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Editor's note • This is the second in a five-part series about Utah educators given Teacher Innovation Awards this year for their use of technology in classrooms.
Laura Franson doesn't work for Google, but she has free time to explore from her desk just like workers at the tech giant.
During "genius time," the sixth-grader and her classmates look up the basics of American Sign Language and review plans to produce a documentary on the Vietnam War.
The midmorning session at Shelley Elementary in the Alpine School District is one reason why teacher Brandon Engles has been selected as one of Utah's most forward-thinking instructors. Engles, noted for incorporating high-tech elements in his classroom, is one of five Utah public school teachers to win an innovation award from The Salt Lake Tribune and KUED.
"Why make school different from real life?" Engles asked. "I don't think there's any job where they would have to memorize things and do work-sheets."
So he allows students 20 minutes with a Chromebook to explore any topic they wish.
It's part of Engles' larger push to help students adapt in a fast-paced digital era, said Engles' colleague Charlotte McGee, one of three Shelley sixth-grade teachers. The pair has worked side by side for more than a decade.
"The world is changing so quickly, and information every day is multiplying. There's no way for us to teach a child everything they're going to need in their life," McGee said. "They have to be able to think for themselves and love learning because they're going to have to adapt and change all the time."
Engles is adept at finding new ways to spark students' curiosity and allow them to move at their own pace, say McGee and others. Other teachers have adapted their own lessons based on his model.
For example, before math lessons, Engles passes out paper cards with a code. Students answer logic problems by holding up the sheets, and Engles uses a digital tablet to take a scan of the room. The app Plickers indicates how many of the 11- and 12-year-olds are on track. Since Engles introduced the new "flipped classroom," a handful of other teachers in the district has started using the system.
While Engles inspires his colleagues to use digital devices in new and unusual ways in their classrooms, he's fighting hardware issues.
Compared to his counterparts at bigger public schools and at many charters with multiple digital resources, he is starting from scratch. Engles' class gets one hour in a computer lab each week.
Teachers for Shelley's third through sixth grades share a set of 20 Chromebooks. Last year, the school's sixth grade won a district grant to share 10 iPads among about 160 students.
To address the dearth, Engles has met with members of the Legislature, the Utah Education Association and the state Office of Education to explain how his students use the devices in class and why additional screens would help.
"I'm grateful for what we do have," Engles said. "We've come a long way, but we could use a lot more."
Despite limited resources, his class benefits from free programs like Google Docs and Skype. They use the video-conferencing software to chat with the NASA scientists who built the Cassini orbiter now spinning around Saturn.
Engles' students also participated in a "mystery Skype session," a 20 Questions-style game that helped them decipher the location of their modern-day pen pals. A class from Atlanta threw off the American Fork pupils by greeting them with "Hola!" and other Spanish phrases, said 12-year-old Cheyanne Nichol.
During genius time, Franson and Nichol are working with Nichol's grandfather, a Vietnam War veteran who lives in New Mexico, to figure out why Army surgeons practiced on dogs instead of pigs, which are known to have organs similar to humans.
The free time to research any topic and prepare a lesson on it is their favorite part of class, the students said.
"You're learning about what you want to learn about," Franson said.
Meanwhile, Engles visited other clusters of desks.
"That's the world they live in. They all have phones and computers at home," he said. "Education has to step up and be more like real life."
email@example.com Teacher awards
Five Utah teachers have been selected for this year's Teacher Innovation Awards, which are sponsored by KUED and The Salt Lake Tribune and celebrate the creative use of technology in classrooms.
The awards are given this year based on grade levels.
Five winners will be profiled in a continuing series in The Tribune and a special program airing on KUED at 8 p.m. May 18.
The first installment featured Charlie Matthews, a teacher at the Park City School District Center for Advanced Professional Studies.