DJLN Educator Spotlight: Empowering Teachers by Embedding Professional Development with Hanna Shekhter

| By Yonah Kirschner, Program Manager, DigitalJLearning Network

In this Educator Spotlight, Hanna Shekhter provides a glimpse into embedded professional development, and why teachers are now jumping (sometimes literally!) at the chance to integrate technology into their classrooms.


Hanna Shekhter is the Education Technology Specialist at Brauser Maimonides Academy (BMA) in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Over the past 7 years, Hanna has implemented a Technology Integration program that relies on digital tools to achieve curricular objectives in both General and Judaic Studies. Mrs. Shekhter has been instrumental in launching and implementing the Philip Esformes STEM program at BMA which consists of the Innovation Hub makerspace, PITSCO STEM curriculum and a mobile tech lab. She also oversees the IT infrastructure of the school. Hanna holds a BS in Biomedical Engineering from Boston University, an MS in Information Technology from Rochester Institute of Technology and multiple advanced educational technology certifications.


How did you get into the educational technology field?
I have a background in biomedical engineering and information technology, and worked in that field for a number of years. Then I developed a closer relationship with Jewish day schools because of my children. I realized there was a place for me in education. In the time we’re living in, we need to be able to use technology as a tool. As adults we use technology all the time, and so I feel very strongly that kids should be using it at school. My school found a niche for me - I started out teaching computer classes for K-8 and it grew into running professional development and helping teachers integrate technology into the curriculum. From there I grew the whole process of embedded professional development.


In the past, how was technology used and taught at your school?
In the past, teachers would come and drop their students off in computer class. I always tried to make my class relevant to the students by asking the teacher beforehand “Is there a way I can use my class time to help with your teaching and their learning?” instead of making up my own assignments. Psychologically, when the students come to “special” they want to just have fun and play games and I wanted them to learn priceless skills. The downsides were that the teacher was not able to see how the technology was used, and the students had a hard time remembering what they learned and bringing it back to their regular classroom. It was a divided process that made it hard for students to see value in what they learned in computer class. There was very little connection between their learning and technology. Part of that came from the logistics. There was a traditional computer lab with 25 desktop computers, so there was no where else to go. You were stuck here!


How has this “divided” process evolved into embedded professional development?
Over the years we’ve been growing our resources. Having iPads available has made us mobile. I can talk to a teacher about what the students are learning and come to the classroom with the iPads. As the computer lab became outdated we replaced it with three mobile carts of iPads and laptops. We want to bring all the technology into the classroom, because that’s the core space of their learning. When they don’t have to leave their classroom, they can still be in their familiar environment, still involved in the same learning process, just with access to another tool. And now the teacher doesn’t go anywhere - that is key! The teachers are now learning in the classroom along with their students. They can see the progress their students make over the course of the session, they see the end results and can really understand what technology can do for their class. Then over time the teacher can say, “I have an idea!” The goal is for the teacher to learn and to experience technology in their own classroom and become independent. Instead of a supervisor saying, “Please use technology,” the embedded professional development is a much more meaningful experience for them. They start thinking about what else they could possibly do with technology - “I’ve always wanted kids to write a classroom newsletter” or “Wouldn’t it be nice for them to make a video and have a reporter and an editor?” - and they understand that technology is what speaks to the students and you can’t ignore it.

Ultimately, the goal is for the teachers not to need me anymore. The goal is for them to become comfortable to the point of seeking out their own resources and connecting with each other about technology. It becomes natural for them to include technology and they become leaders in the process of thinking about how they can use it and how they can improve it. In this way, the professional development takes place in the classroom as the teachers learn with their students. The best way to learn is hands-on and that’s what the teachers are doing. There are still times when I visit classrooms, but over the months I’ve seen the teachers becoming more confident. They check out the laptop carts and plan projects on their own. I’m always available to help, but they’re leading the way.


