Almost overnight, the global pandemic required teachers across the country to translate their in-person instruction into distance learning for students of all ages. Imagine our forefathers and mothers trying to make that kind of transition during the 1918 Flu Pandemic. It simply wasn’t possible. Those over 40 know such a feat wouldn’t have been much easier when they were in school. Modern technology has changed all that.
Teachers can send students digital learning plans, provide them with relevant readings, reinforce their instruction with a video, check in via teleconferencing, hold a class meeting on Zoom, collect students’ work, and send them feedback -- all over the internet without anyone leaving their homes.
While we know online education can’t offer all the features of in-person school, where students and teachers are able to interact with one another inside a classroom, modern technology has allowed us to provide a virtual alternative that was never available to previous generations.
Three months ago, when Covid-19 resulted in our school buildings closing abruptly, school districts everywhere were scrambling to find ways to provide students with the devices they needed to continue their learning at a distance. In Ferndale, we had to do less scrambling than most -- at least for our secondary students.
That’s because Ferndale was the first school district in Whatcom County to implement 1:1 technology, which means providing each student with their own mobile device that they are allowed to keep with them at all times. We first issued devices to every middle schooler in 2013. By supplying computers to one additional class each year, we were able to achieve a full-scale 1:1 model for all Ferndale students in grades 6-12 by 2017.
Seven years ago, when we made the decision to move toward a 1:1 technology environment for students, our goal was to prepare them for a future in which they would be expected to collaborate, create, communicate, and critically think in new ways, often with people across the globe. When we initially made the decision, we did not foresee a future that included a pandemic and an extended closure of our physical facilities. However, when the unimaginable occurred, we were better equipped than many districts to respond in a way that was manageable and somewhat seamless.
While we don’t have one computer for every Ferndale student in grades K-5, our younger learners have also had access to technology through classroom IPads, computer labs, and laptop carts. At the elementary level, the district provides approximately one device for every three students.
When the pandemic arrived, our elementary schools each had a number of Chromebook (laptop) carts shared among classrooms during the school day. Once our buildings had been closed and we had gotten our new version of physically-distanced school up and running, we decided to take those Chromebooks off the carts and distribute them to 4th and 5th grade students who didn’t already have access to a computer at home, thereby expanding opportunities to connect remotely with our younger learners.
We know devices are only half of what is needed to take advantage of internet-based instruction. Connectivity remains a challenge in some areas and homes, and not all of our students are able to “get online.” We are continuing to work to address this half of the access equation by partnering with service providers, making our school buildings neighborhood hotspots, and lobbying the legislature for ubiquitous internet.
Despite the obstacles we have encountered in implementing our new version of school, Ferndale’s 1:1 program has served us well during these unprecedented times -- but not without the help of a group of talented, enthusiastic, and passionate individuals we refer to as our “Teaching & Learning Tech Team” -- or Tech Team for short.
Currently, our District Tech Team, under the direction of Assistant Superintendent for Teaching & Learning Scott Brittain, includes five certificated members at the secondary level, each of whom has dedicated time to support our 1:1 program.
Katie Dorr, Teacher On Special Assignment (TOSA), serves as the School District’s Technology Coordinator. She works with Scott and three other part-time Tech TOSAs (Sean Sposari, Jen Roddel, and Susan Smith), who are each on staff at one of our three secondary schools, teaching classes half time and spending the other half assisting their colleagues with integrating technology into lessons; troubleshooting tech-related issues and concerns; facilitating tech-focused professional development; and ensuring we operate our student tech program according to the appropriate laws, requirements, and guidelines. The fifth secondary-level member of the Tech Team is Justin McGrew, a CTE teacher who runs the Student Help Desk at Ferndale High School.
Katie Dorr is a 14-year veteran of the Ferndale School District and a third generation teacher. She taught middle school English and Social Studies before becoming a Tech TOSA. Prior to the shutdown of in-person learning, Katie spent her days assisting teachers with using technology in their classrooms to enhance their instruction.
Since the shutdown, Katie’s leadership has become even more critical. She has been working long hours to create tutorials, facilitate virtual trainings, and provide one-on-one support to enable teachers to use available online platforms and software applications for creating the most effective distance learning lessons possible.
“We are so lucky in Ferndale to have such a strong technology program in place,” remarked Katie. “The strength of the program during this unique time, as always, comes from our teachers willingness to embrace the changes necessary to best serve the current and future needs of their students.”
Sean Sposari teaches Science half time at Vista Middle School and serves as Vista’s Tech TOSA the other half of the day. Sean is also completing his administrative internship this year and has found many ways to marry his tech support work with his leadership work.
One of his growing areas of expertise is Canvas, the learning management system Ferndale has adopted at its secondary schools. Since Sean had already been using Canvas with his students prior to the shutdown, he was perfectly poised to help his colleagues make the conversion.
