Interview | From the Makers of "Look! I'm Learning!"

A kid-led revolution is how the people behind the new film, “Look! I’m Learning!” bill it. Slated for a Fall 2012 release, the documentary promotes the value of technology in education. Partnering with teachers, and state and local education technology leaders, its makers tell the inspirational story of the Ludington, Michigan iPad pilot program and its impact on teachers Ashley and Amber and their students. Sure, chalk it up alongside a number of recent education documentaries, but the folks behind this production have a very specific goal in mind: they sincerely hope to revitalize the federal, state and local dialogue about the power and potential of appropriately integrating leading-edge technology to improve teaching and learning in formal education settings. “By telling the story, the documentary will do what no whitepaper, 3-ring binder or press conference can do,” says Allyson Rockwell, the film’s director and producer. “It will give real teachers, real students and real parents an opportunity to tell their stories of the changes and benefits the program brought to them.” Bruce Umpstead is the executive producer; the project’s creative director is Peter H. Reynolds. Bruce is also the State Education Technology Director at the Michigan Department of Education. In the panel discussion below you’ll hear from Bruce, as well as Tom Johnson, Director of Technology for Mason-Lake ISD and Oceana ISD; Ashley McDonald, a kindergarten teacher at Lakeview Elementary School in Ludington, Mich. (and runner up for MACUL Outstanding Technology-Using Teacher of the Year), and Amber Kowatch, a second-grade teacher at Franklin Elementary School in Ludington, Mich. and the 2012 MACUL Outstanding Technology-Using Teacher of the Year. At this phase of the project, the kids need your help. After you’ve heard from the adults below, click on the image above and hear directly from them. Do you think this is a good idea? What’s your take? Have a look for yourself, and feel free to chime in or to help.

Victor: What prompted you to conceptualize this in the very first place?

Bruce: When I learned that a kindergarten and second grade teacher had gone one-to-one with their students and totally changed how they teach and their students learn, I said: “everyone has to see this.” It’s one thing to have technology in an elementary classroom, it’s quite another to have the students taking the devices home, demonstrating responsibility, and “owning” their own learning at such an early age.

Tom: The conceptualization came from two places. The first is success we have had in recent years in impacting education by changing the nature of classroom instruction and engaging students and parents with 24×7 one-to-one technology. Prior project and nearly all of the existing research on this topic has been at the middle and high school level. When done well this type of effort results in positive effects. The second was really observational. Having seen and heard about the way very young children were ‘playing’ with their parents iPhones and doing so with no training and with much skill, it was apparent that there was something new in this technology. The iPads had just come out and essentially operated as a larger iPhone. Thus, we combined what we new about effective one-to-one efforts with what appeared to be something special about you children’s ability to embrace and use this technology. We wanted to see what happen when we married the two concepts.

Victor: What’s the background on this? Can you tell a bit about getting others involved?

Bruce: The classroom pilot started from three directions. One, Amber and Ashley, the two teachers, were very busy raising funds and organizing to bring technology into their schools and classrooms. Two, Tom Johnson with the regional service agency was wrapping up a Title IID federal grant and wanted to demonstrate the potential impact technology has in the early childhood as part of the Early Childhood Investment Corporation “Great Start” initiative in Ludington Area Schools (LASD). So it started very much as a partnership.

I got involved, first, as the Title IID grant administrator. When I saw what the young teachers had accomplished, I said, “we’re going to make a movie so everyone can see this.” The problem with most small technology implementations is that the results end up on a powerpoint at state or regional conference. These classrooms are one-to-one, “green,” differentiated, facilitated, individualized, 21st Century learning environments at the earliest ages.

I called Allyson Rockwell, the only accomplished documentary film director I knew and invited her to see the teachers present at our state conference. Like me, she fell in love with the story.

Victor: What problem were you trying to solve?

Bruce: I think the problem we are trying to solve is the misconception about the promise technology holds for education. It is about productivity—Ashley and Amber have more than 25 students each, making it hard to differentiate and individualize instruction for each student without one-to-one devices—but it’s about so much more. Its about creativity—the students make their own picture books, write their own blogs, select their own apps. It’s about responsibility—caring for the devices is the students’ responsibility. It’s about loving learning—just look at the kids respond to activities! We want a movie to show this enthusiasm.

