CCS digital learning celebration highlights new tools, technology

Posted 3/24/21

Sharing science videos with students in the classroom and at home. Multi-step word problem activities in Zoom breakout rooms. A hands-free camera with a microphone to allow teachers to read aloud and …

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CCS digital learning celebration highlights new tools, technology

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Sharing science videos with students in the classroom and at home. Multi-step word problem activities in Zoom breakout rooms. A hands-free camera with a microphone to allow teachers to read aloud and easily display a book’s pages for virtual reading clubs.

Those are just a few of the activities teachers at Chatham County Schools have explored over the last year, thanks to tools discovered and invested in due to COVID-19 and remote learning. As in-person learning increases in Chatham and across the state, Emma Braaten, CCS’ Executive Director for Technology and Digital Leaning, said the district is excited to continue using such resources to continue engaging students.

“What we’re really hopeful of is that as students come back into the classroom, that we’ll see a lot of those changes still being implemented with technology and digital learning for students,” Braaten said.

CCS recently celebrated Digital Learning Day, an annual and national online celebration of digital education resources created by Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) ten years ago.

“Although current circumstances created by a global pandemic are undesirable, they offer district, school, and classroom leaders an opportunity to transform the policies and daily practices that guide teaching and learning,” the website for Digital Learning Day says. “Through collaborative leadership, educators can redesign the school experience and deliver on the potential digital learning holds for creating a workforce that truly is future ready.”

While the celebration was set for Feb. 25, at CCS, schools celebrated all week long — all part of an effort to recognize more district efforts and voices, Braaten said. Taking place as all students had the option of hybrid learning, the week especially highlighted efforts by teachers to engage students during the learning challenges presented by the pandemic.

Events took place at both the district level and among individual schools — with recognition of teachers doing cool things digitally, professional development technology trainings and daily challenges on Twitter to highlight new activities and technologies in classrooms.

“Our focus was to celebrate where our teachers and our principals and students have come when it relates to digital learning and how much they’ve learned and grown over the last year, as we’ve been forced to be innovative and creative with these tools in our classrooms,” Braaten said. “Our goal for the week was to recognize the growth that teachers have made in their digital learning digital teaching and learning skills.”

At CCS, elementary students began returning for in-person hybrid learning under Plan B on Oct. 19, with middle school students returning Dec. 7 and high schoolers on Feb. 1. Under that plan though, students who opt for in-person learning attend school twice a week, meaning the other three days are still virtual.

Even as the county begins to phase in in-person learning under Plan A on April 12, digital learning skills will remain critical for teachers and students alike. Students will continue remote learning at least once a week for the mid-week planning day, and teachers will continue teaching students on completely virtual learning tracks. And with all the new digital tools gained, the potential to continue learning through digital platforms on snow days, sick days and vacations is more conceivable.

“Celebrating student and teacher success with digital learning after such a challenging year was a highlight from this experience for me,” said Ashley Long, curriculum coach and digital-learning lead at Pittsboro Elementary School.

At her school, they distributed things like power adapters, Bluetooth speakers, cord clips and organizers purchased by the district — “every teacher got something” — and administrators left thank you notes recognizing teachers for their digital teaching efforts. Teachers celebrated exemplary digital learners by creating a bulletin board praising those students for using platforms Jamboard and Google slides in creative ways, outstanding Zoom attendance and helping classmates navigate digital spaces.

“The incredible amount of growth that teaching and learning remotely has required from all involved has not been easy,” Long said, “so to take a week to look at the positive outcomes from the last year was important.”

At Chatham Middle School, School Media Coordinator Theresa Joyner created a video to showcase engaging digital lessons, and prizes were given to teachers “caught” using digital resources in a particularly interesting manner.

“This year’s Digital Celebration was received extremely well and almost every teacher was caught engaging students in digital lessons,” Joyner said, adding that many students wanted to show off their newly acquired digital skills as well.

“A highlight for me was walking into classrooms to see the amazing lessons that were taking place, and seeing the students fully engaged in their learning,” she said. “This week revealed how focused CMS teachers are on facilitating learning for the students in a more remote way than ever before!”

While the past year has been difficult for everyone, Braaten said it’s been exciting to see the potential technology has to enhance what students can do. Both the district and the state have also worked to increase access to technology for students and their families, emphasizing efforts to distribute laptops and hotspots to students without reliable internet access.

Though CCS had pushed similar initiatives before this year, the dependence on the internet for remote learning further revealed the broadband divide many Chatham families faced. Last fall, the district said it had distributed nearly 1,000 hotspots since the spring, and was in the final stages of securing 42 bus hotspot locations. While broadband remains an issue in Chatham, parents and teachers previously told the News + Record access to hotspots and laptops was a crucial part of helping their students succeed.

Braaten hopes to see those efforts, along with innovation from teachers, continue past remote learning.

“Teachers shared things last week that I had never thought of before,” she said following the week-long celebration. “And so it was great to see their innovation and creativity — really pushing their limits with what they’re able to do.”

She added: “A lot of times, we end up giving attention to the people who are those pioneers or doing groundbreaking things, or they’re the first person to try this.

“Our focus was on celebrating everybody, and where they started and where they are now,” she said. “Everybody has grown in the past year with what they’re able to do with digital teaching and learning.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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