Our elementary school technology program was expanded this year to include dedicated classes and a new teacher at each school. Students will learn computer basics and keyboarding, digital citizenship, digital storytelling, and coding. Above are fourth-graders in Kim Marie Kefalas’ class at School No. 10.
By Gary Miller
Imagine a fifth-grade teacher having a lively discussion with his class – but nobody’s talking.
Imagine a 21st century fairy tale about a chicken and a wolf that teaches kindergartners about staying safe online.
Imagine a teacher making personal connections with over 600 elementary school students through videos they record in personal sound studios.
You don’t have to imagine it, because it’s happening now in Linden Public Schools’ elementary school classrooms through the latest and perhaps biggest step in the district’s progression as a cutting-edge school system.
The district’s elementary technology program was expanded this year to help prepare students for the growing importance of digital tools in education and society. The district created five new positions for technology teachers and implemented a standalone technology class at all eight elementary schools to go along with other special classes, such as art, music, gym and world language. Each class meets once in every six-day rotation.
“It is vital for our students to be equipped for the future,” said Superintendent Danny A. Robertozzi. “We can’t even say ‘for the 21st century’ anymore because that’s almost 20 years old. Technology plays a huge role in everything we do today, and it will only be more integrated in our lives in the years to come. That is why we need to integrate it into our curriculum for our youngest students now. Whatever they decide to be when they grow up, being tech-savvy will be essential.”
Students are being exposed to four key elements through the school year: keyboarding and computer basics, digital citizenship, digital storytelling, and coding.
The curriculum was created by the new elementary technology teachers to fit the New Jersey and federal International Society for Technology in Education standards.
The new program is a radical difference from how technology was taught at the elementary level previously.
“Formerly the classroom teacher would teach them technology as it fit into their various lessons,” said Michael Walters, director of technology and vocational programs. “There was never a devoted teacher or elective to teach solely about technology. So instead of a classroom teacher fitting it in when they can, this is a set time and place, and a teacher to teach those skills.”
The new technology teachers are Kim Bachmann at School No. 1, Frank Minniti at School No. 2, Mitch Gorbunoff at School No. 4 and School No. 9, Melissa Higgins at School No. 5 and School No. 6, and Kim Marie Kefalas at School No. 8 and School No. 10. Each was an elementary classroom teacher in the district before taking on their new role.
“They’re all great,” Walters said. “It’s a good crew that works well together. They’re in constant communication. It’s important especially in that first year to be talking to each other. They spent the whole day together on our professional development day just bouncing ideas off each other.”
Linden is a One-to-One district, meaning that every student has his or her own device, either an Apple MacBook Air or iPad. Students in middle school and high school use their devices in school and take them home each day. Elementary school students leave their devices in the classroom, but each one is personalized for their use.
Walters explained that there was a set of initiatives the district has undertaken since deciding to go One-to-One five years ago. First the network and infrastructure were upgraded to be able to handle the increased load. Then the devices were given to students, along with continuing professional development for faculty and staff. The curriculum was expanded at the high school and middle school levels, and now it is the elementary schools’ turn.
“Linden is one of the most technologically advanced districts,” Gorbunoff said. “From my experience, I can’t imagine there being more of a focus on technology in other districts. We really did take the time to build a network and digital infrastructure that’s really advanced.
“For the middle schools and the high school, I think it’s been an integral part of instruction for a while. To me, the elementary program is a chance to give the kids the opportunity to learn how to use some of these digital tools early on, so that when they go to middle school and high school, they can focus on the content.”
“I view it as sort of the training for the big kids.”
Different grade levels are being taught appropriate lessons that fit into the “core four” principals. For example, all students are currently learning about digital citizenship – how to behave and stay safe online – but that principal is being presented in age-appropriate ways.
“In kindergarten today, we watched a story,” Gorbunoff said about a recent lesson at School No. 4. “In this story, the character – a chicken on a farm – finds a phone and texts people she doesn’t know. Then when her new phone friends come, they’re wolves, and they’re there to eat her.
“So the lesson is the same lesson you teach the big kids: You don’t talk to people you don’t know online. The content is the same, but the way we’re delivering these messages and these lessons are adapted for the age. Making good choices online is not something that you learn once and then you just know it. It’s something you have to be reminded of all the time.”
The technology teachers are not just teaching the students; they are also teaching other teachers.
“As a strong One-to-One district, we should try to do things that make it easier for the teachers to implement technology without having another job to do,” Kefalas said. “The technology should be in lieu of a job you’re already doing. I don’t want it to be isolated to my class. I want to integrate it. It something that makes your job easier, not harder.”
Gorbunoff said he sees a lot of teachers who want to use technology more in the classroom, but may be intimidated by it.
“There are all sorts of things that I get asked by teachers,” he said. “So I find myself being an ambassador to them, for the power of technology in general and how it can enhance instruction.”
The program is in its infancy, but as it moves forward into digital storytelling and coding later in the year, “you’re going to find that these kids will be doing some pretty cool stuff,” Walters said.
Parents were given some exposure to the program at the schools’ Back to School Nights. Kefalas had set up an augmented reality demonstration at School No. 10, where an iPad is pointed at a still photo, but on the screen the photo comes to life.
“The feedback from the parents has been good so far from what I’ve gotten,” said Kefalas, who was a classroom teacher at School No. 10 for 22 years before taking the technology position. “But the students … it’s like now I’m their favorite teacher! Which is awesome!”
Students across the district have been learning about digital citizenship during October. Gorbunoff used the Canvas learning management system to moderate an online discussion among fifth-grade students at School No. 4 about the most important aspects of being a good digital citizen. Student were able to respond to his post with their own comments, then add comments to their classmates’ posts.
“It is something I think the kids find enjoyable,” he said. “It’s like it’s treating them like they’re the big kids, like they’re more mature. They light up when they see that! Even something as little as them talking using technology is a big deal for them.”
Technology also offers an avenue where student can excel, even if they may not be the strongest students in other areas. Along with music, art and gym, it is part of the diverse education in Linden Public Schools that allows students to find their niche.
“As a classroom teacher, sometimes I saw students that academically weren’t so great,” Kefalas said. “But you give them a creative iMovie, and they shine! And they finally feel like, ‘I’m successful here! I can do this!’ I’m not downplaying the academics because that’s important, but it gives them a bright light of their day.”
Gorbunoff, who is in his sixth year as a teacher including three as a classroom teacher at School No. 9, knows from experience how those students feel.
“I was not a good elementary school student,” he said. “It wasn’t until there were computers, until I could type things, that I got good in school. It wasn’t until I could use the tech that teachers said, ‘Hey, he knows what he’s doing.’ So for me, it’s an emotional connection to teaching it.”
Kefalas said she never imagined “in a million years” leaving her role as a third-grade classroom teacher. But after overcoming Stage 3 breast cancer several years ago, “I feel like I got a new lease on life. So I want to do something that I feel like is more of a passion for me.”
She said she sometimes misses the closer personal connection she had with her students as a classroom teacher. But she’s using technology to help overcome that, too. She is having all of her technology students make short videos about themselves to help her get to know them better. She even created personal “sound studios” out of plastic bins and acoustic foam, so a student can record their voice even in a noisy classroom.
“So now I can have that personal connection without being with them every day,” she said. “I have more than 600 kids. So again, I’m using that tool to my benefit.”
In his case, more is better, Gorbunoff said.
“I have always felt that developing a deep bond with students is crucial,” he said. “But that doesn’t really change. I get to make relationships and teach hundreds of kids. So for me, it’s a bigger deal. It’s MORE of what I like to do.
“And I’m very grateful for that.”