At the same time, we want to show the challenges schools are facing. These are the only two classrooms in Ludington, grades K-12, that are one-to-one. The students in the pilot last year, moved on to classrooms without the technology this year.

This has created such a stir that the school board was faced with going to the community with bond request, so they could provide every student with the same learning opportunity.

This is the story, how do we provide technology designed for learning for every student who wants or needs it? How do we provide this when the federal government has eliminated dedicated technology funding and states, like Michigan, don’t make it a priority?

Tom: Bruce speaks to this some above. However, I believe that responsibility is a huge area. This is about a transference of responsibility for learning from mainly the teachers responsibility to one that is equally shared among teacher, student and parent. Empowering students changes their entire perception about school.  Opening a new doorway to the classroom, that kids take their parents by the hand and walk them virtually into their classroom creates allows children to clearly share with parents what they are learning, how they are learning and when they need help learning.

Victor: It’s not 1999 anymore, it’s 2012 of course—so what’s the context for all this— technologically, politically, academically, etc.?

Amber: As a society we keep saying that technology is the future of education. That simply isn’t true. Our world is utilizing technology in every facet now so we need to wrap our heads around the fact that technology is the now and not the future. Almost no job could be done without technology in some form so we should be held responsible for teaching our children how to use technology to learn, communicate, and collaborate.

Ashley: We are expecting our students to function in society that is surrounded by technology yet most are not using technology in the classroom to prepare them for the real world. By the year 2015 all students in Michigan will be required to take the state assessment on a computer but we are not training them on the devices. Technology is here and now, there isn’t a way to get around it, so let’s embrace it and do what is best for our students and accommodate their learning styles. Students are more engaged using technology in the classroom. Teachers should take the leap and add it to their ever changing bag of tricks and tools to enhance learning, even if it is one small step at a time. I think most will find that it is such a beneficial tool.

Tom: Increasingly, adults report that kids are not engaged and do not have the skills necessary to succeed. This could not be further from the truth. The reality is that kids have abilities and access to information and to one another that we adults cannot and do not understand. The frequency and openness of interaction among young people, for those what are willing to look, is astonishing. Kids today communicate in person, on the phone, via texting, on FaceBook, using email, and in many other ways.  The relationships, the sharing of thoughts and feelings and the support offered through these venues is tremendous. (We hear about the bad news—bullying, etc.) What we don’t hear about is the positive peer support that pours through these portals and that is helping our kids have a greater understanding of who they are and how their actions impact others that most adults still do not grasp. Kids today know when they are respected, they tune in and out accordingly when respect, challenge, and creative demand offer them work and learning that earns their dedication. They are demanding consumers on all fronts, learning maybe the most.

Victor: There have been other education movies, Superman, others with Maggie Gyllenhall/big stars in the works. Also, Edutopia has filmed vignettes of what works in education for years, and there have been a handful of documentaries in this ed reform genre—so how does this project fit into those—and how is it unique?

Bruce: We hope people see Look! I’m Learning! as a response to films like Waiting for Superman that appear to denigrate public school structures instead of reinvest in them. This story is about committed teachers asking for tools to improve their teaching and their students learning, and when they get those tools, great things happen.

Victor: What do you perceive the current national conversation on educational technology to be, in a few sentences or so? You stated that your goal is to change that conversation—what direction do you want to make that conversation take? Why?

Tom: I believe that most adults understand that kids are embracing technology and that they do not understand the full extent or potential of this reality.  This film can offer them an insight on how this can be a good thing for our kids and for the future. It can offer permission for adults to let this happen and to embrace positive change.

There is no reason for kids to be shackled with the same educational system that we had. Removing the limitations that existed 20, 30, 40 years ago is our responsibility. I want people to see that every generation should be given new opportunities for them to allow those opportunities to be embraced.

Victor: There are decade-long edtech reform cycles that wreak of deja vu all over again. How is this time around different? With an analytical approach, consider this line of thought: “This is gonna revolutionize education!”

Bruce: I have been in conversations as recently as December 2012 with policy makers asking for evidence that technology has an impact in the classroom. Everyone wants increased technology investment to “equal” increased student achievement. This equation seeks to erase the teacher from the equation. We want to change the conversation, the equation. We believe that increasingly effective teachers “equal” increased student achievement.

