Educators discuss the keys to engaging students during a professional development event in Dallas
How can today’s teachers inspire their students? Where does true engagement in learning come from—and how can technology play a role?
These questions were the focus of a unique professional development event held May 10 in Dallas, during which attendees heard from an all-star lineup of educators.
Sponsored by Promethean and its ClassFlow  software, which facilitates collaborative learning  using any ed-tech device, the “Educators Lounge” event drew dozens of K-12 teachers and administrators to explore, discuss, and celebrate excellence in teaching, said Machele Stefhon, head of strategic marketing programs for Promethean.
The speakers shared a wide range of advice with their colleagues, but over the afternoon a common theme emerged: Technology allows for more personalization of instruction—and great teachers take advantage of this by letting students follow their passions and direct their own learning.
“A teacher’s main role should be inspiring students to become lifelong learners,” said Arvin Ross, a junior at Kennesaw State University and the director of professional development for the iSchool Initiative . “As a student, if you inspire me to learn, I won’t need a study, a lesson, or a test.”
‘Learning should be noisy’
Nick Provenzano, a high school English teacher who writes a blog called The Nerdy Teacher , kicked off the event by noting that the traditional “stand and deliver” model, “while it has a purpose, … cannot be your lone method of instruction.”
There is a time for teachers to impart knowledge, Provenzano said, and there’s also a time for students to explore topics on their own.
“A noisy classroom is a classroom where learning is happening,” he said. “Learning should be noisy, it should be messy, because that’s what exploration is.”
Drawing on Google’s famous model of giving employees 20 percent of their time to work on something company-related that interests them personally, Provenzano said he gives his students one day a week to study something they’re passionate about.
“What does this have to do with English?” he asked. “If they’re reading about it and writing about it, then it has everything to do with English.”
One of the rules in Provenzano’s classroom is, “Failure is an option.” He explained: “If we do not risk failure, we will never grow.”
Modeling lifelong learning
Amber Teamann, an assistant principal at Luna Elementary School in Garland, Texas, talked about leveraging technology as a school or district leader.
“I try to model for my staff that we are all lifelong learners,” she said, noting that effective staff development should meet both organizational and individual needs.
Teamann recommended that educators develop personal learning networks via Twitter and other social media. “Sharing is nice,” she said, adding: “There is no reason to recreate the wheel when there is a resource or a practice that can be shared or passed along.”
She urged school leaders to keep things simple. “There are thousands of tools out there. Don’t focus on nouns; focus on verbs,” she advised.
She also said school leaders shouldn’t be afraid to learn from others. She quoted from the technologist David Weinberger, who once said: “The smartest person in the room is in the room.”
Two local educators—Kent Hamilton, an instructional intervention specialist for two elementary schools in Denton, Texas, and Rafranz Davis , an instructional technology specialist for the Arlington Independent School District—were invited to speak at the event through a competition called “Creative Leap.”
Both echoed the theme that when students are allowed to take ownership of their learning, they are much more likely to succeed.
“For me, it’s about empowerment and relationships,” said Hamilton, who is part of a committee whose goal is to identify struggling students “as fast as we can.”
In Hamilton’s schools, every child is tracking his or her own learning with the help of a “data binder” that contains information from every assessment. The students use this information to lead the conversation in parent-teacher meetings, he said, with students explaining, “This is where I was, this is where I am now—and this is where I want to go.”
Hamilton told the story of one student named Corey. “He’s a bright child, but somewhere along the way he convinced himself that he was a struggler,” he said. Hamilton found that Corey had trouble decoding nonfiction text and taught him strategies to overcome this challenge.
Within three weeks, Corey’s mastery had climbed from 32 percent to 72 percent. After eight weeks, it stood at 92 percent—and Corey is now helping to teach other struggling students these same strategies.
“We’ve empowered him, and he’s taken that instruction and is passing it along to other kids,” Hamilton said.
Davis related the story of her nine-year-old nephew, who wasn’t being inspired to learn in school. Yet, on his own, this young boy has learned how to make and control very sophisticated puppets by following his passion and watching YouTube videos—a hobby he has spent hours learning to master.
“Kid are born naturally inquisitive, but then we put them in a room, we tell them to sit down and be quiet—and we take that power away from them,” Davis said.
She added: “If you’re not doing something like self-directed, [project-based learning] in your classroom, then you’re missing out” on an opportunity to inspire and engage your students.
For winning the Creative Leap contest, both Hamilton and Davis will receive complimentary registrations to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in Atlanta next month, courtesy of Promethean.
Travis Allen, a senior at Kennesaw State, founded the iSchool Initiative to “revolutionize education through the use of technology.”
His company, which was born out of frustration when Allen was not allowed to use his cell phone for learning during high school, uses motivational speaking, workshops, and local presentations to help effect change. During the Educators Lounge event, he and Ross spoke about the need to empower students from the students’ perspective.
Technology gives students more power in the palm of their hands “than ever before,” Allen said—and yet this potential “is too often untapped in schools.”
While there are “several major barriers” to using mobile devices for learning in classrooms, “it rarely is a financial problem,” Allen said. More often, “it’s a cultural problem.”
The best way to change this culture, he said, is to shift educators’ mindsets from fearing technology to fearing the implications “if we don’t make this change.”
Other speakers included Tom Whitby, a former high school English teacher and college professor, and Steven Anderson, a former educator and instructional technology director who blogs about the Web 2.0 connected classroom . Whitby and Anderson co-created the popular Twitter hashtag #edchat.
The Dallas event, which was also streamed live online, was the first in a series of Educators Lounge events to be held across the country. You can learn more about these events at http://educatorlounge.com .
(Editor’s note: eSchool News coverage of the Educators Lounge event was sponsored by Promethean ClassFlow. However, Promethean had no say in this report prior to its publication.)