Thoughts on Technology in School

We spoke with Mike Taverna, Director of Instructional Technology, and Lauren Mayer, Middle School English teacher who uses technology in her classroom, to learn more about the School's approach to the use of technology. 

A conversation with Mike Taverna, Director of Instructional Technology

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Q: We are fond of saying that technology at MTS is intentional, not ubiquitous. Could you talk about this? What does that mean in practice?

MT: One of the reasons I like the approach toward technology at MTS is that we focus on what the main goal is: what are we are trying to teach- that comes first. What tool can help me do that? - that comes second. If it’s the other way around, with technology first, not second, then you’re developing a program that needs to be justified. I’ve seen this kind of approach at other schools I’ve worked in the past. Here at MTS, we have technology options available for use, but it’s not considered the end-all, be-all. The school values more personal, hands-on approaches when applicable such as reading books, talking in a circle, and the value of human interaction in social emotional learning tools.

I’m an advocate for technology given my role, so it’s possible I may come across as a “pusher.” My job is to find ways to help teachers utilize tools that are available to improve their lessons. “What is the end goal of the lesson? What do you want the students to learn? What tools might be available that could help you with that?”

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Teachers sometimes have fears and anxieties around using technology. They need training. I try to ask the questions to guide teachers in how and where technology might be useful by asking certain questions – “Where’s your most problematic unit? When are your students tuning out? Where are you using up too much time?” I then ask “What’s the lesson supposed to do? What are you trying to teach? What do you want the students to think about?”

In general, I like to think of using technology in a way that fits into one of these categories: Efficiency, Engagement, and Enhancement. In other words, is it efficient? - making lesson plans quick to put together and also making good use of class time; is it engaging? - making sure we keep the students interested; and does it enhance or improve the lessons to make our teaching more effective? If you decide to use a digital learning tool, it needs to fall into one of those categories. At MTS, we want to develop a culture around the idea that technology is available to help by giving teachers the opportunity to attend workshops, so they can see and understand the options that are available. It’s really all about balance.

We also need to understand the curriculum development and the progression that students are making with regard to the kinds of digital tools they should know how to use. How can we best prepare them for high school and beyond in terms of the real world application of technology? What technological skills will they be expected to have in high school, college, and the work force? It’s important that we help students develop the basic skills and productivity tools that will ensure them future success. 

Q: What are the concerns around using technology in school?

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MT: Is it reliable? Teachers worry about this. They decide to take a risk, plan a lesson using technology, and then it’s not working the day of the lesson. Maybe the internet is down or the application isn't functioning correctly. These types of issues discourage teachers from adopting and planning around it.

Another concern is distraction and classroom management. If the students are on devices, will they get distracted and off-task? Do they have easy access to the internet? This can be difficult to monitor.

For some teachers, the use of technology is counter to their philosophy. And then there are some subjects that you simply don’t want to use a technology solution. It feels like it's at the other end of what you're trying to do. For example, in social emotional learning, you don’t want to replicate human interaction with a piece of equipment. Not every teacher needs to be using it, not every class, and not every lesson. There's a real need for balance.

It's become such an integral part of our culture that it's important to teach what’s acceptable, using common sense, and keeping in mind that we're responsible for creating a healthy environment. Our job is to be sure that balance is achieved somehow. If we’re putting a laptop in every kids' hands, is it too much screen time? We all have to work on it, parents, teachers, and students alike. And in order to ensure that we're intentional, as teachers we have to know that part of teaching is showing how and when to use the tool by describing how and when it should be used and taking ownership of it.

Q: What’s your role at MTS?

MT: When I started, and an ongoing part of my role, is focused around systems and infrastructure. I make sure all the school's systems are working as they're meant to. The other fundamental part of my role, and the area I'm most excited about is laying the foundation and helping shape the culture at the School around technology. I'll be reviewing the students' curriculum from K-8 to see where we might implement specific workshops and programs that can help the faculty understand where and how they can use technology.


A conversation with Lauren Mayer, English

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Q: How do you use technology in your English classes?

LM: In 7th and 8th grade English, we primarily use technology to support and facilitate the writing process. Google Classroom is a great platform for many reasons–as a teacher, I can easily send out assignments to students, post upcoming due dates on a class calendar, track student progress, and provide timely feedback on essays. Classroom makes it easy for students to submit drafts, read teacher comments, and revise their work, as well as have a digital copy of their assignments. When students sign up, the platform automatically creates a folder in their drive that stores all their work and keeps it organized.

