A visit to Mena

Posted by Michael Simkins on January 22, 2018

Mena Station today
Mena Station today

The first train arrived in Mena, Arkansas in August 1896 with the goal of connecting Kansas City, Missouri to Port Arthur, Texas. I arrived in January 2018 with the goal of visiting the Mena Public Schools and, in particular, seeing how students and teachers were using technology.

Mena is a rural town of 5,700 people in the southwest of Arkansas, quite near the Oklahoma border. Originally a railroad town, the economy is now diverse   Health care and social assistance, retail trade, construction, educational services, and manufacturing are the top five occupational groups, in that order, and account for 72% of jobs. The median household income is $27,491.

Mena Schools Bearcat logoMena public schools enroll 1,750 students in grades K-12. The average class size is 15 and the district spends $9,200 per pupil. 92% of students are white, 68% are low income, and just 1% are limited English proficient.

My guide for the morning was TICAL cadre member Clifton Sherrer. I could not have been in better, more knowledgeable hands. Raised in Mena, Clifton attended all the schools we would visit and, after leaving for college, returned to coach and teach science for 15 years. Following that he was assistant principal at Mena Middle School a number of years before moving into the principal’s office two years ago. Clifton knows Mena.

My tour began at Louise Durham Elementary, a building currently undergoing major renovation. As we walked down one hall, we were passed by a class of kindergarten students, following the “red line” in single file fashion, each holding an index card with his or her username and password. No doubt on the way to the computer lab, we concluded, and I decided I’d like to see what they’d be up to when they got there.

The goal was for the students to play some games that teach early literacy skills, but first they had to get logged into their individual accounts. That was quite a process. At least four adults were going from student to student, helping with the chore, trying to get everyone to the same place so instructions could begin. Due to my tight schedule, we had to leave before that was accomplished. My hunch is this process was new to the kids and with a little practice, logging in will happen quickly.

Holly Harshman, a grades three to five school, was the next stop. Recently, every classroom got a set of Chromebooks, and the school also has Google Classroom. I spent most of my time talking with two teachers during their planning period.  Hollie, a fifth grade teacher, was clearly excited, if yet a bit nervous, about finally having the technology available to support the projects her class would be doing. Jill—an “early adopter” I suspect—was giving Hollie pointers and reassurance. It was a pleasure to see their enthusiasm.

Next on the itinerary was Mena High. Opened in 2011, it’s a striking building with great features that include open spaces, a huge library, playing fields, and a beautiful auditorium and performance space.

As we walked down one of the wide, bright halls, my attention was caught by the furniture in one classroom, so we ducked in to take a closer look. Instead of the typical “chair desk,” this room had a mix of flexible, movable furniture. I learned from the teacher that is was very new and she was experimenting with it.  So far, she likes it, despite the fact some of it arrived mismatched—stools intended for higher tables. In true educator-innovator fashion, she solved that problem with bed risers!

Alternative education is one program at the school that makes extensive use of technology. This program used to be housed elsewhere but when the new school was designed, the decision was made to dedicate space for it in the main building. Use of tutorial and other online educational resources make it possible to tailor both content and schedule to the individual needs of these students. However, my favorite part of this stop on the tour was meeting—and petting—Ellie, the therapy dog.

Photo of Ellie the therapy dog
Ellie, the therapy dog

I intentionally asked to save Clifton’s own school, Mena Middle, for last. Walking down the main hall, we passed a display of student art with a banner proclaiming, “MMS can Be the Good.” I asked Clifton about it. “It’s something started by one of our 6th grade teachers where students make positive comments about their peers each month and nominate them for being good. I asked her to put this display up before we presented the project to the school board.”

As for technology, the middle school now has a set of Chromebooks in each core classroom, which enables a 1-to-1 setting for those key subjects. The school chose this approach rather than issuing the devices to individual students for several reasons. It keeps the Chromebooks secure, onsite, and ready to use. Students store their work in the cloud, so they can access their files regardless of which Chromebook they are using, plus many students do not have Internet access at home. Also, having the Chromebooks available in each classroom frees the school’s computer labs for other uses.

Our visit to the cafeteria was an eye-opener for me. In 2016-17, the district outsourced food services.  The result is far more choice for students. There are different entree choices each day.  There’s a salad bar. There’s always pizza! No more lunch counts or teachers collecting lunch money to keep it safe till lunchtime. Technology is enabling personalization in the cafeteria, not just the classroom.

Besides the things I’ve described specific to each school I visited, I came away with some general observations and impressions as well.

  • Everywhere, I saw happy, well-behaved kids and friendly, dedicated adults.
  • From sayings on the wall to pictures of students in the hallways, the feeling tone in every school was uniformly positive.
  • Technology was being implemented thoughtfully, with attention to both its potential and practicality—no rush to adopt any technology for technology’s sake.

My half-day visit afforded only a glimpse, of course, but it was time well spent!

