In my professional lifetime, I’ve covered hundreds of board of education meetings. I usually leave the meetings thinking about what information is going to be the most important to the community.
Sometimes I leave the meeting saying, “Well that was interesting.” And on rare occasions, I leave the meeting wishing I’d brought a spoon with which to poke myself in the eye, just for something interesting to do. But I’ve never left a meeting saying, “Well that was just one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”
Until last week.
At the Jan. 25, 2011, Board of Education meeting, a group of fourth graders from left me speechless (take a bow, kids, that’s not easy to do).
It was at the top of the meeting, and the students were presenting their thank-you gift to the board members for School Board Recognition Month, which was in January.
The gift was a video praising the board members for their hard work on behalf of the district’s students. Take a moment to watch it, because there are some things you just have to see to understand. And this is one of them.
It was so cool, I had to know more.
So I called their teacher, Kathleen Casterline. She teaches advanced math, technology, reading recovery, and serves as Highmeadow’s enrichment coordinator.
The video project started as a math project, she explained. She had each of the 10 students in her advanced math class paint a self-portrait to use in a video about integers. The information the students were assigned to research was the lesson. That’s the meat of what Casterline was asking the students to absorb and process.
“But the video technology took the lesson to the next level,” Casterline said.
Simple, inexpensive programs
It’s just another tool in education, she said. The students used to fairly simple programs – CrazyTalk animation, along with Pinnacle editing.
Though it looks complicated, it wasn’t, Casterline said. In fact, the most complicated aspect of the project was giving each of the students the computer time they needed to work on their animation.
The license fee for CrazyTalk was about $80 for a single computer, and with her limited technology budget, Casterline isn’t inclined to over-buy any particular program. The latest and greatest next new program is probably right around the corner.
“So we had to cycle the kids through on one computer,” Casterline said. “But the program itself really was a piece of cake, even if the results were spectacular.”
What I found impressive about the board presentation was that it did something that used to be called “teaching across the curriculum.” The students had a lesson in art, in technology and civics as they researched what board of education trustees do. Because this started as a math project tied in yet another set of skills and lessons.
Today, Casterline said, that's called "integration".
“It happens naturally by the way we teach in our building,” she said. The last 40 minutes of the Highmeadow school day are spent in enrichment curriculum, where these types of projects are possible.
But no matter how spectacular the project is, Casterline said the lesson is not about the software or the computer program.
“That might be what makes it more interesting, and that might add another level of motivation,” she said. “But the lesson can’t be about the shiny new thing. There has to be context there.”
Her students are what she calls “digital natives. So they’re fearless about it. They’re very comfortable with new technology. We adults are digital immigrants. So it can seem complicated and intimidating.”
Staying abreast of the latest in education technology helps her reach the children in a meaningful way. Her students use Google Docs shared document program, and Google video programs to share their research and work with one another. Casterline uses Skype to communicate in the evenings and on weekends with her students.
As teachers compete for a student’s attention with hundreds of television channels, text messages, video games, computers and iPods, it's important to teach the students using the tools that they most want to reach out for, she said, .
“If we can keep our finger on the pulse of changes in technology,” she said, “We can grab and keep these kids’ attention.”