It’s efficient for both students and teachers as both can access it anywhere with internet, and it allows for and tracks the natural back and forth process of writing and going through multiple drafts. I can give faster feedback for writing, because I can just type it instead of writing it down on paper, and then it’s all captured digitally and can be accessed later at any time through the process, making it easier to track a student’s progress. The platform even has an audio record option, so I can dictate feedback, and the students can listen to it later.

As the teacher, I can easily pull up global summaries of who has turned in assignments or I can organize summaries according to each student. I can post announcements, and upcoming assignments, or I can pose questions with the  discussion/comments feature. I can post questions to all the students as a group in a forum-like fashion, or I can ask “closed” questions to get feedback from students where only I can see the answers. I can see previous assignments and can repost old assignments to a new class without having to re-do everything from scratch. I don’t use it for everything. For some lessons like grammar and vocabulary we still use a pen and paper, but the digital platform definitely has its place.

Q: How has this proven successful? Have you encountered any challenges?

LM: I think students really enjoy using Classroom. They can access assignments at home, collaborate with classmates for peer editing, and have immediate access to a digital “portfolio” of their major assignments. Classroom links directly with Google Drive and other Google Apps, which helps students organize their work and easily review prior teacher feedback. We occasionally run into glitches, but overall it’s been very helpful.

Q: How do you see the use of technology as beneficial to the students? Do they like it? Does it improve the lessons you’re trying to teach?

LM: I think the greatest benefit of Google Classroom is the ability for students to readily access their assignments, organize their work in a centralized location, and receive timely and specific feedback from teachers.

Q: How long have you been using this teaching method for your English classes? Did you use this in previous teaching positions?

LM: I have been using versions of G-Suite for about five years, and it’s been exciting to see how Google has updated their program to directly influence classroom learning. The platform is constantly evolving and improving, making it better and better to use. It’s more and more student and teacher “friendly.”

Intentional Technology Use

BY ANDREW DAVIS

“Hard things are hard.” President Obama kept a plaque on his desk with these words to remind him of the importance of not taking the easy road. These words resonate with me as a parent and school leader. Being a parent is hard. Academic studies show that the two easiest paths to parenting – the strict and controlling ‘authoritarian’ and the laissez-faire ‘permissive’ – are less effective at raising well-adjusted children than an artful blend of the two, ‘authoritative.’ Authoritative parenting requires that we balance control and independence, authority and warmth. In my experience this balancing act is hard, and I don’t even have teens yet. Indeed, hard things are hard.

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Technology use in schools is, I believe, a hard thing and requires a similar challenge of balancing two competing “easy” forces to yield the best results. It is tempting to put a device – whether iPad, chromebook, or laptop – in the hands of every child. With our students on screens in each class we would look like a school “of tomorrow.” However, research is showing that our children are only getting more and more screen time. This screen time is, in turn, having an impact on social skills such as empathy. And, skills like note-taking are proving to be more effective when done by hand rather than digitally. I recently watched our students build and test helicopters as they learned about air resistance. Their hands-on simulation was just as, if not more, effective than an online-simulation. And, over the course of the period, the students practiced how to work with others rather than click a mouse. It is not just the adults who are recognizing the downsides of ubiquitous technology. I have worked with middle school students in a 1:1 environment who bemoaned that every assignment was on their iPad and that they were too often distracted by YouTube and games, just a swipe away.  

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As the pendulum has slowly started to swing away from constant connection, including during the school day, some Silicon Valley leaders – those we would expect to endorse technology –  are sending their children to schools with no educational technology or trying their best to limit access to screens for as long as possible. A tech-free school and life, though, also seems too “easy.”  At school, technology can deepen understanding. At MTS, students are able to learn the thinking routines and skills of a programmer with a computer and robot. English and humanities students get real time feedback on their writing from teachers and peers on a writing assignment. Math and world language students are able to get “reps” at just the right level using a blended learning platform such as XYZ or Language Nut. Technology can even further learning in the arts – this week the Scene Study class is using iPads to record, watch, and critique their own performances. Furthermore, when our students start 9th grade at just about any high school, they will be required to interact with teachers and peers using technology.  

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So what is the future of educational technology at MTS? Like ‘authoritative’ parenting, there is a sweet spot in the middle between ubiquitous computing and a Luddite refusal to use technology.  To me that balance is best described as “intentional” technology use. Our goal is that our teachers have the training and support to recognize when technology could deepen student understanding and the devices to implement those tech-enabled lessons. We do not want students using technology for the sake of using technology, even if it looks like something a school in 2018 “should” be doing. We also do not want our students missing out on opportunities to grow in the classroom because we don’t have the support or the machines to enable this growth.  

