“Many of our ideas have come from our participation in Microsoft’s Partners in Learning Global Forum. I’m constantly amazed at how many others there are like me, looking to change education, and prepare our kids for the 21st century world.” – Daniel Sharpe, USA
Daniel Sharpe pursued a career in education after a college career aptitude test suggested he become either an “IT guy” or a teacher. The prospect of sitting in a cubicle all day made him opt for the latter, and since then, Sharpe has made his mark on the teaching profession. When Sharpe began his quest to create the ideal classroom, he didn’t know how far it would take him. He also didn’t realize he was part of a global community of educators with similar visions.
After seeing his innovative ideas come to life at one elementary school, he recently left that school to become the Instructional Technology Leader at another. His new school is already reaping the benefits of his passion for technology and commitment to teaching, receiving grants from a number of foundations and corporations to purchase the tools to teach 21st century skills. Students at the traditionally under-achieving school now study with 1:1 netbooks, iPods, Promethean boards and e-readers.
“Our kids tell us that our school is different than anything they have ever experienced,” Sharpe says. “They actually like coming to school! As a result of our efforts we were selected to participate in Microsoft Partners in Learning as a Pathfinder school. Many of our ideas have come from our participation in Microsoft’s Partners in Learning Global Forum. I’m constantly amazed at how many others there are like me, looking to change education, and prepare our kids for the 21st century world.”
Today, Sharpe shows us just how much can be done through a combination of inspiration, grant-writing and sheer force of will. You may even get some ideas to apply in your own classrooms.
Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?
Two years ago at Murphy Creek K-8 in Aurora, Colorado, I thought that I was the only one who was trying to implement innovative practices in education. I created a small website using Moodle for my 6th grade math students to access via their netbooks which I
received through a grant. I envisioned a classroom where students always knew the academic standards that were expected of them, and where they fell in relationship to meeting those standards. Students would choose daily what standards they wanted to work on and could either meet with me, their peers, or use their blog to question and discuss their understandings and misconceptions. This system worked great and my students LOVED using their netbooks every day. I felt this was so effective I wanted to share my knowledge so I partnered with Accenture and other teachers in my building to build out these Moodle sites for other grade levels. When I left Murphy Creek, class sites existed for 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th grades. Today they still use these sites (and continually add to them).
Last year I was asked to be the Instructional Technology Leader at McGlone Elementary School in Denver, Colorado. McGlone is a school where 70 percent of the students aren’t native English speakers and 95 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Montbello, the community where McGlone is located, had a history of low performance in all its schools. In an effort to change this, the Denver Summit Schools Network (DSSN) was created, a turnaround movement that focused on innovation, high expectations, and putting students first. My role was to create a vision for how Technology and 21st century skills would be integrated daily into classrooms at McGlone. I wanted to bring the work I started at Murphy Creek to McGlone. We began by applying for grants within our district and to the Walton Foundation. Through these grants we were able to purchase 1-to-1 netbooks for our 4th and 5th graders, class sets of iPods, and eventually through other
foundations like TeleTech, purchase Promethean Boards and Nooks. Now at our school,
students have the option to turn in assignments digitally instead of with paper and pencil. Students have choices on how they demonstrate their learning whether it be a PowerPoint, Prezi, Windows Movie Maker Project, or any other creative way they can think of.
For example, we collaborated with our partner school in Canada where we developed a blog to discuss global issues that affect children. The student’s video conferenced and brainstormed these issues so they could begin finding solutions to these problems.
Our TechNovation team was a group of students who developed a website to help other students learn and troubleshoot technology. Their goal is to continually update the site to help students around the world better understand how to use various technologies.
Teachers developed interactive bulletin boards using QR codes to celebrate student work and new understandings. Teachers, students, and parents could scan the codes and watch videos about what students were learning in class.
Teachers in 4thand 5th grade used Gaggle to create online classrooms where students could email back and forth, store files in their “digital locker,” and submit assignments to teachers via the “homework dropbox.”
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
Through my work in education I’ve been fortunate to work with students, teachers, and community members to create an education system that prepares kids to be participating members of society. My understanding of technology and best instructional practices has allowed me to help teachers and students use technology in innovative ways to support the learning of math, literacy, science, and social studies. While working with McGlone’s administrative team, we were able to purchase most of our technology through grants by advocating for our school as a place where innovation is necessary and high expectations are set for all stakeholders. I’ve also worked to change the way teachers view their role as a classroom educator. Gone is the teacher of old who stood in front of students reciting facts with no real-world application. My teachers are establishing classrooms where they facilitate creativity and critical thinking and let facts be discovered through exploration and collaboration with peers. Through the efforts of McGlone, DSSN, and the rest of our stakeholders, our students are beginning to show the growth they need to attend the college and be career-ready.
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
I would say that although the work is hard, we are the pioneers, the first explorers of this new world of education. Changing how students learn and teachers teach seems daunting when you look at how much technology can cost, and the amount of time and effort you have to put into preparing lessons that foster 21st century skills. My advice: take one step at time and don’t do all the work on your own! There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of brilliant educators around the world who are blazing new trails just like you. Connect and collaborate with these people, they’ll be your greatest asset.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
Since most of my work involves coaching teachers and collaborating with others, I use video conferencing technology all the time. I think it’s much more personal to see someone’s facial expressions when having a conversation. I use video conferencing to communicate with teachers and staff who are out-of-building and in-building. Sometimes I’ll call a teacher from my laptop using Microsoft Lync to ask them a question or check in. In my busy schedule it’s an easy way to reach and collaborate with others. One of my favorite uses however, is when I receive a video call from a student at McGlone who might have a technology question. Sometimes I think they make up problems just so they can use the technology! There are many other ways I use technology so give me a Skype call (daniel.sharpe.dps) sometime if you want to chat!
