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Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network Strives for Sustainable Classroom Engagement

Just after two years in existence, Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network’s Learning Lab looks like an operating studio, and feels like one too. The unique space takes up the fourth and fifth floors of the building. Beneath those floors are the public radio and television stations that breathe life into this place daily, and that energy can be felt in the education facility above. 


Recently, in partnership with Newman’s Own Foundation, the networks’ education division held an Education Ideas Forum for Connecticut’s middle school teachers, and some with invested stakes. A large group was in attendance for the event. 


A group of Connecticut middle school teachers are led through the halls as CPBN’s mission is explained by their Vice President of Education Donna Sodipo. With over 20 years of experience in education, youth development, and non-profit management, as noted in a recent press release from the network, Sodipo designed and launched the Learning Lab. 


She places CPBN’s mission into the context of community development at it’s roots: education. 


The teachers are there for an informal luncheon, the Education Ideas Forum, to discuss how CPBN’s presence as a media entity can further help Connecticut teachers as a resource. A brief tour of the facility ignites the teachers’ enthusiasm, and as they stroll, they connect with one another personally and professionally. 


Sitting in the presentation room where they’ll be chatting and eating, the middle school teachers from around the state start to discuss just about everything to do with K-12 education. As experiences fly through the air, the question “What's it like where you teach?" pops up above the noise of conversation about every 30 seconds or so before they’re settled down a bit by the lure of lunch (Panera Bread sandwiches and green tea). 


Middle school teachers finish their lunches, and after an introduction to the informal luncheon's purpose, they do a brief four-question Q&A, and everyone shares what they learned about the table mates next to them. Who are they; where do they teach; what got them to the luncheon; and what's their favorite aspect of the profession?


Matt Lin, currently enrolled in UCONN’s Teacher Certification Program for College Graduates, will be student teaching 10th grade at the Academy of Engineering and Green Technology in Hartford this fall. Having previously worked with students at the middle school level in Bristol and West Hartford as a science teacher during the summer, he went to the forum to gain perspective on utilizing resources that better align to student interests and attention spans. 


He’s always had a love for multimedia, and thinks that its utilization is one of the most effective tools in spurring engagement. He was, like many of the attendees, very excited to share and learn. 


“Unfortunately, it’s very difficult in a modern technology environment to, kind of, keep their attention there,” said Lin, noting that cool features can be just as distracting as they are motivating to students while using EdTech. 


He used YouTube as a key example of this double-edged sword. 


“Once they see a video clip that’s cool, they kind of get sidetracked by the details in the clips that I present, and as a result they loose interest in the main objective that I’m trying to accomplish,” said Lin. 


He also highlighted that students often consume media without fully absorbing it, nor critically thinking about it or discussing it. Lin wants to see that change so that analytical engagement can be fostered into an expectation, saying that his favorite part of teaching is when students want to ask questions, and are eager for answers. 


Right now, he doesn’t see students seeking out the “how” and the “why” behind the facts that they cram in during study sessions and memorize for tests. 


“One of the things that I like to do on my own time is seek out available social media resources that are free, which I use, edit, and work with myself,” said Lin. 


Linda Peer-Groves, a French teacher at Carmen Arace Middle School in Bloomfield, CT, said that she can teach any topic in French, making technology the perfect tool to increase retention and engagement


“I came here today because I’m interested in making education relevant. Middle schoolers are a tough gig,” said Peer-Groves with a pleasant chuckle. 


“They’re always asking for something that’s relevant and interesting and fresh, and it’s really hard endlessly sourcing stuff, but I think it’s worth it because it makes them excited about learning.” 


She also had concerns far away from digital narratives, as did many educators. 


“A program exists as a part of the Connecticut Youth Foundation Forum, which is called Violence in Our Lives, and they set up these cards, and written cards to help precipitate conversations about different aspects of violence in our lives. The group [consists] of 400 schools around Connecticut,” said Peer-Groves, noting that they currently serve a diverse set of the state’s community. 


The cards provided explore the numerous levels of how we’re all effected by various forms of violence, covering everything from homophobia to gun violence, and even the violence associated with neglect. 


“It’s surprising how much violence is out there, and it would be good if different schools knew about this, cause those kids could come and use those cards to help start a conversation…There’s a lot of trauma out there in our Connecticut communities, and kids absorb a lot of that. There’s a need there.” 


Strategy isn’t easy. Many teachers aren’t trained in appropriately using EdTech, and if they want or need to learn, they often do so on their own time. They also need a lot of help with classroom management and behavior strategies for diverse student populations, from those with ASD for others in underserved areas. The list, as many know, goes on. As educators expressed their concerns, they also noted that there are no shortage of webinars and bootcamps for educator instruction, but many are missing the mark.  


One thing became clear: Teachers want more, and they need more.


“Our president was saying: ‘How can we use our resources to help Connecticut more?’ They made an investment in hiring leadership around it versus tacking it on to people’s jobs,” said Sodipo. 


She highlighted that they have over 50 years of experience spreading educational content, but she also noted that the method wasn’t active enough, so a decision was made to strengthen the education department and mission in order to better Connecticut communities. 


Afterwards, they went into the Hartford Public School System and offered their assets, asking: “How can we help?” 


The facility is the result of a $3.5 million campaign. In two years, the money was raised, a school was built, and successful students at the high school and adult levels have been churned out, including veterans that are reentering the workforce.  


What made the effort successful?  “It was sweat and tears from our board,” said Sodipo. 


What do they cover? In the digital space, they offer video production, Adobe Creative Suite, and a variety of other useful communications skills that can be applied to careers at the industry standard. Now, they’re even moving into IT and project management in an effort to offer Connecticut’s insurance industry and growing tech industry more competitive in-state employees. 


