Creativity, Innovation, and Equity: How Tech. Builds Bridges in RCSD Classrooms
Busily working at their Chromebooks, pointing excitedly to discoveries they’ve made on screen, a group of students are no longer middle schoolers at this moment.
Instead, they are investigators hunting for scientific evidence that supports their theory about what happened to Utzi the Iceman more than 5,000 years ago. They will explain their hypothesis using voice recordings, photos, articles, maps and more.
It may be true that a world of information and answers are just a few clicks or a swipe of a finger away in most modern classrooms—but how to use technology to its full potential as a learning tool takes creativity and innovation from both teachers and students.
That inventive spirit is just one the reasons Redwood City School District (RCSD) has been named one of just 14 Google for Education Reference Districts in the state.
Kirsten Knudson, sixth-grade social studies and journalism teacher at McKinley Institute of Technology, said that projects such as the iceman investigation make learning more fun and open doors for students at all skill levels.
“Because they didn’t have to write a paper, and are able to show mastery in another way, it builds confidence,” she said.
Students are still learning in-depth about history topics and how to research—but by using apps to create their projects they can show what they’ve learned in new ways.
“When it was just books…for some reading is not their strong suit…so tech evens the playing field,” Knudson said. “It’s so nice to be able to reach so many students. It makes it feel easier for them.”
There is still a learning curve as the class dives into using technology—even for her—adding another benefit, she said.
“Everyone is new to a new app,” Knudson said. “There’s a sense of community as we learn together and it gives the kids a chance to be successful.”
With competing concerns about too much time spent in front of a screen but also a need to keep up with an ever-changing world, a thoughtful approach to integrating technology into the classroom is important.
That attentive and imaginative climate has earned McKinley Institute of Technology accolades from both the San Mateo County School Boards Association and the San Mateo County Office of Education, including an Excellence in Equity and Education Award, for its use of tech.
“There are multiple ways to demonstrate content mastery and we’re providing many options to do that,” said Kyle Brumbaugh, director of technology and innovation for RCSD, adding that a district goal is to “make learning visible.”
With a one to two device ratio in grades kindergarten through second, and one device for every student in grades third and up, the district is able to fully embrace Google Suite as well as a variety of other apps that assist students in expressing knowledge.
Teachers can also facilitate interaction in flexible ways in the classroom with flat panel displays that can project to any device being used in the room.
“We know there are differences in learning modalities and we want to support that in a multitude of ways,” he said. “It provides opportunities for teachers to differentiate instruction.”
One hurdle has been offsite access for some students, but Brumbaugh said the district actively seeks out Wifi opportunities for students to use devices for extended learning, and is looking forward to public partnerships.
“The goal needs to be that tech is a tool to support student learning,” he said. “It doesn’t replace teachers. It is a tool to allow students to access the world.”
Seventh-grade language arts teacher Sarah Coyle, also at McKinley, said she looks for ways that technology can truly enhance the lesson. One of the biggest qualities she’s found is the ability for her students to share ideas and work offsite.
“I want it to be a tool and to be used to enhance the learning for all students,” Coyle said.
Her students often have online forum discussions about reading materials as well as peer editing and feedback on written assignments, which enriches classroom dialogue.
“They are not embarrassed and they are not shy,” she said.
Students also have the opportunity to watch her real-time feedback as she grades their papers, and have instructional slides at the ready when working instead of “shoving worksheets in a backpack.”
It’s not just middle school students who work daily with technology in the Redwood City School District.
Stephanie Calsing’s first grade class at Orion Alternative Elementary School uses technology about an hour out of their day, splitting that time through different areas of instruction. The children dance and sing to video, do reading activities, math apps, and will even pick up some coding by year’s end.
“Technology opens doors for students at different skill levels by allowing students to succeed where personal attributes for that student would hinder or preclude their abilities to learn or participate,” she said, “especially when developing skills that may be in demand, but are hard to start to become an expert, such as public speaking.”
Apps like Seesaw have helped her students who are not yet comfortable reading aloud. They can record themselves telling a story and share.
“Technology in the classroom allows children to explore at their own rate,” she said. “It develops and reinforces connections that I teach and allows a level of participation that may not be as available in traditional classroom settings."
Update: Since we first published this story, Teacher Kirsten Knudson has transferred to Kennedy Middle School. Welcome to Kennedy, Ms. Knudson!