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
Besides access to technology, I feel the biggest obstacle has been training teachers to instruct content at a level that is rigorous and embedded with 21st century skills. Teaching is tough work and many educators don’t understand content well enough to create real-world, problem-based projects. Through 1-on-1 coaching, collaborative team planning, weekly data teams, and weekly whole staff meetings, McGlone is creating a culture where teachers have deep content understandings and good instructional practices.
What is your country and region doing right to support education?
Currently 90 percent of the states in the US have adopted the Common Core State Standards, including my state of Colorado. These standards provide high rigor, common language among all districts, and integration of 21st century skills. Teachers can use what we call “Trajectories” to differentiate instruction based on what content students should know at their current grade level, what they learned in previous grades, and what they’ll learn next in higher grade levels.
In our Denver Summit School Network we are using a tutoring program called the Fellowship. This program is being piloted in our network and evaluated by the Blueprint Schools Network. In this program, students in varying grade levels each receive 50 minutes of specialized tutoring in either math or reading each day. Online assessments, developed by Scholastic, are used by the Fellows (tutors) to assess students and develop specialized instruction to fit the needs of our students.
What conditions must change in your country/region to better support education?
We must stop teaching to a “test.” Kids have been trained to answer fill in the blank and multiple choice questions. The 21st century workplace requires you to think creatively, communicate appropriately, collaborate, contribute, and use your unique expertise to the overall success of the team. Students should be taught these skills every day in our classrooms! For so long we’ve taught kids using an “assembly line model.” In this model all students are taught the same thing, at the same time, using the same curriculum, to produce a “to specification” adult. If we are to prepare students for 21st century careers we must stop teaching as if we live in the 20th century.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
I think our world has some incredibly smart, talented workers that exist in very specialized careers and companies. The only problem is that many of these careers go by unnoticed by our students. What kids see day to day is what they’ll want to be when they grow up. In my community kids see teachers, police officers, firefighters, movie stars, and sports figures.
I’m sure you can guess what they want to be when they grow up. I wonder how many of my students know that there are miners who mine minerals right here in Colorado to build solar panels. Or that some of the fastest growing careers in Colorado are in the healthcare and medicine fields. We need to connect our students to these careers, to these people, the forefront thinkers of our world.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
Are you sure you want to do this? Just kidding! In all seriousness I would tell them to get ready. Get ready for hard work, long hours, frustration, and a job that you’ll be excited to wake up for every day! Most of all I would tell them to go to school for a specific content and master it. Become a master of literacy or a master of science. Use your mastery of content to create project based learning for students where they can see how those skills are applied in real life. Don’t be a giver of information but a facilitator of exploration.
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
I think that social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are becoming more and more popular in education. It’s a great, easy, free way to connect students to educators and to learn from other experts around the world. I think the downside to this is that we can kind of become “disconnected” from reality and not learn proficient communication skills that face-to-face conversations demand. Technology like Skype, which provides face-to-face interactive, is I think preferred to other kinds of digital communication. In a way social media has also taught students to write in what I call “social language” that is void of proficient sentence structure, vocabulary, and spelling! Like everything in life I think we can find balance so our students get the very best of what technology has to offer.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
I’ve been spending a lot of time researching the new Microsoft Surface Tablet. If I could I would give every student one of these (with a wireless Internet connection). With this tool students can easily access any information they want to via the Internet. They could video or call a friend or teacher from another country using the built-in webcam. Their class could be online and none of their classmates would necessarily have to be in their own country! Using OneNote they could collaborate on written works or give feedback to peers on their writing. Every book, textbook, scientific journal, and blog would be at their fingertips even if the nearest library was 50 miles away. With a Surface students wouldn’t need netbooks, physical books, paper, pencils, interactive whiteboards, response systems, or even cell phones. It is the ultimate all-in-one tool.
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About Daniel Sharpe
- Birthplace: Fort Worth, Texas (raised in Lake City, Colorado)
- Current residence: Highlands Ranch, Colorado
- Education: Elementary Education Undergrad at University of Colorado at Denver
- Website I check every day: www.droid-life.com
- Person who inspires me most: My Father. I remember him telling me growing up, “Always take initiative!” I try to live by that every day.
- Favorite childhood memory: Racing mountain bikes at various ski resorts in Colorado. I won both state and regional championships two years in a row. The Colorado Rockies are one of a kind!
- Next travel destination (work or pleasure): DeBordieu, South Carolina with my wife and soon-to-be-born daughter.
- When was the last time you laughed? Why? Just last week I saw a video
comparing Google’s Now Search against Apple’s Siri. At one point the user asked
both devices to search for “pictures of scallions” to which Google displayed and Siri asked, “Would you like for me to search for pictures of a Stallion?” The funny part is that throughout the video Siri continues to ask the user if she wants to “Search for a picture of a Stallion?” even though the directed questions aren’t even related to stallions! You have to watch it for yourself to get the full effect (http://youtu.be/gr4mixtB9dZM).
- Favorite book: Holy Bible
- Favorite music: All kinds (Country, Rock, Soundtracks, Techno, Classic Rock)
- Your favorite quote or motto: “Just because you’ve always done it that way, doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.”