Schools are in the midst of a technological evolution. As principals and teachers integrate more technology into the classroom, we want to know how technology can amplify student voice and empower those students to identify and solve real-world problems. To further understand the process, we turned to NASSP’s 2019 Digital Principals of the Year: Allison Persad, principal of The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria in Astoria, NY; Beth Houf, principal of Fulton Middle School in Fulton, MO; and Chris Lehmann, principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. Principal Leadership’s senior editor, Christine Savicky, moderated the discussion.
Savicky: How does your school employ technology?
Lehmann: At Science Learning Academy (SLA), we believe that technology needs to be like oxygen—ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible. It has to be everywhere, it has to be part of everything we do, and then we have to stop talking about it so much. We believe that we have the obligation to provide a modern education where students have access to the tools they need to do authentic, powerful work. Some days, that’s a laptop. Some days, that’s a 3D printer. Some days, that’s a video editing suite. Some days, that’s a pen and a good Moleskine.
Persad: At The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria (TYLSA), we believe that technology is not about the mere fact that you can use it, but it is in the difference you can make in the lives of others. We think of technology as a tool to create a better school, a better community, and a better world around us. As a 1:1 Apple Distinguished School, we have placed into the hands of young women a power tool with features designed to explore themselves, collaborate with others, explore the world around them, and embrace the most powerful reason we are here: connectivity. Our goal each day is to see our students as creators, not passive consumers. The use of technology also means time to disconnect, to use the white space of reflection to make connections across subjects without boundaries.
Houf: At Fulton Middle School (FMS), we focus on the verbs of technology versus the nouns. The nouns are ever changing. We are a 1:1 school with Chromebooks, so every student has the opportunity to have a device daily. We also are very intentional about time spent on being a good citizen—both on- and offline.
Savicky: How does technology use forward the mission and vision for your school?
Lehmann: Our school uses technology in support of our inquiry-driven, project-based approach to learning. Technology enables our classrooms not to be defined by four walls and floor, but rather to be permeable membranes—allowing the world to come in and out of our classrooms. When technology is married to a powerful inquiry-based pedagogy, it can allow kids to ask better questions, research more deeply, collaborate more powerfully—with people both in and out of their schools—and present their findings in innovative ways to a wider audience than we ever used to imagine.
Persad: As an all-girls, grades 6–12 public school in the most diverse borough in the world, our mission is to create young women who are confident risk-takers, critical thinkers, writers, and speakers who are empowered to be global citizens while reaching their full academic and emotional potential. How do we accomplish it? We make the space, find the resources, and allow for failure.
Our work is to provide space and harness the creativity of our students and teachers, and sometimes that means getting out of the way. We have tried and failed at many things, and we are OK with those lessons learned.
Houf: In rural Missouri, we utilize technology to ensure that our students are afforded the same opportunities and access that others may have in more urban and suburban areas. Our mission is to educate, empower, and engage all learners—both students and adults—at escalating levels. Technology is a tool to help us make this a daily reality. We also utilize social media to share what is happening outside the walls of our building as well as connect with experts in the field.
Savicky: How do you work to align technology use to a specific pedagogical vision?
Lehmann: It’s about understanding that vision and asking your community, “What do we need to achieve that vision?” and then making sure we have the tools we need in the hands of the folks who need to use them. There’s more than that, of course—you have to make sure those folks are empowered to use the tools. You have to make sure there is equity of access, and you have to make sure that folks understand that technology isn’t the tail that wags the dog, and they are intentional in its use.
Persad: Starting with technology, empathy is a good place to start. In the same way that Excel can send shudders down the spine of readers who still like to smell the insides of books, technology integration can be scary and jarring, depending on your level of comfort. So, we make the space, give them the tools, but in the same Einsteinian way that you can’t judge a fish by his ability to fly or he will always fail, we must give the time and support to get there. Our creative and dynamic staff are at all levels of flying, some solo with another tethered to their side, and others still putting on the parachute, and that’s OK, once you’re willing to just try.
Houf: I think aligning technology with the school’s pedagogical visions means actually being crystal clear on that vision and then being OK if things get messy when trying to make different things happen. So often we get used to the tool and then think that’s the only tool that can be used. Our students are typically so much more open and willing to try different tools to attack a problem. It means giving the stakeholders a choice and then getting out of their way.
Savicky: What are the most powerful uses of technology you see?
Lehmann: We should give students the real tools they need to solve real problems. When that’s a laptop, awesome. When that’s a 3D printer, awesome. When that’s a Twitter account, awesome. When that’s a drill press, awesome. When that’s magic markers, poster board, and our feet to march with, awesome. School is not preparation for real life, school is real life, and that means it is incumbent on us to make sure that kids have the tools they need to make a difference in the world.
Persad: [Technology is most powerful] when it’s used to change the world. Our eighth graders this year, when given the space to create a project that could solve a community issue, chose rats in New York City. If you’re from NYC, you know this is a real issue. They asked our STEM director and their teacher if they could create an app for this using open-source data. She said, “Sure!” They asked her what the best software would be to implement the app, and she told them Swift. They asked if that would be a part of what they would learn that year, and she said probably not. So, these students sat in the back of the classroom and taught themselves Swift. Their teacher made the space and gave them the courage to know that they could. These eighth graders went on to win the citywide “hackathon,” meet the deputy mayor of NYC, and later the commissioner of sanitation to work on developing their app to solve this real-world issue. No one likes a rat!