Quotation on the wall at Mena Middle School: "Every child is a story yet to be told."
On the wall at Mena Middle School. The picture says it all!

The Homework Gap—Latest Wrinkle for Resolving the Digital Divide

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on December 16, 2017

cartoon of a chasmHistorically, the term digital divide referred to a lack of access to hardware and Internet connectivity. Basic technology access is less of an issue today; however, as we have increased the numbers of available devices and Internet-connected schools, we are discovering that solving the digital divide challenge is more complex than making ‘stuff’ available. We are discovering that, in addition to connectivity issues on campus, we also must address students’ use of technology outside the traditional school day, especially as technology-supported homework activities become increasingly common. Failure to attend to this challenge results in a phenomenon called the Homework Gap—a situation where, for a variety of reasons, students lack sufficient connectivity to complete assignments and then, in some instances, are penalized for not getting their homework done. What do mindful educators need to think about as they consider the current status of the digital divide off-campus and how it might be impacting teaching and learning?

False assumptions

It’s not uncommon for educators to form false assumptions about students’ access to technology at home based on information provided by parents and students themselves. This often happens when students and/or parents are asked questions in surveys or other data collection activities that fail to get at the information educators actually need. For example, it’s not enough to know that a student has home access to a tablet device that is used 30 minutes daily. It’s also necessary to know what type and model of tablet, what operating system it is running, how it connects to the internet, its screen size, if there are peripherals (e.g., a keyboard) and if the student is sharing the device with one or more other people as well as what the student is doing while using the device. The same is true for laptops, desktop computers, and smartphones. These specifics are needed to fully understand the quality of students’ off-campus connectivity.

There are similar concerns related to Internet connectivity. If there’s home access, what type and how robust is the network? If there’s no home access, where do students need to be to get online and is it possible for them to get there? If they are relying on a data plan for connectivity, can the plan support the required work and what is the monthly data allowance? Is the plan shared with other devices?

Equity concerns off campus often result in students not being able to complete homework as assigned or in them having to go to extreme lengths to keep up with their work. Students who are sharing a device with other family members or who have limited or no Internet connectivity at home may want to do their work, but not be able to due to circumstances beyond their control. Not only does this hurt them academically, but may have detrimental impacts on family relationships.

Quick fixes aren’t the solution

What can educators do to resolve Homework Gap concerns? Arriving at solutions requires effort and flexibility along with a recognition that quick fixes may take care of problems in the short-term, but are not ongoing solutions. For example, you may have heard about schools that enter partnerships with companies that will provide tablets with free 3G or 4G connectivity for one year or some type of WiFi hot spot. This is a generous offer that may immediately address lack of Internet access at home, but what happens at the end of the year? Typically, schools that take advantage of this kind of donation cannot afford to assume the cost of these accounts at the end of the year. With no back-up plan, users are reduced to relying on limited WiFi connections resulting in little or no use of the devices off campus.

Ongoing solutions require a lot of work and ingenuity. One way to begin might be to seek out agencies, organizations, and schools within the community that might be willing to partner with you to design long-term solutions. For example, Next Century Cities supports mayors and city leaders who are willing to partner with local businesses and schools to bring affordable Internet to local residents. Another possibility may be to work with local your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to learn about affordable options for families that cannot afford expensive Internet packages. It may be necessary to negotiate short-term immediate connectivity solutions such as access to WiFi networks at the public library or an after-school program, but if this is the case, be clear from the beginning that it is a temporary solution and plan for how you will follow-up with a more permanent solution.

Given the information above, how does the Homework Gap impact your students and what permanent solutions can you identify that could help your student bridge this new aspect of the digital divide?

N.B. The information provided above originally appeared as part of a longer article on digital divide issues in Today’s Catholic Teacher Magazine (Winter 2017).




Is classroom technology good for learning or wasting time?

Posted by Michael Simkins on August 21, 2017

Elementary school students look at a tablet together.

In this article from the Dallas News, UT Austin professor Joan E. Hughes compares active and passive uses of technology.

Research has shown these passive uses of tablets are about as effective as a teacher’s lecture. Innovative, progressive teaching with tablet technology requires creative solutions.

She also highlights the issue of inequitable use—especially the tendency noted in some research for students of color, those from low-income families, or those who are low-achieving primarily to use technology in school to passively receive information while their more affluent, gifted, or advanced peers have more opportunity to use technology for active, creative and social learning activities.  Hughes encourages schools to take a look at how technology is being used in different classroom and instructional contexts and to be alert for such discrepancies.

This is a nice article to share in your school newsletter or with parent groups.

