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K-M Technology Academy introduces 21st century skills

Learning by doing: Kent-Meridian tech students sit in the green screen room adjacent to Michael Christiansen’s classroom. They are filming news broadcasts and commercials as part of their history project.  - Michelle Conerly, Kent Reporter
Learning by doing: Kent-Meridian tech students sit in the green screen room adjacent to Michael Christiansen’s classroom. They are filming news broadcasts and commercials as part of their history project.
— image credit: Michelle Conerly, Kent Reporter

Mike Christiansen sits at his desk, watching students type away on computers.

In his classroom, you will find no paper or pencils, only a small bookshelf with textbooks dating back decades. What you will find are Macintosh computers, desks and a projection screen – all Christiansen needs to teach world and U.S. history.

Christiansen and seven other educators at the Kent-Meridian Technology Academy (KMTA) have taken a new approach to teaching. This "school within a school" program uses a technology-based model of instruction to help students hone skills for the future.

"We've created a culture of academic achievement," Christiansen said. "We're preparing kids for the 21st century."

Established in 2007, the academy was added to Kent-Meridian High School after Mill Creek Middle School created the Kent Technology Academy (KTA) for younger students. Together, the academies employ 15 teachers and serve about 500 students.

In the KMTA teaching model, students use the Internet and different computer software programs to learn the material, which, for some instructors, serves as a better resource for the subjects they teach.

"This is current world issues so there's no textbook that will ever be up to date," said Alexandra Samorano, social studies teacher at KMTA. "The culture of the class is totally Internet-based because the most up-to-date information is going to be there."

This new model of instruction "flips the classroom," according to Christiansen, allowing students to problem solve on their own while teachers help guide them to the right information.

"I'm the guy who's helping them gain more knowledge," Christiansen said. "It's my job they learn the key concepts but also enthuse them to learn new ideas."

Instead of memorization and rewriting answers found in the back of the book, the curriculum is more project-based. Kids create presentations and videos to demonstrate their understanding of concepts.

For math or science classes, a website like Explorelearning.com provide products such as Gizmos! to let students dissect frogs digitally. Products like Bamboo Pen Tablets allow students to use their own handwriting to do calculations that show up on the computer screen.

Christiansen introduces a new program like Adobe Photoshop or Flash every couple of weeks. Students then create videos and presentations that, at times, turn out to be creative and innovative projects.

"Kids love the programs we use," Christiansen said. "They get geeked up about them."

Although the Kent School District completely supports the KMTA, not everyone is as "geeked up" about it as Christiansen and Samorano.

"Sometimes we get a little weirdness from outside teachers," Samorano said. "How could you be teaching if you're not in the classroom? But we have a lot of trust in our kids and deal with any discipline problems in-house."

Another concern is that students don't get the socialization traditional classrooms provide. But Samorano assures that in and outside of a KMTA classroom, students learn the social skills needed to succeed in the real world.

"Our kids are involved in electives with everyone else (at Kent-Meridian)," Samorano said. "A lot of them are officers of the clubs. They take on leadership positions even when we don't force them because it's just natural."

Christiansen and Samorano see the role of technology as a positive element in their curriculum. And even though they might have their own concerns, they believe the Internet and technology in general should be embraced and not ignored.

"One of my fears is that handwriting is going away," Samorano said. "But I think (students') thoughts will be more clear because they can edit faster. Kids are going to be learning things at a faster rate."

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