“Students need to know that as technology continues to change, they will need to continue to learn how to use it — just as their teachers have.” – Tammy Brecht Dunbar, USA
To be sure, setting up a classroom – let alone an entire school district – to prepare students for the 21st century workplace is no easy feat. Teachers and school leaders must effectively incorporate technology into learning, while balancing extremely tight budgets, assessments, curriculum, online safety and data privacy. And many times, teachers themselves are learning the technology for the first time. This can be unsettling and even downright embarrassing for seasoned educators.
But Manteca United School District (MUSD) in California’s Central Valley is leading the charge, and not looking back. In October, Manteca’s Superintendent, Jason Messer, talked to us about the challenges and opportunities associated with finding the right technology solution at the right price for his district. Manteca – like so many other school districts – has weathered budget cuts, increased class sizes and reduced staffing levels. Regardless, Manteca has become one of the first districts in California to give all students – 4th grade and above — tablet-style laptops that can be used both in the classroom and at home.
Today, Tammy Dunbar, who teaches 4th and 5th grade at Lincoln Elementary, shares her journey of taking her classroom – and students – where she knew they needed to be, to receive the education they deserved. For Dunbar, a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert, this meant she needed to get creative.
“When I started teaching in 2001, my classroom in a 60-year-old Title 1 school contained a single iMac computer for myself and 34 students,” says Dunbar. “As I attended conferences, seminars and classes to deepen my understanding of teaching, I became increasingly frustrated that we were mired in lessons of the past. It was depressing to see all the ways technology could enhance the educational experience of my students, but not have access to any of it. Without the tools, it would be impossible to prepare them for the future.”
Even worse, says Dunbar, there was no imperative or urgency being shown to bring that technology to her school. “I realized that if my students were going to have access to any modern technology, I would have to help them get it. This led to my ‘beg, borrow and buy’ philosophy.” Dunbar “begged” her school administrators to allow her to participate in a tutoring program that provided participating teachers with a Mac. She “borrowed” projectors from the county office of education or from her district to use in her classroom for big events; and she even “bought” a family camcorder, which wound up in the classroom.
Dunbar has moved on since those days. Her MIEE project, Genius Hour, allows her students to choose a topic that inspires them, research it, and present it. These projects take many forms – from the re-creation of an Albert Einstein experiment to an informational video about dogs, to a compare/contrast of Aphrodite and Medusa – the projects are as diverse as her individual students. However, they all must use the necessary 21st century skills of critical thinking, problem solving, self-direction and time management.
And in 2010, Dunbar’s classroom took another giant technology leap forward. As the grand-prize winners in the eInstruction Classroom Video Makeover Contest, Dunbar and her students received more than $78,000 worth of technology in their classroom, all to promote 21st century learning skills. “With hands-on programs like this, kids will learn to love to learn, and that’s an important thing,” Dunbar said. “…They’ll be having fun, but learning at the same time, and that’s a phenomenon that pays huge dividends because the students retain that knowledge.”
What inspired you to become an educator?
I was always an overachiever, wanting the highest grade, the loudest accolades, the most gold stars. It wasn’t until high school, though, that I met two people who helped me understand that learning isn’t about being first or the best, it’s about being inspired. I thank Mr. Cardoza and Mrs. Topp for that revelation. More than inspiring my love of learning, they have become the models for how I have tried to live my life: encouraging people to keep trying, no matter what; acting with integrity; and always being present and available when students fail or succeed.
How did they inspire me? By helping me find things to believe in – starting with myself. They remain my only friends from my high school days.
After college, I began working in public relations, which is basically teaching people by giving them good information and motivating them to take action. My focus shifted to community relations, where I found myself working with community groups and helping them find new ways to accomplish their goals. When I married and started a family, I worked as a musician and liturgy director at my church, nurturing and supporting people in their roles as readers, singers, musicians, and all the other participants in services. When our children were both old enough to enter school, my husband encouraged me to try teaching.
I talked to Mr. Cardoza about this possibility. He encouraged me, but insisted that I understand one thing very clearly: teaching is a vocation, not merely a job. He told me if I wanted to teach, I had to believe in both my students and their ability to succeed.
