Name: Jay Hoffman Distinctions: 2013 Vermont Teacher of the Year School type: Middle School Subject: Technology Education School: Tuttle Middle School (South Burlington, VT) Website: Class Blog
One of your specialties is the use of technology in the classroom via unconventional means. Can you talk about some of your more nontraditional uses of technology?
Well, our most popular hallmark program is a student-run news team called the South Burlington Network News (SBNN). For ten years students in this class have been creating newscasts and broadcasting it to the entire school. These kids were learning higher-order skills before the phrase was coined. I also developed a course called “Media In Action” (MIA) which teaches students the productive use of social media, the use of media in dealing with issues of safety, bullying and harassment, and even how media impacts governments.
What kind of things do your students work on?
Rather than take a traditional exam to demonstrate knowledge, my students go out into the community and create blogs and social engines for both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Two of the most notable ones were a blog page they built for our local police department and another for a local organization called “Women Helping Battered Women.” By doing these projects, the students learn a great deal about their community while simultaneously providing a needed service to society.
Any other projects of note?
I’ve got tons! One group produced a video for our Chittenden Solid Waste Dept. to show elementary and middle-school students throughout the state how to properly recycle cafeteria waste. In one special project Comcast Cable asked our students to produce a 30 second commercial supporting a fundraising event to benefit a local youth crisis center. The commercial aired on national television, including CNN and MTV, and also on local news programs.
That will certainly build up a kid’s confidence.
Absolutely. In our most recent project, we’ve created a collaboration between my middle-school news team and the Shelburne Community School fourth-grade class. This was inspired by Nuncie, a 93-year-old woman we saw light up in awe while being shown an iPad. We saw a way to connect our elderly, who often had limited mobility, to their loved ones and ultimately to the whole world. So we started iCareVT which enabled the kids to help seniors cross the digital divide. Imagine middle-school students (ages 11-13) accomplishing such significant and meaningful projects!
Let’s go back to the South Burlington Network News. How did this come to be?
In 2003, in a joint effort with my colleague, music instructor Karola Troidle, we envisioned combining the arts with technology to produce more valuable and marketable skills in students. This led to the creation of a student-run news team. The intent was to celebrate student work throughout the school, teach civic responsibility, leadership and teamwork, and to increase students’ self-esteem.
What inspired you and Karola to create this?
The inspiration began in Redondo Beach, California. We attended a national technology conference where we met and talked with Hollywood producers to better understand the skill sets needed for students to be more marketable. A year later, with a grant award of nearly $40,000 through our Community Education Fund, we set out to build a studio. This included mounting a TV in every class in the school and even in the main office. I remember the two of us mounting the 45 televisions ourselves. We knew nothing about broadcasting. I was a shop teacher. Karola taught violin and began to integrate technology into her program via keyboard. So, with the coaching of our local Public Access TV station Ch. 16, we aired our first show in February of 2003. The rest is history.
And it’s been going and growing nonstop ever since?
Yes it has. A year later we began to compete nationally with our student-created videos, mostly to test our students’ acquired skills. Our kids fared very well and we all had the thrill of being flown to Washington, D.C., on more than one occasion, to be honored for their work.
A number of my students went on to enter the media field as a career. They used their skills in creating media to help nonprofit organizations. One former student created a nonprofit organization in his senior year called “Technology for Tomorrow.” His effort was a Capstone Project, culminating his involvement in an international student exchange sponsored by the United Nations. He was the only student to complete his Capstone Project challenge. He and his classmates host technology workshops for seniors and others who wish to become digitally literate. Neel arranged to have Senator Patrick Leheay Skype into his session with seniors.
Another former student was accepted by Harvard and begins her college career this Fall. She sent me a text after learning she was accepted. It was on Thanksgiving Day and she excitedly said, “I owe it all to you. I could never have done it without all you taught me.” That was a proud moment for me.
A number of students keep in touch with me and we still work on projects together. That is why I do what I do.
Let’s talk a little about differentiation through the use of technology. What are your ideas on this?
Today we have such a wide array of technologies that it’s becoming easier to design personal learning plans for students. It’s common in my media class for some students, with more advanced skills, to be using state-of-the-art video cameras and high-level editing software that provide them the challenge they need. In a well-equipped studio such as ours, students can orchestrate any combination of media tools they desire to engage in their projects. It can be as simple as using just slideshow software or as complicated as combining slides, movies, music, sound effects, etc.
One special-needs student came to my class with an aid. He had very limited skills. I tailored his learning plan so he would experience small, ongoing successes and be continuously learning at the same time. I had him watch YouTube videos I had made, showing students how to create slideshows. He watched them as often as he needed to. In the end he produced a very special slide show. The highlight for me was when he presented his slideshow to the class. They all clapped at the end and he beamed with pride. At that moment he was on top of the world and I fought back tears of joy.
