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Friday, January 27, 2017

Technology transforms early learning for kindergartners | Johnston Sun Rise

Photo: Tim Forsberg
"While Johnston’s high school seniors may soon enjoy free tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities, the district’s youngest students – kindergarteners – are now experiencing the best of the next generation in education." reports Tim Forsberg, SPECIAL PROJECTS.

BOOKS ARE BLENDED: Teacher Nicole Carroll works with Alexia Maaz, Julianna Stonis, Jazlin Kue and Kevin DuBois utilizing traditional teaching methods with books, which are easily incorporated into computer-based learning.
Photo: Tim Forsberg

“I never thought kindergarten could be this fantastic,” said Julie-anne Zarrella, principal of the Early Childhood Center (ECC)  at Ferri.  “The days of chalk and talk are done.”

Johnston kindergarteners and their teachers are now utilizing computers and electronic devices to learn and teach in ways once only thought possible in the realm of “Star Trek,” ensuring the town’s students are prepared to be better digital students and citizens in an ever changing world full of technology.

Zarrella, who served as a Johnston teacher for 22 years and assistant principal of teaching and learning at the high school middle school, is thrilled to be the principal of the ECC and it shows. Eager to roll out blended learning with the kindergarteners, she wanted her students' first impression of formal schooling to be as engaging and exciting as possible.

Last spring, as part of the Johnston Technology Personal Learning Community (Tech PLC), Zarrella and her cohorts visited other schools and districts that were implementing one-on-one electronic devices with their students at the elementary level. They also attended technology conferences and spoke to other educational professionals to study their best practices with the hopes of implementing similar systems here in town. Now, their work is paying off.

“There really has been a transformation in this building, from that whole traditional teacher/leader model to a blended learning model. Mrs. Zarrella and her teachers have really led the way in terms of that transformation,” said Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo. “Obviously, everybody comes to the table with a different set of skills, but they’ve been great at cooperatively teaching each other and sharing ideas and seeing what goes on in other classrooms.”   

Johnston kindergarteners are now the early adopters of blended learning for the elementary schools. As principal, Zarella worked towards a targeted plan with the understanding that she needed to start small to achieve big. In the spring of 2016, Johnston had one blended learning "Lighthouse Classroom," where each child had a Chromebook device.

“This is the beautiful part; blended learning is really taking that face-to-face instructional time and integrating the technology,” said Zarrella. “But it’s also more about giving that personalization for the students to be able to decide the pace that they want, so they can have the selection of what materials they’d like to cover.”

By the end of May, Johnston had two Lighthouse classrooms equipped with devices for each student, which grew to four classes by the fall. Now, every kindergarten student has their own device, and all ten ECC classrooms and their students are adopting some form of blended learning. 

“It’s really cool, I always say it’s like Christmas morning when I go in there and I see these kids, they’re so engaged it’s beautiful,” said Zarrella. “But we have worked collaboratively with every teacher in the building. Our faculty meetings have been focused on that technology integration, kind of getting everyone’s toes wet.”

Having the technology available, however, wasn't enough for the program to be successful. Zarrella said she knew they couldn’t just open the doors and students would be motivated, but that there needed to be change management, pacing and balance. The district believes that personalized learning had to be the matrix and that parents needed to be aware of what they we were hoping to achieve.

“We couldn't assume that the students didn't have technology at home or that parents would be excited about the initiative. It's about building relationships and capacity. We needed all of our stakeholders to understand why we were doing things,” she said. “Blended learning growth is evident, conversations needed to happen between teachers, and we needed to look at the data. We needed all stakeholders to understand that student outcome performance would increase and they would be better prepared for state assessments.” 

Last year, with the School Committee’s approved budget, the district also rolled out an all day kindergarten program for the first time. The change required new programs, new technology, and a new schedule in a very short time. As a new principal, Zarrella felt that there was a huge cultural shift and educators needed to look at internal capacity, provide opportunities to collaborate and to share data and ideas for the plan to work.

“One of the misperceptions of the blended learning model is the idea that a student is just put in front of a computer all day and that’s how their learning, and that’s not the case at all,” added Dr. DiLullo “There is whole class instruction, there is small group instruction, there is cooperative learning and the computer becomes merely another tool for learning. It allows the teacher to be able to personalize the learning for each of the students as opposed to expecting everybody to be on the same level.”

Blended learning is not a “one-size-fits-all”; every child works at their own level without knowing that their classmate may be working at a higher or lower capacity, which Zarrella believes instills self-esteem. Children work towards their own goals as well as what teachers have developed.

Source: Johnston Sun Rise