Julie Schlecht is in her 36th year of teaching and she believes that the future has never looked brighter. In the last three years, her second-grade classroom has embraced fundamental shifts that have not only changed how her students access their learning, but also how she approaches teaching. Her classroom represents a learning environment that Hopkins is embracing called the Elementary Ecosystem. It's a blend of personalized learning, flexible seating, and 1:1 technology access.
"I have never been so excited in my whole life about teaching than I have been in these last few years," said Schlecht. "It's a total change. Kids have a choice in the way they access their learning. It's amazing, and it's reaching every kid."
The Elementary Ecosystem represents the second wave of technology-supported instruction and flexible seating in Hopkins. It was made possible in 2017 when the community voted overwhelmingly to renew the capital projects levy for another 10 years. However, this shift is about much more than devices and flashy furniture. It's a teacher-driven change, creating powerful learning experiences that promote student choice and increase the ability to co-teach. The experience was co-created by elementary teachers and the technology department, who spent much of last year engaged in conversations about the technology tools and classroom structure that could meet the needs of all students.
"I firmly believe that nobody understands the academic abilities and needs of Hopkins students better than Hopkins teachers," said Ivar Nelson, director of technology and information systems. "Our department is committed to providing teachers with tools they can use to produce sustainable and powerful solutions in the classroom."
Creating the right environment for students
What makes the Ecosystem unique is not necessarily the individual parts, but rather how technology, personalized learning, and customization work together to create a better learning environment for students.
"That's why we call this the 'Ecosystem,'" said Nelson. "It's about identifying all the components and making sure they fit so we can realize the full potential of this investment."
In this environment, elementary students have 1:1 access to iPads. Gone are the interactive white boards that for years have been the gold standard of technology in the classroom. Replacing those boards are interactive projectors that can mirror the screens of any iPad within range, making it possible for students to demonstrate their learning in real time from anywhere in the room.
"Before, when I wanted to work at my computer, I felt like I was stuck at my screen," said Karin Brinkhoff, a fifth-grade teacher at Eisenhower Elementary and XinXing academy. "The 1:1 technology is so engaging for students, especially the mobility to be anywhere in the room."
In this environment, teachers spend more time creating collaborative learning experiences where students can show each other how they solved a problem, rather than relying on memorization. While technology is central to these classrooms, teachers are intentional about how they use it, being careful to promote moderation.
"It's also important that we teach students that there is a healthy balance," said Rachael Ramy, a third-grade teacher at Meadowbrook Elementary. "We don't use technology all day long. It's really cool what you can do with an iPad, but there is also a benefit to using paper and pencil."
Ramy is one of the teachers who volunteered to be part of the first wave of the rollout. With full support from the District, these teachers are embracing a concept that is both simple and brilliant — it does not matter how you learn, just learn. In her classroom, and those like it, students are empowered to make a number of choices for themselves that were not possible before. They choose how to demonstrate their learning, where and how they want to sit in the classroom, and when they would like to collaborate with their peers. These small shifts add up to a significant pivot from a traditional classroom where a teacher talks and students listen. In the Ecosystem, teachers facilitate learning, and students are active problem solvers. The energy is high, and voices can be loud.
"One thing that I had to give up was the concept that the kids had to be quiet to be learning," said Schlecht. "I have changed my philosophy. If students are getting their work done, I am okay with however they are getting it done."
Although flexible furniture is not technically required as part of the Ecosystem, it pairs well with this environment. In fact, most of the first wave teachers had already transformed their classrooms into a flexible configuration, meaning traditional desks and seating assignments were replaced with interchangeable furniture and a variety of seating structures that students can sit in throughout the day.
What is best for students
The 1:1 component of the Ecosystem makes it possible for students and teachers to interact in new and exciting ways. This is shifting how many teachers approach assessments. For example, students are able to demonstrate their learning to their teachers using short videos, making it possible for teachers to fully understand how a student approaches problem-solving. It also means that teachers can easily let parents be part of the assessment process by sharing these video clips.
"I can not only see their work, I can see how they process and approach their work," said Ramy. "I can see their thinking, and sometimes I even hear their thinking as they talk through a problem and catch themselves making a mistake."
For many students, talking through the problem is important to their learning. It forces them to slow down and really think about what they are presenting. Teachers can also use audio to provide assessments to students in different ways. Schlecht records herself reading math problems, and sends those videos to her students as part of their assessment.
Teacher teams who opted into the first wave of the Ecosystem are also creating and debuting curriculum that thrives in a technology-rich classroom. It's a lot of work on the front end, but being able to work in teams has created an authentic enthusiasm.
The technology department is a partner in this work. As teachers fine-tune solutions, the technology department continues to tweak their process as they roll the Ecosystem out to more classrooms. By spring break, every K-6 classroom will have the 1:1 technology capability of the Ecosystem, and will have the option of shifting to a flexible seating arrangement.
"This is really about what is best for students," said Ramy. "It has opened up a lot of interesting conversations with colleagues, and it's important to have these conversations. We are moving forward together."