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Classrooms of Tomorrow: innovative technology + futuristic teaching = engaged students

Jaylen McCarter, 10, at right, leads a lively discussion on the weather with his classmates in Amanda Jackson's fifth-grade class at East Elementary. (Below), Students write on a share wall, exchanging ideas and working together. (Bottom) Fifth-grade students at East Elementary take turns sharing their knowledge during a discussion about weather patterns across the United States.

The Classrooms of Tomorrow initiative is not only changing the way students learn, it’s also changing the way teachers teach.

This innovative initiative, commonly referred to as COT, reinvents the way students are taught through interactive technology, unlimited classroom configurations, and teachers who facilitate learning rather than lecturing at the front of the classroom.

The classroom technology serves not only as a teacher presentation tool, but also a student-interaction device. Lecture Capture cameras allow teachers to record lessons and do virtual field trips to communicate with other classrooms across the district.

Share walls are another unique concept, where an entire wall is turned into a very large white board that students can share ideas and work together.

Union County Public Schools, known throughout the state as leaders in education, has 24 Classrooms of Tomorrow at six UCPS schools: East Elementary, Piedmont Middle, Porter Ridge Middle and High, Monroe High and Marshville Elementary.

The school system is beginning phase two of the COT initiative. Phase one began last year with 12 classrooms, two at each of the six aforementioned schools. This school year, the second phase will add two more classrooms to each of these schools.

“It’s no longer a sit-and-get type of classroom,” said Amanda Jackson, a fifth-grade teacher at East Elementary. “The name in itself really says what it is. It’s like stepping into the future. Prior to this year, I taught in a typical classroom, but this is taking learning to an entirely new level.”

The COT concept seems to be very popular with teachers. “This is only my second year of teaching so I feel like this is going to be a great experience to be able to have one of these new rooms and learn all this new technology,” said Emily Harrison, a fifth-grade teacher at East Elementary. “Having all this makes me really excited.”

Educators aren’t the only ones excited about being in these innovative classrooms. “Last year, when we didn’t have this technology, I was always ready to go home and play video games,” said Jaylen McCarter, 10, a fifth-grade student at East Elementary. “But now, I don’t really want to go home. I just want to stay.”

Gustavo Orecchio, 11, agrees. “It’s so nice to have all this technology, and have fun and learn at the same time.”

COT classrooms utilize the Project Based Learning (PBL) model. “This allows students to take leadership and ownership of their learning, and we know that is ultimately will increase student success,” said Andrea Savill, the UCPS Classrooms of Tomorrow coordinator.

Savill said the concept of this type of classroom is based on learning where students have to collaborate with each other.

“They have to learn how to work together, learn how to build off of each other’s ideas; to work as a team and to create,” Savill said. “I know a lot of adults who have problems doing that. When students are working in a project-based learning environment, they have to collaborate with one another.”

One of the key elements of the COT classroom is its ability to be mobile. “The chairs and desks are on wheels so they can get into groups very quickly,” said Brady Thomas, a UCPS instructional technology facilitator.

The shapes of the desks let them to fit together like a puzzle, thus allowing smaller or larger work groups in a multitude of seating arrangements.

“You have an unlimited amount of configurations,” Thomas said. “If we wanted to, we could take all 28 desks and put them in a big circle. They can be in circle of eight, a circle of six. It’s really up to the teacher.”

Kristen Mantel, a fourth-grade teacher at Marshville Elementary School, said students in COT classrooms have become very independent.

“We are no longer the one providing them everything,” Mantel said. “We’re teaching them how to find the information; the same way that we do when we need to find something new. We go to Google or watch a how-to video. We’re giving the kids the independence to do that. We’re promoting leaders, 21st century skills and collaboration. We’re growing real-world thinkers. Their social skills have become phenomenal.”

The Classrooms of Tomorrow initiative made one teacher rethink her future.

“I’m starting my 26th year of teaching and I wonder where COT has been all my life,” said Becky Phifer, a fourth-grade teacher at Marshville Elementary School. “I’m so excited about staying in education, that retirement is not even part of my vocabulary. The excitement of teaching and all the limitless possibilities that are in front of me, I don’t see retirement.”

Thomas said COTs are reinventing the learning spaces. “They make every inch of the classroom an area to learn for individualized instruction for students, utilizing the devices in those rooms.”

UCPS partnered with Panasonic to provide the technology in the classrooms, (the company donated the interactive displays); while Audio Enhancement provided audio equipment.

“It’s exciting to have our technology in the classrooms, to get teachers and students collaborating together, and really bringing the classroom of tomorrow vision to life – having students get up and move around and not just be physically sitting in a desk,” said Panasonic solutions specialist Melissa Westphal. “The students get excited when they see the technology. They’re so used to using technology so when they see it in the classroom, it gets them excited.”

Kevin Mitchell of Audio Enhancement said there are four speakers strategically placed in the ceiling around the classroom. When the teacher (equipped with a microphone) speaks, everyone in the class can hear her. When students speak on a mobile microphone, their voices will also be carried across the classroom so they, too, will be easily understood.

“That way, every students hears the teacher as if he or she was sitting right in front of them,” Mitchell said. “It’s actually proven to improve academic achievement.”

So successful is the COT concept, that Thomas said when the school system builds additions to existing schools or new schools, the COT initiative will impact the design of the new classrooms.

“The school system wants to meet the instructional needs of today’s learners and transform instruction,” Thomas said. “In order to do that, they have to transform the actual classroom into a learning space. The idea is to have every inch of the classroom to be an area for learning.”

As for the future, Thomas said there will be a phase three beginning in January 2016.

Written by: Deb Bledsoe - UCPS Communications Coordinator
Posted: Aug 19, 2015 by Deb Bledsoe

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