immersion experience,” Ponce de Leon says.
End User Experience
When Corin Manning entered kindergarten in 2006 at Boulevard Elementary School, there were no computers for student use in the classroom. By the time she was a Woodbury student in 2011, she recalls using computers to work on typing skills. Today, as a Shaker Heights High School senior, Corin uses Sketchup 3D modeling software in Marencik’s Honors Engineering Class to conceptualize a dream house which she and a small group of peers will bring to life with a 3D printer.
“The technology makes school more interesting,” Corin says. “Having the opportunity to learn how to use these modeling programs, 3D printer programs, and tools like the laser cutter will contribute to my future plans.”
Last year, she learned Java in her computer science class, which helped her secure a coding internship for this past summer at Rockwell Automation. While she’s undecided where she’ll attend college, Corin says that she’s interested in website, software, and app development, some of which she already does on a contract basis in her spare time.
To be sure, the human component in learning is still very much a necessity, says Boulevard’s Shaw. “Of course there’s still tremendous power to having a book and paper and pencil in front of you,” she says. “But I’ve also found more and more that if
we just get out of the kids’ way, it’s pretty unbelievable what they can do.”