MIDDLETOWN — Students and faculty at All Saints Academy in Middletown have much to be thankful for.
A recent grant of approximately $86,000 from the van Beuren Foundation has allowed the STEAM-certified school, whose robotics team won the 2019 Rhode Island Students of the Future First Lego League “Into Orbit” competition in the project presentation category, to increase its capacity for developing technology directed towards a blended learning approach.
Blended learning, a hands-on education approach that incorporates “different pathways for student learning,” has always been a staple of All Saints’ teaching philosophy, but the van Beuren grant allows the pre-K through grade 8 school to take its methods to a whole new level, said Principal Anita Brouse.
In addition to funding the purchase of interactive classroom screens, new iPads and MacBooks for student use, the Personalizing Education for the 21st Century Learner grant allowed All Saints to upgrade its infrastructure — including servers and mobile device management — to support the implementation of state-of-the-art technology.
While recent recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics have raised concerns about the impact of ubiquitous screen time on children’s intellectual and social development, Brouse said that All Saints’ blended methods open students to collaboration, instead of closing them off in isolation.
“We see [technology] as only a tool and not as a replacement of a teacher,” Brouse explained. “We see human development as a sharing of ideas and creativity. It’s not isolating, it’s actually embracing.”
First-graders are limited to 20 minutes of screen time each school day, hard copy textbooks still adorn student desks, and teams still develop projects together. Kindergarteners are exposed to Scratch, an introduction to coding for youngsters, while a program called Cahoot allows fourth-graders to take quizzes and reviews while seeing real-time results. Also, a portable Clear Touch interactive SmartBoard purchased with the van Beuren grant allows middle-schoolers to link individual MacPro Books to the screen, showing their work to the whole class for group peer editing in a collaborative, supportive environment.
Despite students displaying their work writ large for comment from their classmates, eighth-grader Jill Michael said there’s no embarrassment. “We know everybody in the class is going to help us out,” she noted.
Being able to evaluate student work during class time makes things better for teachers too, said Ann Villareal, middle school team leader and teacher of English and religion. “It’s so much faster than the old [paper] grading.”
Using technology to facilitate communication “is the ‘A’ in STEAM,” said Villareal, referring to the “Arts” part of the education acronym.
Green, whose classroom is equipped with a 20-point, WiFi-capable touch screen and iPad cart, agrees.
The goal, Green said, is to “have our children be technologically proficient, but use it in a way that’s going to help them later on — not hinder them.” Green’s kindergarteners are using their new classroom iPads as an introduction to programs like Scratch Jr., Epic! online children’s library, Khan Academy learning portal and the IXL multi-subject education app.
The goal of technology use at All Saints is “individual instruction across the curriculum,” said Kowalczyk. “We think of computers as creating — how to use technology, not be used by technology.”
Part of preparing students for a wired world includes requiring all students to sign a media agreement for correct use of technology — which extends to their lives beyond All Saints’ walls, said Brouse.
The winning grant proposal was written by Brouse, kindergarten teacher and Primary Team Leader Dianne Green, Business Manager Kathleen Bartlett and Administrative Assistant Anne Klegraefe, with guidance from longtime All Saints supporter Janice Kowalczyk.
“I’m the guide on the side,” said Kowalczyk, giving all credit for the proposal’s approval to the All Saints faculty and staff who crafted it. “These are really wonderful, hardworking, dedicated, thoughtful people.”
Kowalczyk, a former All Saints board member whose youngest child graduated from the school in 1991, brought her 17 years of expertise in grant writing for Rutgers University to All Saints’ grant application process. She is also knowledgeable about education technology, working to bring computer science to K-8 classrooms around the state through Creative Computing with Scratch (CCS) at Computer Science for Rhode Island.
“A grant is not just money, it’s writing a plan,” said Kowalczyk, who continues to volunteer at All Saints as a coding teacher. “In many ways, the planning process is almost as valuable as the money we got to do it.”
Kowalczyk said it was in the initial course of writing the grant that a needs assessment revealed that the school needed to update its infrastructure to support a blended learning environment.
“We wrote the grant for a lot of updated infrastructure, and then for a lot of professional development to continue with the blended learning that we’re trying to do,” she said.
About 60-70 percent of Rhode Island’s professional teacher development workshops have taken place at All Saints, Kowalczyk said, and the school began incorporating classroom technology before many other schools around the state.
“We were the pioneers,” Kowalczyk said, noting how coding started at All Saints nearly six years ago, while the state has been promoting it since about 2016. “The kids were doing robotics before that, but not all the kids were doing it.”
Blended learning isn’t limited to computer use, though. In keeping with the experiential goal, Grade 7 teacher Mike Thombs is currently planning to install an aluminum antenna to upgrade the school’s ham radio operations. All Saints’ radio capacity allowed students to communicate with the International Space Station in 2016, and so far, 12 All Saints students have earned their ham radio operator’s license.
“With that antenna, we’ll be able to communicate all over the world,” Thombs said.
“Now it’s full speed ahead,” said Kowalczyk. “Now we’re in the planning stages for bringing in a lot of training.”