Our story bears this out. Our second grade teacher Amber Kowatch saw her reading scores jump 16 percent in one year through the use of technology. Her mathematics scores jumped 8 percent. This happened with the state, region, and school averages remained flat. This is after one year! We can’t wait to see what happens after Amber has the technology for two, three, four years.

And how about the students? What will happen to those students that have increasingly effective teachers year-after-year? We won’t know because Amber’s students moved on to classrooms with little, if any technology.

Tom: I would clarify that Amber’s increases are percentage point increases. The 16 points in reading reflect a 25 percent increase in student performance and the eight points in Math a 12 percent increase. Reading went from 64 percent to 80 percent and Math from 50 percent to 58 percent.

As to the initial question—the kids are moving past us regardless of what we do.  They are using technology, whenever they have access to it, to move themselves forward. If we don’t make these changes, then they are going to find other ways to learn that far outpace what we have done in the past, making the current educational system largely irrelevant. The question isn’t about if education is going to be revolutionized—it’s about who is going to lead it and when do we embrace the coming changes.

Victor: What are your thoughts on professional development surrounding this project? What compels you to take this sort of professional development approach?

Amber: Some people are comfortable and ready to use technology right now in their classroom. If they were offered the opportunity they would take it and run but…to make technology work in the classroom at a level that will make a difference in achievement, teachers will need to be trained on how to use it and why it will benefit their students. With any new education initiative professional development should always be a huge part of the roll-out.

Ashley: Professional development is very important. Teachers need to know what the devices are capable of before just handing them over. Professional development should be on going for staff.

Victor: What results are you looking to achieve?

Tom: Increased teacher capacity. Increased engagement of students and parents.  Students learning to use technology constructively to improve their ability to learn, communicate, collaborate and problem-solve. And yes, improved achievement on standardized testing. Most importantly, we are looking to make education relevant, effective and more productive.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days? 

Tom: The last few questions really address this in a variety of ways. In a nutshell, I know that we are teaching kids far more and far earlier than we ever have and are doing so with some success. I know that we need to do even more. I believe that embracing and encouraging students to use the technology at our disposal to be more successful learners is the key to future success.

Victor: What makes you say that?

Tom: Just spend a weekend with some kids who have technology and connectivity and quietly pay attention to their actions, their conversations—not just verbal—and their capacity to meet their own needs.

Victor: What are the main challenges in education today?

Bruce: I believe dedicated funding is still needed. Because the visible evidence is lacking in technology and the costs remain relatively high for full-scale implementations, school boards and administrators are reluctant to allocate the resources. I believe incentive funding, like we have seen in Race to the Top, would compel states and schools to make the needed investments to scale. Leadership is another key component. Tom Johnson, the technology director at the regional service agency, demonstrated leadership in casting a vision for technology in the early elementary classroom. Amber and Ashley demonstrated instructional leadership by taking the chance with implementing one-to-one. They had to totally transform their classrooms. School and district leadership quickly realized that something special was happening and lended a hand. Superintendent Calvin DeKiuper has stepped up to lead a funding initiative to provide technology for the entire district.

Tom: Adult preconceptions.

Victor: Haha—interesting, Tom. So, how do you see, “Look, I’m Learning” addressing your concerns about education?

Amber: Look! I’m Learning! will present a powerful message to all those involved in the education world. It will showcase how teaching needs to change in order to reach all of our students. It will show that it isn’t about handing a device to a student and expecting good results, it is about a philosophical shift that has to happen. Students need to become valuable members of our society and to do that they need to be responsible, motivated, be able to think critically, problem solve, and be able to communicate in multiple ways. Using technology can certainly help achieve all of those results if it is used to its fullest potential. Look! I’m Learning! will show what is possible in education and why technology should be at the forefront of every school’s budget.

Ashley: Students are able to sit in the drivers seat in their learning. Students can achieve great results using technology.

Tom: It gives kids permission to learn as fast and as deep as they can.

Victor: What is the call to action here? Why that and not another?

Bruce: This is a call to action. We need to demonstrate new models of teaching and learning enabled by technology designed for learning. We need to demonstrate it in ways people can see. There is a reason YouTube is the second-most used search engine on the web. People want to see what you are talking about. So let’s show them.

