For the past two weeks, a pair of teachers from Graham Middle School have been learning how to bring interactive technology into the classroom.
Adriana Reyes, a seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher, along with Leila Dibble, a seventh- and eighth-grade Spanish and math teacher, are enrolled in MERIT -- Making Education Relevant and Interactive Through Technology -- a year-long course taught by Foothill faculty and former program participants through a series of workshops and college courses.
"I love it," Reyes said, reflecting on her first week in the MERIT Summer Institute, which began on July 18, and runs through July 29. Reyes said she has been exposed to a plethora of ideas for engaging her students with a variety of technologies, many of which are available for free online. "Every day, I leave the program eager to start the school year," she said.
Dibble shares Reyes' enthusiasm and said she feels lucky to be a part of the exclusive program, which allows only a limited number of participants and which pays teachers $2,500 for their time.
Though she has used technology in her classes before, Dibble said she now feels inspired to do more. She plans to have her students produce videos and post them online. When students know that their work can be viewed by their peers and won't simply be graded and filed away in her drawer, Dibble said they will be more invested in their work. "They'll say, 'Wow! I have to do an amazing job.'"
This approach of engaging students by placing them in a creative role is called "project-based learning," said Liane Freeman, director of strategic planning for the Krause Center for Innovation at Foothill College, the organization that runs the MERIT program.
In project-based learning, students participate actively in their own education by working collaboratively with one another to accomplish something.
"Technology is an enabler of project-based learning," Freeman said. "It enables teachers to change how they teach."
By giving students access to the Web-connected computers, for example, and allowing them to search for answers to questions while working on a project, they practice skills that are necessary in the modern workplace -- such as teamwork and online research -- while also covering the curriculum.
Jim Friedman, a vocational specialist with the San Mateo Union High School District, showed Reyes and other teachers how he has used the auction website eBay to transform his special education class. Over the course of the months-long exercise, Friedman's students sold collectibles donated to the class from parents and other teachers. Along the way the teens learned to manage money, write advertising copy that was both persuasive and honest, and conduct research to determine the price points of the products they were selling.
The class was so wrapped up in the project at times that they would stay after the bell, Friedman said. They weren't simply listening to Friedman deliver a lecture. They were actively engaged in their lesson and Friedman wasn't so much a lecturer as he was a guide -- there to help if the kids had questions, but otherwise allowing them to direct themselves and learn from both their successes and their failures.
"Talking isn't teaching," Friedman said to the teachers in his seminar. "Listening isn't learning."
Both Dibble and Reyes were clearly excited about the possibilities they saw in bringing more technology into the classroom.
Dibble said she would like to use video conferencing software to bring guest speakers into the classroom or to work on a project with students at other schools.
"Technology is such a part of their lives," Reyes said, referring to her students. "Incorporating more technology in the classroom really strikes a chord with them."
Some of the products teachers are learning to use include Google's suite of cloud-based productivity software and media-production programs, such as Audacity and iMovie.
"Kids are digital natives," Freeman said, seconding Reyes' observation. "This is part and parcel of who they are." By incorporating technology in the classroom and inviting students to participate with that technology in a hands-on manner, teachers are more likely to engage their students in a meaningful way.
"Students are obviously more engaged when they can create things than when they're just listening to a talking head at the front of a classroom." Freeman said. "And when kids are engaged they're going to do better, they're going to stretch their minds more, as opposed to just meeting the requirement."
The bulk of the MERIT program -- the Summer Institute -- is held over 10 days. However, participants must take follow-up sessions throughout the rest of the academic year.
The program accepts fourth- through 12th-grade teachers from public, charter and private schools; most of them live around the Bay Area, but handful are from out of state and overseas.
Upon completion of the Summer Institute, the teachers are given a $1,500 stipend. This year they were also given a Flip digital video camera. After completing the MERIT program, the teachers will receive an additional $1,000 stipend and 10 continuing education units from Foothill College.
Despite emerging research showing that attention spans are shrinking and that people have less incentive to commit things to memory, as they know information can be easily accessed via a smart phone or Google search, Freeman, Reyes and Dibble all agree that bringing technology into the classroom is an overwhelmingly good thing.
"I don't want my students just to memorize information, anyway," Reyes said. "I want them to use that information in a meaningful way." Both Reyes and Dibble said that when they teach their students to research topics on the web, they also challenge them to think critically about what they come across.
"It's really crucial to teach students how and where to find information," Dibble said -- "and then take it one step further and ask, 'Is this information true?'"
Freeman, who has been a teacher as well as a business administrator, said that it is important for students to begin learning the skills that they will one day need to use in the workforce as early as possible. She doesn't feel there is a danger in bringing technology into schools. She even sees a place for teaching students how to use Twitter, the micro-blogging service that some have criticized for shortening attention spans with its 140-character "tweets."
"Books aren't going anywhere," Freeman said. "Kids will still read and write long works. If people are really engaged they won't limit themselves to 140 characters. They'll go deeper."
With the MERIT program, Freeman said, teachers are learning how to teach their students to use technology to do just that.