Thirty sixth-graders sat silently in a Savanna Oaks Middle School classroom on a Thursday afternoon in December staring at computer screens.
It was just what SOMS teachers are aiming for.
Some watched videos on YouTube, some researched on Google and others crowded around teacher Noah Weibel asking for help.
Each sixth-grader at SOMS has a Google Chromebook this year as a result of the school winning an “Innovation Grant” from the Verona Area School District. The school got $30,000 to purchase 180 of the Internet-based laptops, providing a chance for the students to take personalized learning to a new level.
That grant was the biggest of nine the Verona Area School Board chose to fund in last year’s round of Innovation Grants, six of which were technology-focused. The program, in its second year, puts aside district funds to fund innovative ideas offered by teachers or other staff throughout the district to work toward eliminating the achievement gap, increase personalized learning and make the district more attractive to potential families and students.
SOMS sixth-grade teacher Kim Schaaf said the grants have given students a chance to work at their own pace, figure out their own learning style and get more immediate feedback as a result of online programs they can use every day in the classroom.
And Verona Area High School teacher Rita Mortenson, whose students are taking their technical knowledge to places like the senior center and library this year, said without the program, even low-cost programs like hers probably wouldn’t happen.
“I think the innovative grant kind of just lets you live on the edge a little bit, try some things that … I don’t know if I would have taken this big of a risk if it would’ve been just funding from the high school,” she said. “It’s just a different feel.”
The first round of Innovation Grants featured just more than $50,000 in grants. That rose to more than $81,000 for the current school year, with much of it focused on providing more personalized and hands-on learning opportunities for students.
“The general theme is going to one-to-one computers,” superintendent Dean Gorrell said of the more than 40 applications the district received last year.
That was the main idea behind the SOMS grant. But other successful applications included purchasing 30 laptops for Badger Ridge Middle School math students, videocamera equipment at VAHS, a training for high school staff on how to use technology to best help students, two Lego robotics sets to help with special education at Badger Ridge and Mortenson’s program to send VAHS students to the senior center and library to provide technology lessons.
The district has planned to move toward personalized learning for each student over the last few years, with a goal of providing a personalized learning plan by 2017. It’s a lofty goal, but Innovation Grants like those given to Badger Ridge and Savanna Oaks middle schools are paving a path.
“Helping them understand who they are and how they learn … that is the very center core of it,” Schaaf said, discussing the instant and more detailed feedback some the programs offer over a simple letter grade. “Students that struggle often just see that ‘D’ or ‘F.’ It’s specific for them so they see what they need to work on.”
From self-paced online programs for math to the ability for students to comment or edit each other’s language arts work on Google Drive, Schaaf said the computers create a “whenever, wherever” learning opportunity for the students.
Having the work collected on the Internet also offers the team of 11 teachers – which calls itself SuperNova – the opportunity to check on their students’ work and progress in the programs. The group meets at least once every day.
Badger Ridge teacher John Bremmer, who applied for the 30 Chromebooks for that school, said the laptops allow “completely spontaneous” use whenever convenient or necessary, which is a big improvement from having to plan weeks ahead and book the computer lab. He uses the laptops in two math classes, and said some kids have adjusted better than others to the more self-paced style.
“It took awhile,” he said, mentioning students’ hesitation to ask him for help. “We’ve gotten over that hump, and I’m very busy during the class period.”
He said some of the kids have still not fully adjusted, but it’s a work in progress, and overall he thinks the students have learned more than they would have in a traditional education setting.
“We’re talking about 11- and 12-year-olds,” he said. “To say now you’re in charge of picking and choosing what you want to learn … I think it’s just a developmental thing.”
What will come next year with the laptops is undecided at SOMS, but Bremmer hopes to expand the use of Badger Ridge’s machines to his science classes.
In any case, Schaaf said returning to the classic teaching style would “be hard” after a year of change.
Teachers, too, are still learning new ways and are continuing to get training on how to use technology.
Another of Mortensen’s grants brought a speaker to talk to VAHS staff about using iPads and other technology to help special education students.
And the technology focus goes beyond tablets and laptops.
BRMS special education teacher Kellie Misbauer used her grant to purchase two Lego Mindstorms Robotics sets to use in a second-semester class, with a goal of bringing students with special needs and their regular education peers together to work on building a robot and having it perform missions.
And VAHS art teacher Lyz Stremikis brought in four new weatherproof GoPro video cameras funded by a $6,000 grant, saying students are getting opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have.
The students film all sorts of activities with their cameras, which students Grant Kistenbroker and Sam Burke described as “indestructible.”
On weekends, they film themselves parkouring, which is a form of physical training involving running, jumping and swinging on walls in urban areas. During school days, they create time lapses and film scenes for the school news program.
Kistenbroker has his own YouTube channel, and he has used the cameras on weekends, when students are able to check them out for personal use, to film himself in ways a normal video camera couldn’t. He and Burke said the mobility, slow motion and different points of view are much better with the GoPros than the school’s old cameras, and they enjoy the filming and editing opportunities that provides them.
Stremikis said the cameras increased the demand for introductory film classes, with two filled up, adding that a few students came rushing to her door as soon as they heard the cameras had arrived.
“It’s incredible,” she said.