I am thrilled to work with Mike Taverna, our Director of Instructional Technology, as he builds relationships with teachers and shifts more of his time to helping teachers implement effective uses of technology. And, like parenting, technology integration is not always perfect. There will be lessons where we use technology and the learning objective is muddled by the machines. There will also be lessons that, in hindsight, could have been strengthened by a digital tool. We will always, though, keep our eye on finding the balancing point of “intentional” technology use that prepares our students for their future while maintaining the strength of face-to-face and analog learning. Intentional technology use is hard. Hard things are hard. And, we are committed to getting this hard thing right.

Try It Truck

The Discovery Museum's Try It Truck came to Mount Tamalpais School in January 2018. The truck is an "engineering lab on wheels" that introduces students to the engineering design process with both high and low tech tools that encourage them to experiment and try new ideas. The truck visited MTS for 3 days of activities for grades K-2, and it was such a resounding success that we brought it back for a second week, so that third and fourth grades could also participate. Here are some highlights from the first week. 

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WEEK 1, DAY 1

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The first day of the visit, students were able to explore a number of different stations, which included:

  • Hammering wood
  • Dismantling computers, adding machines, and old calculators
  • Laser cutting hand-made designs drawn on tablets
  • Manipulating clay to simulate a beaver dam, crab shell, or bee hive

WEEK 1, DAY 2

Hummingbird Nests

Students were presented a "problem" experienced by a local animal and were then challenged to "solve" the problem with a custom design. The local animal on this day was the hummingbird. Students learned about the small size of hummingbirds, and their correspondingly tiny eggs. They discussed the importance of creating nests that can withstand wind, predators, and keep the eggs warm. After students spent several minutes drawing their prototypes, students were then given a wide array of materials to build and test their designs. A station was set up with fans in order to see whether the nests could hold up against the wind. 

Week 1, Day 3

Bat Shelters

Day 3 of the Try It Truck, K-2 students were presented a new challenge focused around bats. They learned about bats and how bat shelters differ from those of hummingbirds. Unlike hummingbirds, bats sleep upside down, and enter their shelters from the bottom.

As such, students had to create a shelter for a bat that:
1) Is warm and narrow
2) Is rough on the inside
3) Has an entrance at the bottom

 

What Parents are Saying

"So excited the 3rd graders get to experience the Try it Truck!" - Michelle Young

"Amazing! Chase has really loved this! Brilliant idea" - Katrina O'Connell

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"Thanks so much for the opportunity to volunteer at the Try it Truck yesterday. What a great program!" -Kristin Baehner

"We heard a lot about the truck at home, ..obviously we should get her some power tools next Christmas ;)" - Laura Moore

"Aisling absolutely loved the truck too! She went to great lengths to explain in detail every activity! She was super enthusiastic." Orlaith Dolly

Service Learning at MTS

Community has always been paramount at Mount Tamalpais School. Through our service learning program, we strive to broaden our students’ community while preparing them to be responsible citizens in a global community. It is our hope that our students have the opportunity to realize the impact of their work and to understand and connect with people from different backgrounds, stories and traditions, all the while exercising empathy and compassion. We currently ask all middle school students to complete twelve to twenty hours of service over a year. The students will then share their experiences with the younger grades in an assembly this spring. We hope that sharing their stories and feelings will help other students appreciate the importance of volunteering, and will guide them in their future endeavors. We are also working with the parent association and student council to develop further opportunities for students and families across the school to engage with the broader Marin and San Francisco community.

A few of our alumni and eighth grader service learning experiences are shared below.

-Barbara Guarriello


Samuel Potter, Class of 2017

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Organizations: Swim Across America, Bay Area Make-A-Wish, and PAASS Challenger Sports

I naturally fell into much of my service learning due to a family connection with both Swim Across America (which has included many MTS participants over the years) and the Bay Area Make-A-Wish. Because my family were actual beneficiaries of both organizations, it felt very gratifying to give back to them by raising donations, and I continue to do so to this day.

Therefore, I was surprised when I found a third organization that made an even greater impact upon me personally. Volunteering for PAAS Challenger Sports, which helps children with physical and emotional disabilities to play organized team sports, was a really incredible experience.

I first signed up for Challenger Baseball, and I was nervous: I had never played baseball and, more importantly, wasn't sure that I would be any good connecting with the children.  It turns out that it didn't really matter what my sports skills were. It was more important to be present for the participants, giving these children your enthusiasm, patience, and friendship.  In later years, I also volunteered for Challenger Basketball. I left the practices and games feeling that for an hour and a half, I had really put myself out there to connect and play with the children.  Having this really intense face-to-face relationship with the kids who participated in Challenger Sports gave me a greater understanding and empathy for others.