I use a flipped-classroom approach, so my students can view an instructional lesson on YouTube whenever needed. They come to class ready to work. I have a Mac lab so my kids use iMovie as a basic editing tool with video production. They have the option of using Keynote for slideshows or PowerPoint for Mac which is loaded on our machines. So the key is to have a pouch full of tools. Students work at many different levels here. Some go out into the community to work with businesses as I mentioned previously. Others create tutorials using screen-casting software (kids teaching kids), and still others create drama-based video to teach their peers in a fun way.
Sounds like you’re all over the board with differentiation techniques.
We really are. It’s important for the teacher to discern student ability levels and provide a rigorous project experience that best engages their interest, while at the same time celebrates their strengths. One seventh-grade girl made it clear to me on the first day of class that she hated technology. I said it was okay that she didn’t like it and asked her what it was she did like to do. She said she loved art. I proposed we use her love for art and find a way to mix it with technology. She agreed and set out to produce an informational piece on social media using stop-action animation. It was the finest piece I ever saw in that category. That’s differentiation at its best– find what your students have a passion for and teach to that.
What are the most promising technological advances that teachers have to look forward to in the near future?
This answer may not be thrilling, but it is my gut sense for the direction in which we are moving. Thanks to Common Core Standards, supported by new teacher standards and teacher progressions/evaluations, building technology skills in our students is no longer optional. Every student must demonstrate the ability to articulate via media in their core subject areas. This really validates the work we’ve invested in over the years.
Today, and into the future, technology will be used much more intentionally. You won’t see the haphazard use of technology that now so often exists. For example: what frustrates me most is when school districts make blanket decisions and decide to buy all the students tablets or laptops. I don’t agree with this approach and I think the future will be different. Teachers will have a specific intended outcome and then pick the technologies they need to best meet those goals. Students will have a say in what they use to learn. The need will drive the tool!
With continued shortfalls in school budgets across the nation, schools will finally progress from trying to provide all students with laptops to allowing students to bring their own device (BYOD). This is happening already in more progressive schools.
Future technologies will allow us to collaborate much easier, both on a student level and on a professional development level as well. Teachers will use online resources to assess and improve their practice. A significant resource will be actual video of teachers teaching. Such resources are being developed already and will continue. Teachers will engage with greater skills in video projects with their students.
We are experiencing a shift from consuming content to creating content. Supporting this shift we will see software enhancements that allow easier and collaborative editing. We will see better integration with cloud services thereby reducing the need for costly local servers and large IT staffing.
I hope we do not succumb to surface technologies until A) they become affordable, and B) we first create a need for them.
For now, online learning will continue to increase and will even reach the middle-school level. Students will take advantage of this during the summers in order to get ahead or keep pace. The downside is that this could widen the divide of those who have and those who have not.
That’s a good point and a potential downside unless we find a way to get ahead of it early. Can technology really engage students? Do you have an example?
In today’s high-tech culture, there looms a greater reason for vandals to break into public schools. In our case, we have a very state-of-the-art computer lab, devices such as Smart boards, and an extensive collection of media-creation tools. It is not uncommon to hear that a school has been broken into and had its computers stolen. But imagine if our youth were so hungry to learn that they forced their way into school to work on their projects. As educators we often ask, if not just in our own minds, will the use of technology engage students more in learning? This event I am about to share with you may shed some light on that question.
It was early morning as I left my home to go vote in a presidential election. At 6:45, dawn had just broken. I like to be the first to vote so I can then make haste to my classroom. School does not start until 8:40 but in a high-tech lab full of iMacs, camcorders, and a plethora of broadcasting technologies, one cannot arrive too early to get things set up and ready to run.
According to plan, I entered as soon as the doors opened, voted and made my way back to my car. As I prepared to pull out of the parking lot, my cell phone buzzed. It was one of my news-team students asking when I would arrive. She sounded excited, if not a bit impatient, as I explained I would be there inside of 10 minutes. She said she was waiting in the hallway outside my classroom/studio with other news team students.
As I mentioned earlier, school starts officially at 8:40. I thought to myself “wow, it is 7:10 and my students are asking where am I?” The only person who arrives at school earlier than I do is the janitor and sometimes I beat him in the door.
I wasted no time zooming across town and whirling into my parking spot at school. The benefit to arriving early is that I get the best parking spot in the lot. With a sense of urgency, I walked down the hallway and, as I turned the last corner to my classroom door, I noticed the hallway was empty. Where were the students who had been waiting for me ? My heart sank for a brief moment, I felt as though I had let them down by not getting there quickly enough. They must have left.
As I shuffled through my pocket to grab my door key, I was struck by the fact that the classroom lights were on. Not only were they on but there was a small group of kids inside the lab. How could this be, I thought. With so much equipment to safeguard, I always make doubly sure I lock my door at the end of each day. Puzzled, I entered the room only to find an array of equipment fired up and a group of students so busy working they barely took the time to say good morning to me.
