SOUTH BRUNSWICK, NJ – While students throughout the state enjoyed the first full day of summer vacation, some 300 teachers and administrators spent Thursday learning about better ways to use technology in their classrooms.
The district sponsored its second annual Technology and Learning Conference at the high school on Ridge Road, featuring 50-55 workshops designed to give educators a better understanding of the new tools technology offers for the classroom experience.
“We are expecting about 300 educators from all over New Jersey and Pennsylvania, about 32 different school districts or educational institutions,” District Tech Educator Tracey Ricco said. “Hopefully (get) new and inspiring ideas to take back to their classroom to motivate and empower their students to learn.”
Ricco, Teacher Beth Caruso and District Professional Development Director Amanda Rosenberg organized the conference, now in its second year.
“This is the teachers’ first day of summer freedom, to some extent,” Rosenberg said. “Every person that is here has chosen to be here, has opted to come here and continue to learn, and get lots of ideas. The fact that they are spending their time, to be part of this, is what is going to make the day so great.”
The morning started with a buffet breakfast donated by Chartwells School Dining Services, followed by a keynote address from Middle School STEAM Teacher Kevin Jarrett of Northfield Community School in Atlantic County.
Jarrett told his story about getting his “Digital Shop” middle school program off the ground in that district, which has led to some exciting projects including the creation of a locker handle to help a disabled student and creating digital applications for children during their stay in a hospital.
Jarrett said that doctors from Robert Wood Johnson University hospitals helped his students develop the apps, and that seven of the students are applying for U.S. patents on the creations.
What makes Jarrett’s program unique is that it does not focus on a certain curriculum, but looks at real problems in the world that groups of students can use technology to actually solve.
“Making the world a better place” no matter how big or small, is the philosophy of the class, he said.
After the keynote, the educators went to individual workshops dealing with using tools like Instagram or YouTube, to robotics, to creating “green screen” newscasts or how to make a video of their own lectures to allow them to spend class time going over the applications of those lectures with students.
Assistant Superintendent Joanne Kerekes said that this alternative method of teaching, known as “flipping” the classroom, can provide a more effective way of reaching students.
The basic idea, Kerekes said, is to have students view teacher presentations on video at their own pace, and then use the precious time teachers are physically with their students to make sure they are understanding and correctly applying the concepts.
“Now it is (that) your lesson occurs at home, it’s still delivered by your teacher. You see that person via video or some kind of screen casting,” she said. “Then you get to come in (to the classroom) as the teacher will watch (the student) apply that skill.”
Crossroads Middle School Science Teacher Kyle Niemis ran a workshop on that very topic and told attendees that the move gives him much more freedom to be with his students and make sure everyone is on the same page.
He also said the system works very well in the case of absent students, allowing them to catch up to the rest of the class quickly, even if they miss class when they are sick for a few days.
Educators were allowed to come and go from the different workshops so they could soak up as much information as possible to take back to their peers.
Presenters included South Brunswick educators as well as those from other districts like Edison and Hillsborough among others.
“Today is an excellent learning opportunity,” Edison Staff Developer Don Plavoet, who along with fellow development staff member Jennifer Fischer, not only attended the conference, but also presented a workshop on Twitter. “We decided to come because it is a great way to network (and) to learn about emerging practices and instructional technology. It’s a great way to start off the summer with new ideas.”
North Brunswick Teacher Dawn Bauer said that she came to the conference because “technology is a huge part of education now.”
“I feel that young people are so in tune to it, and as older teachers, it is good for us to kind of keep our finger on the pulse,” she said. “That’s why a PD day like this is so useful, you can bring everything back (to the classroom). There is nothing that isn’t useful.”
In the local district, Cambridge Elementary School teachers Jaime Levinson, Cynthia Antunes and Nicole Heyer, teach second through fourth grades respectively, and attended the conference to keep up with the changing technological landscape.
“(The students) are so much more fluent (in technology) than me,” Antunes, 27, said. “They already have great ideas what they can do.”
Levinson said that many of her students “have grown up” with this technology and are already versed in how they work.
“It is really nice for me to take a step back and figure out some new ways that I can bring it down to their level,” Levinson said. “There are a lot of websites and tools that I am learning about so that I can introduce it to them.”
Most of the workshops had a “hands on” aspect including robot programming races in Gifted and Talented Teacher Marcia Walker’s afternoon session.
Participants programed Bee-bots to roll down a course and then saw which of the two was faster.
Attendees also donned funny hats and smiles for a photo booth, which kept the mood light during the day.
Rosenberg said that the team tried to make the day as fun as possible along with the learning because all of the attendees came voluntarily.
“Tech is really an avenue and a tool for such a wider range of learning opportunities for adults and kids,” she said. When teachers have a wide range of options before them, they are going to find one or two tools that really connects with them and they will feel comfortable trying.”
Kerekes, who has spent three decades in education, including as a professional development director, said that the face of these types of days is changing, and that South Brunswick is leading the curve in many respects.
“Professional development, overall, has changed considerably,” Kerekes said. “There are always mandated trainings, but we are trying to build in elements of choice, the ability to create your own.”
Kerekes said that the conference will pretty much break even, and they only charged attendees around $35 each to come, but that eventually, the district would like to make its original and unique professional development programs available to other districts and maybe even make some money doing it.
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