Boredom can be an all-too-prevalent problem for students—but it doesn’t have to be. At LaCreole Middle School, we are working hard to change that for our students. We’re finding ways to increase student engagement and make learning meaningful and authentic. Though it’s a continual process, I am proud of how much my school has been able to positively impact student learning in such a short time.

Our school has a clear vision to prepare our students for the future. Even before we had access to much technology, we recognized the urgency to remodel our school to meet the changing needs of our 21st-century learners, including embedded technology. Using ISTE Standards, we developed a vision for incorporating digital tools in all curricular areas, we clearly identified our goals, and we communicated our plan and purpose to our teachers (including areas for professional growth), students, and the community. Our success has not been, and will not be, about the digital tools but about the new and expanded learning that comes from using the digital tools.

Why Wait? Get Started

When we started to implement our vision, only one-quarter of the staff was engaged in the process. At first, the use of technology was not required because I wanted to encourage true ownership and growth, which comes from an honest, internal realization of the need-a “want to” not a “have to” mindset. The fact that we now have 100 percent of staff consistently using some kind of digital tool is evidence that we are establishing a successful digital culture. As we recruit and hire new teachers, we now require a willingness to grow and try new teaching strategies. We’ve found that a staff committed to authentic professional growth leads to authentic learning for our students.

Building teacher ownership was the biggest part of implementing and promoting our vision. My goal was a patient, purposeful rollout of technology to encourage risk-taking and participation by teachers who were initially unsure and completely outside their comfort zones. We developed a technology PLC, allowing teachers to continually teach each other, starting with those who were interested in growing their practice by exploring technology. We provided peer training and established our own informal Edcamp-style sessions. Today, the staff has its own professional learning network for support as it implements new strategies using technology.

Utilizing STEM and Makerspace

Implementation of STEM has been the foundation for improved learning at LaCreole because it has been the catalyst and avenue for implementation of technology, makerspaces, and project-based learning activities that have impacted learning for our students.

Learning occurs in every corner of our school. On any given day, in any given space, students can be found using a variety of makerspace technologies. Teams of students might be using video technologies—including our portable green screen—in our hallways, common areas, or in our designated green room to create projects that demonstrate their learning in language arts. They might be running Spheros (a spherical robot) up and down our hallways, calculating speed and distance for math and science projects.

We have designed portable makerspaces with an array of both digital and nondigital tools, such as coding kits and electronic circuits, along with good old-fashioned cardboard, tape, and a variety of arts-and-crafts supplies. These makerspaces can be accessed by any classroom, so students can create artifacts or use items as props and presentation tools to highlight their ideas. Use of makerspaces has had a positive impact on student engagement as students collaborate, communicate, and use critical-thinking skills to create work that allows them to learn in deeper and more meaningful ways.

Commitment to STEM has ensured a technology-rich learning environment that has further ensured real-world connections and greater learning for our students. Our core mission is to engage our 21st-century learners so they are prepared for their futures, and implementation of technology through STEM is helping us realize that goal.

Growing Pains

As our programs have grown, the need for space has forced us to creatively survey our facilities and evaluate how we might utilize these spaces differently to further our core mission. Recently, we took on a project to convert a large multi-use area that was unused during most of the school year, with the goal of creating a hub for making and showcasing our student learning and work in an effective way. The space has become our Innovations Lab, which now provides space, materials, and tools so that our kids can prototype and create whatever they can imagine. With a lot of planning, navigating timelines, and physical work from our staff and district departments, our Innovations Lab has become an area that has helped define our work toward deeper learning. We have also reformed our library into a makerspace. This includes refocusing our library staff as facilitators of this space. As a result, our library is now used more often and for more purposes. We have been able to leverage our resources in creative ways to accommodate our expansion of STEM-related programs, now truly pushing into the STEAM world. With a clear vision of what we need and want for students, along with creative problem solving and an equal amount of sweat equity, we know we can create spaces in our building that work for kids.

Sharing Success With Stakeholders

As we work within our vision of improving student engagement in meaningful ways, it has become important for us to invite our families to be a part of our celebration. We have incorporated Open House and Exhibition Nights in addition to STEM Nights a few times a year, which continually grow bigger and better with student-produced artifacts of learning, along with demonstration and reflection. Students are proud of their work, parents can view tangible evidence of their students’ excitement for learning, and teachers are able to see how their efforts are creating a culture of engaged and productive people, which is our ultimate goal.

When considering how to communicate our goals and core values, it became evident that we needed to go well beyond simply stating them. Through use of social media, our work is now highlighted and shared with our community and parents. There has been power in sharing photos of students and projects in action—no one can argue with smiling faces beaming with pride. Our work has been made public, which has created a positive buzz around our community in ways that both communicate our work and build support and genuine excitement about our school. Whether it’s by word of mouth or Facebook, Twitter, Smore newsletters, or any number of avenues, word is out about the amazing opportunities for learning at our school, and I am thrilled to promote our work in a manner that allows for us to tell our story—together.

Every day is an adventure at LaCreole. I am regularly out in classrooms looking for evidence of a 21st-century learning environment, including use of digital tools, and I am constantly finding new ways our teachers are creating opportunities for our kids. What I count as a great success is that monitoring and sharing our successes, our failures—our learning—has become more than just my job—it’s become a natural, integral part of our entire process due to our high level of staff buy-in and genuine collaboration. Our adventure continues!

Jamie Richardson is principal of LaCreole Middle School in Dallas, OR, and a 2017 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year.