I started substitute teaching in our children’s school district, and then took two long-term sub jobs. I enjoyed crafting lessons, but when I saw the faces of students at the moment when things finally made sense, I truly felt the calling.
I don’t recall the exact moment (and certainly not what my face must have looked like) when I finally realized that I could teach, that I could make a difference in the lives of my students. But I know that the greatest feeling for a teacher, the greatest reward, is helping others learn, understand and succeed.
What was a defining moment in your career when you felt proudest to be an educator?
My district gave me the opportunity to write a federal Enhancing Education Through Technology grant. It took us two tries, but in 2007 we were awarded a $200,000-plus grant which included a laptop cart for our students and equipment and training for our teachers.
At my school, I am part of a great Intermediate (4th & 5th grade) team of teachers who were trained in a small, collaborative environment using those EETT funds. We had 50 hours of educational technology development during each of the program’s two years. Serving as the lead teacher for my school, I helped create a community in which we could learn, explore and occasionally make mistakes using that technology.
It was a large part of my job to instruct, train and encourage the teachers in how to use and care for the 30 laptops on the cart. None of them had been trained to use computers in the classroom and all of them were, frankly, frightened by the prospect.
But just two years later I realized our experiment had succeeded. I dropped by Lory’s room to drop off a memory stick and found a primary teacher sitting next to Lory as she explained the steps to generating an Online Assessment and Reporting (OARs) report to track student growth.
Seeing that, I wondered if the other participating teachers were also being sought out to help others outside of our intermediate group.
The next day, I heard Lizabeth telling a primary teacher how to create a slide in PowerPoint that would first bring in a vocabulary word and then its definition using custom animations. When our head custodian was trying to set up a projector and computer speakers for an assembly in the school cafeteria, Joann was there helping him.
Prior to receiving our grant, Lory, Lizabeth and Joann had never worked with computers in the classroom. Now, they were helping others. That day, I realized that having two years’ worth of support had created confidence in my fellow teachers. They were not only embracing educational technology to benefit themselves and their students, they were also sharing their knowledge with other teachers, which would enhance the success of even more students.
I knew then that our students’ success depended on our teachers’ success, and that both required innovation, collaboration and celebration.
Why do you feel passionate about innovation and technology in the classroom?
Carlos was a puzzle. He had a bright, engaging smile, loved to read, and was very well spoken. However, when it came to writing assignments, he froze. Two years before he came to me in fifth grade, he had qualified for resource help with writing skills. Goals were set, but it was painfully obvious that Carlos just could not get words down on paper.
Halfway through the year, we were reading Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary, which Carlos very much enjoyed. But when I asked the class to write about their favorite part of the book, Carlos could not, or would not, do the assignment. I made him stay in at recess to work on it with me.
As Carlos sullenly settled in, I reached for my iPad, without Carlos seeing me, and asked him just to talk about his favorite part of the book. Relaxing a little, he began to discuss what he most enjoyed about the book. When he was done talking, I tapped my screen a couple of times, and then asked him to read what was on it. He started reading aloud, then said, “That’s what I just said!” I urged him to finish reading it out loud. When he was done, I told him that’s all I wanted him to do: write like he talks. That’s when I saw the look of understanding on his face; he was making the connection between what he had said and what was showing on the screen. My “aha moment” was that there must be even more ways that technology could help students overcome obstacles and find success.
The smile on his face made me determined to find them.
Whether it’s a day-to-day challenge or larger problem, what’s the biggest obstacle you or your country or region has had to overcome, or will have to overcome, to ensure a quality education for students?
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself (with apologies to the second President Roosevelt).
Teachers are afraid. We panic when visitors arrive in our classroom (especially unannounced). We fret about teaching to the dreaded standardized test, but if we don’t, how can our students be successful on the test? We worry when new curricula and technologies are adopted because we can’t see any way that we will have enough time to master them.
Students are afraid. They sit with hands glued firmly at their sides when the teacher asks someone to give the correct answer (“What if I’m not right?”). They angst over assessments, evaluations and grade-point averages; sometimes even begging for extra credit when none is needed if they just do the assignment. And they come to our classrooms with anxieties over events at home or in anticipation of very unstable futures.
