Six year-olds get excited about almost any activity. In a first grade classroom, energetic, enthusiastic boys and girls would say “whoopee!” over a math worksheet and so it was in Leslie Altman’s group of 27 young children working with an interactive white board (IWB). Altman, an experienced teacher of over fifteen years has been at Sequoia Elementary School for the past three. She did a series of activities over a 45-minute period that largely used the (IWB) screening Scholastic News’ “Rain Doesn’t Bug This Ant,” and a few competitive games in which students from each team came to IWB, one-by-one, and tapped the answer to get points for their team.
Sequoia Elementary is part of the Mount Diablo Unified School District in Northern California. David Franklin, an experienced principal has been at the school for five years having previously served in the Alum Rock district as an administrator. Dr. Franklin, an active twitter user (@SFPrincipal) is enthusiastic about technology in school and supportive of teachers who want to use devices with their students. He has a “Mouse Squad” of fourth and fifth graders (boys and girls) who troubleshoot software glitches and simple hardware problems for teachers and students. One of the new initiatives in the upper grades is about the game Minecraft. I noted that a book about the game was on Franklin’s desk and he told me that a fifth grader had brought in the book for the principal to read.
A kindergarten-to fifth grade school, Sequoia became a Back-to-Basics alternative in the late-1970s. District parents who wanted more traditional academics for their sons and daughters sent their children to Sequoia. Over the decades, it remains an alternative–half of its students come from anywhere in the district and half from the immediate neighborhood. But as principals and teachers entered and exited, Sequoia slowly incorporated a full range of school and teaching activities from homework-texts-tests to project-based learning. According to Franklin, who has hired many Sequoia teachers in his years at the school, there has been an increase in student-centered learning and more computer devices and software garnered from multiple sources. Individual teachers, some of whom are entrepreneurial in gathering devices, also have access to carts of tablets and two onsite computer labs. The school, according to its 2015 Report Card, has 550 students of whom 48 percent are white, nearly 22 percent are Asian, and 20 percent are Latino. About 12 percent are English Language Learners and about the same percentage are eligible for free and reduced price lunch (a poverty measure). Students with disabilities are under five percent.
Just before 9 AM on the morning of April 15, 2016, the principal welcomed Patricia Dickenson* and me. I had asked him to pick two teachers who he believed exemplified strong integration of technology in daily lessons. Leslie Altman, a first grade teacher, was one of two teachers we observed. She organized her colorful classroom around tables for 3-4 students (see photo), each one holding a container of pencils. The 55 minute lesson we observed was built around whole-group instruction yet the classroom was structured as individual learning centers where students rotated through various ones (see photo). Six year-olds moved freely around the room, some going to a chart where they fixed a clothes pin to the phrase that best described their attitude and work during the day (see photo).
When we entered the room, the 27 six year-olds were sitting on the rug in a circle and Altman had the children saying “good morning” and exchange greetings to each other. Afterwards, the first graders moved to their seats and the teacher, using her laptop on her desk, flashes on the IWB a video on “bugs” that includes a range of insects and spiders. This begins the science lesson. Students quiet down and watch for about five minutes. Then Altman passes out Scholastic News “Rain Doesn’t Bug This Ant” to each table.
Using a wireless head-set, Altman reads the paragraphs on the News as each page appears on the IWB. Students read aloud each paragraph from the handout. She asks questions of the class and students respond chorally. On the second page are a series of photos about different insects and how they protect themselves from the rain. One photo shows a hen and chicks. Altman calls class’s attention to the photo and a student asks “How does the momma bird protect chicks from water?” Scattered students offer different answers. The teacher directs the class the last page of “Rain Doesn’t Bug This Ant” a chart displays information about three insects (Rose Chafer, Peacock Butterfly, and Ladybug), their size, and ability to be waterproof are compared. There are multiple choice questions for students to answer on their handout.
Altman flashes on the IWB the chart and divides the class into two teams to answer these questions. She explains that a member from each team will come to the smart board and pick the correct answer about the length of each insect and whether it is waterproof or not. She calls on one student from Team 1 to come to the smart board. She gives the six year-old the smart board pen and the student picks the correct answer to the first question. Her team cheers. Then the student gives the pen to someone else on her team to answer the next question. One student says “can I go next?” Another student says, “it’s not fair to give it only to your friends.” One of the observers notes that some students on Team 2 had already marked their answers on the handout.
After answering these questions, Altman moves to two online math games the first graders are familiar with–“I’ve Got Your Number” and “Secret Agent.” Both are game show formats. For a few minutes the teacher had a technical glitch and could not get “I’ve Got Your Number” to appear on the smart board. The principal who was also observing retrieves another laptop and within moments, the math game show appeared on the screen.
The game, which also contains funny fake ads for products that children laughed at, displays a number line to 100. Students have to answer game show announcer’s question first on addition (e.g., What is ten plus 90?) with dings accompanying incorrect answers. Teacher continues with team competition and calls on members of each team one at a time. Some children on each side are excited and want to win and they are kneeling on their chairs. For those students who are unsure of adding, Altman leans over and coaches by rephrasing question and giving help before the six year-old taps the correct answer on the smart board.
Altman then shifts to another online game called “Secret Agent” where spy 00K9 must defeat the evil El Gato using his subtraction skills. Children cheer. Catchy chords play over and over again and some students move with the rhythmic music. Announcer asks question–what is 40 less three? The teacher calls on the first student from Team 1. When needed, Altman helps the student who then taps the correct answer. She scans the room to see which students have not participated and encourages the student with the pen to choose particular six year-olds who have not been selected to come to the IWB. This goes on for about 10-12 minutes. While all of the action is occurring, there are a few first graders getting restless and walking around. Teacher scans the room and notices this and tells the entire class that the game is almost over and one of the teams will be the winner. The online game show keeps score and sure enough announces which team has won. The teacher then announces morning snack at 9:45 and students go outside the room to pick up food that their parents had packed for them. Later they go to recess. Dickenson and I thank the teacher and go to the next observation.
*Dickenson (@teacherpreptech) is an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at National University in San Jose. After reading my blog on integration of technology, a subject she is very interested in and has included in her university courses, Dickenson got in touch with me. She has extensive contacts with teachers and principals through her university courses and teacher workshops in the Bay Area. She proposed that we work together in observing schools and classrooms. She set up this visit to Sequoia with David Franklin. For this post, she and I combined our notes and I drafted the post. I sent a draft to Franklin, Altman,and Dickenson to check for errors and each returned it. Because Dickenson and I combined our notes and she went over the draft. This is a co-authored post.