Q&A: Integrating Technology into a Chicago Public School

July 18, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES Common Sense Resources, Digital Literacy, In the Classroom, Technology Integration

Kenyatta Forbes, a teacher at John Fiske Elementary School, has spent just five years in the classroom, the last two championing technology integration as the school’s technology coordinator. She teaches grades K-8 in the school’s computer lab, and trains teachers to integrate technology into their own classrooms. John Fiske Elementary is a part of a cluster of magnet schools that focus on improving students’ technological skills so they will be competitive in the workplace.

Common Sense Media: What kind of technology are you using? Do you have any favorite apps or digital tools that other teachers should know about?

Kenyatta Forbes: One of the apps I use the most is called “ShowMe Interactive Whiteboard.” Students can hit record, and it records the process the child went through to solve a problem so teachers can say well, “Johnny didn’t get this question right, let me look at his thinking.” It’s a way to get into a kid’s head without being everywhere at once. It also records voice-overs, so I can lead students through each lesson individually without affecting my time in the classroom.

You use the our Digital Literacy and Citizenship Classroom Curriculum. Is there a subject area or lesson that is most popular with your students? What elicits their attention most?

They really like projects that are centered off of the things that affect them. I see them respond more when they know the content has a personal impact. They respond best when they get the opportunity to make a video, or relate the content back to their life.

I also allow them to use Twitter when we’re in the lab, where I can take screenshots of their Twitter feed and track their usage from a main computer.

After I do a unit on privacy and social networking, I go back and look at their Twitter—if they haven’t made it private—and can ask them, “Is this something you wanted me to see? If it’s not, then why is it published?” A lot of them are pretty smart and make their feeds private during the unit, but I think it’s a really poignant lesson. It’s so interesting to see them process this information. They start to understand the importance and impact of privacy.

What’s the most difficult subject area to cover? How do you overcome it?

My kids always seem to struggle with abstract concepts. For example, my K-2 students did not understand the concept of email yet, which is interesting.  We actually had a technology assessment for Chicago Public Schools, and the kids had to answer the question: If you had to send an email, would you use a bird, a mailbox, or a computer? The kids picked the bird.

My K-2 students did not understand the concept of email yet.  We actually had a technology assessment and the kids had to answer the question: If you had to send an email, would you use a bird, a mailbox, or a computer? The kids picked the bird.

We had to take a step back and think why don’t our kids understand email? We realized they don’t often see a mailbox or a computer anymore, they see their parents using tablets and mobile devices. And, if you think about email, it’s very abstract. They think, “How does this happen?”

I had to rethink the way I was talking about it. I thought to myself, let me put the brakes on here. I ended up finding a free app called Maily, which allowed us to set up an in-classroom email system where they could draw pictures and send them to their classmates. We had to really think how to explain this very abstract concept that we take for granted to first graders.

You mentioned you’re going 1-to-1 in August, which is a large undertaking for a technology coordinator.

I would love to clone myself and put one of me in every classroom. We’re going to have three to four hundred iPads in the building at that time. Up until now, I’ve been managing all of our iPads on two small carts, and can deliver them to teachers on an as-needed basis. When we go 1-to-1, I’m going to have to teach teachers to manage their own devices and their own carts.

It’s got the potential to be amazing. But I anticipate some super long nights at the school building. We’ve got a lot of teachers who are scared of technology, so we’re going to have to work really hard for the buy in, but I think as soon as they see how kids respond to them using new technology they’ll be on board. I just finished writing a technology plan for teachers for the coming year. It’s really exciting times, but also really scary because you want the program to run successfully.

We’ve got a lot of teachers who are scared of technology, so we’re going to have to work really hard for the buy in.

What are your goals for your curriculum in the future? Are there any changes or developments you’d like to make?

Even in the position as a technology coordinator for the past two years I found that I was doing a lot of foundational skills with my eighth graders—skills like formatting a word document for example. My hope, or the technology vision I have for my school, is to develop those foundational skills in K-2, and then by sixth, seventh, and eighth grade it will be more of a media class.

I often think about how we can reshape the technology program to have more of an impact, and to be more student-centered so they’re more engaged. We need to take those foundational skills and get creative with it. Those are the skills they’ll need for the future: creativity and innovation. We have to prepare them for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet.

What advice would you offer to other educators who are looking to get started teaching digital literacy at their school?

Whenever you feel overwhelmed, understand that there are other people out there doing the same thing who are just as stressed as you are. Seek out other people in your position or build a community. What has gotten me through the first year in this position is the fact that I can reach out to other technology coordinators for Chicago public schools. We meet once a month and talk about our goals and struggles. If you’re brand new at this, find somebody in the same position who can listen to you and provide you with support and suggestions.

For more read: 10 Must-Have Tools for Schools Implementing 1-to-1.