“I am a big fan of Canvas,” he explained. “It allows students to log in from anywhere they have internet access, find the day’s learning activities and assignments, follow links to supplemental resources, and even take tests and quizzes all in one place. In addition, parents can become observers on their students’ Canvas pages, so they can see exactly what is happening in class and what their students are learning.”
Jen Roddel is Sean’s counterpart at Horizon Middle School, where she teaches 7th grade Health and 8th grade Health & Life Management in addition to serving as a Tech TOSA. Often described by her colleagues as the energizer bunny, Jen has turned her long-time passion for technology into a service.
Before the shutdown, she supported teachers in their classrooms as they integrated technology into their daily practice. Since the shutdown, she has been relentless in her pursuit of online learning resources for staff and extremely supportive in her coaching of colleagues as they have transitioned to the Canvas learning management system.
“I am so impressed by our teachers’ willingness to learn and embrace a full transition to Canvas during an unprecedented pandemic,” said Jen. “I believe once we all have it up and running, it’s going to reduce anxiety for staff, students, and families.”
Susan Smith, the final member of the building-based Tech TOSA trio, has been teaching Advanced Placement English at Ferndale High School since 2005. Recently, she reduced her classroom assignment to take on the tech support role.
“Prior to the school closure, we were having great success sparking excitement about instructional technology and integrating it for learning," Susan said. "During our ‘Tech Week’ in November various staff members presented to their colleagues on ways to enhance instruction with technology, and the enthusiasm was exciting.”
Since moving to distance learning, Susan’s role remains providing support to teachers as they leverage technology to engage students in learning and demonstrating what they know and can do -- except now that support is delivered via email, telephone chats, and videoconferencing from her kitchen table to theirs.
“Ensuring equity and access to learning is a Ferndale value, which is the reason we initially launched our 1:1 program,” said Susan. “We didn’t want any students to be left on the wrong side of the digital divide. The Tech TOSA positions were designed to provide the same level of support to staff, making sure each received the individualized help needed to use instructional technology effectively.”
Justin McGrew, who runs the Student Help Desk at Ferndale High School, has taught an assortment of courses and performed administrative duties at the collegiate and secondary levels for more than 17 years. For the past six years, he has taught Computer Science, three of those years with the Ferndale School District. He loves learning about computer hardware and technology in his spare time. The Student Help Desk is an innovative class with win-win outcomes.
Under Justin’s supervision, and in collaboration with Seitel (the district’s outside information technology provider), students earn CTE credit while they learn and practice valuable technology skills by troubleshooting technical issues with their classmates’ devices. This school year the Student Help Deskers repaired over 400 devices that would have otherwise been sent to a service technician charging $55 per hour.
“My father, an engineer, supported my interest in computer hardware when I was young, though he may have been a little concerned that the computers I built and repaired were focused on gaming,” said Justin. “Today he’s certainly quite pleased my curiosity in computer hardware led to something so positive.”
Since our transition to 100% distance learning, the district’s Teaching & Learning Tech Team has recruited a dedicated group of new teacher-members. Although these new recruits have full-time teaching responsibilities, they are finding time to provide instructional technology support to their colleagues, as well as guidance to district leadership on the evolution of our overall technology plan. The new members are Joelle Schneider (Skyline Elementary), Kacie Bundy (Central Elementary), Scott McDowell (Cascadia Elementary), Karen Pankratz (Custer Elementary), and Kristle Craft (Vista Middle School).
And of course, our Tech Team could not do its work without the assistance of a wonderful group of support staff who help take care of the thousands of devices used by Ferndale students every day. Tech Team support staff include Lisa Taylor, Jeanie Forwoodson, Patty Beaulaurier, and Tammy Longstaff.
For all of the families who are navigating these new waters of online teaching and learning with us, our Tech Team wants you to know they are here to help. To access that help, they offer this collective advice: Reach out to your student’s teacher first. If the teacher can’t solve the problem, they will contact a member of the Tech Team.
As we continue to move through this new reality, we predict technology is going to continue to play a critical role in our students’ learning. Our 1:1 technology model at the secondary level, our elementary computer labs and Chromebook carts, and our Teaching & Learning Tech Team members have been funded with local levy dollars.
We are thankful that the Ferndale community made the district’s current technology program possible by passing levies in 2012 and 2016. However, the failure of the replacement levy in February 2020 has put our current technology program in jeopardy. All of the teacher support positions have been cut for the 2020-2021 school year, and the 1:1 program is unsustainable. We are hopeful voters will renew the levy in November to continue to provide this technology advantage to Ferndale students.
This column is part of a blog series documenting life in the Ferndale School District during the 2020 School Closure. Watch for more coming soon.