As a self-described “dream chaser,” educator Becki Smedley is making strides to transform the country’s education system one classroom at a time. Her dedication to individualizing education for every student pushed her to leave Quest Academy in Utah, an innovative school with her ideal classroom, to move across the country. Now in Florida, a state wrought with debates over standards and some of the lowest funding in the country, Becki is inspired by the sunshine and palm trees as she continues her work to create engaging learning experiences for students and educators.
With schools and educators throughout the country facing tough decisions about whether and how to return to the classroom, we know that technology will continue to play an increasingly important role in the learning process. Becki has long embraced technology in her classroom, and it’s allowed her to focus more on individualizing education for every student, and even parents and families. Her experience doing so has given her a lot of enthusiasm and valuable advice, as shown in our interview here.
You embraced edtech early, so was there a specific moment that made you a believer?
I grew up with Oregon Trail® in elementary school, had a pager in junior high, and got my first cell phone in high school. So I’m on that edge of being a millennial, and while I never had access to the amount of technology our students have now, it was on the periphery of my learning. I grew up using a computer, and as editor in chief of my high-school newspaper, I was used to sharing and re-sharing documents. When I was new to teaching, a fellow educator told me about using Google Docs, and I got really excited about where technology could go.
From there I created a Google Form for multiple-choice exams and used an overlay to grade and correct the tests automatically. This opened a whole new world for me, and propelled me to seek a second master’s degree in education and technology.
I come from a family of educators, and the first time my sister-in-law was able to come home without a stack of essays to grade, her energy jumped exponentially. I constantly share ideas with her at family dinners because from my work with charter schools, I had access to tools she had never seen before. I am encouraged by the power of technology to allow us to be educators, but not have teaching take over our life anymore. When I see other educators do things that take a lot of time, I say to them, “Why are you still doing that? Your time is too valuable. Use it for the kids, not for the papers.”
To succeed, I believe students need:
1. To be willing to put forth the effort
2. A teacher willing to meet individual need
3. Parents to provide support
Have any particular student journeys stood out for you in your experience with edtech?
I was in special education for six years, and that’s where my heart falls. When I shifted to general education, I found myself wanting to challenge both the high and low ends of my class. I had a fourth-grade student with a 504 plan during my first year as a regular education teacher. I used technology to notify her in advance of any activities we had planned for the next day. But when we moved to online curriculum, the ability for her to re-listen to a concept was life-changing. She went from a student who struggled with proficiency to one who was consistently proficient. She went on her own pace and I was her facilitator in the curriculum while still attending to her 504 needs. It allowed her to become a learner who was thriving.
On the other hand, I had a student in sixth and seventh grade who was going ahead of pace. We opened the door and let him run, and he did 2.5 years of math progress in his 7th-grade year. He was on the high side, and technology allowed him to fly while still allowing me to be the facilitator.
We’ve talked a lot about the benefits of edtech, but what do you see as the biggest challenge?
Finding the right piece of technology can be a big problem. I feel like through grants of group sourcing, we’re finding it easier to find the financial piece for the tech, but there is so much technology out there that it can be intimidating to teachers. Especially if you’re used to teaching a certain way, it can be hard to envision how to use these new things in your classroom.
For example, I can’t see how to use VR as a math teacher yet, and it seems like it’s got a great place in science and social studies right now. I say “yet” because I think it will come into my classroom someday, but I just haven’t been able to find a way so far. So it can be overwhelming to understand how to use something in your personal situation because no two classrooms are the same and what’s working for someone else may not work for you.
I am encouraged by the power of technology to allow us to be educators, but not have teaching take over our life anymore.
How do you combat that feeling of being overwhelmed in your classroom?
That’s something I’m focusing on this year, mental health and fear in particular. A lot of the decisions we make are due to fear, like the fear of the unknown, fear of being uncomfortable or embarrassed, fear of the student knowing something we don’t know. If we can push through that to be vulnerable with ourselves and our students, we can create some unique moments. The kids were born into this world of technology, and in a lot of ways, it’s their first language, so it’s okay to ask them for help and be upfront with our own struggles. It helps us to model that growth mindset for students and teach them that it’s okay to try something new. There’s sometimes a disconnect between generations, but just accepting that things can be different and it’s okay to change can be life-altering.
And how do parents fit into the learning experience in your opinion?
I think parents are one of the three most important things a student needs for success.
To succeed, I believe students need:
- To be willing to put forth the effort
- A teacher willing to meet individual need
- Parents to provide support
Every kid and every parent is different, so, again, it’s all about individualization. Some parents may need to meet with a teacher on a monthly basis while others only need a yearly check-in, and that’s okay. Educating the masses is a disservice because our kids are so diverse, as are we as teachers, and technology gives us the opportunity to meet them where they are. If there are 30 students in a classroom with one teacher at the front, some are bored, some are lost, and some are learning. To help parents understand the vision and to buy into it, we need to show them how we can meet their student’s individual needs.
I had a fourth-grade student with a 504 plan, and when we moved to online curriculum, the ability for her to re-listen to a concept was life-changing. She went from a student who struggled with proficiency to one who was consistently proficient. It allowed her to become a learner who was thriving.
What is your definition of blending learning, and what are your best tips for creating an optimal blended-learning environment?
Blended learning for me is when a student is in control of their education, and they use multiple resources to achieve their learning goals. Online resources, one-on-one, virtual, simulations, YouTube, a blend of everything education has to meet the individual student’s need. We’re taking steps to get there and have a lot of resources to offer, but we need to remember to individualize the experience for the student.
And it doesn’t have to be in a formal setting; a five-minute conversation on the playground is better than five hours of whole-group instruction. It’s almost life-changing when we have a one-on-one. A computer has no way of knowing what is going to be the key to your learning, what string you need to pull, what concept you need to reteach. So when I talk to my students, especially the frustrated ones, I make them tell me what they do understand. I say, “Before you tell me what you don’t get, tell me what you do get.” And that way it can build their confidence up because even the kids struggling the most understand something, and I can step in to help them make connections.
How do you keep your school at the forefront of tech?
I recognize that our country is losing teachers, and I don’t know what it is that’s pushing people away from education, other than that it is easy to get bored if you’re not being challenged. Schools buy a product and expect that it will fix everything. I don’t think edtech is a solution. These are people we’re educating, not robots, and you have to establish positive, trusting relationships with them. If teachers can be comfortable with change and the evolution of technology and work alongside supportive administrators who institute intentional changes, then the students will benefit. But we must always ask if it’s the right thing for our learners, and not just make changes on a whim.