“We may not even realize when a simple conversation could make an impression and change someone’s path in life.” – Sarah Pewitt, USA
For Sarah Pewitt, teaching and technology should be intertwined, and for one big reason: the ability for students to learn at their own pace. Pewitt, who grew up in a family of educators, has been teaching middle school technology at Heatherwood Middle School for over 11 years. Yet in spite of the fact they were studying technology and had access to devices for her students, Pewitt was frustrated with keeping her students – all of diverse backgrounds and ability levels – on the same track.
“I have found it extremely difficult in the past to teach the content,” she says. “The students come to my room with such a wide variety of technology background and skills. As a result, it is even more of an extreme case of one size does NOT fit all.”
So Pewitt practiced the age-old balancing act. “How to teach the technology and then provide enough support to those students who really had no tech background, and how to push students with a lot of tech knowledge and skills to really exceed,” she says. “Not to mention other factors, such as students being absent, a diverse classroom with all different learners with different needs, not being able to provide timely feedback on projects for students to improve, and students not constantly being engaged because of their various needs.”
Pewitt felt paralyzed, as though she couldn’t keep consistently moving in a forward direction. But then she attended a conference, and her world changed.
“Three years ago, I attended and presented at the NCCE conference in Seattle,” she says. “I went to a session on gamifying learning by Chris Haskell of Boise State University. As I listened, it felt as though he was talking directly to me and everything he was saying based on his research and what he and his co-creator, Lisa Dawley, had developed, was exactly what would work in my classroom.”
Pewitt discovered 3D GameLab, which allows the teacher to create an online, quest-based learning environment that acts like a game. “This was it!” she says. “In the online interface with a quest-based model, students would be able to move at their own pace, be completely self-directed, and then I could facilitate learning and provide support as needed.”
Pewitt first tried 3D Gamelab with a group of her 8th graders the spring after the conference, and was in full swing with all of her classes by the next fall. “Although there was a learning curve for both myself and the students, the benefits were immediate,” she notes. “It completely changed my role as a teacher to where I could meet the students at their level and help facilitate their learning. As students submitted work, I could immediately provide feedback and either send their quest back for improvements or approve it and they would move on. In addition, they were able to work in an online interface and ‘level up’ as they worked through the curriculum and continue moving forward and learning more skills in technology than they had in the past.”
One of the other benefits for Pewitt and her students was the continuity of tasks to work on. “Students were not sitting around waiting for my next instruction and at the end of the grading period, and students were more successful than ever,” she says.
Pewitt also used OneNote to implement an electronic student notebook called the “Evidence of Learning Notebook,” where students keep track of their progress, set and evaluate weekly goals, and upload their projects.
“Now after three years of using 3D GameLab, refining the quests and constantly improving the way I facilitate students being self-directed learners, student success is evident,” says Pewitt. “Students are learning skills in organization, time management, self-direction, and technology that they can transfer from middle school to high school and beyond. Working with approximately 300 students a year, to date, I have approved over 27,000 quests!”
Impressive and inspirational, Pewitt is proof that moving out of your comfort zone as a teacher can many times have incredible results. Here’s today’s Daily Edventure with Sarah Pewitt!
What inspired you to become an educator?
I grew up in a family of educators. My dad was a high school music teacher, my sister was a high school science teacher, and my mom worked for local agencies providing parenting classes. Growing up, I was initially determined not to go into education and become a teacher. I had grown up seeing it from a kid/student perspective, but didn’t really see what the big picture looked like from a holistic point of view.
My parents had always instilled in me the idea of finding a career that I loved and one where I could help others. So in the first couple weeks of my sophomore year in high school when my English teacher asked us to write down what we wanted to do as a future career, I put down child psychologist. As he came around the classroom to look at what we wrote, I remember him stopping by my desk and reading my paper over my shoulder. He grinned and slightly chuckled saying, “You are not going to be a child psychologist, you are going to be a teacher.” I remember reflecting on his comment throughout the rest of the day and thinking, “Hmmm, he’s right.” It was as if he allowed me to confirm what I innately knew, but didn’t want to admit. From that point on, I had my sights set on a career in teaching and never deviated from the path until I achieved my goal.
