In this podcast, we'll chat with Martha Bowden about her role as Lower School computer teacher and technology coach at the Episcopal School of Dallas. She'll talk about ESD is approaching digital citizenship at the middle school level, as well as the importance of student-driven learning in today's schools.
Welcome to the MBS Direct podcast where we talk with some of our partners who are doing interesting things with content in education. I'm Carrie Watkins, the senior digital consultant with MBS Direct. Today, we are talking with Martha Bowden, the Lower School computer teacher and tech coach at the Episcopal School of Dallas. Welcome, Martha.
Martha Bowden: Thanks for having me, Carrie.
Carrie: As the Lower School computer teacher and tech coach, you see learning on both sides of the classroom. You see the teachers as you're working with them on their technology questions, and then of course you're working with students as well. Talk a little bit about your role there at the Episcopal School of Dallas.
Martha: Sure. I've been at ESD for about 15 years. I began working in the library, and then about 2008 was asked to move into the computer lab to help work with students focusing them in on effective technology skills to meet the demands of the more digital world that they will face. I've enjoyed that transition. We still work on research skills, but we also bring the digital citizenship skills to the forefront to make sure these kids understand some of the challenges and also the responsibilities that they hold in working in this digital world.
Carrie: Absolutely. I think that's something that a lot of schools these days are really grappling with in how to prepare their students for something that's completely different than the way we all grew up. You work with them on research skills as well as digital citizenship. What are some of the things within those two buckets that you really work with the students on?
Martha: I like to make the digital citizenship piece the foundation. We've become certified as a Signature School for Common Sense Media by incorporating that curriculum throughout all grades from the youngest students through high school.
We feel that that's the important underlying piece. The research skills, how to find quality information and to verify that it's quality information, and then how to use that information they find appropriately is something that seems to be a continual problem in the world.
You hear stories where that wasn't learned well by professionals. I think our kids just need to make that a habit and have it instilled from the time they begin research and utilizing information.
Carrie: It's amazing how much information we are all inundated with every single day and to be able to know, at least at a glance, whether something is at least credible or potentially credible or obviously false is a huge skill set we all need to do better at. We've talked about how you work with the students and teaching them and preparing them for what's in store for them.
How do you work with teachers as a tech coach?
Martha: Well, obviously almost daily, new products are thrown out there and we're challenged as educators to explore and incorporate them into what we do, into our practice. With the classroom teacher who has so much on the plate already to have the extra time to do that exploration is unrealistic. My role is to find the time to check out and then target the particular options to the teachers. I'm very versed in their curriculum, what they're teaching, and so as I explore new tools, I figure out what might work well. Only if I think it will help enhance what they're doing, I'll suggest it, and then I'll take some time to train them on how to use it, so that they have that opportunity to incorporate some of the cutting edge new tools, but have some help in figuring out where they should focus and how to use it. That's really exciting to me, because I like solving puzzles like that I guess.
Carrie: You've been there you mentioned for a while at Episcopal School of Dallas. You started out in the library and now got your multiple hats now. How have you seen Episcopal School of Dallas evolve over your time there in terms of technology and in terms of content? How have you seen things change in your career there?
Martha: ESD is, as far as private schools go, a younger school. We're less than 50 years old, so a lot of what we do, we're still growing and developing and building all of that. With all the changes in education, that makes it an exciting time because we can incorporate the new as we continue to build and grow. Obviously the explosion in digital options, I guess when I came in the early 2000s, that was the beginning of the infusion of digital into the schools. It was much more limited back then.
With the increase of digital options and specifically the web-based tools, it's just been a seamless growth and transition. I think at this point, initially it was a little bit daunting for many because the change seemed so rapid, but we've almost become desensitized to anticipate there will be a lot of change every year and that just makes it easier going into it knowing that a lot of what we did last year no longer applies and we're changing and doing some new things.
We have a solid foundation, some founding tenets that we operate under, and everything we do is ground in those founding tenets.
Carrie: What brought you to education? What was the reason why you decided to pursue this as a career?
Martha: I've been told that I'm a natural educator. I spent my years in school being utilized as a peer mentor for other students. For some reason, I have that ability to take what seems complicated and hard to understand and boil it down to common sense language that makes sense to most people, so it's just been a natural part of how I've operated my entire life, as far back as I can remember. That made it logical that teaching would be something that would help, because I can relate where the learner is and frame it in a way that makes it accessible for them.
Carrie: What has kept you in education all this time?
