As any educator will no doubt agree, stepping outside of the traditional classroom box can lead to innovations that result in extraordinary experiences. And sometimes, as Arizona’s Yuma Elementary School District One discovered, those innovations are already sitting in the classroom, waiting to be discovered.
The technology-rich district has always put an emphasis on ensuring students have access to devices even before it rolled out a personalized one-to-one initiative. But educators wanted to take that richness to the next level.
“The technology wasn’t always being used to its fullest potential—there was a conversation about how to ignite that change,” said Christa Fairman, an educational technology specialist in the district.
“We would talk about the greatest resource we have, and that’s our students,” she said.
The district is one of two Community Winners in the eSchool Media and Xirrus Innovate to Educate awards program, which recognizes the unique ways schools and districts are leveraging technology to improve student learning.
When educators thought about bringing technology use to a new level by tapping into the district’s biggest resource, a new idea was born: the iTEAM KiDS Technology Ambassador Program.
Through the program, elementary and middle school students help teachers and other students learn to effectively use different technology tools and integrate them into instruction, assignments and projects. The students work with a teacher at each school and build problem-solving and teamwork skills.
iTEAM KiDS launched in the fall of 2014, and a year later, Fairman said teachers reported that the program was helping them manage and troubleshoot devices and introduce new apps and technology concepts to students.
(Next page: How the program helps different student groups achieve and excel)
In fact, 75 percent of teachers said the program increased their comfort level when it comes to using available classroom technology with students. And by the spring of 2016, iTEAM KiDS were directly supporting teachers’ Apple TV use, troubleshooting Promethean interactive whiteboard and ActivInspire software issues, and providing technology-related professional development.
“We had a superintendent who understood that our kids often knew more [about technology] than our teachers,” said Duane Sheppard, the district’s associate superintendent in charge of curriculum and instruction. “We had to get to this place of releasing that control so teachers would allow students to show them how to use an app or a device. It’s a philosophy change. Most people got on board with it, but it’s hard to do.”
In addition to teacher buy-in, the program needed something else to be successful: funding.
Fairman consulted with Sheppard and Lurinda Ward, director of learning services, and then talked with a grant writer to see what could be done to finance the program.
“We had this big, wonderful ideas that required money,” Fairman said. “We took an inventory of grants in place at the time, thought about how iTEAM KiDS could support those individual grant goals, and we partnered with those grant programs to fund iTEAM KiDS. In the fall of 2014, the district had a series of STEM grants and 21st Century Community Learning Center grants that could directly benefit from the implementation of the iTEAM KiDS Technology Ambassador Program. We partnered them up and hit the ground running.”
The first year of project funding came from 21st Century Community Centers, Dodea Grants, Helios, and a partnership between the district, Yuma County, and Cisco, with all but Helios continuing to fund the program after the first year.
Students become the teachers
iTEAM KiDS members present two 50-minute sessions that serve as the culmination of their year training, working with teachers and participating in the program. The combination of sharing information and working directly with teachers in hands-on learning situations seems to appeal to the students, Fairman said.
“Every year, kids come to me after they’ve completed their two sessions and they ask to do it again,” she said.
Students also traveled to larger conferences to share their program and demonstrate how it works.
“We took two of our student teams to a conference and they presented a fairly large session to teachers,” Ward said. “This is really a special thing, and it was great for them to get feedback from other educators.”
“We take tremendous pride in our iTEAM KiDS program,” Sheppard said. “As the teachers participate in their PD, you can sense the students’ pride—it’s incredible. Our kids get to present to our school board, too, and that experience is important.”
In addition to helping teachers become more comfortable with technology and more willing to try new apps or tools, Fairman said the program helps students develop workplace skills such as collaboration and problem solving. It also helps some break out of their shells, she added.
“It has been a real confidence-builder. Some of the best presenters we have are our ELL students,” she said. “It really helps them with their speaking and their self-esteem.”
Students’ soft skills are improving, too.
“They’re really learning communication and leadership skills. This is an opportunity for us to give our students that leadership ability and that experience,” Fairman said.
The iTEAM KiDS program was put into place in advance of the district’s one-to-one initiative, and because teachers reported increased comfort levels with technology, it also paved the way for an influx of support for the one-to-one initiative.
“We’re on this journey together, and it helps perpetuate the feeling that we’re a community of learners,” Fairman said.
[Editor’s note: This story is part of the eSchool News Innovate to Educate Awards program, sponsored by Xirrus. The awards program recognized the country’s finest ed-tech initiatives and offered schools and districts across the U.S. the opportunity to showcase their groundbreaking approach to improving teaching and learning through the use of technology.]