Victor: Alright—thank you thus far! Now, a few more, rapid-fire questions for you all. You may already have answered these, but let’s just give it a whirl: Why did you create the film?

Bruce: There is a story here beyond the information about a technology pilot that went right. What happens to the students in the first year of the pilot that don’t have access to technology for learning today? What is the school district doing about it?

Victor: What does the name ‘Look! I’m Learning!’ mean?

Bruce: The name, “Look! I’m Learning!” tumbled out of the mouth of a kindergartner on the first day she was able to use the device in the classroom. It epitomizes this new way of learning that empowers the student to learn and own her learning.

Victor: What is it? Who created it?

Tom: That is tough to define. The kids really create it. The teachers are amazing and do all the work to make it possible but in the end, the kids are the ones really pushing the edge. The kids constantly exceed expectations.

Victor: What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

Amber: This story is very unique because most technology initiatives are offered at the junior high or high school level. This project was created for a kindergarten and second grade classroom and to help make a connection between classroom and home. All of our students use their devices each and every day at school as well as at home with their families every night. This project has created a true 24/7 learning environment where our kids see that learning doesn’t stop when the bell rings and they walk out the door for the day.

Ashley: Parental involvement with homework has been redefined. Parents actually want to sit down with their child at night to see what they learned in class. Parents have a window into our classroom’s by seeing class work on the wiki, class videos, notes and pictures. Family time is now spent all learning around the iPad playing educational games. Parents as well as other children in the home all have the opportunity to learn with the iPad.

Victor: Your thoughts on education these days?

Amber: Education is something that is always evolving. Never once in the history of education has there ever been a lack of desire for change. Exactly what that change is or should be is usually the difficult part to figure out. I believe that as a teacher we need to stop handing information to our students. We give, give, give and expect them to learn, learn, learn but learning in that way just doesn’t make sense. If we give students the opportunity to take learning into their own hands then they will be more driven and motivated then ever before. Technology has helped me teach my children how to be resourceful learners. They are taking the initiative and I am able to stand beside them and help guide their learning rather than hand them the answers. This kind of teaching and learning will help my students become critical thinkers and problem solvers in the 21st century.

Ashley: Amber said it! Our students are becoming critical thinkers and problem solvers in the 21st century. We are so please with the way they have grown in these skills. Students are able to learn at their own pace, and teachers are able to accommodate all learning styles easier with the iPad.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating ‘Look! I’m Learning!’ ?

Bruce: I know Allyson can talk to this better than I can, but my two daughters thrive on technology. They are on it every chance they get, especially Mikayla, my fourth-grader. I watch her struggle with her multiplication tables, filling out dittos. They are the same type of dittos that bored me in school and almost cost me my analytical skills. But I watch the same child go back and forth from YouTube and a video game, using recorded “cheats” to improve her performance.

Victor: How does ‘Look! I’m Learning!’ address some of your concerns about education?

Bruce: First and foremost, the film highlights great teaching and how technology designed for learning empowers great teachers to teach. What I love about this story is that the teachers were asking for the technology. If there is one thing I have learned, if we can get the teachers asking for the technology, the technology will have the desired impact on their productivity, creativity, and effectiveness.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Bruce: Positive. The disruptive technology we hold in are hands are going turn education upside down, or in many cases, right-side up, empowering great teachers and throngs of students to own and love learning. Our film captures the positive, upside to technology in the classroom.

Victor: Any funny stories? 

Bruce: Since we launched our Kickstarter campaign to “crowd source” the completion of the film, I have been asked if “executive production” of the film is part of my official job responsibilities. The answer is yes. As a state education technology director, I see my role increasingly becoming an advocate for students a means of engaging, broadening, and improving their learning. (P.S. You should see the look I get when I start talking about our next film!)

Amber: Nora, one of my second graders shared this with me, “Last night I had a dream that I erased our whole wiki and then the world came to an end!” This “dream” shows exactly how important my student’s digital world is to them and their learning.

Victor: Wow! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights about education, learning, technology and more. Let’s talk again after the film has had a chance to make an impact. So, for now, thank you all very much and very best wishes in the months and years to come!  


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