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Mentor eases teachers into expanded technology deployment

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Margie Trovao has taught at Lord Nelson Elementary School in east Vancouver for the past 15 years, but this fall she is also a student in her own classroom.

Under an initiative by the Vancouver School Board, Ms. Trovao is being mentored by a tech-savvy teacher from another school on how to use iPads and other devices in her split Grade 6-7 classroom.

“It’s wonderful,” says Ms. Trovao of working with mentor Zhi Su, a teacher for the past 11 years who runs a mini-school program for students from Grades 8-10 at John Oliver Secondary School.  He was selected as one of four teacher-mentors for the district and, this fall, is spending half his time at John Oliver and the other half as a coach-advisor to Ms. Trovao and four other instructors at other Vancouver schools. 

In Ms. Trovao’s case, she rates her proficiency with computers as “medium.” She was unfamiliar with the iPad until the board gave her one to practice on last Christmas. She says she only discovered the potential of the mobile device for the kind of project-based learning she encourages in her classroom after working with Mr. Su.

“If someone said ‘here is an iPad, use it in your classroom and figure it out,’ that would be very overwhelming for most people and would be overwhelming for me, even though I sort of knew what I wanted to accomplish,” she says. “Having someone there and teaching it with me and showing how it can be used has made it easier for me. I have not been uncomfortable learning how to use it.”

At 101-year-old Lord Nelson, the school has a computer lab but no wireless access to the Internet yet. For the mentoring project, the board loaned an iPad cart to Ms. Trovao and two other teachers at the school for the fall semester.  Mr. Su will be embedded in Ms. Trovao’s classroom over the course of a month or so, in two-hour blocks of time. 

In his mentor role, Mr. Su first visited Ms. Trovao’s classroom to learn about her teaching style and the projects she planned for her students. Then, with her curriculum goals in mind, he suggested ways to use the iPads to enhance the learning experience for students.  He also taught Ms. Trovao and her 27 students (who share 15 iPads) the basics of the device for capturing images, note-taking and research. 

“I am offering the curriculum just the same [as before] but there are different pieces – engagement, multi-media and a digital citizenship [on the appropriate use of the Internet] piece that they otherwise would not receive,” he says.

For example, one class project is a biography of someone who has made a difference in the world. In the past, students would collect information from a book, at school or at home, write out the information by hand and present the findings on a poster board. This year, students work in pairs on the iPad to search for images and information from the Internet that, when complete, will be a printed booklet.

The speed with which students now can gather information holds their attention for the project, says Ms. Trovao. “Because it is done on a computer, there is so much more they can do” she says. “They are engaged in it, take more pride in it and they want to learn more.” Since students now spend less time copying information from books, Ms. Trovao find they talk more to each other, and to her, during the project to explain what they are doing – and why.

For another project, Mr. Su plans to teach the Lord Nelson students how to create a comic strip-like graphic novel on the iPad. “They will take on the characters and act out the scenes, using apps,” he says. “They will upload photos and embed them into the comic strip layout and enter the dialogue boxes to tell the story.” In the process, he says, the students will develop skills in arts, communication and technology as they create a digital artifact for themselves, their classmates or their parents. He says the process encourages students to feel more ownership of their work. “They know at the end it is not just something they are handing to the teacher and the teacher is the only one who sees it,” he says. “Everybody sees it.”  

As a teacher who is also a student this fall, Ms. Trovao says she is showing her students that “it is okay to say you don’t know something and to have struggles with something.”

From working with her mentor, Ms. Trovao says she has learned that she doesn’t have to change much of what she does to integrate technology into her lesson plans. “People are afraid it might be time consuming to learn these things,” she says. “All you really have to do is have somebody show you one or two things to help you do what you are already doing. That is why Zhi [Su] is so important.”

For Mr. Su, the mentoring initiative is a way to reach fellow teachers who are curious but not experienced about technology. “If they have the desire to learn you are able to go in and work with them,” he says. “The idea is to build capacity and build a community that is built on reciprocity.” 

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