“We’re looking to align those career clusters, and what Connecticut has to offer,” said Sodipo. 


“Now that we have the two years under our belts; some horrible lessons learned, some great lessons learned, I feel like we’re ready not to be the best kept secret anymore.” 


Not to overstretch, she says that they plan to take three or four concrete steps in leveraging assets even further to support learning, teachers, families, and students in the state. 


“We were on track with some things, but we didn’t, I didn’t really get how much the voice is not represented by our students, because we hear their voice so much within our school, and it’s what we do. So sometimes I forget that we have to be at the forefront to teach other educators on how to elevate that voice, and then give them the platform,” said Sodipo. 


That includes web, television, and more for the future. 


“That’s the beauty: is that it’s passion meeting purpose with our team, and that we’re now we’re ready to extend what we’ve learned in our little learning lab initial years, in our beta tests, I would say,” she pauses to accept gracious thanks for starting the day’s dialogue from one of the middle school teachers that attended the event. 


She continued to explain that the “beta testing” was to understand every angle of their approach, and to know where they could maneuver through and improve upon failures before making a strategic push out into the state’s towns and cities. She said the most important aspect of that was listening to teacher’s primary needs. 


As far as those needs go? 


The middle school teachers were split off into two groups, and handed colorful post-it notes in themed star and apple shapes. They’re asked: “What digital tools are you currently using in the classroom?” and they all write some down. In groups, two circles fronted by two boards, one that features the logos of various digital tools and media, the other pain white. Some post-its have their write-in digital tools. Those go on the white board. The others go under the digital tools offered by the forum organizers. 


“How often are these tools used? How effective are they? What's missing from education?” the circles buzz in conversation. 


The two boards in each group are full with star and apple stickers, and educators discuss with intense focus as they begin answering these questions. 


Across the board, they’re using Google tools, from the expected Classroom to the unexpected Google Earth. The coding tool Khan Academy is popular, YouTube and social media seemed standard, Flocabulary was also dominant, as was the coding tool Scratch and the video streaming service Teaching Channel amongst others. 


Other resources that stray from the digital weren’t as readily available to teachers. 


John Sullivan, director at the Connecticut Academy for the Arts, uses informative nonfiction pieces in class for his English language arts standards. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to find topics that truly unfold into engaging discussion. He described this during the conversation circle. He said that many students are adverse to conversation, hide behind disruption, and can't dig into subject matter. Other educators chimed in from the other end of the spectrum, saying that their students loved to use their voice, and often times they found conversations to be lesson highlights. 


Opportunities to learn can only be met by curiosity in order to be truly effective, but spurring that curiosity isn't always easy, and digging deep into the context behind issues can be even harder. Many teachers, like Sullivan, observed a social disconnect. Many saw it in the form an over-saturated media, which often pulls interests away from educational goals, including social platforms on the Internet. Many time, many of the educators expressed, learning is highjacked by digital tools because of students’ outside interests, opposed providing to a deeper sense of empathy and understanding for complex issues. 


That’s where CPBN is looking to help most. 


“If we could be that for teachers who are always in the immediate; must-do; must find the solution, and we can take those ideas for them and say: ‘This is already vetted already. It may not work entirely. You may have to be a little bit creative and flexible, but we’ve experienced success here. They’ve experienced success in the community and this might help yours.’ Those are the connections that we’re really looking to make,” said Sodipo. 


Solutions are on the horizon, according to many of the attendees, as well as the hosts. 


After the circles disbanded, the educators made their way back to their dining tables for a recap, as well as a large conversation about finding solutions to their obstacles. 


Community collaboration with area entities has been a powerful enrichment tool for the educators at the forum, such as a producing programming with area radio stations and working businesses to teach real world skill sets such as costumer service to students. The middle school teachers truly put value into partnerships that inspired career paths. 


“Real-world applications spur engagement,” noted a small group of educators chatting from their table. 


Many teachers wish that they could see examples of other successful Connecticut classrooms on video to expose both educators and students to the methodology, atmosphere, and achievements of other schools. Other noted that knowledge consumption isn't enough, and that they must become producers of knowledge within their schools while coming together in and around their communities as a united front for education.  


Some suggestions included video taping other Connecticut classrooms that are active and successfully meeting their learning objectives for other classes to review, as well as more partnerships with other classes in different schools through the state via Skype and other means. These videos could also be shared with parents and others with invested stakes. 


Most expressed that finding learning narratives was their biggest issue. Lin noted that he used popular culture to engage students, and many other educators expressed interest in the method. Others noted that their students had such a deep connection to popular culture, that there was a clear need to utilize it within a clear literacy narratives that align to standards. 


“You're saying student voices need to be heard,” said Sodipo regarding sparking an interest in young learners at crucial points in their educations. 


Many were simply concerned with understating media foundations, such as covering online privacy and cyber bullying. Digital citizenship was a big concern in general. Other educators mentioned that they had no time to commit to legwork after focusing their energy on district pressures. This legwork can be as simple as finding new resources, such as info for lessons and prompters. 


Systematic pressures aside, several educators said that resources that offered step-by-step tech instructions for optimizing how they use tools and resources, both digital and non, would offer the best supplemental help for them to access on their own time. 


“I think this was a really great opportunity for us in terms of how we can reshape the second conversation, which you all are invited to. I think it’s September 23rd down in Newman’s,” said Sodipo, going on to say that they’ll be covering much ground in Connecticut to reach out to the teaching community. 


Visit here to learn more about the Education Idea Forum, CPBN, and their mission. 



Article by Jason Papallo, Education World Social Media Editor

Education World® 

Copyright © 2015 Education World




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