Technology transforms early learning for kindergartners

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While Johnston’s high school seniors may soon enjoy free tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities, the district’s youngest students – kindergarteners – are now experiencing the best of the next generation in education.

“I never thought kindergarten could be this fantastic,” said Julie-anne Zarrella, principal of the Early Childhood Center (ECC)  at Ferri.  “The days of chalk and talk are done.”

Johnston kindergarteners and their teachers are now utilizing computers and electronic devices to learn and teach in ways once only thought possible in the realm of “Star Trek,” ensuring the town’s students are prepared to be better digital students and citizens in an ever changing world full of technology.

Zarrella, who served as a Johnston teacher for 22 years and assistant principal of teaching and learning at the high school middle school, is thrilled to be the principal of the ECC and it shows. Eager to roll out blended learning with the kindergarteners, she wanted her students' first impression of formal schooling to be as engaging and exciting as possible.

Last spring, as part of the Johnston Technology Personal Learning Community (Tech PLC), Zarrella and her cohorts visited other schools and districts that were implementing one-on-one electronic devices with their students at the elementary level. They also attended technology conferences and spoke to other educational professionals to study their best practices with the hopes of implementing similar systems here in town. Now, their work is paying off.

“There really has been a transformation in this building, from that whole traditional teacher/leader model to a blended learning model. Mrs. Zarrella and her teachers have really led the way in terms of that transformation,” said Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo. “Obviously, everybody comes to the table with a different set of skills, but they’ve been great at cooperatively teaching each other and sharing ideas and seeing what goes on in other classrooms.”   

Johnston kindergarteners are now the early adopters of blended learning for the elementary schools. As principal, Zarella worked towards a targeted plan with the understanding that she needed to start small to achieve big. In the spring of 2016, Johnston had one blended learning "Lighthouse Classroom," where each child had a Chromebook device.

“This is the beautiful part; blended learning is really taking that face-to-face instructional time and integrating the technology,” said Zarrella. “But it’s also more about giving that personalization for the students to be able to decide the pace that they want, so they can have the selection of what materials they’d like to cover.”

By the end of May, Johnston had two Lighthouse classrooms equipped with devices for each student, which grew to four classes by the fall. Now, every kindergarten student has their own device, and all ten ECC classrooms and their students are adopting some form of blended learning. 

“It’s really cool, I always say it’s like Christmas morning when I go in there and I see these kids, they’re so engaged it’s beautiful,” said Zarrella. “But we have worked collaboratively with every teacher in the building. Our faculty meetings have been focused on that technology integration, kind of getting everyone’s toes wet.”

Having the technology available, however, wasn't enough for the program to be successful. Zarrella said she knew they couldn’t just open the doors and students would be motivated, but that there needed to be change management, pacing and balance. The district believes that personalized learning had to be the matrix and that parents needed to be aware of what they we were hoping to achieve.

“We couldn't assume that the students didn't have technology at home or that parents would be excited about the initiative. It's about building relationships and capacity. We needed all of our stakeholders to understand why we were doing things,” she said. “Blended learning growth is evident, conversations needed to happen between teachers, and we needed to look at the data. We needed all stakeholders to understand that student outcome performance would increase and they would be better prepared for state assessments.” 

Last year, with the School Committee’s approved budget, the district also rolled out an all day kindergarten program for the first time. The change required new programs, new technology, and a new schedule in a very short time. As a new principal, Zarrella felt that there was a huge cultural shift and educators needed to look at internal capacity, provide opportunities to collaborate and to share data and ideas for the plan to work.

“One of the misperceptions of the blended learning model is the idea that a student is just put in front of a computer all day and that’s how their learning, and that’s not the case at all,” added Dr. DiLullo “There is whole class instruction, there is small group instruction, there is cooperative learning and the computer becomes merely another tool for learning. It allows the teacher to be able to personalize the learning for each of the students as opposed to expecting everybody to be on the same level.”