Houf: I agree with Allison and Chris here. [Technology is most powerful] when students realize they are able to change the world and have voices heard now, not later.
Savicky: How do you see the future of school changing as we integrate more and more technology?
Lehmann: I think it’s really important that schools understand that, as technology continues to evolve, schools can be where people gather, come together. The more we leverage modern tools, the more, perhaps counterintuitively, we have to focus on the face-to-face community as well. If school used to be where we went because the teacher was there, school now needs to be where we go because we are together. In addition, technology itself needs to be invisible. If technology use in schools remains “special,” it cannot be truly transformative. Laptops must come out of their carts and go home with students. Students should be empowered to leverage the tools that make sense in the moment without having to feel like it’s somehow only allowed when a teacher has given express permission for the specific use of the tool.
Persad: My dreams are that schools can find other ways to assess learning, skill, comprehension, synthesis, ability to communicate, create, and collaborate. We can all be on the same page where standardized tests and scores are not the only way to show success on a college application, but also project-based creations. For example, if one of the eighth graders that solved the sanitation crisis in NYC doesn’t get a 1600 on her SATs, she would still be an amazing addition to MIT’s undergrad cohort. I hope we can see more passion-forward, curiosity-based learning, where grades and age aren’t the first metrics to enter, and time and space are dependent on the student.
Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist and public speaker, makes a great point about the LSATs. He asks, why are the LSAT sections 35 minutes long? Who created that? He feels that the LSATs—and many other timed exams—unfairly penalize those who are slower test takers. Some students can work very quickly, while others need more time. Law schools need to give applicants more time, Gladwell suggests, to have a fairer system. Let’s make space—and time—for everyone to get to their finish line.
Houf: I agree with both Chris and Allison. I think the future will be less about integrating technology. Rather, it will just be the way we do things. We have seen technology as a separate entity for so long when it is most definitely not.
Savicky: How does technology amplify the voice of your students and empower them?
Lehmann: Technology creates the conditions where students can be expert voices in the world. Their work can now be public. Our students take part in the very real and powerful dialogues that are happening on social media. Schools can bring the field to the classroom using new tools so that kids have real conversations with the professionals in the world doing the work. I think about one of the projects that came out of SLA [Science Leadership Academy] recently. A group of SLA students led by Tamir Harper—who is now at American University—started UrbEd (www.urbedadvocates.org) as a senior capstone project in 2018. UrbEd is tackling the issues facing urban students and urban schools, both in Philadelphia and beyond. They were able to leverage digital tools to create a powerful platform for their ideas, and the nonprofit now continues, run by a combination of SLA current students and alumni, to raise these issues and work toward solutions. That’s one of the many ways we can see kids leveraging these tools to make their voices and ideas heard.
Persad: When students see themselves as grains of sand, and that the grains of sand—when brought together—can make great boulders of stone, that changes landscapes. Our recent valedictorian and Harvard freshman Salma Elsayed just wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times sharing her struggles of seeing women who look like her in the political arena in the light of the “send her back” chants [directed at a Muslim member of Congress]. Salma found her voice, amplified it for thousands to hear, and is on the road to political activism. If TYWLSA had even a small part to do with her journey, we are proud to be her ally. With technology, students get to be the true authors of their learning and their narrative.
Houf: We have worked very hard to make social media a place of both sharing and positivity instead of the constant negativity. When I took over as principal at FMS, our school was in turmoil. Any news about our school was negative. At that time, there was not any type of structured communication or social media presence at FMS. We started our journey by putting out regular newsletters utilizing Smore and adding Facebook. I started slowly by posting updates. Then I worked with staff on how to use Twitter to showcase the great things happening in their classrooms by tweeting to a common hashtag. Ownership for making this change was high because staff realized the need to share the positive. Posting was never a requirement, but quickly, almost 100 percent of our staff were tweeting the amazing things happening in each classroom. We also added Instagram to meet the needs of our students.
The shift was immediate. Parents loved seeing what was happening in the classroom throughout the day, and it reassured them of the academic work that was being done, giving evening talking points. Communication was one goal of our social media initiative, but we were also relentless about modeling digital citizenship and leadership for our students. When students realize that they are able to share to a more global audience, it’s amazing what happens. They can create powerful connections and partnerships because of the tools at hand.
Savicky: How does technology help your students identify and solve real-world problems in their own lives and the community?
Lehmann: Last year, one of our science classes wanted to do some research outside the classroom, so they decided to take samples of water from around Philadelphia and test the pollution levels. The pollution levels in one area of the city were off the charts. With more research, our students realized that the area they tested was downstream from a construction site. With more experimentation, the students realized that the pollution was caused directly by the runoff from the construction. With permission from the school, the students contacted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to report their findings.
