From Digital Doubter to Tech Guru

Teacher and student work together using technology

Chicago teacher Jennie Magiera was a tech skeptic, but has since successfully integrated technology into her classroom.

During a speech announcing the Department’s National Education Technology Plan, Secretary Arne Duncan noted that “technology empowers teachers like never before.” Once such teacher is Chicago’s Jennie Magiera. This is her story.

“Just bells and whistles.”

That’s how elementary math teacher Jennie Magiera described her feelings about the limited value of educational technology three years ago.

Today Magiera serves as Digital Learning Coordinator for the Academy for Urban School Leadership’s network of 25 Chicago Public Schools (CPS). As she trains others to use technology effectively, it is hard to imagine a time when she was so dismissive about technology in the classroom.

When iPads first came on the market, Magiera said, “I would openly mock my friends,” pointing out that they had just bought a “giant iPhone that can’t make calls.” The three computers in her classroom—clunky PCs that sat heavily on tables—were so old that one smoked when anyone dared to turn it on.

So how did this technologically impaired teacher come to be an advocate for digital learning in schools? For Magiera, the shift began in 2010 when 32 iPads arrived in her classroom. She admits that while she thought that technology wasn’t as amazing as a teaching tool as others seemed to believe, she still had a sense that her kids needed access to some devices to be successful. So Magiera applied for a grant to get a class set of tablets, pretty certain she would not get it.

Ironically, the grant readers at CPS called her bluff.

A Technology-Driven Class. Magiera’s first steps with the iPads were quite shaky—“a disaster,” she said. She spent most of her time looking for apps that met the state’s teaching standards and focusing on how to prevent her students from damaging the devices. At best the iPads were being used to digitize workbooks and at worst they were little more than video games in the classroom. She lived in fear that those who gave her the grant would drop by unexpectedly to observe her use of the iPads and demand their technology back.

Looking back, Magiera says the issue wasn’t that she didn’t know how to use the technology, but that she was not sure how to use the devices to teach differently. She was digitizing the same old pedagogy. Instead of playing a math game with a deck of cards and a set of dice, students played a math app on the iPad. Students also annotated PDFs instead of working in curriculum workbooks, but this slight change did little to elevate the rigor or learning.

After about three months of seeing little progress, Magiera realized she needed to rethink the way she was using these devices. She talked with colleagues about ways she could transform her class, how she could move away from her usual bag of tricks and create new opportunities for her students. She also discovered the SAMR Model, an innovation continuum created by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, which helps teachers design, develop and integrate digital media to increase academic achievement. She found that when she was able to employ the iPads at the highest level of the continuum—for their ability to help her students create and collaborate—she was able to maximize the technology’s potential.

By the end of the year, Magiera had developed systems to push the rigor in her classroom, engage students in their own learning and develop their self-efficacy, creation and collaboration. The students now started their math lesson on their iPads by completing a mood check and logging into a learning management system to get their individual assignments. Each assignment was personalized–based on how well they had done on a teacher-created, web-based assessment given moments earlier. The tight feedback loop let students know where they stood and what their next steps were. Some might watch a video demonstration created by the teacher; others might work in small groups to create their own digital content; still others might get live support from the teacher. Following instruction, the class often participated in activities to dig deeper into the content. They might have a “silent discussion,” sharing on their iPads their thinking about the math work, or join forces with other students to solve an authentic math problem. Prior to taking a class trip, for example, Magiera asked the fifth graders to figure out how many busses she needed and how much she should budget for the trip.

How much impact did the technology make on her students’ learning? Previously, the cohort of students in their fourth grade year had produced only one student score Above Grade Level. However, in this iPad pilot year, these same students blossomed under Magiera’s new methods. At the end of their fifth grade year, 10 times as many students as the previous year scored Above Grade Level on the NWEA Assessment.

Teacher using technology to help students learn.

Real Professional Learning. So what happened? Magiera says that what turned her teaching around was not just the presence of the iPads in her classroom, but the professional learning she participated in that helped her to leverage them.

As part of her grant award, Magiera had received two full days of training before the school year began. This helped her to learn the basics. What truly transformed her teaching, though was the on-going bi-monthly collaboration she participated in with others in her cohort, about 10 teachers from other schools who had received the same grant. In these meetings off campus, she learned to use the technology to teach her content area, but, more importantly, she began to assess her use of technology and to push herself. She also allowed observers into her classroom to give her feedback on how to get better.

Training teachers is the key, Magiera says, because, “The tool is only as powerful as the user.” Doing this work at a high level is not intuitive. Teachers need professional development—including time to collaborate with colleagues—to gain a host of technology teaching skills, including:

  • understanding the philosophy of how to use technology to truly transform teaching and learning
  • developing a solid pedagogy of technology use,
  • learning how to set up and use the devices,
  • troubleshooting problems with technology (and teaching students to troubleshoot),
  • managing the devices (including how to pass out, collect, maintain the devices),
  • determining and managing workflow,
  • grading and giving students assessment and feedback
  • becoming aware of the applications available, as well has how to evaluate and select them,
  • and accommodating students who don’t have technology at home.

The Role of the Teacher in the Technology-Driven Class. If all of this scheduling and personalizing of lessons seems like a lot of work, Jennie Magiera is here to confirm, “It is.” In addition to all there is to learn and create for students to grow, she says that during class teachers still must be alert and sensitive to students’ needs. “Just like a car driven by someone who doesn’t know how to properly operate it, an iPad in the classroom can be a dangerous thing,” she warned. Without careful planning and classroom management, relying on technology such as iPads without understanding how to leverage them well can waste students’ time, reinforce bad behaviors, and isolate learners.

More than ever, in technology-driven classrooms, teachers are the glue that holds the class together and keeps the students moving forward. Teachers still have to know their students well and use their intellect and creativity to design learning experiences that work for them all. It is complex work requiring a skilled practitioner leading the learning.

In short, technology does not reduce the need for great teaching. If anything, it amplifies the need for great teaching and empowers teachers who know how to use it well. In a technology-driven class, the role of the teacher shifts from one who dispenses knowledge to one who coaches, curates, mentors, and helps students. This work is critical because, according to Magiera, if educators are asking students “to create, innovate and be outstanding as graduates entering a terrifying job market, then our classrooms should be creative, innovative and outstanding places to learn. Every day.”

Laurie Calvert

Laurie is the Department of Education’s Teacher Liaison. Prior to this, she taught for 14 years in Asheville, N.C.

Check out Jennie Magiera’s “Must reads” for technologically savvy teachers, and peruse her blog that includes 10 iPad Tips and Free Apps: Teaching Like It’s 2999. Connect with other teachers on Digital Learning Day.

6 Comments

  1. I am a career coach and this article is inspiring. I can really use this with my staff.

  2. I agree that one of the key ideas in this article is the importance of PD, and also creating the time and space for teacher collaboration – one of the most powerful ways to improve teaching and learning. The other key idea in the piece is ‘personalization’ or differentiation. I’m a big believer that students learn best when their work is at that just right level/place – in terms of challenge, learning style, etc, and they get swift feedback. Thanks for the great article.

  3. wow, i really love it as i also belong to the same family(teaching) in my country and now am really inspired by the story.

  4. For me, “The tool is only as powerful as the user” and “Teachers need professional development—including time to collaborate with colleagues—to gain a host of technology teaching skills” are the two salient takeaways from this article.
    So often we get caught up in the technology itself without considering what the teachers need to be successful implementing with their students. Hi-5 for PD!

    • The most salient point is that Ms. Magiera opened her eyes to the prodigious potential (reality) of digital education. Absent this awakening, no amount of professional development will help.

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