Source: Is classroom technology good for learning or wasting time? | Commentary | Dallas News


A Different Kind of Learning Experience

Posted by Sandra Miller on May 11, 2016

SU15Report_finalEvery year Project Tomorrow releases findings from their Speak Up Survey. I am always amazed at this research and how I can use it with different stakeholder groups to move technology forward.  The project’s wide participant base helps!  Over 500,000 people participated in this year’s survey, which includes 415,686 K-12 students, 38,613 teachers and librarians, 40, 218 parents, 4,536 administrators and technology leaders, and 6,623 community members.

This year’s report is a bit different from previous ones.  Instead of focusing on changes around technology use, it focuses on what the Speak Up Surveys have documented over many years: “…the emergence of pixel-based digital tools, specifically, videos, games, animations and simulations, as legitimate vehicles for learning”  (emphasis mine).


How is this happening and what were the results from students, parents, and teachers?  Some significant trends are highlighted below.  Each is accompanied by a link to an infographic you can use to begin a conversation with your groups.

  • Students are learning via YouTube:  38% are finding online videos to help with their homework.  Infographic
  • K-12 Parents are on board with technology from using it at home to receiving text messages.
    • Tech use in school is important to student success. (85%)
    • Parents are concerned that technology use varies from teacher to teacher. Infographic
  • Teachers are using more and more digital content in the classroom with flipped learning growing rapidly.  Videos (68%)  digital games (48%) online curriculum (36%) online textbooks (30%) an animations (27%).  Infographic

The disruptive nature of technology has brought about change in our schools.  Today’s leaders are more on board with technology than ever before, but we recognize some road blocks to moving forward. The top barrier, according to 57% of principals, is “lack of teacher training on how to integrate digital content within instruction.”  Interestingly, 35% of teachers say they are interested in professional development on implementation, and are open to online instruction as well.

Key finding

The key finding of Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up Survey?

“Students, educators and parents agree—we need a different kind of learning experience for the future.”

Certainly, it is a changing instructional world.  I hope these nuggets from the report will pique your interest and lead you to want to read and share the full report, From Print to Pixel: the role of videos, games, animations and simulations within K-12 education.




Books fall open, you fall in

Posted by Leslie Miller on April 28, 2016

The author's daughter shares a story on her iPad.Like many educators who are also mothers, I dreamed of reading to my children every night before bed.  I saw myself reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, gently tucking them in, and watching them drift off to join Aslan in Narnia.  I managed to fulfill that dream when they were small and loved picture books.  Yet somewhere around the time my eldest wanted a more challenging reading experience than The Very Quiet Cricket, I realized nightly reading was a road block.  What with homework and nightly routines, I just couldn’t do it!

Smartphone apps

So, I turned to my smartphone.  I found two apps I really liked.  One was the for-pay site Audible.com which, like so many Amazon products, offers a wide range of books to choose from for adults and children.  The other site I chose was Overdrive.com which allowed us to connect through our local library card to a wealth of free audiobooks, e-books and movies.

I downloaded Beverly Cleary’s collection of Henry and Ribsy to my phone. One particularly hot afternoon in the car, when my brood was fighting and my internal temperature was starting to rise, I turned it on.  Magic happened!  They listened. In fact, when we got home, we sat in the driveway listening because they did not want the story to stop. They were like camels crossing the desert to an oasis.  They drank deeply.  I knew we were on the right track.

As research has taught us, listening to adult readers builds in a child the value of becoming a successful reader.  It allows children to learn how to read at a natural pace and grows the enjoyment of listening to spoken words of a story.  If we think of oral comprehension as the foundation of the development of reading and vocabulary, then it is easy to see how listening and reading comprehension are interlinked.

Matthew Effects

In the primary grades a student’s maximum level of reading comprehension is predicated on the child’s level of listening comprehension.  Students exposed to stories with increased vocabulary will inevitably have a greater depth of knowledge and more developed academic vocabulary.  Keith Stanovich has described the so-called “Matthew effects” in reading—the wider the variety of reading, the more cumulative the child’s vocabulary and early acquisition of reading skills become, while the child not exposed to the cognitive exercise of tiered vocabulary can have gaps in her schema and will likely become a poor reader.

The beauty of online stories is that no longer am I the gatekeeper of reading more complex text.  At any time, my daughters can pick up a tablet, pop on their headphones and listen to stories unfold. The tablet becomes more than a screen to watch a movie or play a game; it becomes a way to connect with the library. With the current additions to Overdrive.com, children can enjoy hearing the story read aloud while following the text on screen.  While reviewing one particular Star Wars story, I noted how the inclusion of John William’s theme music, the rich voice of the narrator and high interest text invited the reader to become enthusiastic for the story.   Our smart devices become living books that unlock the reader’s imagination.

“Books Fall Open

Books fall open,
you fall in,
delighted where,
you’ve never been.
Hear voices
not once heard before,
Reach world through world,
through door on door.
Find unexpected
keys to things,
locked up beyond
True books will venture,
Dare you out,
Whisper secrets,
Maybe shout,
across the gloom,
to you in need
Who hanker for
a book to read.”

David T.W. McCord