The EPA sent a public relations person to come to our school and hear the presentation. She came in with an attitude of condescension, thinking she would just listen to the science class’s “little project.” As she watched the presentation, I watched her. Her jaw fell open when she realized the completeness of the students’ research and impact of their findings. Before she left, she assured the students that the EPA would be doing their own experiments—with much of the same technology as theirs—and would get back to them with their own findings. In the end, the EPA contacted the construction site and told them to either clean up or get shut down.
Persad: In past years, we were partnered with Tribeca Film Institute, and visionary filmmaker Vee Bravo had the idea to connect girls on Rikers Island with girls in NYC public schools to create co-written and co-edited films. The girls used technology to write from jail with our students at TYWLS. Our students filmed the creations on the streets of NYC and in school, and at the end of the year we attended a film screening, with refreshments and all, at Rikers Island to witness the power of collaboration. And what was most amazing about this experience? Two things: The only way to tell the difference [between] our girls and the girls at Rikers were the jumpsuits. Second, our girls saw themselves in others, and the girls at Rikers saw themselves in others, and it gave hope to each. We are not our mistakes; our journeys are just different.
Houf: At FMS we have Passionate Learning Professional Development (PLPD). The idea started as a way for teachers to take more of a role in the professional development topics. We wanted professional development to be personalized to each staff member. Over the summer, the teachers were asked to share what topics each was specifically passionate about as an educator. They shared these ideas throughout the summer and the beginning of school. We then organized in terms of similar interests and took time in a staff meeting day to research plans and work on the passions. As I was doing classroom walk-throughs, I would specifically look for the PLPD in action. My original plan for a culminating experience was to share our PLPD plans at the end of the year in a “science fair” model. However, stress levels were high due to state testing, and we decided to share in a different way, using a technology tool that we were all familiar with—Twitter. We held a staff Twitter chat to share and reflect on the year of learning as well as our steps for the next year. This style of reflection helped every voice to be heard in a minimal amount of time.
We also developed a model for students. We have one period a day that is an academic lab. This is a time that we provide intervention and enrichment as needed for our students. To start the year, we had each student research a genius hour project so that we could better connect with and get to know each student. Part of the expectation of this process was to share with peers across social media. It was amazing to see the connections build across the world with this project. This model was an immediate relationship builder with our students. When you know what a person is passionate about, your ability to connect personally and make content relatable is so much easier.
Savicky: Have you identified any inequities in regard to access to technology?
Lehmann: If you, as a school, are not asking yourselves how your policies will mitigate any digital access/digital equity challenges, you are doing it wrong. A simple example is this: Not every kid has a printer, so even if you are a 1:1 laptop school, you have to make it easy for kids to print as needed so that you don’t widen the gap. Philadelphia’s Xfinity Comcast also offers Internet Essentials for qualifying families. Those families can get internet service for just $9.95 per month.
Persad: Some of our girls come to us never having opened a laptop, or typed on keys, or used the power button, and others are digital natives in the truest sense of the word. Some of our girls go home to city-subsidized housing complexes with no Wi-Fi access, siblings to be a parent to, after-school jobs, or other family obligations without the space to be a kid in NYC. At TYWLS Astoria, we don’t focus on the deficit premise with deficit mindset—we see our role as crayons to color in all the missing spaces and crevices and do so with as much love and care as possible.
One of our most amazing projects, started by our former STEM director/Spanish teacher, was to fill the gap with art and technology by creating a cross-curriculum approach fusing technology with the arts in what is known as digital dance—using wearable technology with choreography, graphic design, and much more for a culminating project that blows the wind out of you. It’s in this connection to student interests—fusing those interests at the helm of dedicated and magnificent teachers—that the magic happens.
Houf: As hard as we worked at sharing our best practices on social media, being in a rural area, Wi-Fi and internet access are still a real struggle for our students as well as our staff. Many of our families and staff cannot afford to pay for internet access. Access isn’t the only problem; we also have to keep in mind the comfort level of our families with technology access. While the students are well-versed in Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, we found that parents were not comfortable with using Twitter as a whole. So, we went back to Facebook and started adding posts and asking parents and families to comment and share in the reply section.
For example, at open house, we made an original post and asked parents to share pictures and experiences in the reply section. Parents want nothing more than to share awesome things about their kids. This gave them a medium to make it happen. We always have to be mindful that our practices don’t widen the gap even further.
Savicky: Do you have any other thoughts or ideas that you would like to share regarding technology in schools?
Lehmann: Technology is a tool. You have to marry it to a pedagogical vision to maximize its use. For us at SLA, that means technology in service of an inquiry-driven, project-based, caring education that technology can then enable, enhance, and transform.
Persad: Technology is a wondrous tool, but nothing can substitute for an amazing teacher. Teachers who can spark confidence, mentor, encourage you to see in yourselves what you didn’t know was there are the real win. We are lucky at TYWLSA to have remarkable teachers.
I think it’s imperative as leaders that we model, model, model what we expect in others. But we can’t just model perfection! Model the hard, model the messy, model the iterations, model the risks. Walk the talk and roll up your sleeves, and get in there and help others as well. I also completely agree with Allison. Human relationships are the most important aspect of the schoolhouse.