On a Thursday afternoon in late May, students in Jimmy Sapia's fourth-grade classroom at Springdale Elementary School broke into small groups, preparing for a major challenge: The Mystery Skype.
Sapia, known throughout the school district for his technological prowess, first learned about Mystery Skype through Twitter and brought it to his classroom to strengthen students' geography skills. Here's how it works: Sapia finds a teacher from another state through Twitter or another social media avenue and sets up a time for the students to video chat through Skype's video-conferencing platform.
The students prepare a variety of hints about which state they live in -- everything from weather to topography and sports trivia -- and present them to students in the other school during the video session; the goal is to correctly guess which state the other classroom respresents.
In Sapia's classroom, the students take it seriously. Some park in front of large maps, others camp out on computers, ready to type clues into Google and Wikipedia.
Other clusters have books at the ready, staring at the interactive white board at the front of the classroom where students from the mystery state appear, spouting clues. In late May, the Stamford group was the first to guess where the others were from.
Clues like "We can go to Fenway Park to watch a baseball game," and "the tallest mountain is Greylock" tipped off the fourth-grade detectives, prompting a student to walk to the front of the room and grab the small microphone in front of the webcam to ask the other classroom if they were in Massachusetts. They were right.
After the activity, Sapia debriefed with students, and a few offered reasons why they enjoyed the session.
"You get to learn about new states," one said.
"Instead of looking in a big old giant book, you can learn stuff about Massachusetts or any state. It's funner than just reading a book," said another -- who was quickly told that "more fun" was the more appropriate way to describe the activity.
But it's not just about the fun, Sapia said.
"With technology, it has to be purposeful. Everything has to have a reason. Not just a cool new gadget," he said. Whether it's through his use of interactive white boards or through the professional network of teachers he has found on Twitter, Sapia said the purposeful use of technology has transformed the way he teaches.
"My class has just changed so much for the better through this." Sapia said. "I feel like a new teacher."
While Sapia's classroom is a shining example of the use of technology to strengthen learning opportunities, he is by no means the school district's only teacher relying on new ways of teaching to help engage students in their lessons.
About 2 miles away, Turn of River Middle School math teacher Dave Edelson uses his interactive white board to help chart students' progress and understanding of his lessons.
On a Tuesday morning in June, Edelson passed out a set of ActiVote devices to his students and posted a word problem on the board, asking students to punch in the proper formula using the technology in their hands. Students grasped the tiny cellphone-shaped devices, punching in formulas like old-fashioned text messages -- three clicks on the 9 for an "x," or a single click to use the number -- and sent in their answers. After a few moments, all the answers appeared on the board, along with a bar chart showing the percentage of students who answered in each way.
"I can see which students answered it correctly and how long it took, and it's hooked right into an Excel program, so I can give quizzes and shoot it right into here," Edelson said.
While he can see who is answering in which ways, the students only see anonymous answers, which eliminates embarrassment, he said. He can evaluate which learning strands students are grasping and which they need more time with, he said, allowing him to assess students without throwing bubble sheets in front of them on a daily basis.
"I can't imagine teaching without this board any more," he said.
Over the last several years, the school district has invested millions of dollars in purchasing and installing interactive white boards throughout the city's schools; as of this spring, 830 boards have been installed and another 145 are to be in place by September 2013. While the boards have been purchased mostly with district funds -- though a few have been purchased by parent-teacher organizations -- teachers' capacity to use the boards have been strengthened by the GE Foundation's initiatives, according to Mona Hanna, Stamford's chief academic officer.
The initiatives put in place by the GE Foundation grant have created a more collaborative district, through professional learning communities and offering teachers the opportunity to travel to national conferences and learn best practices from teachers nationwide, which has really paid off in the use of the white boards, said Beth Eiseman, a science curriculum associate for Stamford Public Schools.
"If you learn a couple tools or tricks and I know nothing, I can go to you and we can cross-pollinate and pick up some pretty good skills," she said.
But the end point is not to learn how to maneuver the newest technological toy.
"It's not just the cool gadget, and getting over that cool gadget factor can be a real struggle for some teachers," said Louise McMinn, a science coach for the district. "Some people are more intuitive and use more technology. And for others, there's been a lot of training -- how do you physically use this, and how can you use it to really expand what you're doing in the classroom."
Most Popular Stories
- SEO Traffic Lab Celebrate Wins at Digital Marketing Event 'Internet World 2013' in London
- Social Media Initiatives Should Follow Customers' Lead
- Apple CEO: Offshore Units Not a 'Tax Gimmick'
- U.S. Senate Accuses Apple of Large-scale Tax Avoidance
- UTEP Water Recycling Project Wins Venture Titles
- Marketo Makes a Mint in IPO: Stock Shoots Up More than 50 Percent
- Bieber Booed at Billboard Awards
- Crude Oil Up, Gasoline Down
- Austin Startup Compare Metrics Raises $3.5 Million for Expansion
- Why So Many Top 'Car Guys' Are Actually Women