What benefits do you see from embedded professional development?
The number one benefit is the teacher really learning and becoming more comfortable with technology. They are now a part of it, whereas before they were separated from it. It’s a really hands-on experience; they’re learning and trying things out. Whatever the students are doing, they’re doing. The teachers realize it’s not scary and that if 8 year olds can do it, they can, too! I see their comfort level improving and their whole planning process has changed because they’re considering technology every week. They’re thinking about lesson plans differently now. When I share resources with them, they’re looking more closely because they realize they can really use them and are exploring.


What have been teachers’ reactions to this new method of professional development?
Reaction has definitely been positive. The faculty want their classes to be meaningful, and the format has given them more vocabulary on how to make that happen with technology. They’ll say something like, “What about we make a digital portfolio or digital storytelling, instead of having them write a paragraph? Or they can make a comic strip or a storyboard!” They’re using those words now because they have that new vocabulary. The most positive thing, though, is that teachers at different levels of comfort with technology are learning from each other. Someone will come to me and say, “I saw Shira doing that with her class, and I want to do it!” Or one time I showed a Kahoot! online game to one class and then suddenly I was getting “I want to do it, I want to do it!” from all the others. The excitement around technology is spreading. I especially love that they’re learning from their colleagues - “I saw that you did Glogster and hung it up and it would be so amazing if we did that!” They’re having those conversations with each other. It’s super cool!


When you work with teachers who are resistant to change or nervous about technology, how do you help them overcome those feelings?
The first thing I do is ask “Can you live without your phone for eight hours?” and usually the answer is “No way! I have my calendar there, my email, everything.” This exercise helps the teacher understand that smartphones and other technology are like toolbelts - they make life easier. If that’s true, then why don’t we let our students do the same? It’s easy for them and comfortable. I tell the teachers not to fight it - let the students have what you have. We don’t want to make the students leave it all at home and stop them from using technology at school. That’s not the natural way for kids today, and not the natural way for adults anymore either! So technology is a natural tool for education, but it’s not solely about the tool. It’s also about the teacher asking questions like, “How can this help you make the learning more engaging?” So overall, I try and explain to the teachers that using technology is natural and that my job is to help them if they’re nervous. It helps that I’m a peer, not a supervisor. I make them comfortable and reassure them that I’ll be right there in the classroom with them.


How have students benefitted from the increased technology in the classroom?
The main benefit is that now they’re using the technology for social studies, language arts, math - they understand the connection to the content that they’re learning. Before, when computers was a “special,” they would ask to play games, but now they really understand that they’re going to be working, with the technology facilitating the learning. It makes more sense to the students - “I’m learning math and now I’m going to use this tool and I’ll continue to learn math.” It’s so much more fun for them to learn math this way, or to create a newsletter than to just write paragraph after paragraph. They develop this better understanding of what it means to use technology for learning. They’re also building hard skills - using Google Docs, sharing with a teacher, editing - and by middle school it’s so natural, they can’t even imagine not using a computer. They know how to make a presentation. There are no tech difficulties at that point. Everyone knows what to do.


Can you share a story in which you saw live results from the embedded professional development?
The third grade class had pen pals at a school in Toronto. They had been writing pen and paper back and forth. One day the teacher saw how another teacher in our school had used Voki, digital avatars you design and then they talk when you type in text, and she thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to send those to our pen pals so they can see us?” So her students designed Voki to look like themselves and typed messages to their pen pals that the avatars would read. It was a challenging project for third graders (some of them have a hard time with laptops), but they did a great job! Students who tended to be quieter in class wrote lovely descriptions of themselves and asked their pen pals questions. The buzz about the project made the students really excited about the pen pals. Even the teacher got so into it that she made her own Voki that looked like her and wrote a message to her pen pal teacher! We collected all the links to the avatars and sent them to the class in Toronto. Being able to say “Wow, our pen pals are really going to enjoy our messages!” made the whole endeavor more meaningful.


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Read about more innovative teachers using technology in our Educator Spotlight series.