Martha: The thing that I really have tuned into lately is the move toward a more personalized learning platform with a focus on inquiry learning. That seems to be the direction we're moving, and I really support that because I can see such potential in our world if we all are able to focus on our strengths and then have the tools to support our learning along those lines. I think that that's the logical next step in the progression, and to me, it's invigorating to be a part of that change and to help along the way.
Carrie: It's always great to be part of an organization where you feel like you're constantly growing and they're looking at things in new ways. Sounds like the Episcopal School of Dallas is one of those institutions.
You mentioned inquiry-based learning. What do you mean by that?
Martha: One of our focuses is with students is that they come with the questions and then we help them pursue solving those questions, both independently and with collaborative learning challenges. We try to be open and flexible enough to help them in creative and pulling in resources from our community and our larger network.
Carrie: Can you provide some examples of maybe how that was done at the Episcopal School of Dallas?
Martha: We've had a lot of focus on gardening and students who want to learn how to be more healthy, so we brought in master gardeners to teach that skill, and we've been able to build a garden where we actually produce some of the food that our cafeteria then utilizes in our meals. We're actually enjoying the fruits of our labor so to speak. That would be one example.
Really the sky is the limit on what students really tune into. We have a great community service program where students work in areas that they find have needs, and they come up with some of the ideas to go out and serve in our community. Watching students effect change and seeing how that transforms their lives is really wonderful.
Carrie: I love the big push for social service that a lot of schools are providing for their students, either as an option for volunteering or required. I think we've seen it both ways. It gives students a really good hands-on experience before they have to decide what they're going to do with the rest of their life. It does, like you said, it gives them a purpose. The students actually get to choose the organization or the problem that they see that they would like to fix?
Martha: Yes. They start at the younger grades with the program director working with the teachers. The kids have input in how they want to do it. When it's changed up, then they get to be a part of it so that they really feel like they understand what the issues are and that even the younger ones that are able to help in their community.
What do you think is the most interesting thing happening in education right now?
Martha: I'm really invigorated by the movement to make the computer science principles more mainstream in schools. Because of the explosion of the digitization of our society, we really do all need to have a fundamental understanding of how all of this works in order to keep it moving in a positive direction. By making computer science one of the core subjects and having it infused within the disciplines, more of a STEM approach, I think will be the most helpful in pulling together all of the pieces.
Carrie: Definitely. There is definitely a lot of computer science options out there. When you say computer science, what are you talking about for the Episcopal School of Dallas and your role there?
Martha: I make sure that students have an understanding of programming languages and how all of the pieces fit together so that when they move up into the higher grades, they have that foundational understanding and can decide how to utilize, how to pursue or specialize, if there's a specific area they're interested, just so that the kids don't have to wait until they're in upper grades and then start at the beginning.
Carrie: I think pushes like Hour of Code and what MIT did with Scratch and some of those other programs, I think you are starting to see some of it happening in the lower grades, but you're right. For the longest time it was really relegated to those upper grade.
What skills are you hoping at the younger grade level that students are picking up outside of just, I know how to write code?
Martha: I want my students to be able to go to a program they've never used before and be able to use it flawlessly just by their understanding of how programs work. Because change comes so frequently now as far as programs and apps and different options, there are some underlying similarities to them. Rather than kids to feel that they have to take a course to learn something new, they should have the foundational understanding to be able to utilize any new program that they've never seen before fairly well the first time they look at it.
Carrie: Episcopal School of Dallas, you guys are very technology-focused. You have a lot of options there with that, but you also have a lot of hands-on that you guys do there as well. Correct?
Martha: Yes. We are hopefully launching a new campaign to combine all of our divisions onto one property and also build a new STEM center in the next few years. We're all excited about looking forward to thinking of the future and what facilities like that would need to have and add that into our facilities. Keeping the needs of the future at the forefront of our minds is primary with our goal of helping our kids.
Our catchphrase is we hope for our students will leave this school ready to ignite lives with integrity and purpose in everything they do. The inquiry and passion are so much a focus of what we want our students, and we don't want that to stop when they leave school.
It should be a foundation of who they are as individuals as they go forward to make changes in our world.
Carrie: It sounds like you guys are providing your students with a plethora of opportunities to really grow and experience the world in a lot of different ways. I appreciate your time today, Martha, and I appreciate your partnership. Thank you for all you do for the Episcopal School of Dallas.
Martha: Well, thank you!
For more information on any of the topics discussed in this podcast, or any other questions you have about digital content options, contact your Account Manager or you can reach out to me, Carrie Watkins, Senior Digital Consultant, on Twitter, @CarrieJWatkins.