Fort Lauderdale first-graders excited to get first look at TeacherMate

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Primary teacher Shaneka Willingham is big on technology in the classroom. Last month, she started the new school year by bringing in some CD players and audio books for her first-graders to listen to while they learned to read.

No surprise, then, that she’d be one of the first teachers in Fort Lauderdale to get her students started with TeacherMate, the Innovations for Learning program that uses smart software on iPod Touches, MP3 players and iPods to strengthen literacy education.

Teacher Shaneka Willingham helps first-grader Theophers Cooper

Teacher Shaneka Willingham helps first-grader Theophers Cooper

On Monday of this week, using her classroom’s overhead camera/projector, Willingham showed the 17 children how the devices worked. On Tuesday, gingerly putting headphones over their ears and guiding their small fingers to the correct buttons, she let them experience the digitized exercises for themselves.

“It was awesome,” Willingham said afterward. “The kids really enjoyed it. I love that they felt connected to the devices.

“They see it as playing a game. But they’re really learning.”

TeacherMate is beginning to appear in Fort Lauderdale classrooms. Devices have been issued to the six schools taking part in the first wave of Broward County, Fla., Public Schools’ adoption of the Innovations for Learning system. (Another seven schools are to join the program in a few weeks.) Those devices are getting into the hands of first-grade teachers.

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First grader Shaniya Hudson meets TeacherMate

A visitor could plainly see that the kids were fascinated by the iPod Touches in their hands. They squinted at the screens as animations appeared to teach them letters and words, forcing them to pick the correct answers before they could move ahead to the next panel.

Cedric Hosea, a little boy in a white polo shirt, was so excited by one feature that he just had to tell somebody.

“It recorded my voice!” Cedric gushed. “I heard my own voice on it!”

In the classroom next door, first-grade teacher Frances Curry was finding similar excitement.

“The students are always elated to see and hold their Ipods and MP3 players,” Curry said. “The first time they saw them they were jumping up and down and saying ‘Yeaaaaa!’ and ‘Oooooooo…’

“Their eyes were full of spark and fascination, and have been the same every day after that when it’s technology time.

“The students can’t wait to come to my small-group center now.” And, they did well, overall, she said, in adapting to the rules on handling and using the devices.

“As far as myself,” Curry added, “Iearning about all the apps, setting up student activities and the groundwork it takes to implement — I’m totally stoked!

“I love technology and moving into the millennium. When I tell people — other teachers and parents — they are so impressed with what we are doing to advance our underprivileged learners. It’s a little extra right now, but it’s worth it.”

The school, Sunland Park Academy, is in a chronically poor neighborhood near downtown  Fort Lauderdale. Ninety-seven percent of its students are eligible for federally supported reduced-price lunches, a marker of low income.

Since 2003, the school has received five Fs from the Florida Department of Education, an annual rating based largely on student standardized-test scores. The other years, Sunland Park got Ds.

To turn things around, the district last year brought in two high-performing administrators, Principal Sharonda Bailey and Assistant Principal LaFerne McLean-Cross. This year the overhaul extended to the teaching staff. Nearly every instructor came into the school in August as a newcomer.

And the school restructured, shedding its fourth, fifth and sixth grades and the word “Elementary” from its name. Now it’s “Sunland Park Academy” and it’s filled with little kids: kindergarten through third grade.

Why the emphasis on those early grades?

“A lot of research shows that if you’re not a proficient reader by third grade, the chances are you won’t become a proficient reader after that,” said McLean-Cross, the assistant principal.

“If we focus mainly on that, you give hope to all the children that they’ll succeed wherever they go in life.”

The need is urgent in schools like Sunland Park, where many children arrive with little in the way of school-readiness. Bailey, who had worked for years at A-graded schools before coming to Sunland Park last September, saw the differences right away. The parents of children at her new school were by no means as involved with education as were those in the better-off neighborhoods she knew.

“Maybe they didn’t have good experiences with school themselves when they were growing up,” Bailey said. That’s a barrier that she has been trying to melt. “We want them to come on in and see what we’re doing.”

“When we had our first Open House [a year ago], only about a tenth of the parents came,” McLean-Cross said. “It felt like there was no purpose for it, because you’d have the teachers and nobody for them to talk to.”  This year, about a third of the parents showed up, a huge improvement.

The school’s heavy focus on the essential skill of reading was underway well before the arrival of Innovations for Learning.

Reading has a big part of Sunland Park Academy even before Innovations arrived. Here, second-grader Isaiah Saint Louis reads on his own during the daily two-hour "reading block."

Reading was a big part of Sunland Park Academy even before Innovations arrived. Here, second-grader Isaiah Saint Louis reads on his own during the daily two-hour “reading block.”

Every morning, each class spends two hours on a “reading block” — each class in the clean, quiet, cheerfully decorated building. Here, a teacher works with a small group of students on word exercises. There, a girl with ringlets is making a paper necklace made up of spelling words. Over on a rug in the corner, a boy is reading a book on his own.

Willingham said she was very happy to add Innovations for Learning’s offerings to the teaching regime she already had. “I was really excited,” she said. Although she had, on her own, brought in CD players and read-aloud programs, she now preferred Innovations’  listening programs because they asked children questions and emphasized high-frequency words.

“It’s nice. It’s more than just sitting down and reading a book.”

After two days of using the system with her students, she had this to say:

“So far, so great! I am truly enjoying the implementation of all of the electronic devices as it takes learning to read to another level. Students are now able to engage in story reading and games with animation while I am able to differentiate their learning by monitoring the activities needed based on the data the program provides. All in all, I think IFL is amazing and much needed!”

Willingham, 26, is a product of the Broward schools. She was reared by a single mother, a nurse, who read to her every day (“My favorites were ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar‘ and ‘Love You Forever‘) and who always bought books for her at her school’s annual Scholastic Book Fair.

As a girl, she used to play teacher. Her teddy bears were her students, a piano bench her desk, a little chalkboard easel her blackboard. “I used to use my own graded work and pretend it was handed in by my students.”

She’s the first in her family to get a bachelor’s degree (from Florida Atlantic University) and then a master’s at Nova Southeastern University. “I did it for my mom, because she made a lot of sacrifices.”

Now in her third year of teaching, Willingham has remained in touch with almost all her teachers. “My fourth-grade teacher, who passed away, inspired me to write well. My second-grade teacher inspired me in reading.”

She feels at home at Sunland Park. It reminds her so much of her own bringing-up. “I feel it takes a special type” to teach there, she said.

Teaching, she said, is her passion.

“It’s all I ever dreamed of,” Willingham said. “I cannot imagine doing anything else. If I cannot teach, I don’t know what else I would do.”

“I would like to impact my students just as my former teachers have done through innovative ways,” she added in an email. “Innovations for Learning helps me to do just that.

‘Hopefully, 20 years from now my students will remember their first-grade teacher and using iPods, iPads, and really cool MP3 players to help them learn to read through fun and creative ways.”

First-grader Cedric Hosea

First-grader Cedric Hosea: Lovin’ it!

 

 Story and photos: Howard Goodman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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