Laura Rahn is a 23-year veteran elementary school teacher who recently came to a crossroads in her teaching career. While she felt appreciated and still excited about her job, she didn’t know where to go next, or what more she could do for her students. Rahn says, “I was at a point in my career where I was considering a change, and possibly even leaving the classroom.” But after participating in the 2011 Microsoft Partners in Learning Forum, adds Rahn, “My world opened. Through the application process, I was forced to self-reflect and examine 21st century learning skills and the application and benefits of technology in the classroom.” Today, Rahn shares how that experience changed her, what she’s now doing differently, and what lessons others can learn from her journey.
How has your approach to teaching changed in the past year?
At the Partners in Learning Forum, I was surrounded by over 100 passionate and excited educators who were using technology in their classrooms in ways that I had never imagined. I wanted to do what they were doing! I wanted to be one of them! I returned from the forum and continued that journey. I joined new online professional learning networks and continued my collaboration on the Partners in Learning Network. I maintained contact with the Microsoft executives that were involved in the education sector of Microsoft. I found new ideas; I learned about how to implement those ideas; I asked questions and received responses. The bottom line was I wasn’t sitting in my classroom wondering what I should do next; I ventured out, took risks and found a world of support to change my classroom community and bring them into the 21st century.
Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?
I am a team player and enjoy doing things for the better of the whole school community. I don’t know if my achievements have advanced innovation in global education, but I have seen big advances in my classroom. By setting high expectations and pushing the students to achieve, they are rising to the occasion. My experiences at the Microsoft PIL Forum helped me to see that high expectations are necessary in the 21st century classroom. All students should be thinking critically, collaborating and looking for learning opportunities outside of the classroom walls. Students of all levels are able to develop those skills if given the opportunity.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
My students are asking more questions and looking forward to coming to school. They are sad when the dismissal bell rings and they beg for more time to work on their collaborative projects. I see my students looking to each other for guidance, and not just expecting me to provide all of the answers.
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
You have to be willing to take risks and step outside of your comfort zone. When you are ready to try something new, you just need to jump in and go for it. I think that establishing a professional learning network with like-minded people is very important. Find others that have accomplished what you are trying to do, and reach out to them for advice and support.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
I think the biggest change in the way that I am applying technology in my classroom this year is that I am getting away from teaching technology as an isolated subject, with a weekly trip to the computer lab. I am exposing the students to a wealth of tools and programs. I am showing them how to use these tools to further their learning, and then I am providing them with the opportunities to do just that. At the fourth grade level, they do need to learn the ins and outs of word processing tools and other basic skills, but what they can accomplish when given the opportunity to “just create” is amazing.
My current project – based off of our present math unit – is to arm the students with a digital camera, a computer and access to all of the tools and programs that they have learned about and used this year. They are then to work with a partner and figure out a way to share Geometry in our World with an audience. There are minimal guidelines and no set structure for the project. I presently have students writing songs using Audacity, doing slide-shows in PowerPoint, creating movies using Photo Story, bringing pictures from home and uploading them directly into their projects, doing video overlays with voice recordings, creating avatars using Voki, and that’s the short list. All of these students are working on the same project and every project is different.
Differentiation is the key to learning in today’s world and technology makes it much more accessible for a teacher. That was a goal I returned from the forum with – to do more differentiation in my classroom, in innovative ways, and to do so with technology tools.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
I don’t feel that there has been an obstacle, but there have been hurdles that I feel I have had to face as I worked to make sure my fourth graders were receiving the best education possible. The biggest hurdle has been to convince parents that we are not teaching to the test – referring to our state testing that happens every May in Virginia. High-stakes testing has been a controversial subject across the country and one of my goals this year was to ensure my parents that their students would have fun, learn new things, and come home excited about school. Yes, we would be taking “the tests” in May, but that was just a part of our day and would not be the focus of our whole year. I maintained open parent communication on a regular basis by updating them with the latest technology tools that we were learning about and using. I maintained a photo website where the parents could
view pictures of what was happening in our classroom and I encouraged classroom visits and participation.
What is your region doing right to support education?
My district is trying and is being very supportive. We don’t currently have the resources that would create optimal learning environments for every student to further their 21st century skills, but the educational staff is doing wonderful things with the resources that we do have.
What conditions must change in your to better support education?
I really feel that the common person/policy maker/man on the street needs to come into a classroom that is using technology in innovative ways to see that it is necessary and is where our country is going. I understand that there are budget issues and that economic times are tough, but plans need to be put into place to ensure that technology will become accessible for all students and considered when resources become available. Many decision makers outside of the classroom don’t realize that we need these tools to create global citizens and 21st century learners.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
From my perspective as an educator, the best opportunity I have been given for innovation in education is to experience the Microsoft Partners in Learning Forum. I was able to be a
participant in the 2011 US Forum and it changed my life. That may sound extreme, but it is very true. My experience at the forum changed the way that I teach in my classroom. I think teachers need to find their own ways to learn and not wait for professional development to come to them. By being surrounded by passionate educators with innovative ideas, I was immersed in a situation that gave me the courage to leave my comfort zone and attempt change. I returned and all I wanted to do was try these new ideas and learn more. I am now constantly on the lookout for new and innovative ideas that I can try in my classroom.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
My advice to a new teacher is: don’t let yourself get comfortable. Once you get comfortable
and begin to settle, you stop challenging yourself and get bored or burnt out. I really feel that the students want to learn and want to be challenged, and it is our job to do that, regardless of their academic level. I have never stopped learning and finding new ideas. Also, don’t be afraid to make mistakes in front of the students or admit that you don’t know an answer. They like to see that you are human and that mistakes are okay. Treat the students like the young adults that they are. Talk to them and allow them to be part of the classroom decision making process. Respect them and they will respect you!
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
I think the educational “trend” that is helping students is differentiation. Our classrooms of today are not made up of cookie cutter students. These kids come to us with their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses, and no two students are alike. As educators, we need to meet students where they are and set high expectations that they can strive to achieve.
Technology tools make differentiating in the classroom accessible and easier than it has been in the past.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
One educational tool that I would like to give to every child in the world would be a personal computing device – be it laptop, tablet, e-reader. Our children today are the potential leaders of tomorrow. They need to see the value of collaboration, communication and have the ability to explore on their own with technology.
Today’s children aren’t afraid of technology, as many of us were when we were first exposed. They embrace it and look forward to the challenges that present themselves. If every child had their own personal computing device, I can only imagine the results that we would see!
To learn more about Laura Rahn, visit her blog.
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About Laura Rahn
Fourth Grade Teacher Loudoun County, Virginia, USA
Birthplace: Watertown, New York
Current residence: Loudoun County, Virginia
Education: Bachelor’s Degree in Education and Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Virginia Tech
Websites I check every day: Facebook and Twitter
People who inspire me most: the colleagues I have met through Microsoft Partners in Learning that are encouraging me to integrate 21st century skills into the classroom
Favorite childhood memory: I grew up as an Air Force Brat and was able to travel extensively as a child. My favorite place we lived was in Naples, Italy for three years.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): pleasure – Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park
When was the last time you laughed? Why? My husband makes me laugh on a daily basis. His ability to find humor and joy in the normal and mundane is so much fun to be around.
Favorite book: The Kingdom Keepers Series by Ridley Pearson (fantasy with a Disney twist)
Favorite music: 80’s Music
Your favorite quote or motto: “If You Can Dream It, You Can Do It” – Walt Disney