Grant Award Brings Genius Hour, Tablets to Hodges Elementary School

Virtual trips and personal research questions help students get excited about learning.

by Hilary Matheson, Daily Inter Lake, Kalispell, Mont. / February 6, 2017 0

(TNS) — A trip to Egypt and tour of Ramesses VI's tomb was on the itinerary for Hedges Elementary third-graders in Brooke Samson's class Thursday.

"Man, I always forget parent permission slips," technology teacher Erin Landrum said, feigning exasperation. "Do you think your parents would mind if I take you to Egypt?"

"No," the students shouted.

"OK let's go," Landrum said.

Students each picked up a tablet to journey into their virtual field trip abroad.

After logging into a program called "Nearpod," an image of an ancient pyramid loaded onto the tablet screens. Landrum instructed the students to look around.

With arms slightly outstretched, third-grader Emily Sweeney panned her tablet to the right — the image moving with her as if she was there standing in the white desert sand. Student Desiree Burgess stood up and raised her tablet above her head — the image panning up toward a vivid blue sky. In front of the pyramid a man dressed in a loose white robe sits on a camel.

"Zoom into the camel, I think there's something on his neck. What can you see?" Landrum asked.

The students pinch the screen with their fingers to zoom in. Some of them notice a brand on the camel's neck.

It's soon time to go into the pharaoh's tomb, where students scroll around the ceiling and walls covered in hieroglyphics. Landrum asked the children to guess what they thought a "pharaoh" was. A list of the student's names appeared on an interactive white board. After students typed their answers on the tablets, the answers popped up on the white board.

Immediate feedback is one advantage of using technology in the classroom according to Landrum and Samson. It also allows the teacher to ensure all students are engaged and participating.

The students then try their hand at writing a word in hieroglyphs -- their drawings projected onto the white board. The third-graders eagerly wait for the teacher to display their drawing.

THIS IS the first week every third-grader at Hedges had the opportunity to use the tablets as a whole class. The tablets were purchased through a Kalispell Education Foundation grant sponsored in part by the Northwest Montana Realtors Association. Currently, Hedges has four classrooms at different grade levels that have a device -- whether a tablet or laptop -- for each student to use.

Previously Samson's classroom only had five tablets and could work on them in small groups. The students also share a cart of mini laptops between two classrooms.

Having a device for each third-grader is just one part of the grant project that Landrum submitted to the Kalispell Education Foundation. The other component is that students get to dig into "passion projects," researching topics for an hour a week. That hour is dubbed the "genius hour," an idea originated by Google for its employees.

"That particular type of learning is my passion," Landrum said, noting that she had learned and implemented the genius hour at a previous school.

At the mere mention of "genius hour," Burgess drew in a quick breath, her posture straightening, her face lighting up and nodding in agreement that she enjoyed the weekly time. The topics students are interested in range from black holes, rocks, helicopters and Bigfoot to finding out how to get into Broadway productions and why doughnuts and bagels have holes. Teachers like Samson have also given students the option to work on their passion projects after they complete assigned school work.

The goal is to have the students present on their topics through creative ways such as videos, songs, drawings, essays or slide shows.

"And they don't even realize that they're learning as much as they are," Landrum said.

Genius Hour isn't relegated to the third grade. Wormholes was a topic a first-grader in one of Landrum's enrichment groups is interested in.

EDUCATORS ALSO need instruction in keeping up with new technology in order to use it in meaningful ways. Sometimes it may appear to be a daunting race to adapt, which is why technology teacher positions are popping up in elementary schools.

"My job is not only teaching kids, but teaching teachers how to use technology," Landrum said.

Landrum said ongoing training for teachers is a must.

"I'm starting an after-school teacher tech time, where the teachers are going to come in and we're going to talk about ways to integrate technology into what they're already doing," Landrum said.

This is Samson's ninth year teaching. When she graduated college, the latest technology in the classroom was interactive white boards.

"It sure has evolved since then," Samson said.

Samson said staff look at technology when searching for new curriculum because of the access to digital content and students' increased access to computers.

Back in the classroom, the students cap off their virtual trip to Egypt by writing a digital postcard home.

"These kids are going to have to have mad technology skills to be competitive out there in the world," Landrum said.

©2017 the Daily Inter Lake (Kalispell, Mont.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.