Families are afraid their children will find trouble rather than success. Administrators are afraid of how to best provide for the myriad needs of their school communities. Legislators fear not being re-elected if schools don’t show improvement.
What if we all stopped worrying and embraced positive uncertainty – the ability to accept and even be positive about the uncertainty of the future? If we want our students to become problem-solvers, we need to let them practice it without worrying about grades or assessments occasionally. We need to be comfortable with them discussing ideas and trying them out. We need to push them to try new things rather than punish them when they fail. We need to practice that on ourselves, too.
Teachers must be focused and flexible, setting reasonable goals. We must feel free to adjust those goals as we learn more about our world, ourselves and our students. Families, administrators and legislators need to find ways to track student progress that creates opportunities rather than instilling more fear. We all need to be both realistic and optimistic so that we reflect honestly on our strengths and challenges and see their positive potential. We need to stop being afraid and take that first step forward. And then the next. And the next.
In terms of education innovation, what are you most excited about for the future? What is your biggest hope for today’s students?
In 21st century schools, students often carry more technology in their pockets than their teacher has in the entire classroom. Students are used to using technology every day; if it is not used in the classroom, then their schools seem backwards or dysfunctional. As many educators have observed over the last decade, this does a great disservice to our students who will one day be facing a workplace with ever-changing technological equipment and needs.
Every day, social media, websites and applications are created or updated, while the amount of information on the internet increases exponentially. Disruptive innovations – technologic developments which disrupt the status quo by either displacing existing technology or introducing a new concept – must be embraced and incorporated into both our lives and our classrooms. No one knows what tomorrow’s disruptive technologies will look like. However, we do know that they will provide opportunities to revolutionize education when combined with the extraordinary talents of teachers.
Teacher professional development in educational technology must empower teachers by providing pertinent, practical training that can be used immediately. School districts must allow time for teachers to work together to explore the opportunities of using technology in the classroom, rather than simply purchasing equipment and handing it out and then expecting teachers to learn how to use it on their own. Instead, those teachers must be excited at the prospect of having new tools close at hand. After all, the most important 21st century tool in any classroom is the attitude and mindset of the teacher.
Even though we are mostly digital immigrants, we should be modeling our positive uncertainty about learning and using technology so that our students are unafraid of what they’re going to see in five, ten or even twenty years. Our students need to see that we are comfortable learning a new piece of software, manipulating digital tools (GoPros, scanners, etc.) or Bing-ing an answer. They need to see that sometimes it takes two or three attempts to master a new piece of technology or process.
And if we’re a little intimidated at first, they need to see that, too — as long as they recognize that we are not afraid to learn. Students need to know that as technology continues to change, they will need to continue to learn how to use it — just as their teachers have.
My biggest hope for today’s students (and we’re all students) is not to approach anything fearfully but to approach all things – especially education – with enthusiasm and joy!
About Tammy Brecht Dunbar
Lincoln Elementary School, Manteca (CA) Unified School District
Manteca, California, USA
Twitter handle: @tammydunbar
- Blog URL: teachergeekischic.com
- Birthplace: Stockton, California, USA
- Educational background:
- M.Ed., S.T.E.M. Teachers College of San Joaquin (Stockton, California), 2013 – summa cum laude
- Multiple-Subject Teaching Credential, TCSJ, 2003 – summa cum laude
- Bachelor of Arts, English & Communications, University of the Pacific, 1981 – magna cum laude
- Websites I check every day: mantecausd.net, Facebook and Twitter
- Favorite childhood memory: From a technology perspective, I recall my parents purchasing the first Pong game for our house so I could be the coolest kid in my school! We hosted a party at my house for my drama club, and my father set up the garage with a television (24”, the biggest we had then) and the Pong game so everyone could watch and play!
- Favorite book: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
- Favorite Microsoft product, tool, technology: PowerPoint
- What is the best advice you have ever received? The two qualities most important in a spouse or a friend are loyalty and a sense of humor.