Three district leaders joined ExploreLearning for a discussion on how they prioritize and fund EdTech solutions—plus make time for professional development to ensure a successful implementation.
Venicia Ferrell, Science Curriculum Director, Hampton City Schools, Virginia
Ian Buter, K-12 Science Director, Charles County Schools, Maryland
Jimmy Brehm, Chief Academic Officer, Woodford County Schools, Kentucky
ExploreLearning: What are the needs of the students in your district? How have Gizmos helped meet those needs?
Venicia Ferrell: When I started the job, we looked at the data so we could get a really good idea of the areas that we could improve. We were looking at teacher strengths and where we could find something to actually support them. So that was one of the things that we wanted to target.
With one of our grants, we’re in the field more and looking at field-based science and making sure science is authentic and hands-on. I said, “We want to be able to use Gizmos to actually show what it looks like in the classroom, but then also in the field.”
Let’s use the Pond Ecosystem Gizmo as an example. The lake at Sandy Bottom Nature Park is a man-made lake. So, do we start with the Gizmo and then take the kids to Sandy Bottom? Sure. Or do we start with taking the kids to Sandy Bottom and then coming back to use the Gizmo with an actual understanding that ecosystem? But they get to see the Gizmo, they get to play with it, manipulate it and everything, and then they go out and they do the real thing as well.
Once a student understands that concept, you don’t have to actually keep drilling it over and over in their head. It’s an authentic experiencethey will take with them, and it will hopefully impact their lives. Our studentsmay not become a science major, but they will understand the natural world around them, and that’s kind of our purpose.
Ian Buter: Our number one job is to get kids to the next level. We need to do that every year so that when these kids graduate, they’re productive citizens in society and they can contribute.
Being able to put a product in their hand, or being able to provide experiences for them so that they can use technology, that’s one of the big things that we really like for Gizmos and sciences. I wanted my teachers to use more technology.
We looked at our data and we saw that kids needed more access to things that were going to give them a rigorous learning experience with real-life applications.
We received a NOAA grant last year for our Bridging the Watershed (BTW) initiative. This program involves our kids going out and participating in field studies at state and national parks or on the school site. Students examine a variety of environmental issues and develop solutions and projects to address those issues. We love the Pond Ecosystem Gizmo, we love all the Gizmos that tie in, so our kids can do it before or after a field study. We want that real life experiential learning so that it reinforces the science that they’re learning in the classroom.
Our district is about 36% free or reduced lunch. We have a large low-income population, and we have an increasing ESOL population. Enrollment for our school system has grown each year for the past few years.
It is essential that we prepare our students as much as possible, and Gizmos is our vehicle for that as far doing that with technology and putting that rigor in at the same time.
Jimmy Brehm: I’m asking more and more of teachers to meet the social emotional needs of kids, but kids do need to explore in science, they need to explore in math.
To pretend that we can just continue to layer things on our teachers and not give them a resource that matches that pedagogical need is comical almost.
I think it’s important that we give our teachers really good resources to plan these lessons. Gizmos are high quality materials in math and science that I can put in my teacher’s hands.I think that’s what’s been exciting to me is that if you’re a second-year teacher and everything is just crumbling in on you, which it’ll feel like sometimes, I’m going give you a resource that’s going to give you a good foundation. But if you’re a tenured teacher and you’re working hard, it also provides you an unlimited ceiling. And I can do that without you having to be there until 10pm at night planning that lesson, because it’s good material.
The biggest need of our students and our teachers right now is to make sure that we can give them high-quality learning experiences that don’t ask our teachers to do things that are impossible, because we’re asking them to do so much on the social emotional needs of students right now.
ExploreLearning: How does your district or your schools go about selecting new products and how does it evaluate new materials?
Ian Buter: I had one teacher that came to me and kept saying, “I want my kids to do Gizmos.” She didn’t trust her kids or didn’t think that the some kids could do labs due to the disruption and change of routine. She was afraid things would get broken, she was afraid a kid would break a test tube.
My argument is those are the kids that need labs. They need to be engaged, and let’s make this a safe, fun environment. But she came to me and said, “These Gizmo simulations are really, really cool.” So I said, “Okay, so let’s do that.”
We ended up getting Gizmos for her and another teacher. I went over and visited several times throughout the year, and just said, “How’s it going?” And more importantly than talk to the teacher, I talked to the kids.
I said, “How do you like this?” And they said, “Well, we never do labs in here, but this is really, really fun and I get to use the computer.” I saw that the kids were engaged and then we grew from there. Now I’m not only seeing it in a life science classroom, but now I’m seeing it with teachers in the sixth grade, which is earth science, and then the eighth grade, which is more physical science. Our science teachers are facilitating more labs that support the Gizmos. And again, seeing the teachers work with it, and seeing the kids work with it is great. After doing that a number of times I went to my deputy superintendent and said, “Here’s what we need to get for our teachers.”
