East Irondequoit shows ‘classrooms of the future’ during NSBA site visit

They came for the technology. And they stayed for the furniture.

In an instructional technology site visit organized by the National School Boards Association in November, 96 visitors from across the state and nation spent two days in the East Irondequoit Central School District. When the tours were over, some participants couldn’t stop talking about the variety of chairs – J-shaped scoops, cylindrical stools, oval ottomans, bean-bag chairs and movable foam benches.

“It’s just like the business world, where we’re seeing comfy chairs and flexible seating,” explained Nicole Charles, a fifth-grade teacher in the Rochester-area district.

“Kids can’t collaborate with each other when they are sitting in rows and desks,” said Superintendent Susan Allen.

In East Irondequoit, classrooms are busy – and often noisy. Instead of everyone listening to the teacher at the front of the room, individuals and groups are doing their own things. Students are interacting, both electronically and face-to-face, as they react to each other’s work.

Yes, there can be issues with control of the classroom. But East Irondequoit teachers told visitors that they just establish ground rules and expect students to follow them. When intermediate school teacher Jason DeJohn wants eyes on him, he says, “iPads flat on the desk.”

“The advantages have outweighed the craziness they brought,” said another teacher, Katie Van Eps.

With support from the University of Rochester (see On Board, June 12, 2017), East Irondequoit has become a champion of the idea that classroom technology can be used to tap into teachers’ creativity.

The NSBA site visit lent legitimacy to the 3,200-student district’s efforts to chart a path toward a style of teaching that district leaders and University of Rochester professors think all school districts will embrace, eventually. They call it “digitally rich teaching.”

The pedagogical concept is that once you put an internet-connected device in the hands of every student (called a 1:1 learning program), teachers will find new ways to teach that require students to use those devices in self-directed ways.

In a keynote address, Michael Fullan, the former dean of education at the University of Toronto, said the new paradigm is the teacher is a “lead learner” who is guiding students on independent paths of internet-aided discovery.

All participants received a copy of a 99-page book co-authored by Fullan called The Power of Unstoppable Momentum: Key Drivers to Revolutionize Your District. In its conclusion, the book states: “We know one thing for sure – you cannot buy your way into the future by adding technology ... Pedagogy and culture drive change, and technology accelerates it – if you get the sequence right.”

The big lift is changing school culture, according to another speaker, Stephen Mauney, superintendent of the Mooresville Grade School District in North Carolina, which claims its implementation of a 1:1 learning program has led to boosting its high school graduation rate from 77 percent to 97 percent over 10 years.

“If it’s all top-down, the culture won’t change,” Mauney said.

East Irondequoit’s strategy has been to invite teachers to apply to take part in technological pilots, according to Joseph Sutorius, the district’s chief information officer. This has yielded a corps of teachers who are eager to try new things, then teach others, he said.

To get buy-in from everyone, including school board members, district officials have emphasized what Superintendent Allen calls the “social equity standpoint.” A former state Superintendent of the Year, she sees technology-enhanced teaching and learning as the best strategy to bridge the achievement gap between the economic haves and have-nots.

In a closing break-out session, district leaders were asked how confident they are that the initiatives on display during the site visit will result in higher student achievement after, say, 10 years.

“Our trajectory is sky high, in my opinion,” said Mary Grow, assistant superintendent for instruction. “I’m convinced in 10 years we’ll be a school to watch, no doubt.”

-Eric Randall is the Editor-in-Chief of the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA)

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