Jacqueline Patterson, Eighth Grader

Organizations: Camporee, Arequipa, and Fireside

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For my service hours, I have done mostly two different things. One of the things that provides me an advantage with service is that I have been a girl scout for the last 7 years. This has given me the option of doing Camporee leadership which provides me with 90 service hours and Arequipa, a girl scout day camp, that provides me with an additional 35 hours. The other service I do is volunteering at Fireside (temporary housing for homeless).

I choose to do these activities because they really were fun to do and made me feel very accomplished with what I have done. During Camporee leadership, you get to watch as the months worth of your work becomes an incredible camp experience for the younger girls. I really enjoy these service opportunities because I love knowing that I'm making an impact on someone else's life. These opportunities are also fun because the activities are meant to be fun. When I go to Fireside, I often start by coloring with the kids or doing a planned craft that goes with the holiday closest to the time. This is really enjoyable because I get to interact with the kids and even have made a few friends. Then after the kids leave, the adults come in to play some very competitive rounds of bingo.

I have learned many things from my service in Marin. I have learned how to interact with people of all different ages and abilities. I have also learned how to act when in a leadership role and how to handle the responsibility that those roles included. There was a lot of work to be put in for the girl scout events on my part. The day camp required going through a difficult and rigorous training course which was challenging to complete.


Oscar Nesbitt-Schnadt, Eighth Grader

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Organization: Glide Memorial Church

For a lot of my service learning, I worked at the Glide Memorial Church. Most of the time, I would arrive early in the morning and head downstairs to prepare the large amount of sandwiches necessary for people’s meals. I chose this organization because I could really feel and see that my assistance was having an impact on the community. When I walked past the many different faces along the streets, I knew that I would be helping some of them that same day. The satisfaction of knowing that I was contributing to those around me made all of my work worth it. And from seeing people eagerly awaiting their small portion of food, I learned that even people in bad conditions who have been dealt an unfair hand by the world can still find gratitude and kindness in their hearts.

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Clubs

During the spring of 2017 a team of faculty members worked to revamp the middle school schedule for the 2017-2018 academic year. Many of the upsides of this new schedule are evident – increased core class instruction, resource periods, and double block classes. One hidden gem of this new schedule, however, is our Tuesday and Thursday club time. In keeping with our departmentalized structure and teachers teaching to their passions, the middle school faculty club leaders choose to lead clubs that align with their passions outside of academics.

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Clubs have become a great way for our 6-8th grade students to start their days and have given them the opportunity to learn more about their teachers in a casual setting. Students choose a club activity each trimester. Trimester Two club offerings include Open Gym, Mathletes, Board Games, Chess and Backgammon, Yoga, Art, Digital Display and the most sought after club, Knitting. We have also been extremely fortunate to have Winifred Macleod and Bain LaPlant from FastForward join us on Thursday mornings to lead the Journalism club. The Trimester I Journalism club produced the first edition of the “MTS News” magazine that was sent home on December 1st.

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As students settle into their Trimester Two clubs, we look forward to seeing the work the journalism club produces for the next edition of “MTS News,” while the Digital Display club works with Andrew and Lauren to produce weekly content for the new entryway display.

- Dave Baker, Head of Middle School

Read on to see a few articles excerpted from the printed MTS News magazine.


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Vacations and Showers: Another Reason for Winter Recess

BY ANDREW DAVIS

Next Wednesday, after our inaugural Winter Wonderland celebration, our students will head home for Winter Recess. Why? Perhaps the most obvious reason for this school vacation is Christmas and Chanukah and the cultural norm to take an extended break during this time to celebrate and visit family. As an educator, the vacation provides much needed time to recharge and relax while also planning for the second half of the school year. For all of us, though, winter vacation can be good for our creativity. Yes, time away from school – and work – can improve creativity.

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For the same reason that ideas often unexpectedly flow in the shower, vacation can often unleash new ideas and connections. School, academic classes in particular, asks students to focus. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is called on throughout the school day – and during the after school piano lesson or coaching of a new soccer defense – to help maintain the requisite attention. The prefrontal cortex is the conductor of the brain’s symphony and, at school, it is busy getting the brass to be on the beat, the woodwinds to be a bit louder, and the percussion section to start playing the right piece. Such an active prefrontal cortex reduces the brain’s ability to make unexpected connections, to be creative – because the second violin is listening to the conductor, he is not improvising with the oboe player.