We have a new state assessment in science for Maryland, the MISA (the Maryland Integrated Science Assessment). It has a lot of simulations on it. So I told my deputy superintendent, “Not only can we use technology, we can engage kids and they can do labs.” I said. “But a lot of the simulations are so high quality that they mirror the assessment items that are going to be asked of these kids.” So I’m serving three masters with one program. Teachers like it, kids like it, it’s rigorous, and it’s going to help prepare them not only for the next level, but also for rigorous items that may be assessed on the state assessment. That’s how we vetted Gizmos.
Venicia Ferrell: We have CLCs, or collaborative learning communities. So as we rolled Gizmos out, we have one teacher who is the facilitator for biology, so all the biology teachers get together quarterly. They have a conversation about what they’re using and where their students are in the material. Our curriculum writers will add those activities in the curriculum as well. And of course, the EL team sent us alignments for the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs), which was the big selling point for my deputy superintendent.
Yes, students were engaged, students were using it. We are 1:1 in grades 5 and up. In the elementary school we have iPads and Chromebooks, and the high school and middle school have Chromebooks as well. Gizmos work beautifully on all the devices and across the board, but looking at those state tests, what students are expected to know and be able to do our the teachers needed different platforms to share content. Gizmos provides our students with a method to manipulate data and explain their findings. We are excited to see our students actually using it. Not only that, it’s embedded in the curriculum now, and so we are using a resource that is aligned to our standards. As long as it aligns, we love using Gizmos.
Plus we also get monthly reports and statements. I would send out a principal’s report every month and I would highlight the teacher and student usage. When we visit schools we discuss how to use Gizmos and other resources in our curriculum to enhance instruction as needed.
So it made it very easy to ask teachers what challenges they were having. For the new teachers we knew the challenge, because it was new. But we show them how to use it and model the use of it in their classroom.
We started talking about best practices. Our teachers were saying, “I use it like this. I use it as an intro. I use it as an exit. I use it to kind of set the stage.” We have all the lab equipment and the techniques so we’re going, “Okay, I’ve done the simulation online. My kids are now comfortable with looking at the data. Now I can setup the lab and then compare the data that I got from the simulation to the actual lab. Using Gizmos can allow for a deeper discourse in the science classroom.” Teachers can ask students to discuss the following: “What went wrong? What were my limiting factors? How do I improve this investigation? Did I do something wrong? How does this really work for me and my classroom?”
So you have the students at that point become owners of their own knowledge and not just that it’s a fun lesson, but they’re asking how does this reflect what I need to know about this concept. And how does this introduce that concept to me or show me some things that I didn’t know based on what I thought I did. So it takes on different views for us. Sometimes as apre-assessmentor post assessment, sometimes it becomes different things, but it is still driven by teachers saying, “Yes, I’m using it.” Teachers show that they’re using it, and we have the data.
And that’s with any product, but definitely with Gizmos.
ExploreLearning: Can you talk about your adoption and evaluation process for new products?
Jimmy Brehm: Even though the state doesn’t give textbook money and resource money the way they used to, we still stay on an adoption process in Woodford County. We start with the pedagogical foundations of the content.
I believe that a lot of the really, really good materials out there for students and classrooms are the ones that maybe don’t have the most work in the teacher’s manual, but in what the kids are physically doing. It has to come up from our teachers, simply because they’re the ones that are going to use it every single day.
If somebody comes to me, if it’s a science adoption year or a math adoption year, and says they have a resource, that doesn’t mean I won’t seek out teachers to pilot it. That’s really the avenue I’m going to go. I’m never going to be able to say, “Yeah, I like it. Let’s just use it for the whole district. I know none of my teachers have seen it, none of my teachers have done it yet. We’re just going to go ahead and buy it for the whole district.” That would be crazy on my part to spend that amount of money on something I don’t know whether or not they’re going to use.
So at best what I can do is say, “Let’s get a couple classrooms. I believe in this. I’ll get you a couple teachers and let’s pilot it in their classroom and let’s see.” Because if it’s not coming from them, then I can’t get it to move anyway. We’re district-wide with Gizmos now. And that came from a teacher coming to me and saying, “We’ve been talking about what the pedagogical best practice is in science, and this is terrific. This is exactly what we need to make what we’re talking about happen.” And so we started there, expanded into middle school, and into high school once they heard about it.
ExploreLearning: Is there anything different about the adoption process of a Web-based solution like Gizmos that makes it either easier or more challenging?
Venicia Ferrell: From a Web-based perspective, it’s easier to track the data and their usage and to get feedback, because we are very digital at this point. For everything that we use, they’re going to ask, “Where’s the Web resource? Is it all digital? How do I actually use it?”
