Innovating Classrooms, Schools, and Teacher Learning

A Few Moments with Jennie Magiera

As Digital Learning Coordinator for the Academy for Urban School Leadership, Jennie Magiera uses innovative technologies to construct relevant and engaging learning experiences for students across 25 Chicago Public Schools. Magiera specializes in 1-to-1-technology innovation and has documented success in increasing differentiation and improving assessment practices in AUSL classrooms. In 2012, Magiera, who is also a Google Certified Teacher and an Apple Distinguished Educator, was awarded Chicago Public Schools’ Tech Innovator of the Year award. This past May, Magiera was one of three educators chosen to speak with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Reimagining Learning Summit in Washington D.C. about redefining schools through the effective use of digital technologies. We caught up with Magiera to discuss the power of digital technologies in transforming classrooms as well as the diverse professional learning communities that are emerging for educators in a participatory age.

You were once a bit of a tech skeptic. When did you have that “aha!” moment, which changed the way you viewed technology in the classroom?

It wasn’t that I was ever anti-technology. In my personal life, I liked technology. I had an iPhone, and I had my MacBook, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to understanding how to use technology in the classroom. At the time, I didn’t see how tech tools could fit into my classroom. I saw them as side dish to the main course of my understanding of how a good classroom should look and function. In 2010, I found out about a Chicago Public Schools grant for iPads. I only had three older computers in my classroom so I thought I should try to get newer technology that would work more effectively. I applied, got the grant, and thought, oh well, I’ll just use these as an extra way to help engage kids and to help automate my classroom. 

After about two or three months, I realized that was the completely wrong way to go about it. What I was doing wasn’t working. It wasn’t effective, and it wasn’t getting the job done. It wasn’t until I heard about the SAMR Model — Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition — that I realized I was just substituting what I had been doing before with technology, which wasn’t transformative at all. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be to get into that modification and redefinition level of the model where I could truly transform learning for my kids, open new doors, and innovate ways to increase assessment effectiveness, differentiation, collaboration and creation opportunities for them. That’s when I realized — oh my gosh! — I have been thinking about it wrong all along. The reason I thought tech was a silly “side dish” was because it was my perception of how technology should be used, not the devices themselves.

There is a video circulating the Internet of one of your students describing how an iPad changed his life. Is there a back-story to this?

That was Kaleb. In his case, he was part of my tech leadership team. They were helping to review a new app for our classroom. He hated the app, and he used a less than appropriate word to describe it. However, instead of getting on him about that, we talked about his use of vocabulary to express his feelings, then discussed those feelings and why he was so frustrated. He wrote a blog post about how much he disliked the app, and I excerpted it on my own personal blog. Immediately the app developer, who must have had a Google alert out for himself, wrote me asking if he could meet with my students to get feedback on his app so he could improve it. So Kaleb video conferenced with the developer and used words that I didn’t think he knew — such as ‘infrastructure’ and ‘interface.’ At the end of the conversation, we didn’t think much of it, and moved on. Three months later, the developer wrote us back to let us know he had rereleased the app with all of Kaleb’s bug fixes. This made Kaleb feel like an app developer. Kalen felt powerful, and he felt like someone cared about what he said. That was new for him and a very exciting story for him to tell.

I could go on and on about how I have learned more and more about my students as human beings, as mathematicians, and as learners through the use of technology. I moved with my kids from one year to the next. One year I had iPads and the previous year I didn’t. Even though I had spent a whole year with them, I learned so much more about them during the year we had the iPads because they had so many different avenues of modalities to express themselves. That was really amazing for me, and I have seen so many teachers say the same when they brought transformative digital learning device in their classroom.

Often teachers talk about being isolated during their first years on the job. How can schools begin to create time and space for the type of collaboration you so often speak of?

When you start in the classroom, a lot of times it’s really about survival — how can you help your kids, teach your kids, and get through the year? If you’re in a great setting, then there’s a structure set in place for some sort of professional learning community that connects you with others. But that doesn’t always happen, and even when it does happen, that’s only one piece of the puzzle. There are so many advances now with virtual professional learning networks, online sites, and tools to connect you with other people. It’s not as hard as some people might think to jump on these networks or use these tools to further their knowledge, get support, get inspired, and refuel. The summer is a great time to decompress and relax and recharge your batteries. I wrote a recent EdWeek piece to help encourage people to try and take use of this opportunity while they have the bandwidth. 