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When we go on vacation, we give the prefrontal cortex a break. With the conductor on vacation, the violin-oboe (and other!) improvisations commence. Because we are not asking for specific ideas – remember, no conductor – new ideas pop up. Many of us experience this in the shower.  With no task at hand other than soap and shampoo and no screens to distract us, disparate parts of the brain that we don’t regularly allow to communicate, make new connections and we have creative “aha!” moments out of the blue. Another reason that showers inspire creativity is that we are often warm and comfortable in the shower, releasing dopamine, further inspiring creativity. Vacation can do the same thing. While delayed flights do not release dopamine, evenings in front of a warm fire and great smells from the kitchen do get the dopamine centers activated and thus creativity flows.

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It is not just at school that the prefrontal cortex hinders creativity. Most (maybe all?) workplaces demand an active prefrontal cortex. With a greater emphasis placed on innovation in today’s workplace, many companies are looking for ways to provide the creative release that vacation – and showers – inspire. Walking meetings, off-sites, and the famed 20% time of early Google, are just a few ways that corporate America is attempting to provide the “organizational slack” needed for innovation.

While researching organizational slack for this piece, I found a number of academic papers that suggest that innovation and creativity needs some down time, slack, but not too much. So fitting for school as well. Our students and teachers will greatly benefit from this vacation. We will be ready, though, to come back and re-engage the prefrontal cortex come early 2018. I look forward to seeing your even more creative children then!

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We Begin Every Morning With Laughter

I hear and see joy from the students and faculty first thing each morning as I walk by or drop into the classrooms. I hear laughter and see students making connections with one another. When kids feel connected to their peers, teachers, and community, it allows them to feel safe. When kids feel safe they’re able to learn at their best. - DJ Thistle, Head of Lower School

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This past summer 13 of our faculty members attended a 4-day Responsive Classroom training and had the opportunity to learn how to build a supportive and positive community for our students. Mount Tamalpais School has implemented Responsive Classroom as part of the broader Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Program, to help students develop belonging, self-awareness, empathy, and conflict resolution skills. Responsive Classroom is an evidence based education approach associated with greater teacher effectiveness, higher student achievement, and improved social climate.

A key aspect of Responsive Classroom is Morning Meeting. Lower school students spend 30 minutes with their homeroom teachers and fellow classmates every morning, five days a week, playing games, laughing, and sharing. Morning Meeting gives students the chance to connect socially before starting the academic day. It’s an opportunity to check in with one another and practice using language tools for expressing emotions, thereby building a foundation that they can take with them throughout the day, out on the playground, and beyond when they leave campus. The idea is that they are able to internalize and utilize the tools, always building empathy.

 
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By establishing the morning meeting, we are creating a forum to have community and kindness built into our day, as a core part of our curriculum, our culture, and our philosophy. When speaking with faculty to find out if they are already seeing a change in students since we introduced Morning Meeting in the 2017-18 school-year, DJ Thistle notes that he’s seen changes especially with students who were having a hard time connecting. The Morning Meeting allows these students to connect with their peers relieving any social anxiety so that they can focus on learning. All students benefit when they understand more about their classmates. Whether it is finding a new person to play with at recess or understanding that a classmate’s over-reaction during a playground game is connected to that student’s sick dog. Morning meeting strengthens community, and it makes for a more forgiving community.

Ally Svirsky, fifth grade teacher, says that in her class this year she’s already seen a lot of growth with students who started out very shy at the start of the school year and who are now  completely comfortable sharing with their classmates. Aileen Markovich and Rachael Olmanson who teach 2nd grade homeroom note that it has made a big difference in developing their own personal relationships with the students, making them more effective teachers. Knowing what a student did over the weekend with their families, for example, can help guide teachers in their approach. It provides a different lens to understanding the full lives of our students and makes us better teachers.

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Morning Meeting consists of a greeting, a sharing circle, a game or activity, and a morning message. The greeting may encourage practicing eye contact, or saying hello in another language. During the sharing portion, students might say how they’re feeling, “I feel X today because…” or simply share a favorite animal. Activities are done with the entire group, including the teacher, and may involve singing, games, chanting, or poems. The morning message may revolve around a theme for the week, such as Respect or Meaningful Apologies. Teachers and students alike draw from the “emotional toolbox,” developed by Dovetail Learning, which consists of 12 tools (such as Breathing Tool, Listening Tool, Empathy Tool, etc.). Teachers have noted that students often refer to the tools later in the day when something comes up, such as “I need to use my Empathy Tool.”

 
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Keeping kids young, while also emotionally mature with a clear sense of self, is key to what makes MTS special. Responsive Classroom has been an important element to the School’s curriculum in teaching our students about life skills, so they can be even more successful in academics and life. Morning Meeting helps us continue to Build with Kindness on our campus and in our community. It also helps to have every day begin with laughter.