They broke into my studio! It’s that simple. Somehow, they broke in. With a light air of curiosity I asked, “How did you get in?” They responded in a very matter-of-fact tone as they continued to work, explaining they had talked the janitor into letting them in. Our janitor knows well not to let anyone into my studio without me there. This directive is all but carved in stone. I am very protective of all the sensitive and expensive equipment in the classroom. No one gets the keys to the castle while I am out.
Nonetheless, there they were all working hard at 7:20 in the morning with no teacher present. I stopped, reflected for a moment, and laughed in complete and utter awe at what had just happened. My kids broke into the studio to work. I wondered if I had really died sometime that night and went to teacher heaven. This must be all a dream. After all, no kid would get up earlier than need be, break into his or her classroom, and organize and execute their project plan. No, not without a teacher! I am dreaming or I died and I am in teacher heaven. Just to double-check my mental status, I took my cell phone out and dialed my wife, Nancy. I said, “Hon, you are not going to believe this. My students just broke into the studio and they are all hard at work!
Is that the craziest thing you ever heard??” We marveled together for a few moments then I said goodbye and started my day. I was on top of the mountain looking down and seeing that all was beautiful! I wish this for all teachers.
Can you talk about the work you did for Teen Lures Prevention? This is an example of one of the big things you commonly promote– peers teaching peers– right?
In 2008 a local organization, international in scope, came to me and asked if I would look at a script they had written for a student news broadcast where students actually taught other students sexual crime prevention. Teenluresprevention.com co-presidents, Rose Marie and her sister Jennifer, were pleased when I gave a thumbs-up to their script. Asked if we would be the first students in the US to air such a program on our student-run news broadcast, my students agreed.
Peers teaching peers is the most powerful form of teaching we know of. Sexual crime is, as the CDC says, an epidemic in America. It is the big dark secret that no one wants to talk about. Once a month my students pick a popular lure used by sexual predators and teach their peers how to avoid becoming a victim. An interesting irony is this: an event involving sexually explicit pictures being sent via text message drew national attention in our high school. NBC News came to the district at that time, determined to cover the story.
At the same time a Korean news team was in our middle-school studio with my students shooting a documentary on sexual crime prevention, specifically how our program set out to help young teens. A huge problem in Korea led this educational team to us so they could bring our story home to 4.5 million of their viewing audience. Even The CBS Early Show made an appearance that same week to shoot our story while passing through town on another national story.
Through the financial help of Comcast Cable, in a three year grant, we strengthened our program and partnership to help other schools launch their own Teenlures Newscast, helping their schools inform students as well. This is a spectacular example of students empowered with media to make a difference in their world.
How do you involve parents in your classroom?
The key to the success of our program has largely been parental involvement. Each Friday when we broadcast, we open our studio to our students’ parents and to the public. We invite the parents to attend the production. Those parents arrange a continental breakfast, taking care of invitations and food for the morning program. Parents help raise funds for equipment and drive students to local video shoots in our community. They help me write articles for the local paper so we can inform the public about the great things our students are doing. I really connect with parents at the beginning of the year during Parents Night. They appreciate the open-door policy and the opportunity to be involved.
Typically it is not as warm a reception for them at the middle-school level as it was during their child’s elementary years. I work hard to change that. Find a reason to celebrate a student’s work! That is my goal. We all need to make our classroom practice transparent to the entire community. After all, their vote passes or rejects our school budgets.
This year, in light of severe budget cuts to my program, I approached a community person of means in a carefully-crafted letter and asked for a donation. He replied that he had followed my program in the local paper over the years and felt embarrassed for not knowing I needed financial help. This week he pledged $5,000 dollars to our program which will greatly help to offset our deficit.
Let’s talk about classroom management. What’s that like for you?
I have been training Vermont Teachers for the past decade on classroom management. As a training cadre member for our VTNEA, I have the privilege of working with our teachers to shape and strengthen their management skills. As the year opens everyone is focused on all the curriculum goals that loom over their heads. We tell them – “Go slow to go fast.” Build community with the students first by getting to know them, gaining their trust, and you will find that when you do settle in to teach, you will be able to cover the curriculum faster because students are ready to learn.
I like to empower students to help me. I am more of a facilitator than a teacher. My mantra is a phrase I borrowed from Gandhi – “I am my student’s student.” They teach me and I teach them. I think I learn more from them than I teach them. I am careful not to give them the impression that I am their friend. Many new teachers make this mistake and eventually pay for it. I am their teacher and such are the lines they should not cross.
What about rules and discipline issues?
I limit rules to no more than 3-5 and I have the students help me write them. I am always clear on my expectations and consequences on day two. I don’t raise my voice or go head-to-head with a student, but rather try to understand what they are going through and how they might help themselves better. I use a tool called motivational interviewing with the goal of keeping the onus on the student for improving behavior rather than issuing threats or punitive measures. In my first year of teaching I sent 125 students to the principal’s office. That is how I handled things. It did not work for me. Now I rarely send a student out of the classroom, perhaps once a year if that often. Building positive relationships with students is the key to developing a healthy culture. Every student has something we can celebrate– make it your goal to find that one thing they do well– celebrate and nurture it!!