Three district leaders joined ExploreLearning for a discussion on how they prioritize and fund education technology solutions—plus make time for professional development to ensure a successful implementation.
Venicia Ferrell, Science Curriculum Director, Hampton City Schools, Virginia
Ian Buter, K-12 Science Director, Charles County Schools, Maryland
Jimmy Brehm, Chief Academic Officer, Woodford County Schools, Kentucky
ExploreLearning: What are the needs of your students and how have Gizmos met those needs?
Venicia Ferrell: When I started the job, we looked at the data so we could get a really good idea of the areas that we could improve. We were looking at teacher strengths and where we could find something to actually support them. So that was one of the things that we wanted to target.
With one of our grants, we’re in the field more and looking at field-based science and making sure science is authentic and hands-on. I said, “We want to be able to use Gizmos to actually show what it looks like in the classroom, but then also in the field. That way they get to see the Gizmo, they get to play with it, manipulate it and everything, and then they go out and they do the real thing as well.”
Ian Buter: Our number one job is to get kids to the next level. We need to do that every year so that when these kids graduate, they’re productive citizens in society and they can contribute.
Being able to put a product in their hand, or being able to provide experiences for them so that they can use technology, that’s one of the big things that we really like for Gizmos and sciences. I wanted my teachers to use more technology. We looked at our data and we saw that kids needed more access to things that were going to give them a rigorous learning experience with real-life applications.
It is essential that we prepare our students as much as possible, and Gizmos is our vehicle for that as far doing that with technology and putting that rigor in at the same time.
Jimmy Brehm: I’m asking more and more of teachers to meet the social emotional needs of kids, but kids do need to explore in science, they need to explore in math. To pretend that we can just continue to layer things on our teachers and not give them a resource that matches that pedagogical need is comical almost. I think it’s important that we give our teachers really good resources to plan these lessons. Gizmos are high quality materials in math and science that I can put in my teacher’s hands.
ExploreLearning: How does your district or school select new products and evaluate new materials?
Venicia Ferrell: We have CLCs, or collaborative learning communities. So as we rolled Gizmos out, we have one teacher who is the facilitator for biology, so all the biology teachers get together quarterly. They have a conversation about what they’re using and where their students are in the material. Our curriculum writers will add those activities in the curriculum as well. And of course, the EL team sent us alignments for the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs), which was the big selling point for my deputy superintendent.
Plus we also get monthly reports and statements. I would send out a principal’s report every month and I would highlight the teacher and student usage. When we visit schools we discuss how to use Gizmos and other resources in our curriculum to enhance instruction as needed.
ExploreLearning: How does your school adopt new products?
Jimmy Brehm: We start with the pedagogical foundations of the content. I believe that a lot of the really, really good materials out there for students and classrooms are the ones that maybe don’t have the most work in the teacher’s manual, but in what the kids are physically doing. It has to come up from our teachers, simply because they’re the ones that are going to use it every single day.
If somebody comes to me, if it’s a science adoption year or a math adoption year, and says they have a resource, that doesn’t mean I won’t seek out teachers to pilot it. That’s really the avenue I’m going to go. I’m never going to be able to say, “Yeah, I like it. Let’s just use it for the whole district. I know none of my teachers have seen it, none of my teachers have done it yet. We’re just going to go ahead and buy it for the whole district.”
ExploreLearning: Is there anything different about the adoption process of a Web-based solution like Gizmos that makes it either easier or more challenging?
Venicia Ferrell: From a Web-based perspective, it’s easier to track the data and their usage and to get feedback, because we are very digital at this point. One of the things I like about Gizmos is the fact that there is still a worksheet that teachers can tweak, they can modify it. It makes it very streamlined and very easy for them to actually be able to do that and go paperless.
The only thing we’re going to ask is, “Is it aligned? Is it a benefit added for teachers and students? Does it work on this platform? Is it going to work on an iPad? Is it going to work on a Chromebook? Is it going to work on everybody’s laptops?” If it can do that, then it’s not a problem.
Jimmy Brehm: Whenever we review resources, we review them the same way. But to me, they’re always going to take on an additional layer of analysis because it’s easy to engage kids with technology. They like technology. So, I always get an extra kind of additional lens when something is totally technology based, because I want to know where the teacher’s input point is.
Gizmos is a perfect example of one that does have a teacher input point. This is whole group instruction that goes into small group, that can go into individual, but it always has a teacher running that instruction. And that’s the additional lens I’m going to take to any technology resource.
ExploreLearning: What professional development workshops have been most successful in your district?
Ian Buter: PD is essential to get teachers more comfortable. But the PD aspect that is most important for us is a direct link rather than, “do this in your classroom, here’s a Gizmo simulation that you can do.” I know our kids on our science assessments are faced with data analysis assessment items from a lab experiment. Jimmy does a lab experiment with this and he found this, this, and this. Can you analyze this data or find trends in the data?
Some of our kids don’t do well on that at all. So we targeted the PD to not only show a Gizmo that will directly correlate to something they’re already teaching, but also show how we can take it to the next level. At the end of the Gizmos, we get a data analysis piece in there, and then we can analyze that data. Teachers feel that they can do just the regular lab that they always do. However, now technology is integrated with data analysis skills at the very end of the lab, and that’s what we’ve moved on with.
ExploreLearning: How much time do you have to do PD in a school year and how do you schedule it?
Venicia Ferrell: PD for fifth and fourth grade science is a half-day split. We have half in the morning and half in the afternoons so they can utilize that same substitute in the morning and afternoon so it doesn’t cost us as much. And then we also offer anywhere from four to six PD sessions after school for them.
One of the things you could possibly do, and something we tried this year, was chunking PD into small modules using videos. It was slides and voice over, and it was just, “Here’s this, try this,” and gave them about eight weeks to try it. And then they had to input their feedback in Google Classroom. They had to put in examples from where they’d done it in their classroom. And so it was a PD embedded within a PD.
We tried this process this year and it was met with more success than we actually expected. It’s something that we will do more of in the coming school year.
ExploreLearning: How did you help teachers incorporate Gizmos with Reflex?
Jimmy Brehm: The science takes off quickly because the science teachers training in the program is based around inquiry-based teaching and learning. They’re very ready for it. A math teacher’s training in our post-secondary system is very much still traditional.
I agree that students need to be fluent in math. That’s why I give them Reflex to improve their fluency, but let’s not miss out on the fact that we’re going to have to fill in the conceptual gap with why they struggle so deeply with math fluency. And so that’s one avenue to which to push the math Gizmos. Let them play with numbers. Let them use rich mathematical tasks, talk about them and write about them. And improve their fluency while you’re doing Reflex.
The other piece that we’re going to start working on this year is taking our curriculum maps and being very specific about aligning the specific Gizmos that go with those units of study.
ExploreLearning: How do you fund products like Gizmos for your district?
Jimmy Brehm: For Gizmos, you can use Title II because it’s about teacher empowerment. And this empowers the teachers and some of their pedagogical skills. You can also use Title III funding as it helps students attain English proficiency. So having the knowledge on your end of some of those federal funds that are released throughout the year is important.
District funds, they can be a little more locked, even though there’s flexibility in those too. But, the Title funds are released throughout the year.
Venicia Ferrell: One of the other things I guess that’s been a benefit for me is making sure that there is a need and the product is going to fill that need. So when I go to my deputy superintendent and say, “Okay, we really need to do this because it’s going to benefit everyone. We’re going to benefit this school or that school, or this subgroup.”