What was a defining moment in your career when you felt proudest to be an educator?
Being an educator is about being able to make connections with people. In the classroom your connections with the students set the tone and the foundation for a learning environment. You could be the most knowledgeable teacher when it comes to your curriculum, but if you can’t deliver in a way that is meaningful to students and meets them where they are as individuals, they are going to have a very difficult time learning and retaining the information.
Making connections with your students makes it evident that you are passionate about teaching, learning is important, and you care about them. I am not sure if it was a “defining moment” in my career, but early on I learned this lesson and as a result, it really made the idea of making connections very evident.
In my second full year of teaching I taught a learning strategies class for students with specific learning disabilities. I was very “green” and knew a lot more about making connections with people than I did the curriculum. I was barely one step/one day ahead of them. As the year went on, I got to know my students more, enjoyed learning about them as individuals and they would often greet me in the hallway and tell me about their day, weekend, etc.
One spring day, just after school ended, a young girl named Carolyn who was in her second year in my class stopped by after the last bell. I figured that she wanted to chat or tell me about something that took place that day. She shared with me that she had found out she was pregnant and wasn’t sure if she would be back for her senior year. As I listened, I remember not being sure exactly what the right words to say were at that moment. I recall trying to focus on listening and being there for her to talk to.
Fortunately, she was a very motivated student and with the help of a special program within our school where students could actually enroll in the district’s online high school program and attend while bringing their babies to school but stay with one teacher, she was able to finish high school and graduate.
In her culminating senior presentation, I sat on the community panel and listened to her tell her story of this experience and what she had gained. As she wrapped up, she began to thank people who had an impact on her throughout high school and discussed her plans for the future. In this, she thanked me publicly and shared that as a result of our work together she had enrolled in a community college and was planning to become a teacher.
To me, this instance really brought to the forefront the daily impact we have on the lives of students and how incredibly important it is to make those connections and be present in the moments throughout each school day. We may not even realize when a simple conversation could make an impression and change someone’s path in life.
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 challenge I face on a daily basis seems fairly simple, but seems to be an issue that arises year after year: How do you keep up with technology when the schools and school districts do not have enough money or a faster way to get money for the implementation of infrastructure, as well as professional development for staff and instruction for students?
There seems to be a virtual stopping point where I can only take the students so far with the devices and software we have in the school. After that point, learning has to be done on the students’ own time, on their own computer, if they have access to one outside of school. Students are still learning technology skills that will benefit them daily and in the future, but it becomes an equity and access issue for some students and comes down to the “haves” and the “have nots.”
In terms of education innovation, what are you most excited about for the future? What is your biggest hope for today’s students?
Technology is moving at such a fast pace that the speed at which innovations are conceptualized and come to fruition are completely mind boggling. I would say that my biggest hope for today and what excites me about the future is the fact that technology has the ability in education to “level the playing field.”
When students have access and the opportunity to use technology to enhance their learning, their achievement soars. With the diverse make-up of today’s classrooms encompassing students with all different abilities, backgrounds, learning styles, ages, and challenges etc., it is important to see technology innovation as a vehicle that can drive us toward success.
Voice: Sarah Pewitt
Heatherwood Middle School (Everett Public Schools)
Tulalip, Washington, USA
- Birthplace: Seattle, Washington
- Educational background: Washington State University- BA in Elementary Education; Lesley University- MA in Curriculum and Instruction- Educational Technology
- Website I check every day: 3D GameLab and Common Sense Media
- Favorite childhood memory: Camping with my family.
- Favorite book: Eat, Move, Sleep by Tom Rath
- Favorite Microsoft product, tool, technology: OneNote
- What is the best advice you have ever received? Work hard and be nice to people.