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Technology Brings Fox Lane High School’s Living Environment Course to a New Level

Students in Matthew Hillis’s Living Environment course at Fox Lane High School filed into their seats, opened up their Chromebooks and started class with a tweet. That’s right. Class didn’t begin with a lecture or the cracking open of textbooks. It started with social media.

“We’re using Twitter as a vehicle for you to participate in something we’re going to do via a lab today,” Hillis told his class of ninth graders. “We’re taking our lab results and going next-level with them.”

Living Environment class starts with a tweet

Unlike traditional courses, Hillis has integrated 1:1 technology into every facet of students’ learning. This method of teaching began a few years ago when Hillis saw an interview with a college professor who used Twitter to open up an ongoing dialogue and to bring relevance and experts into his classroom.

“I thought it was pretty cool,” Hillis said, “and that it might be a way to encourage class participation.”

He began morphing his course with the use of Twitter and, over the past four to five years, has added resources like Nearpod, a student engagement platform with interactive learning experiences and activities.

During this particular class, students studied a plant cell under a microscope in pairs. At the same time, they did a self-paced Nearpod lesson on their Chromebooks before eventually taking a photo of their plant cell, labeling it and posting it to Twitter.

student uses 1:1 technology in Environmental Science

“Nearpod is another really cool interactive forum,” Hillis said. “The lesson can be either student-paced — running concurrently with a lab — or a live lesson. When we do a live lesson, I control their screens. Discussions or posts go up on the boards behind me." 

This method of student-directed learning seems to be incredibly engaging and works to even the playing field in a co-taught inclusion class. Students work together, helping other groups get their plant cells in focus and pointing out features of the cells to each other. It also helps to bring the outside world into the classroom.

“I like using technology because it allows us to connect with other people around the world,” said student Sarah Maiorano.

There is a list of accounts the class follows and frequently tweets at on the whiteboard. It includes accounts like Ocearch, NatGeo, and 4OceanBracelets.

“Many of the organizations we follow have no problem coming back and responding to our kids,” Hillis said.

One student, for example, tweeted to @Gr8WhiteACK, a self-proclaimed “12 ft female Great White Shark tagged by @OCEARCH during Expedition Nantucket 2019,” asking whether or not the shark’s tag hurt. The account tweeted back letting the student know that the shark’s fin is made out of cartilage and that the tag is lightweight and designed to flow with the shark’s movements.

Hillis pointed to this as an example of increased class participation, saying that other students who may not be very vocal see a classmate send a tweet like that and they realize they can do it too.

student taking a photo of a magnified plant cell

Other students like the integration of 1:1 technology because it fundamentally changes a course.

“I like it because we can look deeper into things than we can with just a piece of paper,” said Nell Silverman. “I also like the self-paced learning. Each student can go as fast or as slow as they want instead of rushing or being bored because they already understand what’s being taught.”

Hillis’s method of teaching the course generally begins with a big question like Why should we care about sharks? From there, the class studies ideas that might typically be taught as their own unit: human impact, shark finning, ecology, food webs, invasive species, symbiosis.

“It opens up a world of problem-based learning,” Hillis said. “Why stand up there lecturing if I’m even boring myself? This opens up a world of hands-on, student-directed learning. And if they get excited about something, if something is relevant and they want to fly with it, let them go!”

student holding photo of magnified plant cell