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A Chapel Hill school wanted to help Puerto Rico. What technology taught them

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the students and teachers at Ephesus Elementary used technology to get the whole school involved in the relief effort.

Ephesus is in the second year of a digital-learning pilot program using technology in inventive new ways to aid traditional learning and teach students how to safely and successfully use digital devices.

The second grade was in the middle of a lesson on opinion writing. After learning about the hurricane and Puerto Rico, the students researched charities helping after the hurricane and chose three to get behind.

Each of the second-graders selected one of those three charities they wanted to support and wrote a piece explaining their choice. They made videos reading their pieces that the whole school watched on their digital devices and voted on which charity to donate the $355 the school had collected for hurricane relief.

One choice was to split the money among all the charities, which is the option that won the vote.

“Without technology,” teacher Kim Chamberlin said, “this would have never come to be, so it was a huge, huge product for us,” combining lessons in economics and opinion writing.

No waiting list

Although the use of tablets and laptops is common in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, Ephesus faculty and students stress the importance of the 1 to 1 ratio of devices to students at the school now under the pilot program. The school made a decision to hold on to older equipment rather than upgrade so it could provide a device for each student.

“It’s a lot different because you don’t have to put your name on a waiting list,” third-grader Wes Louthan said. “The 1 on 1 change was a very big change. We can do a lot more on the computer than before. Almost all of it’s on the computer now.”

Fourth-grader Parker Capps likes that now she can be working on on her laptop and sign out for recess and come back and pick up where she left off. She wouldn’t have been able to do that two years ago before each student had his or her own assigned device.

She also said she’s noticed the school using a lot less paper in the last two years, as more assignments and tests are completed on digital devices.

Third-grader Nora DuRcher noted that one or assignment or test is complete, students can go right on to their next assignment without waiting for the rest of the class.

Third-grader Kwesi Ansong said he’s been able to do more with his interest in computer coding. “I get to learn,” he said, “which is good, and I also get to work on computers, which I like.”

Also, the emphasis on technology makes it easier for teachers to monitor students’ work as it is in progress. “If we are working on a story,” Capps said, “and the teacher sees an error in our grammar or whatever, the teacher can come over and correct it, rather than having to correct everything at once.”

More interaction

Chamberlin said teachers can also interact with students as they work, using applications to collect data to see if their students are getting a lesson as it progresses.

Ephesus brought in digital learning specialist Tori Mazur from another district to oversee the pilot program, and she said that while there was digital learning going on before, keeping devices on carts – and out of the students’ hands – much of the time was impeding progress.

“We really do have a direction we’re going,” Mazur said, “and the reason why is we want these outcomes for our children. We want them to be creative and collaborative, be able to solve problems, engineer things, not just consume them.”

Ephesus Assistant Principal Danielle Sutton said she has seen renewed energy throughout the school, from students to teachers. “It is more than just having a bunch of devices,” she said. “It’s more than just playing games or going on apps. … I see a much high level of student engagement at all levels.”

Matt Goad: