NJ Schools Use Technology to Revolutionize Classroom Lessons
Peggy McGlone | The Star-Ledger
Three students are focused on their iPads as world history teacher Jorge Madrigal discusses the religious symbols embedded in two Renaissance paintings. As Jennifer Hernandez listens to her teacher, she uses her finger to draw three pink triangles on the image of Madonna and Child, identifying the symbol of the Holy Trinity that Madrigal is explaining.
The lesson — one of hundreds in this honors history class at John E Dwyer Technology Academy in Elizabeth — is posted on the school’s software program. Madrigal’s students log in, call up the electronic lesson, complete it, then post it back to the class site, where Madrigal reviews and grades it.
"We can go to Rome, we can go to the museum where the paintings are," Madrigal said, pointing to the iPads each of the academy’s 1,050 students are given for the year. "I want them to see the world differently."
Laptops and tablets have been part of classroom culture for years, but the way some schools in New Jersey are utilizing these tools is nothing short of revolutionary. From paperless classes to personalized math lessons, educators are using technology to challenge their strong students and give extra support to the weak. Along the way, they are changing the way they teach as they adapt to the way students learn.
Madrigal is one of the mentors leading the way in Elizabeth, where he believes changes in instruction mean more engaged students.
"We are teaching a higher order of thinking and questioning and getting them to as higher level questions," he said.
Indeed, everything about this technology-rich school is different, from the iLEAP media center to the eye-popping number of big-screen computers in the classrooms. Rather than face the teacher in rows of orderly desks, students are clustered in groups, with teachers roaming around the clusters to help when needed.
Dwyer Academy Principal Christopher Van Vliet said he sees positive signs in student achievement, and an overall climate of enthusiasm and optimism.
"(Students) are taking ownership of their learning," he said. "If kids are interested they’ll come every day and they’ll be engaged."
That same sense of engagement can be found in the spacious math centers at William C. McGinnis Middle School in Perth Amboy, which is half-way through its first year of Teach to One Math. Last summer, the school renovated its classrooms for six, seventh and eighth grades, creating open spaces where eight general and special education math teachers work with 120 students at the same time.
"The shift is from these are my kids to they are our kids," math instructional leader Marie Bermudez said. "We hold each other accountable. We sink or swim together."
McGinnis students have math in 94-minute blocks, which are carved into four units and feature eight different learning zones, from computer-based tutorials to peer-to-peer problem solving to a version of the traditional teacher-led lesson. Each block ends with a five-question quiz that assess the student’s progress on the task.
Each student’s daily instruction is created by the program’s algorithm. The giant classroom is broken into eight areas, and students go to their assigned lessons and work with different teachers and different classmates every day.
"The overall goal is to give every student what they need, when they need it an how they need it," said Chris Rush, chief program officer of New Classrooms, the New York nonprofit behind Teach to One. "We are meeting you where you are as a student."
Each math center has laptops the students use to access their personalized lessons. They get instant feedback; after they take the end of class quiz, for example, they see how many were correct.
The program also allows for great differentiation among the students, the teachers report. Students who are behind their grade level getting remedial help as they work on grade level tasks, while those who are gifted in math get pushed by harder questions and more complicated problems.
"It fills in the gaps that a traditional classroom teacher couldn’t meet," Bermudez said.
In addition to Perth Amboy, Teach to One is used in one school in Elizabeth and two in Newark. Each program is customized for each school’s needs.
The tech-based curriculum has meant a complete rethinking of the way they teach, according to three McGinnis seventh grade teachers. At first, the group teaching was difficult, they said.
"Teachers are type A personalities," Kendall Black said. "It was like having roommates in college."
But pretty soon the benefits started to become clear. "We have so many different styles of teacher, and its a great thing to see best practices in front of you," Kelly Cosme said. "I see something and I say, ‘I’m going to try that.’"
But the early signs of success are the real motivation, the teachers said.
"We are able to meet all their needs and so many students come in at different levels," Blanca Golino said.
Colleague Cosme picked up from Golino, demonstrating the team spirit of the group. "They are taking responsibility for their learning, that’s the real shift," she said. "And that prepares them for high school and college and jobs, too."