Blended learning is not a “one-size-fits-all”; every child works at their own level without knowing that their classmate may be working at a higher or lower capacity, which Zarrella believes instills self-esteem. Children work towards their own goals as well as what teachers have developed.

The system allows immediate flexibility for teachers, who are able to provide feedback instantaneously, rather than days later. Teachers can take data and adjust the content according to where the child’s gaps are. Lessons, online digital content, as well as regular classroom instructional methods are digitalized through Google Classroom, which is then templated on the child’s device. Each child uses the same device every day, which stays in the classroom.  A virtual teacher explains the content to come for the child, and then they move into their lessons. Students also have access to digital whiteboards, Apple TV and other software, and they’re able to “utilize the whole world at their fingertips.”

“The other thing that it helps immensely with is it engages students; it’s how this generation is now learning. It’s like they’re born with a computer in their hand,” said DiLullo.

According to the superintendent, concepts focused on in early education currently involve formative assessment, which monitors how effective the instruction has been in a “just in time” nature. Teachers get immediate feedback from the computer and they can see what students are understanding and what they’re having difficulty with and then adjust instruction to meet that need.

The ECC is equipped with a student support coordinator, a literacy coach, and a data team who work collaboratively. Everything the ECC now processes is digitalized, from lessons to bus lists to dismissal time, and everyone can share the information.

“That really is another transformation in the educational process. Teachers used to close their door, they’d be in their classroom for the whole day, and there wasn’t that collaborative work that you see here,” said DiLullo. “These teachers welcome each other into the classroom, they welcome each other’s feedback, they ask questions of each other and they come together to formulate common goals. It really is the way things should be working.”

In an electronic, instant world concerns arise about the role of social media and content availability to students. The school has taken several steps to ensure student safety and prevent problems such as behavioral issues or online bullying.

“Every child, before given a device, is given a lesson in digital citizenship. It’s a lesson that’s taught to them, and parents are involved with this, there are protocols and safeguards in place,” said Zarrella. “Parents are sent all the information, there’s a contract that’s signed. We safeguard the safety and well-being of our children, that’s my first role as a principal. We have safeguard protocols throughout the tech department. It’s easy to keep the things out.”

The staff of the ECC meets regularly to evaluate the tools that have or have not been successful and to see where students have made the most gains. All faculty meetings now have job-embedded professional development opportunities for teacher collaboration. Teachers also voluntarily meet with the technology teacher Grace Schrodoer on Tech Tuesdays and Tech Thursdays for guidance on new tools or programs. The goal is to remain as transparent as possible in the practice.

Molly Gilroy, a teacher at the ECC who has been instrumental in implementing lesson plans and helped integrate classroom technologies, can already see the difference in her student’s proficiency and attitudes and is excited for their futures. Her class was one of the first to get the upgrades.

“Walking into it, I think it’s a little nerve-wracking, we’re embarking on a whole new journey with education. It was so successful at such a late point last year, with students who had already been acclimated with kindergarten, it completely transformed my classroom,” she said. “As a teacher, you always try to differentiate your methods and you try to reach the needs of not only your students who are below level but those who are accelerating, and you want to give them opportunities. This really gives us the opportunity to push kids ahead of where they want to be and to bring children up to speed. Having this technology has totally opened up that door.”

Dr. DiLullo went on to say that that doorway of opportunity for students is only possible with “a leader who understands what needs to be done, and Mrs. Zarrella certainly is that leader.”

“I love this, I am passionate about it, and when you are passionate about something it’s infectious and your teachers become enthusiastic. The fun for me is seeing it from the ground level, knowing where students and teachers need to be and actually being able to carve that path for them to truly be more successful,” said Zarrella. “These kids would never have been able to make the growth that they have made without what we’ve done this year. The computer is only a resource, a textbook is only a resource; its how it’s laid out, organized and implemented that really makes for those positive student outcomes.”

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