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Needs of "Digital Native" Students the focus of Primary Innovation Studio

PARKER – When people think of a classroom of the future, their minds usually jump to the latest technologies; advanced touch screen computers or interactive, digital desks.

Mammoth Heights Elementary second-grade teacher Mary Lisa Harper, however, first focuses on the needs of her ‘digital native’ students, those that have grown up their entire lives with computers, and how to best connect with them.

“I think that the shift is more in the teacher than with the technology,” explained Harper. “I mean, I can have five iPads and be teaching with great 21st Century Skills and it could be a 21st Century classroom. We don’t need [a lot of technology]. The big shift is within. It’s how you approach kids. How you understand that they’re a different breed right now when it comes to learning.”

Over the past several months, Harper has been working to design a place where new concepts in education can be tested. Integrating the latest research with her 20-plus years in the classroom, she envisioned the Primary Innovation Studio.

“I realize that we are moving in education. And to work in the same box that we have been working in for the past decades is just not going to work for today’s kid. We have to move forward and someone is going to have to give it a try,” Harper said.

With the support of the Douglas County School District and a generous grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation, this summer her dream became a reality.

“It was like winning the lottery,” explained Harper. “Who gets to design what they see in their mind and see it come true?”

Harper’s room now includes spaces dedicated to ensuring students are learning and using 21st Century Skills.  In the Maker’s Space, for instance, kids can take concepts learned in their lessons and then use everything from plastic tubing to pieces of wood to invent something related to the lesson.

“There is a space for all of the 4 C’s, that’s how I designed it,” Harper explained. “Creativity, there is the Maker’s Space. Communication—there is a stage where kids can meet in groups or if they so choose, they can collaborate and communicate with their peers. Critical Thinking—You see with white boards that are lower, with all the technology. And the Collaboration—it’s absolutely everywhere.”

It is easy to notice that the students have a lot more flexibility within the room to find the right niche that supports their learning.

“When kids have a little more freedom to manipulate their environment, it’s easier to discover who they are and how that learning needs to be personalized,” Harper said. “If you’re making them do the same thing, they all look the same, but when they’re able to function in an environment in unique ways, that’s when you find out the unique learner they are.”

The freedom has resulted in an increase in student energy about the topics, which also means that lessons tend to last a bit longer. Harper, however, says it is not a free-for-all.

“Kids have a purpose. When they forget that purpose, we regroup and I remind them of what that purpose is,” Harper said.

An orange circular carpet in the middle of the room acts as home base during those moments of restorative practices.

“Whenever I feel that kids need to understand something that they might not be grasping, I say ‘okay, circle around the rug.’  We revisit, use those restorative practices and then we try again.”

The new room does also have some impressive technology including a touchscreen Dell, a new SmartBoard and iPads for each student. These devices provide a myriad of opportunities for students to collaborate and for her to provide instant feedback.

“In a moment I can know what my students are thinking. For instance today, there were some misconceptions and I was able to address them right away, where as in the old days a week later, ‘oh by the way—this isn’t something you understood.’ Everything is instant in here,” Harper said.

One of the biggest things that she notices is that students are eager to lead their learning, if given the opportunity.

“There is not a lot of my standing in front and giving information. When I do the excitement is so intense, they really don’t let me do it for too long,” Harper said.

This is a big departure from the picture of school most of us are used to and she says it’s being driven by the needs of her students.

“Certainly as primary teachers, are used to guiding every single step of the way… that Victorian model is ingrained in us. I have the picture of my aunt in the classroom and she’s teaching. All the kids are sitting in rows. And she is the deliverer of all knowledge. It’s just not like that anymore,” Harper said.

“I knew that something had to change. My delivery had to start looking different because kids are changing,” Harper added. “Honestly, I was getting bored with the textbook teaching. I knew that something was going to have to happen in my career in order to invigorate me to be best for kids.”

Harper hopes that the lessons learned in the Primary Innovation Studio will help teachers at Mammoth Heights Elementary and across DCSD consider new ways to teach and to engage students.

“The purpose for this pilot is to show teachers that things can be done differently. I will share with them the good, the bad and the ugly, but things do need to change and hopefully I’m a pioneer of sorts,” Harper said.

November 14, 2013 | By rmbarber | Category: Educational Technology

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