In this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating teachers from Nipigon-Red Rock District High School of the Superior Greenstone DSB and their project: “21st Century Learning & Leading: Using Technology to Reach Every Child and Family.”
Research shows that parents who are engaged in their child’s education not only improve student achievement and well-being, but also make good schools even better.
Nipigon-Red Rock District High School is part of the Superior Greenstone DSB in Northwestern Ontario. The school serves the communities of Red Rock, Nipigon, Dorion, Hurkett, Lake Helen First Nation and Rocky Bay First Nation. There are 115 kilometers between the two furthest communities and most students are bussed in from up to 75 kilometers away.
Answering that question was the challenge four teachers at Nipigon-Red Rock took on as part of their 2014/ 2015 Teacher Learning and Leadership Project (TLLP). Teachers Jenni Scott-Marciski, Colleen Rose, Kim Mannila and Erin Langevin thought they could use technology to bring families closer to the school, and so they began their project: “21st Century Learning & Leading: Using Technology to Reach Every Child and Family.”
The Use of Digital Tools to Reach Families
“One thing that is apparent now more than ever is that students at our school need strong, direct support from parents to be successful,” says Jenni Scott-Marciski. “So, to engage students we need to engage parents first.”
To do this, the teachers began by collecting data from students and parents through surveys about their need for, access to, and expertise with, technology. The results of the surveys informed local decisions regarding which digital tools to use to best engage with the school community.
The project team began by starting a school Facebook group. The goal in using Facebook was to engage parents and students through posts about school events, and increase enthusiasm and participation in those events.
The team also used Remind, a free teacher communication platform, to reach families and sent letters home to invite parents to view and comment on student blogs.
In the classroom, teachers began using Google Apps for Education (GAFE) as a way for students and teachers to collaborate both inside and outside the classroom. The news of the ease of use with these apps began to spread throughout the school, and soon even teachers who were previously hesitant to use technology began collaborating with students and colleagues using digital tools.
The team also made use of Google+ as a way to collaborate with one another online. In this online community, the team was also able to learn how to better serve students by increasing their own understanding of technology-enabled learning.
The Impact of Technology on Community Building for Students and Families:
The impact of using technology as a tool to bring student learning to families across the Nipigon-Red Rock District High School community was fantastic.
One parent shared that when the school started up the Facebook page she couldn’t believe all the things happening at the school. She laughed and explained that “every time I asked my kids what was going on at school, they would always say nothing.” This was clearly not the case! Another parent, after reviewing her daughter’s work online posted this comment, “Good job! It’s nice to see the progress of your work.” Another stated, “As a parent, I’m loving this blog. It is so nice to be able to follow along and see what you produce.”
Students also enjoyed sharing their learning with their families and friends. A Grade 12 student explained: "I have a lot of family that does not live around me. By using technology in my art class, I was able to post it on my Facebook where all my family and friends near and far could see my art. I posted a video I made on YouTube and copied the link to my Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and of course my art blog and had so many people watch it that never thought they could. Having to see the physical copy of artwork is close to nothing now days because people have their art all over the web. Technology has changed so much and I love to share my art online for all my family and friends to see who are not around."
Perhaps the best illustration on how the use of technology brought together a school community separated by vast wilderness played out earlier this year with the Nipigon River Bridge failure.
The Nipigon River Bridge, the only highway link between Eastern and Western Canada, split in two on January 10, 2016. Not only did this cut off transport of goods across Canada, it also severed the only access to school for students living on two First Nations reserves. It was a critical time to miss school, as students were in the middle of culminating tasks and exam preparation.
Due to the implementation of the TLLP project, teachers had embedded the use of technology in many Nipigon-Red Rock classrooms, and the students had become very comfortable accessing information and projects online. Teachers were able to communicate with the band offices at both First Nations reserves and direct students to blog posts, Facebook posts, and links to Google Docs so they could access their assignments, receive feedback and complete culminating tasks. As a result, the bridge closure that wreaked havoc upon the rest of Canada, barely impacted students’ access to their learning at the school.
Regardless of the Nipigon River Bridge failure, technology has been a wonderful way to bridge the school community together in a climate that can sometimes be challenging! Students from Rocky Bay First Nation, who are located in a snow belt and are 75 kilometers from Nipigon-Red Rock, often miss school because of bad weather. Today they are tethered to the school and their learning all year, regardless of the weather.
The Impact of Technology on Community Building for Teachers:
There has also been an increase in out-of-box thinking among staff members who are now more willing to try new digital tools. For instance, the Grade 9 class has 47 students. Based on EQAO data and diagnostic testing, only a handful have reading comprehension skills at grade level. Seventeen of the 47 students have Individual Education Plans and require extra support. In response to this, a team of teachers who previously may not have considered using technology to support learning, are now doing an inquiry about the use of text-to-speech and speech-to-text tools to see how these tools can be used to help improve students' literacy skills and to assess learning in a variety of subject areas.
Just the TLLP process itself also helped bring together colleagues in a shared learning environment. “Our TLLP encouraged us to communicate more with staff members,” says Colleen Rose. The team facilitated 4 different learning sessions and staff participation was enthusiastic.
Although the team set out to reach families through digital tools, what they achieved turned out to be so much more.
The Facebook group increased engagement with school alumni, which was a surprise to the team. Bringing back former students is a great way to encourage community engagement! Parents of students currently attending the school continue to join the group today and the reach is increasing.
Through the data collection from families, the team increased their own knowledge and understanding of tools and how to use them to share and support student learning. As new technology emerges, the team feels much more confident in their own understanding of how these tools can be used to bring the community into the classroom, as well as bring learning beyond the walls of the classroom.
Staff enthusiasm was another happy surprise. One teacher was so inspired by what was being done at the school as a result of the TLLP work, that she applied to lead another TLLP next year.
That good start continues to grow, not only at Nipigon-Red Rock, but throughout the district and beyond.
“Now if only we had more bandwidth and better information technology infrastructure in the vast northwest…” quips Rose.
Useful Apps and Online sources:
Here is a list of apps and online sources the teachers used during the project and continue to use:
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