Technology in the Classroom: Bringing the World to the Rural Classroom

Interview with Cherrie MacInnes, Third Grade Teacher and Technology Education Advocate.

Third grade literacy teacher Cherrie MacInnes admits to not being much of a cook, a crafty artist, or a green thumb gardener. But she does have a talent for teaching young children, instilling a love of learning in them, and using her tech savvy skills to open up their eyes and minds to a much bigger world outside of their rural Maine community.  

MacInnes discovered her passion to educate while she was an Aquatic Director at her local YMCA, where she spent much of her time teaching young children to swim. She yearned, however, for a career that would directly impact the lives of children in a classroom setting, and enrolled in the University of Maine to pursue a degree in education. After several years of teaching experience, this technology education advocate earned her master’s degree in literacy and later a C.A.S. (Certificate of Advanced Study) in education, with a focus on technology and autism. She is also a certified literacy specialist. With 25 years of experience in the classroom and a firm believer in lifelong learning, MacInnes is enthusiastic about sharing her expertise with students and peers.

Integrating Technology in the classroom: Bringing the World to Rural Students

MacInnes has gained a reputation among her elementary school peers across the country and around the world as the go-to expert on video conferencing in the classroom. She has achieved this through her Chatting Across the U.S.A. education group, an initiative that gives educators the opportunity to share innovative ideas and become better users of technology in the classroom. She is also an experienced presenter, sharing her knowledge of instructional technology at popular education events such as the Pennsylvania Teachers Symposium, the Maine Principal’s Association, and the Association of Computer Technology Educators of Maine. MacInnes is proof that you don’t have to be a computer genius to successfully bring 21st century learning to a rural classroom. Through her outreach, she encourages other teachers to be innovative and to take risks with the tools that are available to them. She was selected as a finalist for the Maine Technology Educator of the Year award for 2011-2013 and was a nominee for the 2013-14 Maine Teacher of the Year award.

Enjoy our full interview with Cherrie MacInnes and discover how she successfully integrates technology into the classroom, keeping students excited and motivated to learn.

GradSchools: Discuss your background and education. What led you to teaching and to earn your Master’s degree in Literacy?

When I graduated from college, I worked as the Aquatic Director at our local YMCA. My favorite part of the day was teaching the younger children how to swim.   After my daughter was born, I knew I did not want to spend my days in a bathing suit soaked with chlorinated water. Interacting with children was what I enjoyed and where I excelled so I enrolled into the education department at the University of Maine. Once I began my new journey, I knew that I was where I was meant to be. I love teaching. I am a horrible cook, skills needed for sewing and other crafts are not in my genetic make-up, and my thumb is nowhere near green. My strengths are being a mother and teaching children. I am so lucky to be able to do both.

After I had a couple of years of teaching under my belt, I applied to graduate school with the main goal of becoming the best teacher that I could be. At that time I was a first grade teacher. A strong literacy background is critical for teaching young children to read. I knew a Master’s Degree in Literacy would help me to develop a better understanding of how children acquire literacy skills. I loved graduate school because it was so relevant. I was able to bring my classroom experience to the university, expand on that knowledge and then apply new information and teaching strategies learned to what was happening in my classroom.

A decade later, I again entered graduate school. I think it is so important for teachers to model being lifelong learners. Simply explained, it is walking the walk and not just talking it.  The University has a C.A.S. program which is a Master’s plus 30 credits. I catered my coursework to what I felt would make the most meaningful impact on my classroom based on changes in instructional needs that I’d experienced. So my two focus areas were technology in the classroom and developing a better understanding of autism. Taking the technology courses gave me the courage to take how I was using technology to a higher level.

GradSchools: Can you explain the Chatting Across the U.S.A. education group? What is your mission and what do you hope to achieve?

When I began the program, Chatting Across the USA, video conferencing was not used a lot in the elementary classroom. It was amazing to me that none of the third grade teacher who participated from all of the 50 states during the first year of this project had used this type of technology. Trying new things can be scary. Doing so with others makes taking the leap a bit easier. We were able to do practice chats prior to our classroom chats, email and use Skype to discuss how we wanted our lessons to proceed, and problem solve with one another. The support gained made all of us better teachers and inspired us to try new ways to incorporate technology and collaborate with one another no matter how great the distance between our schools.

A core group of us created the following mission statement:

We, the teachers within the Chatting Across the USA community, are committed to modeling digital citizenship by forming a cooperative learning community among students that will empower them to play an active role in their learning process through unique experiences and opportunities.  Our project is driven by the following set of core values:

  1. Respect for self
  2. Respect for diversity in others
  3. Building strong connections
  4. Promoting peace as agents of change
  5. Engendering a healthy sense of self-pride in our students
  6. Fostering critical thinking
  7. Stimulating an interest in learning

GradSchools: How do you use technology in classroom activities and lessons?

I incorporate technology in the classroom the same way that I incorporate any other teaching tool/strategy. The tools we have are woven into the day as needed. I use my document reader and projector every day. Students are able to see the work projected onto the white board in my classroom so much easier during instruction than when I write on an easel. With the document reader, the work can be interactive. The students can easily use it share their own work with the entire class. It is a great tool for teachers to have. We do not have interactive white boards in our school. I know many teachers who would keep their document readers over their interactive white boards if they had to choose between the two!

