We all know that project-based learning (PBL) opens the door to possibilities. But what if it’s coupled with technology? This year, our district found out that technology serves as a gust of wind – it blows that door wide open, leaving a trail of organic learning opportunities along the way.
As a technology integration coach at Blairsville-Saltsburg School District in Pennsylvania, I’m tasked with identifying the best tools for learning, as well as assisting teachers and students throughout the implementation process. Every day, I work with students and teachers at all grade levels who are passionate about enhancing learning through technology.
There is no shortage of excuses our district could make for lagging behind in education technology. We’re relatively small and rural, with 1,600 students in Pre-K-12. We’re socioeconomically diverse, with around half of our students being eligible for free and reduced lunches. And we’re spread out, with campuses residing in two different towns, roughly 30 miles east of Pittsburgh.
However, for nearly a decade – and in part due to statewide initiatives – Blairsville-Saltsburg School District has dedicated itself to getting technology into the hands of each and every one of our students. Currently, we have a 1:1 iPad program in our high school and a cart-based iPad model in our elementary schools. In addition, our middle school students have ample access to both Chromebooks and iPads.
When I was a middle school math teacher at the district in the early 2000s, I recognized how engaged my students were when using technology, and how it transformed my lessons from passive instruction to interactive possibilities. Math suddenly became visual when students worked through problems on an electronic whiteboard. I quickly developed a passion for education technology – so much so that I pursued a master’s in adult education and communication technology, with certification to be an instructional technology specialist. Fortunately, administrators at Blairsville-Saltsburg School District also recognize the importance of technology, and how innovative projects and apps stir student creativity and problem-solving.
Crafting Creative Projects Through an iPad App
When I relayed a tech-based PBL opportunity to our teachers this school year, they were more than open-minded – they were ecstatic. A dozen teachers immediately expressed interest in Shutterfly Photo Story for Classrooms, an iPad app with curriculum-based lessons that empowers students to share their knowledge through digital self-published books.
Traditionally, teachers use the app to develop their students’ reading and writing skills. Our teachers thought outside the box. They adapted the app into a diverse range of classrooms – from kindergarten through fourth grade, to middle school reading and writing, to high school Algebra 2 and Spanish.
While subjects greatly varied, one thing remained consistent: student engagement. Above all, the app gave students a blank slate from which to create. Topics and possibilities were seemingly infinite. Some of our students were so enthusiastic that in addition to using photos, text and drawings for their projects, they wanted to embed videos – until I reminded them that they were creating a hard, printed book.
Our primary and secondary educators did an incredible job of using the app to develop diverse projects. One first-grade teacher had students create a book about feelings. She challenged them to bypass simple words like “mad” or “sad” and identify words like “curious.” The students then took pictures of their faces to match those feelings. In addition to enhancing their vocabulary, the project reinforced their ongoing development of social skills (e.g., how to express feelings through words rather than actions).
An Algebra 2 teacher leveraged the app to integrate math and writing. She asked her students to brainstorm a theme and create word problems that, together, told a story. Many students wrote stories based on their personal interests, giving the teacher an excellent opportunity to better know her students. In addition, by reversing the process – asking students to develop problems rather than just answer them – the teacher was able to test their understanding of semester-long concepts in a new way.
Developing 21st-Century Skills
While Shutterfly Photo Story for Classrooms reinforced our students’ reading and writing skills, it also presented our students with unexpected problem-solving and 21st-century learning opportunities.
For instance, many students wanted to grab pictures from Google and drop them into the books. Our teachers used that opportunity to discuss usage rights and demonstrate how to find images that are available for noncommercial reuse. Since the app only accepts JPEG files, students learned about different file types and how to convert images. Students also learned how to navigate cloud-based systems.
At all junctions of the project, learning expanded far beyond the class subject. And that’s the beauty of PBL and technology: creating organic learning opportunities that can’t be replicated.
Stacie Isenberg is a technology integration coach at Blairsville-Saltsburg School District in Pennsylvania.