Kathi Szymborski remembers huddling with her students around the flickering screen of a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A personal computer, watching with wonder as they used simple programming language to make words dance across the screen. That was 1981, her first year as a full-time teacher, and in the three and a half decades since then, a lot has changed.
Today, technology in the classroom is no longer the flavor-of-the-month novelty that it was early in Szymborski’s career. In fact, it has become so wholly integrated into everything educators do that it is oftentimes difficult to separate its influence from the larger process of learning. An impressive commitment to emerging technologies at Archdiocese of Philadelphia Schools has helped the schools not only become more competitive as educational institutions, but has also helped students learn the skills they needed to succeed throughout their academic and professional lives.
At Archbishop Ryan High School, where Szymborski is entering her 21st year as a teacher and 13th as the school’s English department chairperson, there is an entire class devoted to teaching sophomores to become more effective and responsible digital learners. Szymborski and several of her colleagues developed this comprehensive digital literacy course three years ago, and she has taught it each year since. The class focuses primarily upon the proper use of social media, technology, digital citizenship, and the intersection of each of those three with regard to entrepreneurship. “When I went to high school, we were taught to critically evaluate the information we were reading in newspapers and magazines,” Szymborski explained.
“But it doesn’t matter how the information is being delivered, whether it’s in print or it’s digital. It matters that our students understand the principles of moral and critical analysis in the digital landscape.”
Archbishop Ryan’s digital literacy course is made up of five major assignments completed throughout the course of the semester. The first asks students to use tools such as Haiku Deck, Prezi, and Slides to create a digital presentation that reflects upon their life experiences through a cogent narrative. The second allows students to pick an area of interest, immerse themselves within an online community related to that topic, and report back about their experiences. In the third, they choose an issue of importance to them and use online resources in order to find evidence in support of the side they’ve taken in the dispute. Fourth, the students must choose a problem – be it in the world, in their school, or even in the classroom itself – and use digital databases in order to research past attempts to resolve similar issues; at the end of the course, they present their own solutions to the class. And fifth, students are given the opportunity throughout the year to spend one day each week learning more about anything that interests them.
This final portion of the class, called Genius Hour, is based upon a similar concept originally instituted by Google that allows its employees to explore passion projects tangentially related to their job duties while at work. Gmail is one of the handfuls of innovative ideas that emerged out of this endeavor. It works in much the same way in Szymborski’s classroom, and at the end of the year students use a digital platform of their choice to create a multimedia report on what they learned and accomplished.
“Genius Hour is my very favorite part of the class,” she said. “It’s driven by a passion that the students have, and it really requires them to do a lot research and find multiple sources of information. And at the end of the year, after presenting their findings to the class, they use Twitter to share their findings with the world.”
By the conclusion of the course, Szymborski’s students become better acquainted with the digital tools and software they will use throughout their high school careers and beyond and also learn to be more thoughtful and engaged members of the online academic community. In doing so, Archbishop Ryan hopes to provide its students with the knowledge they need in order to use the internet to its fullest potential as a resource for educational growth.
Personal growth is also the goal of Gene Carboni, a teacher at Father Judge High School with more than three decades of experience working in technology. Since 1994, Carboni has taught at Father Judge, a school that prides itself on making lifelong learners out of the young men who attend. In that spirit, Carboni has attempted to harness the power of the internet, and of social media in particular, to give students more opportunities to learn collaboratively outside the walls of the school.
As Father Judge’s EdTech Coach, he makes it his mission to teach students both about emerging technologies and platforms and also about how to utilize those tools in an appropriate way. In an age where the collaborative aspect of the internet is becoming more and more accessible to the average person, Carboni strives to to turn his students from passive users to active participants. “Ten years ago, we were all consumers on the internet. We went there when we needed information, and we didn’t really go there to add anything” he explained.
“Now, we look at our students as creators of content. And when we look at social media, we want our students to be building a digital footprint with this content in such a way that they are contributing and not just taking. I think our job as educators is to show them how to use the power of the internet for educational purposes, and not solely for entertainment.”
As one of just two Google for Education Certified Trainers in the city of Philadelphia, and one of 1,370 worldwide, Carboni uses his expertise to remotely instruct other educators from a number of schools. In this role, he helps fellow teachers become more digitally savvy and learn about online resources that can keep them more organized and allow them to operate as efficiently as possible. In order to do this, Carboni makes it a point to stay ahead of the digital curve and constantly seek out new opportunities to enrich his own knowledge in that area.
“Our students have all grown up using these tools. So it’s important for us to stay one step ahead of them,” he said. “I consider myself a learner before a teacher, so what I’m doing is constantly learning, learning 24/7, and that’s what the internet has given me the ability to do. I think I’ve learned more on my own using the internet than I have in many of the formal courses I’ve taken.”
Thanks to devoted and talented instructors like Kathi Szymborski and Gene Carboni, AOPS schools are at the forefront of the digital revolution occurring in education today. With eyes toward the future, we continue to provide our students with an unparalleled education that fully utilizes the awesome power of these emerging technologies.