MERIDEN — The technology classroom at Nathan Hale Elementary School has completely transformed from its appearance only a year ago.
That room has been reconfigured into what education leaders now call a “Genius Lab.” With its rounded out desk configurations, white boards and overall layout that allow students to collaborate with their peers, the space more closely resembles the office space of a technology startup company than it does a traditional classroom.
That new configuration allows fifth grade students like Sam Parcella and Riley DeFelice to bounce ideas back and forth with their peers. Both students are members of Nathan Hale’s “Pod Squad.” They produce a program called “Nathan Hale MAP,” whose acronym stands for “Morning Announcements Podcast.” The group already produced nine episodes of that podcast, which airs a couple of times a month. On Monday morning, they discussed what segments to include in their 10th episode.
The types of activities that occur in the Genius Lab include enrichment activities, like podcasting and computer coding, along with those that directly tie into students’ academic learning. The lab is an example of the full transformation of learning that includes digital and in-person tools now utilized by Meriden schools students and staff on a daily basis. That transformation, which enables each student access to their own device, is more than a decade in the making.
Susan Moore, the school district’s director of technology, has been a steady leader in that progression. This month, the Consortium for School Networking [CoSN], a nationwide association of educational technology leaders, named Moore as its Withrow Chief Technology Officer of the Year. The award, according to CoSN, is given to a “standout” local technology educator “whose leadership has helped transform their school district.”
Creative and engaging use of technology
Officials say Moore, in her current capacity and previous role as director of blended learning, worked tirelessly to ensure the district uses technology creatively and to engage students in their learning.
One example is the Genius Lab at Nathan Hale and six other elementary schools. By next fall, all eight Meriden elementary schools will be outfitted with such labs. The district’s middle schools and high schools have been similarly outfitted with innovation labs, spaces and studios where technology is similarly deployed.
The transformation increased the availability of technology for students whose access would otherwise be limited. For example, at Nathan Hale, more than 78% of the school’s students are considered to have high needs, according to enrollment data reported by the State Department of Education. That catch-all phrase “high needs” includes students whose families are low income, English language learners and students with disabilities.
Incorporating technology into the classroom comes at a cost. Officials attributed the Meriden Public Schools’ ability to bring in those tools by leveraging grants from various sources, including the Dalio Foundation, during a time when state education funding for local districts, like Meriden, continually lagged.
Teachers like Kimberly Burns, Hale’s technology specialist, then introduce that technology to their students during their own weekly classes, and to their fellow educators who integrate technology into their daily lessons.
Deploying these tools requires a substantial amount of collaboration and professional development among educators.
“We have teachers who have really embraced the technology and who go out, learn more on their own and bring that information back to their colleagues,” Moore said. Those educators, whose classrooms have “I’m Charged” designations, help their colleagues integrate technology into their own instruction.
Moore, prior to her director and supervisor roles, was a school-based technology integration specialist. Moore said that role supports teachers and students in using technology during classroom instruction.
Moore described the district staff as having been “absolutely phenomenal” integrating technology in their daily teaching.
“They’re always willing to try new things. They’re always looking for ways that they can educate themselves in terms of how to use technology better, with students. They see technology as such a tool now,” Moore said. “... They’re so used to integrating technology. They’re using it for instruction. They’re using it for enrichment. They’re using it for assessment. It’s really become the way that we do business now.”
One example of how educators have adopted technology into instruction is through the use of adaptive software that Moore explained is adjustable to meet the learning needs of individual students.
“That’s been a real tool for our teachers,” Moore said, adding that through the use of technology to perform interim assessments, educators get a clear picture of students’ learning progress.
That, Moore said, allows educators “to get a picture of where the students are, to set some growth goals for them, and then monitor them after a certain number of weeks of instruction.”
Burns, Hale’s technology specialist, indicated she has already seen the impact of the reconfigured Genius Lab on technology instruction in her school. It all centers on student collaboration.
Giving students a voice in their learning
That interaction was on full display Monday morning, when students of mixed ages, including kindergartners and fifth graders shared the lab. Fifth graders coded a computer algorithm to develop a dance routine, which they then demonstrated to their younger peers.
“We’re able to do a lot more because of all the technology that we have,” Burns said. “We do a lot of coding.”
Burns continued, “What’s great about this room now, is I’m able to give more choice. The kids are able to have a voice into what they want to be able to do.”
Her previous group of students included some who worked on coding, while others worked on Google Sheets and animation.
“There’s a lot more conversation, collaboration with our kids working together on different projects,” Burns said.
“It’s not the days where you come, sit at your desktop, and you have headphones on all the time,” Burns said.
In fact, none of Burns’ students wore headphones or worked alone.
“I like them to collaborate and work together and talk about what they’re doing — especially when you’re coding to try to problem solve… It’s pretty neat,” Burns said.
School Superintendent Mark D. Benigni and Board of Education President Robert Kosienski Jr. attributed the seamless integration of technology and shift to Moore’s leadership.
Benigni described Moore as a hands-on leader who strengthens the use of technology through regular classroom visits and walks with school building administrators.
Kosienski, in his remarks, referenced the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the spring of 2020, to highlight how robust the district’s programming had become under Moore’s leadership.
“We found out on a Thursday that we were closing. And on Friday, Mrs. Moore had a program in place for 8,600 students to be able to have their computers ready to go, programming ready to go and teachers ready to go, and a plan. And that takes an awful lot of coordination, an awful lot of caring and most importantly an awful lot of heart. And that is Mrs. Moore to the T. She is the heart of what happens in our technology program…” Kosienski said.
Moore, meanwhile, described the CoSN recognition as a “team award.”
“This is a testament to the terrific team we have in Meriden, both on the instructional side and on the networking side, and it’s because our board president and our superintendent really foster innovation and encourage us to think about new things that we are able to offer such a fabulous program in Meriden,” Moore said.