An early look at 1:1 student engagement in Baltimore County
At first glance, Baltimore County Public Schools’ (BCPS) Lighthouse schools boast the cheerful student work and colorful display familiar to elementary schools across the country. But looking closer, the power of learner-centered environments stands out.
Transforming teaching and learning is the centerpiece of the BCPS S.T.A.T. (Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow) initiative. S.T.A.T. leverages the meaningful use of technology to personalize learning and graduate every student globally competitive.
In fall 2014, ten S.T.A.T. Lighthouse schools began piloting the one to one technology that will reach every BCPS student over the next few years. Here’s an early peek at what’s trending in three Lighthouse classrooms.
On a crisp but sunny fall morning, Miss Laura Pycha’s students were beside themselves. Yes, each second grade student at Church Lane Technology Elementary has a device nestled at the back of the room. But those are no longer a novelty.
There was a brand new student, and the class was thrilled to orient her. One of the first offerings came from a small boy sitting up front: “We go to Wixie to make our own animal books.” It’s a publishing app accessed through the BCPS One online portal, which launched districtwide in fall 2014. BCPS One integrates learning systems with user-friendly access for students, families, and educators.
All students know is how easily they access activities organized by the teacher. Through BCPS One, Miss Pycha’s students seamlessly navigated from Pebble Go research sources to create their own books on Wixie. Materials are differentiated to their reading level with options for read-aloud text, videos, and interviews.
Several towns away at Halstead Academy, one to one devices give Ms. Kristyn Barnett’s second graders easy access to a variety of educational resources. “They just click and it’s right there for them,” she explained. Instead of directing students from one website to another, multimedia resources that are aligned to the curriculum are available for students to choose from.
“It’s just a lot easier for them and we’re able to fit in so much more during the day,” Ms. Barnett reflected. For example, last year, students used crayons, pencils, and paper to create graphic organizers. This class uses an app to color-code bubble diagrams of what they are learning from different sources. Mistakes disappear with a backspace. She continued, “They’re able to just learn so much more throughout the day due to the technology.”
Lighthouse classrooms are the opposite of stagnant. Teachers and their students maneuver to convert what at first looks like one classroom into a plethora of learning centers. The power is in the teacher’s ability to work deeply with individuals or small groups as a facilitator: explaining concepts, asking questions, checking work, and suggesting more activities.
Learning stations buy back precious instructional time. After an introduction to phonics on the carpet, most of Ms. Barnett’s second grade class got back on their devices. With one click from the day’s calendar, birds were chirping in the background of an animated app. “This is gonna be hard,” a boy told me from his chosen position on a bean bag chair.
Students touched to drag together the beginning, middle, and end of words with the long “a” sound. Ms. Barnett likes that the app “really gets them thinking” by giving them hints and listing the words they’ve made. Word-making underway, Ms. Barnett had the opportunity to read out loud with a few students needing extra help.
She reflected that, “At first when we started using the devices, I was apprehensive about incorporating them into my lessons and into the classroom. But as I slowly started to incorporate them on a daily basis, I saw just how beneficial it was.” On a recent day, she worked with a few students on decoding sight words with the assurance that the rest of the class was making progress on their devices.
One to one extends her reach. When students who are not quite ready for second grade text use a device with headphones to have a story read aloud, “It’s almost like I’m sitting there reading it to them,” she told me. The app displays pictures just like a hard copy book and highlights text as it’s read aloud. “It really allows different levels of students to be able to access the curriculum and access materials.”
Just down the hall at Halstead Academy, a group of Mrs. Shelby Wood’s first graders rotated to a similar listening station. They chose materials from TumbleBook Library. “This story is fun!” giggled one boy. A girl explained that being read to is helping her learn how to read. Mrs. Wood’s students completed four rotations during the morning, reinforcing skills at the listening nook, a corner table, desks, and on the carpet.
