Everyone is going back to school. That includes White House and U.S. Department of Education officials, who are on an “Opportunity Across America” back-to-school bus tour. Their goal: to celebrate the progress in making technology more accessible in our nation’s schools over the last several years through the efforts of the ConnectED and Future Ready Schools initiatives.
One of their first stops was Brooklyn Laboratory Schools (LAB), in Brooklyn, New York, founded in 2014 on the premise of creating online personalized learning platforms, forging teacher pathways and building community partnerships.
“If you walk around the school, you’ll hear us talk about the value of entrepreneurial learning,” said Erin Mote, co-founder of Brooklyn LAB. During the school tour, eighth-grade student guides Sekou Suzuki-Allen and Adajenae Cox mapped out a route to feature the highlights of why their learning community is unique and all about entrepreneurial learning.
Community of Learning
Brooklyn LAB spans across two campuses: Jay Campus with, 139 sixth-grade students and Flatbush Campus (which opened only two days ago) with 340 pupils in grades 6 to 8. It is geographically surrounded by more than a dozen colleges, all within a few blocks. Intentional by design, co-founders Erin Mote and Dr. Eric Tucker selected the location for two reasons. First, for Brooklyn LAB “scholars” (the term they use for students) to understand they can access higher education, “it could’ve been the furthest place in the world to them, but now they have access to it 1000 feet from their home” says Mote. Second, the proximity helps the school recruit teachers for its Brooklyn LAB fellows program, in which a fellow or teacher resident is paired with a master teacher in every classroom.
The students tour guides showcased their new multipurpose room, where fellows and teacher residents were paired with individual students and small groups active in discussion. Cox and Suzuki-Allen emphasized feeling connected and getting support from their teachers. Students can request 1-on-1 tutoring during class or schedule a time for individual support.
Tech and Teachers
Next, the tour weaved through several classrooms where students were using Google Docs to collaboratively take notes on their own device and read alouds using interactive whiteboards. Teachers transitioned seamlessly from leading discussions to using technology tools. Mr. Rahul Patel, school lead for individualized learning, says Brooklyn LAB focuses on training teachers to use technology resources in a manner that is efficient for all students. “One of the most difficult things, when you have a class of about 20-30 kids, is trying to teach each and every one of those different students. [Technology] gives teachers the power to really teach 20 different students in 20 different ways.” He works with each teacher to build their efficacy and skills with different learning tools, so they can use the ones most appropriate for each student to provide a personalized learning experience. Mote also notes, “There is no technology that can replace a great teacher. We think a lot about how we scale up our teachers, so they can use great technology.”
Personalized Learning Through Cortex
Sharing highlights of their learning experience at Brooklyn LAB, Cox and Suzuki-Allen raved about Cortex, an online learning platform used by students, teachers and parents to track learning. The user interface of Cortex is like a Candyland game board, where students learn units through lessons and playlists and see their progress. Suzuki-Allen likes that Cortex is self-paced: “I can review my lesson, get tutoring online or in-person, then take a test to show if I mastered it. [Self] pacing is one of the best things.”
Mote and Tucker created Cortex themselves to give students the ability to easily understand and track their own learning progress. The tool highlights different mastery levels for each skill in different colors: Mastery is green; near mastery is yellow; no mastery is red. The design of Cortex is interactive and driven by user experience, says Mote. “Some of our scholars were and continue to be involved with designing the user experience. I’m a technologist. We built Cortex together. That is a big piece of who we are, the high design experience added to our technology. We really praise our user voice with the design,” said Mote.
For teachers, Cortex allows them to access student information, course enrollment, program enrollment, grades and attendance. Most importantly, teachers can create and deliver formative assessments through Cortex and see the results in real time. Grading is automatic, and teachers use this data to plan lessons. Parents can also access Cortex to check on student progress.
Creators of Learning
Brooklyn LAB is a learning environment focused on developing students to be independent learners. Students are encouraged to use mastery of their skills and technology resources to be creators of their own learning. They have a choice at the end of semester that can be anything from writing a paper to producing a video. “They have that space to create and to really have project-based learning that scaffolds to independence,” says Mote.
Adajenae’s favorite thing about Brooklyn LAB is being able to create. One project involved making a geometrical map using measurements with online tools and applying it to her hand-drawn shapes to create her own city. Another project was to create a dream Brooklyn LAB high school to help school leaders design the upcoming expansion. She researched and picked elements she liked, creating a learning space with different floors for career pathways.
The tour ended with officials from Washington D.C. and several community partners honoring the accomplishments of Brooklyn LAB alongside other promising efforts. Community partner New York Public Library shared the partnership between Open eBooks, supported by the ConnectED initiative to bring eBooks to students, and a commitment from Clever, an educational platform providing secure logins for K-12 schools, to provide increased access to a world-class library for students wherever they are. Brooklyn LAB was also awarded $10 million through the XQ: Super School Project, sponsored by Laurene Powell Jobs and XQ Institute to design a school. Brooklyn LAB will use the award and an additional $3 million from Carnegie Corporation Funding to build partnerships with community nonprofits and universities to open a high school next year.
Joseph South, Director of Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, reflected on the journey of touring different schools: “Students and teachers are embracing technology. Across three different [school] districts across three different states, teachers created a rubric and gave it to the students to choose how to show their understanding with options to use to express themselves. Tools are in the hands of the kids, [with the ability and access to create] their own designs.” South also noted: Technology itself is only an accelerator; it takes people and passion to keep our students learning and creating.