Digital learning environment in full effect at Hamilton Avenue School

Just three months after distributing iPads to the student body, Hamilton Avenue School has become home to a renaissance of new teaching techniques, individualized learning and renewed student engagement through the use of new technology.

As a part of the implementation of Greenwich Public Schools Digital Learning Environment plan, each student and teacher at the school was given an iPad Air for use both in the classroom and at home. This is being done at both Hamilton Avenue and Riverside schools as the first step in what will ultimately be a districtwide initiative and, during a June 12 open house, administrators and press were invited to witness the impact of the program during a normal school day at Hamilton Avenue.

Students in every grade made use of the new devices as they participated in a variety of activities. First grade teacher Patrice Elmlinger used the NearPod app to share a presentation on turtles with each of her students, while media teacher Eric Lane instructed fifth graders as they worked to create their own videos on the proper uses for their iPads.

Students in Catherine Byrne’s fifth grade class practiced math skills with the Skitch app. Utilizing building blocks along with their iPads, students were asked to build a shape with a specific volume, then take a picture of it using their iPad. With the digital photo, students could use the Educreations app to identify their creation, label its faces and vertices, and finally, send their work directly to Ms. Byrne.

Greenwich’s Director of Digital Learning and Technology Phillip Dunn compared the school’s digital learning environment to “walking three years into the future,” citing the speed at which both students and teachers have adapted to the influx of technology in the classroom.

“There was a real organic shift with students being able to interact with the curriculum and their teachers in different ways,” Mr. Dunn said. “When you think of the class room of the future you go ‘Oh yeah! There will be screens, everyone will be working on their own thing but it’s related and they’ll be sharing and collaborating in real time.’ But literally three weeks later I walked in and I saw it.”

Mr. Dunn has overseen the project since August 2013, managing the technical demands of the program, such as security controls and wi-fi access points, in addition to the logistics involved with launching the initiative at both Hamilton Avenue and Riverside schools.

Teachers at Hamilton Avenue have been preparing for the implementation of the digital learning program since last year, receiving hands-on training with the devices and core education apps. They received their iPad Airs just before the holiday break in December, while student devices were fully distributed in February. This marked the final step in phase one of the school district’s digital learning environment, with phase two looking to expand distribution into sixth grade classrooms and phase three pushing for every student in the district to have an iPad.

With apps like Schoology, teachers can personalize lesson plans and assignments on a per student basis, allowing them to monitor individual performance and ensure that each pupil is receiving the necessary attention. Children who were withdrawn in the classroom now have another means by which to connect with their teachers and their work. Furthermore, students made it a habit to share their work with one another digitally, creating a sense of pride and community among classmates.

Zach Mantione of Tami Summerton’s fourth grade class used his iPad to create an instructional video that was later distributed to the entire grade. Utilizing the Educreations app, Zach recorded himself working through a long division problem by hand, providing a voice over to accompany his work. Zach had no prior experience using a tablet before receiving his device from Hamilton Avenue, but was able to produce the video tutorial on his own.

Ms. Summerton applauded the speed at which Zach and the school’s other students have adapted to the iPads, explaining that the teachers were learning from the students through the process as well.

“They really have been rock stars using this technology,” Ms. Summerton said. “They’re teaching each other. They’re teaching me and I’m teaching them. A lot of [students] have strengths in technology that we didn’t know about before because we didn’t have the resources.”

Board of Education members Debbie Appelbaum and Adriana Ospina attended the open house to witness the progress of the digital learning program. Ms. Ospina said she was optimistic about the ways the iPad Airs are being used to teach Spanish at the elementary level, while Ms. Appelbaum encouraged the practical training and skills the students received. Both board members appreciated the combined use of traditional instruction and digital learning to ensure a balanced school experience for students.

“We think of digital learning as a way to individualize instruction for the students,” Ms. Ospina said. “What I’ve seen is individualized teaching for the teachers, I was in two classes and it was interested how differently the teachers used digital learning.”

The district plans to begin phase two of the digital learning environment initiative during the 2014-2015 school year, bringing iPads to sixth graders at all three middle schools. If planning and results continue to push forward unfettered, the entire district will implement digital learning during the following school year.

Even as the digital learning program expands, Mr. Dunn expressed the continued commitment to improving the environment at Hamilton Avenue School, saying that the district hopes to make the current use of the technology look “antiquated” in the coming years.

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