Back at Church Lane, Miss Pycha’s new student was introduced to the classroom’s learning centers including the carpet area, a corner nook, and several separate tables. Students also work at their own desks or one on one with the teacher. “You’ve got to know about ‘teacher time,’” one student advised the new kid.
A six-year veteran teacher, Miss Pycha reflected, “I feel like this is the first time in a long time that I’ve really felt challenged.” She admitted to spending more time planning, arriving at school earlier, and leaving later. She also tied these efforts to a huge reward, noting, “I’m excited just talking about it because it really is so cool.”
A loved one pointed out to her, “You come home bragging about these kids every day.” After one quarter with the devices, students are much more independent and collaborative than she expected. As a result, the Church Lane second grade team agreed to expand student options for directing their own learning in the second quarter.
The “must do” assignments from first quarter have been replaced with choices about sequence and whether to work alone or with a partner or small group. A student might say, “I read the book yesterday; today I’ll use the device.” While careers are more than a decade away for her students, Miss Pycha sees a connection between the flexibility now offered to students and the skills needed for success in the workplace.
Miss Pycha’s students know the unit goal for the week and are held accountable for getting there.
Students are encouraged to consider time management. Did they spend too much time on one activity to the detriment of another? “That’s the kind of thinking that we want to pull out of them,” Miss Pycha explained.
Adding brand new devices hasn’t slowed the students down. In fact, their receptiveness encourages the faculty to rev up innovation. Reflecting a true learning culture, Miss Pycha tells her students, “I’m learning what works best for you and how to get you to the next level.”
While the devices put learning in the hands of each student, group work is also essential to a positive learning environment. One collaboration strategy used throughout the classrooms is sharing out student responses from the devices. Students have the opportunity to provide insights about their classmates’ responses.
In fact, Mrs. Wood’s first graders were several days into studying metacognition when I visited. During one rotation, a few students at a time reported to a back table with their devices and their leveled book. The Padlet app prompted them to type their name and reflect on what they had read the day before. “What did the book make you think about?” nudged Mrs. Wood, who reinforces concepts with small groups after introducing them to the whole class.
To wrap up morning rotations, students faced each other on the carpet. With class responses projected on the whiteboard, Mrs. Wood asked one student from each group to describe their book, and then another to share the connections they had made. Reading about rain brought to mind rainbows. Mountains in another book made a student think about, and perhaps hope for, snow.
A few doors away, Ms. Barnett’s second graders gathered on the carpet facing the whiteboard. Each sat legs “criss cross applesauce” with the screens on their device swiveled and flattened to use as tablets. They navigated to a whiteboard app. The first “long a” word for the activity was announced: play.
Teacher and students repeated the word and sounded it out. Then, each student used a finger to write “play” on the tablet. When everyone was ready, the class held tablets up for review. Students checked their own work once the teacher wrote the word on the class whiteboard. They practiced reading it again before moving onto the next word with a quick swipe to clear the tablet. In prior years, students would have used an individual whiteboard, marker, and eraser, or paper, which added some hassle.
Time’s up in Miss Pycha’s second grade classroom, where the morning warm up was a writing prompt on their devices. Students pondered, “Which superhero would you like to be? Give three sentences explaining why.” During sharing out, a lively discussion ensued with all submitted responses displayed on the whiteboard. Miss Pycha read aloud students’ rationales for choosing Flash, Spiderman, and Wonder Woman.
This class also shared out to reinforce what they had learned about a text feature. Instructions were set up in an app to remind them of a heuristic: “Captions and photographs are BFFs.” Students were asked to caption a picture of rollercoaster with e-stickies. When posted, each student’s name and caption were displayed on all student screens as well as the whiteboard to provoke discussion.
Third grade literacy is a major milestone toward lifelong reading success. On day two of Readers’ Theater in Mrs. Wood’s first grade classroom, a pair of students used an extra device to film themselves reading a two-person script. The first day brought thrills from two boys who realized that they read better the second time around.
By watching and listening to themselves read, the students practiced fluency and expression. Mrs. Wood provides individual feedback either in person or through a video response, which the kids love. The class can also watch the videos together and suggest improvements.
