New York City is experimenting with new tools and tactics with its Innovation Zone, a devoted unit for trying out new approaches to learning and sharing best practices with like-minded educators. The iZone, as it's commonly called, started in the 2010-11 school year with 81 schools, and since then, they’ve more than doubled that number and hope to reach 400 participating schools by 2014.
Schools across the system are trying out different learning approaches, including blended learning, online courses and project-based teaching. As with the most lofty aspirations of educators, the iZone's goals are to personalize learning, provide real-world experience, change the ways staff and students view their roles and take advantage of the vast number of tools available to students and teachers.
The iZone serves as a hub for innovation taking place at school sites. Staff support schools with funding for equipment, connecting teachers to resources and one another, as well as serving as the repository for the growing body of knowledge about progressive approaches. Though the project is still young, this program has made a dent in differentiating learning, according to Deputy Chancellor for Talent, Labor and Innovation, David Weiner.
For example, in participating high schools, the 35-40 percent of students who are taking an online English Language Arts class are passing the state’s Regents test at the same rate as students in traditional classrooms.
Another example is the Global Technology Preparatory, which has been part of the iZone from the beginning. Founded in 2009, the middle school is universal title one, meaning that most kids get free or reduced lunch. About 40 percent of their students are special-ed and many are behind grade level. In this school, every child has a laptop and students have access to many outside resources to help supplement their school day.
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All this tech equipment and professional development takes money, of course, and most of the funding has come from networking and fundraising by the school’s principal Chrystina Russell, who has courted high-tech companies for funds and computers, has partnered with community-based organizations, and supported her teachers through the sometimes rough process of experimenting with new teaching techniques.
“Our students have a ton of potential and also a lot of need,” Russell said. “So in my mind it’s the only way to go.” Global Tech Prep’s school day runs until 6:30 p.m. because of a partnership with Citizen Schools, an after school enrichment program in which eighth-grade students learn about networking and visit workplaces through a partnership with the Council of Urban Professionals; and all students take college trips to help build a college-going culture with support from College For Every Student.
Still, in the classroom teachers face the same challenges of bringing under-prepared kids up to grade level.
Jhonary Bridgemohan, who teaches sixth-grade Language Arts at Global Tech Prep, has been experimenting with various software programs and web tools. She uses Achieve3000, partly because she finds it helps create a culture of reading to assign an article everyday, and it gets kids accustomed to non-fiction, a big part of the common core standards.
“You do have these moments when they’re checked out, but then you have these articles that spur that ‘Wow, I want to know more’ moments,” Bridgemohan said. She thinks Achieve3000 is benefiting her students, though it is far from perfect.
Bridgemohan also uses simpler tools that she finds very effective – like Google docs. Most of the students write in Google docs, so she can easily keep track of assignments and give real-time feedback on their writing.
“Once they write something out it’s really hard to get them to go back and edit, but if they can see their work as a work-in-progress they see it more as a process,” Bridgemohan said. “And I’m part of that process with them.” The online tool also gives students a chance to innovate in their own right, something their teacher loves to watch. “Seeing them interact and be creative with the tools they have access to is really cool,” she said.
Like many teachers experimenting with blended learning methods, Bridgemohan doesn’t have it all figured out yet. She’s still refining her approach, trying new software, and ditching the things that don’t work. She’s found some success with Study Island for skill review because she can give them a lesson that they go back and review as they do the work. She finds it especially useful for grammar skills like comma usage and for sentence structure and organization tips.
Global Tech Prep also has new grading software called Jupiter Grades, which has been branching into online testing. Bridgemohan has experimented with the software to give online tests, hoping to save herself some grading time. Still, her advice to any teacher dabbling in classroom technology is to take it slow.
“I think it’s important to not do it all together,” she said. “There are a lot of options and it can get overwhelming.” Various platforms have their own logins and passwords, which can be a headache. It’s a lot to get used to and Bridgemohan still uses traditional classroom techniques, like journal writing, reading out loud, and in-class discussion. She tries to use the technology when it saves time or helps a student focus, but doesn’t stress over incorporating it into everything.
SUPPORT FROM THE TOP
Russell is supportive of teachers like Bridgemohan who are trying new things, even within a cutthroat evaluation system that judges the school and its educators by limited metrics. “It can be really hard for the leader to shield the teacher from those traditional measures so that they can feel free to innovate,” Russell said. The spirit of innovation is not system-wide and thus teachers and principals still fear for their jobs if they can’t show improvement on tests.
Luckily, Russell and Bridgemohan have the support and guidance of other educators in New York. Many teachers across the country feel alone as they try to take advantage of new tools to improve their teaching, and their learning never gets shared with local peers. Perhaps one of the iZone’s biggest strengths is providing that type of community to its most forward-thinking educators.