Amidst Disunity, Newark Keeps Focused

Good teachers and digital tools are helping to find light at the end of the tunnel
Cebron Walker

Divergence between the state and community continues but within school walls educators are pushing the digital envelope to accelerate learning for the students of Newark. During a recent visit to Brick City the Learning Counsel visited Technology High School and had the chance to see how technology was being leveraged to keep students in school and engaged.

The Learning Counsel sat down with Mr. Edwin Reyes, Principal of Technology High School and Mr. Joshua Koen, Special Assistant for Technology of Newark Public Schools. Together they presented a top down as well as bottom up view of what is happening in Newark, and how transformation is happening in one school in particular.

Watch a video on Newark Public School’s Strategic Initiative.

Mr. Reyes explained how Technology High already had a Cisco Academy that was up-and-running, an engineering program as well as robotics but they hadn’t filtered those valuable technical tools into the everyday classroom.  So, working with Joshua from the district, one can now visit any classroom and see kids working collaboratively in groups on Chromebooks, using some of the online curriculum that’s been provided to them by the District. “You’ll see kids working on real hands-on projects,” said Reyes. “We’ve even infused using cell phones in the classroom.” Where many schools are still prohibiting use of phones at school, they are doing the exact opposite. “We encourage it,” Reyes stated.  “We want kids working to solve problems using whatever technology or tools they can get their hands on, doing research, collecting data, you name it.”

Focus on Quality Teachers first – Quality Curriculum Second

Mr. Koen told us that Newark developed two overarching digital learning objectives to help identify specific ways that technology is transformative in nature and aligned to sound educational concepts. Each of these two focuses has three sub-objectives.

“The effort to support digital learning is built on two foundations: effective teachers and leaders and the Newark Public Schools prior investment in common-core aligned curriculum.” Notably, Technology comes in second to supporting teachers.

Mr. Reyes told us, concerning objective #1, teachers, “We are coaching them to leverage digital teaching and efficiency tools.”

L: Mr. Joshua Koen, Special Assistant for Technology for Newark Public Schools, R: Mr. Edward Reyes, Principal, Technology High School

Together, Mr. Reyes and Mr. Koen described the three sub-objectives on the teacher side of the equation:

First; we need to get all teachers using technology efficiently and effectively to check for understanding for all students in real time.

“ALL STUDENTS and REAL TIME,” they said, “are the keys to this planning step. Being able to monitor ALL Students in Real-time was previously unthinkable, previously not possible but through digital formative assessments and shared collaborative workspaces, this can now be done, much to the benefit of the learning experience.” 

An example was given of a teacher who has a large, online space to view all of a group at once and can then drill down to individual students or groups of students and provide tailored instruction. Each student doesn’t even have to have their own computer because they’re working in groups. They’re discussing and building their communication and networking skills, not typing.

The second sub-objective: Provide better feedback to student writing and work products. The teachers need to be able to easily check for understanding and keep track of the exact progress for each student. And now they can also provide significantly improved feedback. “Teachers can use a tool that allows them to imbed an audio note/comment onto the side of a paper and highlight any part to focus attention,” stated Reyes.  “Rather than edit the students work, they can suggest edits for the student to do and then quickly check-in later on to see if the edit was done.  The teacher can also select the students email address and off goes an email, ‘Please see my edit note and resubmit tomorrow’.”

The third sub-objective: To provide students with tools to collaborate and authentically demonstrate their learning. Previously the only requirement was for students to submit a paper to the teacher, put it on the teacher’s desk and then it stayed there. “At best it made it home and was put on the wall or the refrigerator of the parents,” Reyes said.  “Now we have the cyber refrigerator that we can publish to groups within the school, parents, teachers or the whole world.”  

Objective 2 in Newark is to infuse meaningful and significant digital learning experiences into the curriculum to deepen the students learning and understanding: 

Joshua Koen: “When we look at technology, we focus on what we call transformative uses. So it’s not just anything that we bring in but it has to be transformative in nature.”

Mr. Koen continued, “Anything we’re going to do has to be aligned to the purpose of accelerating learning through what we call unique and compelling digital learning opportunities.” He told us what he considered unique: “the technology has to have within it tasks/functions that were previously unthinkable and compelling and it has to be pedagogically and instructionally sound. If it’s not, we don’t look at it, we don’t support that.”



Highlights from a presentation by Mr. Joshua Koen, Special Assistant for Technology at Newark Public Schools, at the Learning Counsel National Gathering in Albuquerque, NM to U.S. education leaders


Three Sub-Objectives on the Curricular Side:

They described to us the first of the sub-objectives for curriculum is to utilize technological tools to assist all students to gain independence. So they can progress at their own pace, anywhere and at any time. All students use their phones, all use the internet, many times a day to find information, to help solve a problem but sometimes they can’t get a connection.  That’s solved at least while they’re in school—so quality tools—online or hardware—are made available.

An example of digital curriculum provided for all students was “Learning Ally” – it’s provided free to struggling readers across the U.S. and it has e-books that their kids are reading in their regular classes on their computers. These are books like Esperanza Rising, The Lightning Thief and Hunger Games. The software reads the words aloud to them in a native voice with word-by-word recognition.

Another tool mentioned by Mr. Koen was the “Read and Write toolbar” in Google Chrome. Anything they get on the web, they can have it read to them with a mouse-click. 

Second: autonomous bio-feedback to help students gain independence, i.e., Rosetta-stone – students can speak into it and compare their accent to a native speaker. Another effective tool they use is Newsela – a literacy platform that uses news media tailored by Lexile level with built in assessments. It was purchased it for grades 3 to 8 which gives teachers the ability to give all students the same themed non-fiction text, but tailored to that individual students reading level.

The third sub-objective for curriculum is optimizing use of visualization tools to explore and deepen understanding of STEM reasoning and concepts. “For example,” stated Reyes, “the University of Colorado at Boulder provides free learning software that allows students to study, for instance, tectonic plates and practice, on their screen, a tectonic plate collision to see the result.” 

“Our job today,” stated Koen “is to be Education Technology Coaches, developing strategies and making recommendations to help schools achieve their objectives”.

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