In this Educator Spotlight, Monica Brandwein shares how coding, makerspaces, STEAM, and more are supporting learning inside and outside the classroom.
Monica joined the Ramaz Lower School staff in 2015 as the Education Technology Specialist. She currently works with Kindergarten-4th grade at Ramaz, teaching technology in the classroom, a library/technology class with the librarian for 4th grade research skills, two after school coding clubs, oversees a cohort of faculty who are interested in bringing technology into their classrooms, and in the fall will be teaching a STEAM class for 4th graders. Previously, she worked as a museum educator at the Museum of Jewish Heritage - Living Memorial to the Holocaust while earning her master’s in museum education and her teaching certification. After 4 1/2 years in the museum world, Monica became a kindergarten teacher for two years and then transitioned into the education technology field. Monica received her bachelor’s degree in visual arts management from the Fashion Institute of Technology.
When did you realize you wanted to be a teacher?
I’m a career changer. I worked in a museum for 4 1/2 years doing education and wanted to move to a different position, so I got my teaching certification and fell in love with teaching.
What are some ways you are supporting teachers in integrating technology?
This year I created a tech cohort of seven teachers from both general and Judaic studies. We would meet once a month and talk about the ways we integrate technology in the classroom. A teacher might bring up a project from the past and we would brainstorm how technology could support it going forward. Teachers really use the cohort during the year and bring back ideas to the group and present what they’ve learned. I’m trying to support teachers at whatever level they’re at. One of the summer goals for the teachers was to explore more technology. We gave them each a gift card and told them to spend it on apps or program they think would be applicable for students and come up with ideas for how to use them, so when we meet in the call we could discuss them and how to implement those tools in the classroom. Teachers were excited about that because during the year they’ll often find an app but not have time to play around with it, so this gives them time to explore over the summer.
In particular, I had a great partnership with the 4th grade science teachers for a project on underwater sea life. They had talked about bioluminescent sea creatures. Each table became a different team and picked a sea creature. They first had to figure out how it uses its bioluminescence. Once they studied the creature they recreated it with Model Magic and then programmed littleBits to light up on the correct part of the creature (top of its head, all its legs, etc.) They had to understand the sea animals, the littleBits, and the concepts behind circuits. We actually do a whole unit on circuits and take them to Brooklyn Robot Foundry. There they create their own glow pets. They really love it, and it brings technology, art, and science all together.
How are students using technology in the Ramaz Lower School?
In Kindergarten I teach robotics and basic coding skills using a Blue-Bot. The kids learn how to give directions and how to put the steps together. The end goal is for them to build a city and have Blue-Bot move through. The lower school EdTech teachers also use the Kibo robot in Kindergarten, which helps students learn how to read in learning centers. The robots get them excited about learning in a different way. As they get older, they do coding with Scratch and Code.org. In 3rd grade they do a study of India and make questions for students there and send them using a QR code. The kids in India responded with a video, and then we studied the school’s location with Google Maps and Google Earth. They also do a study of Peru and Japan and create a newspaper. They use Google Docs to type the article and then Book Creator to insert pictures alongside the text. Then the teachers print out the books for all the kids.
In 4th grade we started a new class call Library Tech. The librarian teaches about research in the library and I teach about using websites and what makes one reliable. For example, I make the comparison between a .org and a .com website. The students also use Google Classroom and Google Forms. They’ll look up articles based on a topic and then create a Google form to survey how students around the school feel about the topic. The 4th graders also created a track outline of the flight path between New York and Israel and then programmed Ozobots to move along the track of that path. They presented the project at their graduation ceremony from the lower school.
I heard you also do some maker projects. Can you tell me about some of those?
Our learning center teacher had a student with some learning difficulties. His study of Japan was on the festivals and he did a lot of research together with the teacher. Then instead of presenting to the class by reading, he created a cardboard presentation with Makey Makey. He coded all the parts and presented to the class by pressing the wire. The kids were so excited about it. We talked about how you have to be grounded and introduced the idea of circuits into this lesson on Japan’s festivals. In the maker club, with Makey Makey we’ve made cardboard instruments and a banana piano. The kids have coded games and created game boards. I’ve been doing a lot of testing in the club to see what they get excited about and what will make it into the curriculum next year.
What advantages do you see in using educational technology in your classroom?
I see learners with challenges really advancing. I can see more easily where students’ frustrations are. They’re able to understand technology and use it to grow. Students are more engaged in the classroom. Especially in STEAM and coding, they’re learning problem solving. For example, how do we get Flappy Bird where he wants to go? They have to figure out many steps and develop an understanding in a different way.
What have been your students’ reactions to technology?
They love it. They get excited when I bring out the robots or Makey Makey. When introducing a new website or app they are so excited about it. I’ll get emails from parents who want to download the app for the child to use at home. I try and let the students be free in a way, because if they’re excited, then everyone is excited.
DJLN worked with Ramaz last year to help the school build its strategic educational technology plan. You were part of the working group that participated in the core of the work. What was it like working with DJLN and being part of that effort?
I think it was great to put everything in perspective. It was my first year at Ramaz. Previously, I had seen the transition of technology in other schools and how hard it can be for teachers to understand the change. The strategic plan we worked on it was academically focused and helpful for the teachers. We also talked about the important partnership between IT and EdTech - those positive working relationships have really evolved over the last year. I look forward to seeing what will come next.
What are the biggest challenges when trying to integrate technology with learning?
Teachers are fearful. It’s also a challenge for them to think ahead. So the goal I have is for teachers to pick 2-3 projects and think ahead about how we can better support the projects with technology. That will help with those challenges. You can’t just add iPads. There needs to be a reason for adding an iPad component. I give them a Project Planner where they can describe the project, its goals, and how technology can help. It’s helping teachers understand that it needs to be a thought out process.
What’s been the most rewarding experience for you at Ramaz?
The smiles on kids’ faces and how happy and excited they are. They see me around school and ask me, “What are we doing this week?!” Those moments really put it into perspective.
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