One of the things I like about Gizmos is the fact that there is still a worksheet that teachers can tweak, they can modify it. It makes it very streamlined and very easy for them to actually be able to do that and go paperless.
The only thing we’re going to ask is, “Is it aligned? Is it benefit added for teachers and students? Does it work on this platform? Is it going to work on an iPad? Is it going to work on a Chromebook? Is it going to work on everybody’s laptops?” If it can do that, then it’s not a problem.
Ian Buter: Since Gizmos and ExploreLearning are a resource, we can adopt them based on the feedback from content specialists, which is what I do. We are trying to get out of the old print business and get into the digital business. I’m guessing in the next couple of years that the textbooks are going to be digital. But as far as Gizmos, it’s a resource for us at this point.
Jimmy Brehm: Whenever we review resources, we review them the same way. But to me, they’re always going to take on additional layer of analysis because it’s easy to engage kids with technology. They like technology. So, I always get an extra kind of additional lens when something is totally technology based, because I want to know where the teacher’s input point is. And there’s a lot of programs out there where the teacher input point doesn’t exist. None of these programs are going to work unless there’s a place where the teacher is either working with the class or working with the individual student on their skills. And if it does not have that piece in it, it’s not going to work except as a good 30-minute babysitter while I have a small group.
Gizmos is a perfect example of one what that does have a teacher input point. This is whole group instruction that goes into small group, that can go into individual, but it always has a teacher running that instruction. And that’s the additional lens I’m going to take to any technology resource.
ExploreLearning: What professional development workshops have been most successful in your district?
Ian Buter: PD is essential to get teachers more comfortable. But the PD aspect that is most important for us is a direct link rather than, “do this in your classroom, here’s a Gizmo simulation that you can do.” I know our kids on our science assessments are faced with data analysis assessment items from a lab experiment. Jimmy does a lab experiment with this and he found this, this, and this. Can you analyze this data or find trends in the data?
Some of our kids don’t do well on that at all. So we targeted the PD to not only show a Gizmo that will directly correlate to something they’re already teaching, but also show how we can take it to next level. At the end of the Gizmos, we get a data analysis piece in there, and then we can analyze that data. Teacher feel that they can do just the regular lab that they always do. However, now technology is integrated with data analysis skills at the very end of the lab, and that’s that we’ve moved on with.
We’re doing CER (Claim, Evidence, Reasoning) and we’re finding not only on the PARCC, but also on the MISA, our kids when they have to write a response to something, they are asked to make an argument. Our kids need to know how to write an argument. And not only write an argument, but they’ve got to support it with evidence, and then they have to reason why that evidence is really proving their point, and so you get in a counter argument, you get into rebuttals, you get into all these things.
We met with our ELA team and we said, “All right, here is our big initiative.” I wanted to take something that we’re already doing in science in focusing on argumentative writing, and then here’s how Gizmos can support that. If you can find a PD that can directly support what your teachers’ needs are, those are the most effective that I’ve found in our district.
ExploreLearning: How much time do you have to do PD in a school year and how do you schedule it?
Venicia Ferrell: PD for fifth and fourth grade science is a half-day split. We have half in the morning and half in the afternoons so they can utilize that same substitute in the morning and afternoon so it doesn’t cost us as much.
And then we also offer anywhere from four to six PD sessions after school for them. Middle school is a little more flexible with eighth grade, they have last spot planning. So we can work with them very frequently and we are able to provide just-in-time training. I think last year wedid 40 days of Science PD in our division.
We use Argument Driven Inquiry (ADI) at the elementary, middle, and high school level. It fits because it has exactly the same components with it, we are able to ensure that students are actually not only putting togethertheir argument, but they have to have the evidence to support that argument. We kind of fold in the technology and Gizmos where it actually applies in the things we are doing.
Jimmy Brehm: Our state gives us four days of training. And so after that we’re doing subs, we’re doing after-school stipends. We’re doing weekends now. I am struggling, because I’m trying to get the time, I’m trying to get it built in to make it work and to make it function and it’s a battle. I don’t have a solution.
Venicia Ferrell: One of the things you could possibly do, and something we tried this year, was chunking PD into small modules using videos. It was slides and voice over, and it was just, “Here’s this, try this,” and gave them about eight weeks to try it. And then they had to input their feedback in Google Classroom. They had to put in examples from where they’d done it in their classroom. And so it was a PD embedded within a PD. So they used Google Classroom in their classroom.
We tried this process this year and it was met with more success than we actually expected. It’s something that we will do more of in the coming school year.
We’re sending the feedback to principals, “these teachers aren’t using it as frequently.” They’re going, “Okay well, how do I actually make sure that they’re using it with fidelity? How do I provide them feedback?” Providing the feedback to principals as well as teachers was the other component. Making sure they were trained to do that, which is something that principals kind of enjoy, because they had that little mini PDthat they could watch as well. So we now know what to do to help them.
