Nan Austin

Patterson Googles up a promising future

My week kicked off with inspiration. Tweens speaking with confidence. Teachers who sat down and let middle schoolers teach them. Musings about a cloud plow by the age group who will not only live in the future, but mold it.

Educators from around the region headed to Creekside Middle School in Patterson on Monday for a Google Leadership Symposium. Teachers in Patterson Unified, like most districts around here, use Google for Education. What sets Creekside apart, and why Google chose it for the summit, is how the kids use it.

Last fall the district checked out Chromebooks to its middle schoolers and set aside days to train teachers in ways to leverage laptops to make the most of having tech in every student’s hands. Students proposed a training day for them, said Kerry McWilliams, who retired this spring as Creekside principal.

McWilliams and teachers agreed, but students had to put it on. The tweens took up the challenge, organizing the Tech Boost Conference and providing all the breakout sessions on topics that interested them – coding, making video games, writing music, using digital arts and a host of other cool tools now literally at their fingertips.

Two Tech Boosts are planned for this year, said new Principal Cathy Aumoeualogo.

“It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” said math teacher Nolan Cluff.

As Google for Education presenter Drea Alphonso told the group of about 50 educators, “Devices are powerful and change school culture, but that’s not the end of it.” To move education forward takes using technology to engage kids and spark a passion for learning, she said – tech for transformation.

Alphonso’s examples included kids’ submissions to the Doodle 4 Google contest, this year open Sept. 14-Dec. 2. One elementary entrant envisioned “cloud plows” that would putt across the sky pushing those fluffy white or gray scrums away from solar collectors and toward dry areas needing rain. One youngster proposed “imagination transportation,” saying if he can sit in a cardboard box and fly, surely that could work.

A more practical imagining came from Ann Makosinski, a Canadian who as a teen invented a flashlight powered by body heat as part of a Google science fair.

A lightbulb-moment video kicked off Alphonso’s talk. It starts by imagining future inventions, then asks who will create them. Guys in lab coats? Nope. Up pops a little girl with an orange section smile. The future will be amazing, the clip concludes: “We may not know what it’s going to look like. But we know who’s going to do it.”

The point that today’s preschoolers will be tomorrow’s brainpower underscores why education matters, and why upending the classroom model we all grew up with is a good thing.

“Collaboration happens all over the place. We’ve taken that wall away that teachers have to know everything. Students are teaching them,” said Creekside Assistant Principal Tiffany Jones.

“We now know it’s not enough to know the math. You have to explain it,” said math teacher Maricela Mota, who has her eighth-graders create slide shows, some with animations or embedded videos, to explain concepts. “If you can’t explain it, maybe you don’t know it well enough,” she said.

The Creekside teachers speakers were all fans of student technology. But in the beginning, there were holdouts – “We had to use the Force on some people,” as IT specialist Michael Saunders put it. As visitors from other districts pressed for details beyond the Star Wars analogy, it became clear in Patterson’s case it was a bottoms-up transition.

Starting with a few class sets of Chromebooks, teachers saw how closely students followed lessons on the computer. Scheduling became difficult as teachers battled for time with devices, so the district bought more carts. Tech-enthused teachers took it upon themselves to research Google apps and their chatter in the break room gained converts.

Gradually, making their own lives easier by using made for teachers programs tipped the scales toward Chromebooks and the district bought in, supplying the tech and tools teachers wanted.

Both students and teachers said the biggest difference is communication – students having trouble with an assignment or not clear if they have the gist of what the teacher wants can email questions any time without embarrassment. Students said the organization of online assignments helped, and not having to fish around for a pencil and the right notebook saved time and frustration.

“The novelty has warn off. (Students) don’t view the devices as the things they play used to video games on or go on Facebook. They’re not just entertainment,” said Agustin Arreola, assistant principal at Dutcher Middle School in Turlock. “They see it as a work tool.”

Now that’s a tech transformation.