Miss Pycha’s second grade students use devices to record themselves reading. They evaluate accuracy, rate, expression, and punctuation, components of fluency displayed on a wall chart. At the end of the week, students give themselves one to three stars using a rubric that reinforces literacy terms including lexile.
Student ratings tend to be inflated, but working with a partner adds more objectivity. This last step also helps keep them honest: Miss Pycha keeps her own set of ratings, and both are used to spark conversations with families about the student’s reading level.
Last year, Miss Pycha’s class would read to each other or listen to themselves with a recording tool. She has noticed that the devices help students self-adjust instead of depending on cues from their peers. She hears students reflecting on how they’ve gotten too quiet at the end of a sentence, for example.
All of this flexibility and innovation rests on a set of procedures that are strictly routine. The busy classroom setting requires strategies for keeping the devices protected. Lighthouse students have these procedures down pat.
Students retrieve their devices from a charging cart with numbered student assignments. Mrs. Wood reminded her first graders to carry the device “like you love it.” For reference, a picture of a teacher carefully wrapping her arms around a device is branded as the Church Lane or Halstead signature hug and displayed in Lighthouse classrooms.
More routines relate to working with the device. “Put your devices down halfway so that I know you’re listening,” Miss Pycha called out to her second graders. Teachers distinguish between positions: open the device in laptop formation; swivel and flatten the screen like a tablet; lower the screen to listen to the teacher; or shut down the device.
Closing the loop, devices are put away just as carefully. Students chosen by Miss Pycha double-checked that all devices were completely shut down before returning them to the charging station. Student leadership reinforced individual responsibility to take care of the devices.
Underlying the success of learner-centered stations is classroom management. None of the students in these classrooms sit in rows of desks facing the teacher. Lighthouse students are on the move — using a device on their own, interacting as a whole group, collaborating in small groups, and using a wide variety of materials.
These maneuvers require a series of transitions established by each teacher. Student enthusiasm certainly helps. When Miss Pycha announced a transition, a small voice cheered, “Yay! I like small groups!”
Mrs. Wood used “clap once if you hear me…” to capture students’ attention at the end of a rotation. Reminders about posture were common in the three classrooms to regain student focus.
There are clear expectations about how students are expected to move (“silently but quickly” in Ms. Barnett’s class; “tiptoe to the counter” in Mrs. Wood’s class) and clear instructions about where to place materials, where the devices should go, and where students need to be.
All classrooms used color groups to organize students. Mrs. Wood’s first graders checked their rotation assignments on the whiteboard; Miss Pycha’s groups were posted at the back of the classroom.
Mrs. Wood’s timer app and buzzer kept everyone informed of the time remaining in each rotation. Countdowns were also prevalent. Ms. Barnett instructed, “Clear your tablet,” counting back from five. By the time she got to one, students needed to be sitting up and prepared for the next word in the tablet exercise. “Clean up music” accompanied Mrs. Wood’s first graders as they put materials away, and when the song ended, “voices should stop.”
Transitions were also marked through informal performance ratings. At the front of Ms. Barnett’s classroom, a clip with each student’s name indicated his or her behavior during the last activity, with most students landing on the green “ready” square. The highly sought-after purple stamp in Miss Pycha’s class was reserved for students modeling good listening habits.
Rounding out these supports were good old-fashioned breaks. Students sang, shouted, and danced out their jitters to the music of videos projected on the whiteboard in “brain breaks.”
A device in each student’s hands ensures that all students can rotate between individual and group activities that challenge each learner. Each classroom added variety to the rotations by mixing in low-tech stations.
One activity in Mrs. Wood’s class was scouring magazines for examples of labels and bold print. Pairs in Miss Pycha’s class coached each other to read difficult words. Ms. Barnett pointed out the importance of going low-tech for activities like journal writing and some math activities.
After just a few months, one to one engagement in Lighthouse classrooms is well underway to personalize learning so that every student makes progress, every day.