ExploreLearning: In elementary schools, what has been your game plan for your teachers to move from using Reflex to adding in some math elementary Gizmos?
Jimmy Brehm: The science takes off quickly because the science teachers training in the program is based around inquiry-based teaching and learning. They’re very ready for it. A math teacher’s training in our post-secondary system is very much still traditional. It doesn’t match what we know as international pedagogical best practice, but unfortunately what we’ve learned to do in the United States is very procedural based mathematics instruction.
I agree that students need to be fluent in math. That’s why I give them Reflex to improve their fluency, but let’s not miss out on the fact that we’re going to have to fill in the conceptual gap with why they struggle so deeply with math fluency. And so that’s one avenue to which to push the math Gizmos. Let them play with numbers. Let them use rich mathematical tasks, talk about them and write about them. And improve their fluency while you’re doing Reflex.
The other piece that we’re going to start working on this year is taking our curriculum maps and being very specific about aligning the specific Gizmos that go with those units of study. When we look at the sheet now for standards, it’ll give you a number of different Gizmos that could go with that standard and that’s a great resource. But we really need to dig deeper into that and say, “Okay, this is your unit, here’s the Gizmo that would go perfectly in that unit.”
We need to give our kids big old honking problems that give them something to talk about and write about. Because if it’s just a number two and they’re just borrowing, there’s nothing to talk about, there’s nothing to write about. That’s boring. So we’ve got to give them something that allows them to talk and write and that’s where math Gizmos comes in.
But they do need to be fluent in math, but I think the conversation with them is, “Don’t stop at fluency. If you’re going to just drill them, if your whole strategy is that, you’re missing out why they didn’t become fluent math students. You’re missing that piece, so let’s not forget that layer and let’s make sure we add that into instruction.”
ExploreLearning: How do you fund products like Gizmos in your district?
Jimmy Brehm: For Gizmos, you can use Title I, you can use Title II because it’s about teacher empowerment. And this empowers the teachers and some of their pedagogical skills. So Title II funding can be used. Or Title III is students of a second language. This can help them because it gives them access to content kind of language, so you can use Title III funding in this. So having the knowledge on your end of some of those federal funds that are released throughout the year.
District funds, they can be a little more locked, even though there’s flexibility in those too. But, the Title funds are released throughout the year. I have a general idea of what my Title money is going to be, it’s usually more than I had budgeted because I don’t want to run out of money. Come January, I start to feel pretty confident that nothing crazy is going to happen. We’re not going to get an influx of 500 kids that I have to buy new textbooks for so I have some money to spend.
Ian Buter: The conversation if school systems are interested, it’s going to lead into, “All right, here’s our product, it’s wonderful. Here’s what we’re here to sell and this is how it’ll help children.” And you go by X, Y, Z of how that product can fit into instruction, and then naturally it’s going to ease into, “All right, how much is this going to cost us per student? Or how much is this going to cost as a whole?”
And then it’s up to us to figure out, “All right, where do we get that money?” But having the knowledge of Title funds or grant funds or any of that kind of stuff always helps.
Venicia Ferrell: One of the other things I guess that’s been a benefit for me is making surethat there is a need and the product is going to fill that need. So when I go to my deputy superintendent and say, “Okay, we really need to do this because it’s going to benefit everyone. We’re going to benefit this school or that school, or this subgroup.” Gizmos are aligned with what we’re teaching and are embedded into our curriculum. It’s very explicit, here’s where you’re going to use a Gizmo, here’s a suggestion of how you’re going to actually use that in that. So it makes it a little bit easier when I have those conversations with my deputy superintendent, it’s, “Oh okay, well it’s already embedded in there.”
ExploreLearning: What would be your advice be on how ExploreLearning can be the best partner possible for schools and districts?
Jimmy Brehm: That’s when we talked about the writing component that goes with it, the engagement piece that goes with it, the teacher having curriculum materials prepared for teachers that they can roll out. Make sure that you definitely communicate to schools and districts where you know that we need kids talking and writing about science, and talking and writing about math. And you know we need you to give us materials that’ll allow teachers to not have to spend all night planning. You have those solutions for us. That’s what makes your product so much different than so much else that’s out there. It truly is an instructional tool to drive bigger learning into bigger conversations and next steps within the classroom. Make sure everyone knows that’s what you have and that’s what makes you different from just a software program you can buy anywhere.
Ian Buter: From my perspective and more importantly, my teachers’ perspective, your support is there to answer any questions about Gizmos and it’s done in a timely fashion, because you guys have a product that makes for stronger instruction, stronger teaching, and stronger learning. And it just is so helpful to know that the support is there if we need it. And it’s timely and it’s consistent.