In our AUSL network , we are developing a collaborative website in conjunction with The Teaching Channel called TchASUL, which helps our teachers collaborate with each other anytime and anywhere. It’s an online platform where they can share not only their thoughts and texts, but also video of their practice so they can coach each other virtually, unpack their practice, and think about what they are doing. It’s great to have that tool, but we also coach each other in person. We do collegial visits, and we also we have an open door policy. We don’t close our doors and seclude ourselves. AUSL runs many, many professional learning communities on all sorts of topics ranging from special education, mathematics, iPads to literacy, and we also try to connect teachers across our city and network through different events and online tools.

It’s really important in my career to always maintain connections and relationships. I value the mentors I have, and I try to be the best mentor possible for the people I am supporting. To improve student achievement in chronically underperforming schools, AUSL knows that teacher development and mentorship is essential. So in our Chicago Teacher Residency program, each preservice teacher is paired with a mentor. I was a mentor in that program for several years, and now I am the digital learning coordinator for that network. As such, it’s become very clear how important it is to not only have quality training and support in your preservice years, but also throughout your entire career as an educator.

Looking at the big picture, what’s a major source of concern when it comes to the future of education? Likewise, what’s a major source of optimism?

A huge obstacle I hear about from teachers as I visit districts across the country is getting leaders and decision makers to see the vision that a lot of us are talking about at the school level. I have seen it happen in a lot of districts where all of the leaders are on board and are speaking with a unified voice about innovation, and as a result, they are doing truly amazing things in their schools. But it isn’t always the case where the principal, the district leader, the IT people, and those in charge of purchasing are all on the same page. It’s not that they are wrong, but more that they don’t know or share the same vision. It’s not about convincing people, but more about getting everyone to hear the same message and to have the awareness of what is happening. It’s really difficult. It’s my full time job to know all of this material, and even I have a hard time keeping up. I can’t imagine how hard it would be for a principal or a district leader to keep track of all of the new things that are happening in the education space, not just in education technology, but the big picture as well.

In the places where this is happening, it is beautiful to see. There are tech leadership conferences all around the country that are making innovation and transformation the headlining topic so that the leaders, the policymakers, and the decision makers can become more informed and make these changes actionable. We have a lot of great examples here in Chicago of great leadership and knowledge around digital learning as well. I would love to see the change happen at all levels from the classroom level up to the district level, in every school, in every city – everywhere. It’s easier said than done, but it’s such an important challenge to tackle.

Digital tools have the potential to be “the great equalizer” in bridging the digital divide, but is it truly possible for educators to transform their classrooms without a sizeable technology budget?

It’s really about getting a clear philosophy in focus and not necessarily the tool itself. We try to remain device and platform agnostic as much as possible in our network. Instead of asking how we’re going to use an iPad, or a Chromebook, or a Google product, we first think about our goals as educators, which is to serve our students. We ask ourselves, how are we going to solve this or that problem of practice? We begin there, and then we look back at the SAMR model and we ask, are we using technology for technology’s sake, or are we using it because it is truly transformative?  Once you start with your challenge or problem of practice, you don’t always have to have one-to-one tablets for every child. Instead, we focus on trying to streamline assessment so as to find out more about what that child knows on a given day. Any way we can move across the continuum of measure in terms of improving, enhancing, or augmenting our ability to get at what children understand, that’s in the plus column.

It’s great if you have one-to-one devices, but there are a lot of free tools available for teachers as well. For example, there is a website, which allows teachers to print small codes that look similar to QR codes. If a student turns it vertically, it registers as an A; landscape as a B; upside down as a C etc. All the teacher has to have is one smartphone or web cam at the front of the class to take a picture of his/her class, and all of a sudden, he/she has completely assessed the students and gets real-time spreadsheets in the same way as if he/she had a really expensive assessment system in place or one-to-one devices.

Does it take more time? Yes. Is there more room for user error? Of course. But there are lots of different ways to “skin the cat” — if you will — as long as you have the philosophy in mind about starting with the problem of practice and trying to transform learning, and you understand that technology is a platform or a tool to do that and not just a shiny screen or an engagement trick. Like I always say, it’s not about the device. It’s how you use it.

To get up-to-date information about Magiera’s future projects, follow her on Twitter at @MsMagiera

Banner image credit: Courtesy of Jennie Magiera &