Teachers thrive at Brain Blast conference

Aug 8 2013 - 11:22pm

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(NANCY VAN VALKENBURG/Standard-Examiner) 
Weber School District teachers attending the Brain Blast technology conference broke into groups to discuss technology issues relevant to their grade levels. Shawn Potokar, Weber High School video and digital media teacher, taught this session, which covered technology and its use in evolving teaching styles.
Gene Sessions
(NANCY VAN VALKENBURG/Standard-Examiner) 
Weber School District teachers attending the Brain Blast technology conference broke into groups to discuss technology issues relevant to their grade levels. Shawn Potokar, Weber High School video and digital media teacher, taught this session, which covered technology and its use in evolving teaching styles.
Gene Sessions

PLEASANT VIEW -- Brain Blast, the Weber School District's annual technology conference, went old school this year with a keynote speaker with roots in the past.

Speaker Gene Sessions, Weber State University history professor and author of eight history-based books, told the assembled teachers and administrators at Weber High School that he's a huge fan of technology and was first among his peers to integrate it into WSU courses. But there's a key to teaching that is more important than any cutting-edge technology.

"Don't walk in with an empty head," said Sessions, 67.

Then he shared the story, but not the name, of an Ogden High history teacher whose class he took in 1964. The man was a wrestling coach, who informed students he was their teacher because he had missed getting a spot teaching drivers' education.

"His head was as empty as a rusty bucket with holes in it about the subject he was supposed to teach," Sessions said. "If your heads are empty, this stuff (technology) won't help. You won't light a candle in kids' heads."

Sessions continued his education at Weber State College, as it was then named. He took another history class from Dello Dayton, a professor who knew his material and brought it to life for his students.

"I thank God every day that I had that candle ignited," Sessions said. "If you know your stuff, it makes it easier for you to light that wick and burn that candle so hot that the top of your student's head starts to burn off."

Sessions advised his listeners to, "Use technology, enjoy it, but don't use it as a crutch. If you do that, you will fail."

Two-hundred teachers and 65 administrators attended day one of the two-day conference. The sixth annual Brain Blast was a hot ticket, with 800 teachers applying for the 200 spots, said Dawn Paul, from the district's technical services department.

"We try to bring in teachers who haven't been to Brain Blast before," Paul said. "Our goal is to teach teachers about technology, and to expose them to the latest things available and to things we have created."

Teachers slip into smaller groups, based on grades taught, to learn about products and trends. Grade school teachers spend the first session learning about more uses for iPads. Weber School District last summer prepared 2,000 leased iPads -- 70 per elementary school -- to help students with research and group collaborations.

Junior high and high school teachers attended first sessions that focused on flipped class training. Flipped classes, a growing trend in education, are those where students watch video lectures or presentations at home, in place of homework. When they come to class, students work together in groups to make sure the information is mastered, and teachers give time to individual students who need help to achieve mastery.

Paul said the flipped-class training is meant to offer Weber School District teachers another teaching option.

"It's anywhere, anytime learning," said Shawn Potokar, Weber High School video and digital media teacher, who led one of the classes for upper-grade teachers. "It allows students to get information anywhere in the time they have. It moves away from the 'Sage on Stage' model to the 'Guide on the Side.' Students have different needs, and flipped classrooms give teachers more one-on-one time with students."

Potokar suggested teachers interested in flipped classroom methods start slowly, and keep their videos simple. A lot of videos for flipped classroom use are available online, but Potokar said that, ideally, teachers should offer a mix, including their own, to help keep students feeling connected.

Critics of flipped classroom teaching point out that some students lack access to home computers, and that students who fail to review the online materials will have no knowledge to review in class, Potokar said.

A teacher pointed out that most students have access to a smartphone, or a library computer, or one owned by a neighbor or family member. Potokar added that there will always be students who don't do their homework, but having information online will provide easier access for catching up.

Several teachers in the session said they already were using flipped classroom methods for some of their teaching. Potokar urged his teachers not to relecture, which would be an inefficient use of time and would lead to the same student boredom that flipped classroom method strives to prevent.

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