I promote learning with computers by providing the opportunity for students to research, read text that is not available in our school, develop presentations, use email and blogs to create their own blogs, keyboard, practice skills being learned in all content areas, and more.

I use video conferencing to connect with classrooms around the world for many types of shared learning experiences. We also use this type of technology to learn from a wide range of guest speakers. There are so many virtual fieldtrip programs available to educators through organizations such as Skype in the Classroom, Epals, NASA’s Discovery Learning Program and more! While using technology, it is important to teach students digital citizenship; the appropriate, safe, and respectful way to use technology.

GradSchools: If you assign homework that requires technology, how do you or your school ensure that students have equal accessibility?

I do not assign homework that requires technology. I provide all families with information necessary to access and use our classroom blog and portaportal if they choose. All school work that requires the use of technology is done at school under my supervision. In our district, students in middle and high school are given laptops to use to complete homework assignments.

GradSchools: In your 15+ years of teaching, technology has evolved at a rapid rate. How do you and your fellow teachers stay ahead of the curve?

I have been a teacher for 25 years. It is exciting to see all the new resources available to students and educators. We’ve come a long way from the use of mimeograph machines and computers used mainly for word processing! I have not found a way to stay ahead of the curve! Is that possible? Teachers have to pick and choose what programs and tools they want to try based on student and curricular needs, availability of technology within their schools, administrative approval, time, etc.  With so many cuts to the budget, funding isn’t available for most to attend the wonderful technology conferences that are available but I know teachers who are paying out of their own pockets to attend when it is possible. I learn a lot from other teachers. A teacher from South Dakota recently shared her excitement about the program, Kahoots. Her students created a quiz for my students to do, based on a book our classrooms had read. It’s a neat program that I may never have discovered on my own.

GradSchools: What are the most important aspects to teaching and literacy that someone who is interested in this career path should know?

I wish I had some magical, cure all, words of wisdom to share with you! The philosophy of teaching swings across a wide pendulum of beliefs. With experience, I think most teachers realize that the extreme ends of the pendulum tend to not reach the needs of all students. A teacher must develop a toolbox filled with many strategies and ideas; then, each year, find and use the ones that work best for each student’s individual needs. Learning needs to be relevant, meaningful, and purposeful. Nobody likes meaningless busy work. Interest level and choice is key especially in reading. The classroom environment is critical to learning. It is worth taking the time every year to build a classroom community that is caring, respectful, and safe so that students will take risks in their learning. Teachers must take the time to connect with their students and let them know that they care. If students know you really care and respect them then they will reciprocate those values.

GradSchools: When introducing new technology in education, do you experience any difficulties with the school administration in terms of funding or procedure limitations?

When I first began my video chatting project, there were so many teachers across the country who wanted to participate but were told by administrators that they couldn’t or did not have the tools necessary to participate. I was so lucky to have an administration that let me risk and try something new in technology. There were also IT people in my district who provided me with support and guidance as needed.

Luckily this project would work with minimal expense if a computer and the internet were available. Our state of Maine has a wonderful foundation called the Perloff Foundation, which provides grant money for teachers to do innovative projects in all subject areas but with a strong focus on math, science, and technology. The Perloff Foundation has provided me with so many resources, tools, and support. I will be forever grateful to them. Check out the grants available in your area!

GradSchools: In your opinion, where do you see the future of technology in the classroom heading?

Children are using technology at a very young age. They are coming to school with lots of experience that students 10+ years ago did not have. School systems have to recognize this and adjust to meet 21st century skills and expectations. Anyone who owns/uses technological devices from cell phones to iPods to computers knows how quickly their devices becomes obsolete. Schools are going to have to find ways to stay current and up to date in both the technological tools provided and the training given to educators.

GradSchools: What is the most exciting or rewarding thing about the work you do?

Seeing students work hard, learn from their mistakes, and succeed is rewarding. I love ‘lightbulb moments’! Seeing the students excited and motivated to learn is real success. I hope that I inspire my students to be lifelong learners by creating memorable experiences and memories that will remain special to them for a lifetime!

GradSchools: What have been the most challenging aspects to using technology in education?

Technology doesn’t always cooperate! My students learn this and we problem solve together. These moments are teachable moments. It is still a challenge for me when there is a technical failure and I have someone like my superintendent, principal, or parents in the room. When they are there, I want everything to work flawlessly so they will see the value of its use and not fear it.

GradSchools: What advice do you have to students who are interested in pursuing a teaching degree? What are the biggest challenges, and how can students prepare for them?

I know education students hear this a lot: You go into teaching because of your love for learning and making a real difference in a child’s life…not for the money. It really is true, although better pay would be nice! The biggest challenges involve behaviors and the difficult lives many children have. You will have students whose only healthy meal comes from the school breakfast and lunch program. You will have students whose only safe place is your classroom. You will have students who do not have someone who will help with their homework or read to them. Sometimes the issues students are facing make concentrating on schoolwork nearly impossible. Remember this! Be empathetic and compassionate. 

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