Alana Zussman Puts the World at the Fingertips of Young Students with Technology Education
Alana Zussman Puts the World at the Fingertips of Young Students with Technology Education

Dwight continues its commitment to personalized learning and innovation with the help of Alana Zussman. As a technology teacher in the Lower School, she inspires students in grades 1-5 to use digital tools to create, innovate, learn, and play. We sat down with Ms. Zussman to discuss the role technology plays in the classroom and how the use of technology cultivates innovative, globally minded students.

What exciting technology plans do you have for students?

This year, students are solving problems, programming their own multi-level games, 3D-printing toys, and using technology to raise awareness about important issues. They will also be experimenting with animation techniques, analyzing and sorting data into info graphics, and exploring new media that will help them communicate their bright ideas.

How can Dwight's commitment to a culture of innovation 2.0 be seen in the Lower School?

Our commitment is in full effect in the Lower School. Each student has access to his/her own device through the 1:1 learning initiative, making digital learning and inquiry extremely accessible.

Teachers are experimenting with classroom layout and design to encourage students to make choices about their own learning. Teachers and students are also exploring different ways to make global connections, and students are using social media in class to communicate with other schools around the world through Mystery Skype to engage in critical-thinking challenges together.

In addition, the Hour of Code, a global program that provides coding tutorials, is coming to Dwight soon! We will participate as part of a week-long celebration of computer science. And our Monday faculty meetings will feature a weekly "Appy Hour," introducing a new digital tool or way of thinking to enhance teaching and learning.

We also encourage students of different ages to innovate together. If you peek into a classroom, you might witness Lower School students creating and collaborating with those in the Upper School.

How does technology support what students in grades 1-5 are learning ... and what are they learning about how to use technology?

Every student is equipped with their own iPad. Technology is fully integrated into our international baccalaureate (IB) units of inquiry. For example, first graders inquire into ways humans impact the environment during their "Sharing the Planet" unit. In our technology curriculum, students will build "envirobots" out of recycled materials and bring them to life (virtually) in a public service announcement, using an app called Puppet Pals. We hope that the PSA will educate others about actions that benefit or harm our environment.

Third graders are beginning the unit entitled "Who We Are" and will be inquiring into how systems in the human body are connected. To explore the concept of systems, they will play with games that involve spatial reasoning, block-coding, simple circuits, and more. Students will use hand-drawn animation techniques to create detailed representations of human body systems to demonstrate their understanding of how systems are connected.

Also woven through the curriculum are essential 21st-century digital citizenship skills. Students are empowered to think critically, be safe, and participate responsibly and respectfully in their digital lives.

How do you encourage students to use technology to be creative and innovative?

We have different types of learners, and I do my best to show students a variety of resources, in keeping with Dwight's strong tradition of personalized learning. I love taking students to art, design, and technology museums.We recently took a trip to the Robot Foundry, where fourth graders were excited to tinker with circuits and build their own inventions.

Our IB inquiry curriculum also encourages a lot of exploring, wondering, and questioning. I often allow students time to explore new apps and technology tools, and I encourage them to try to figure out how to use them independently. Often this helps students come up with their own problems and solutions, and they end up teaching others new ways to use the app or tool!

I also try to frame a lot of our lessons as design challenges. This allows for a multi-media approach and pushes students to think outside the box. Being a risk-taker is integral to the IB Learner Profile and I encourage students to do so by expressing their ideas and learning from their mistakes.

Why is it important that students have access to technology at a young age?

If students can learn how to solve problems and innovate at a young age, they can design and develop their own futures. Students who learn computer science basics can make a difference in the world by creating new things and helping others. Technology is also a tool that helps students to connect globally and overcome geographical constraints ― to share and to learn with people around the world.

Should there be a limit on how much technology young children are exposed to?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under two because there is incredible growth in a child's brain at this age and young children learn best through human interactions. Media-free zones should exist at home and it is best to limit screen time to a few hours every day. It's important to maintain a proper balance.

Chris Beddows, Associate Head of Lower School and PYP Coordinator, reminds me that in the Lower School, teachers still stress the importance of handwriting skills and written methods in mathematics; and that classrooms focus on fine motor development, which caters to the wide range of learners we have.

It is important to note that teachers don't rely solely on digital devices in their classroom. Rather, we recognize that technology enhances and supplements learning experiences.

How can parents help their children manage their tech time between school work and free creative time?

It's important that parents model limiting screen time and demonstrate a proper balance. It's also important to ask, "What are their children doing on technology?" The content on their device is significant. Common Sense Media is an excellent resource parents can turn to for suitable content, as they review age-appropriate apps, games, and programs.

Lastly, providing free time is important. I am a strong believer in unstructured play, which fuels creativity.

How did you become interested in technology?

I was always interested in the inner workings of technology at a young age. I grew up in a generation sandwiched between "old school" and "modern" technology. When I discovered that I could use technology to communicate with people from around the world, I was hooked!

What aspect of technology are you most passionate about?

I'm most passionate about graphic design, combining form and content, and using technological tools to communicate ideas.

Did you always want to be a teacher?

Yes. My mother was a teacher and she instilled in me the values of helping and inspiring others. I have always loved working with kids and finding creative solutions to problems.

I went to school originally to be an art teacher, where I discovered the world of design and created websites, logos, and animations. I loved having an idea on paper and seeing how I could enhance it using digital tools. After college, I worked for several years designing greeting cards and realized that I missed interacting with others, so I pursued a Masters in Art and Design Education. In graduate school, I discovered my passion for teaching design through the lens of technology.

What is your personal spark of genius?

Growing up, I was always considered the creative one. I am tech-savvy and a people person. I also love being a mom!

What is your philosophy of teaching?

My goal is to motivate my students and create a learning environment that actively engages them in their IB units of inquiry. My classroom often becomes a student lab, where children are creating and innovating. The act of creating something allows students to recall information and helps them to understand it on a deeper level.

I'm inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach, where the environment is recognized for its potential to be a third teacher; everything in the environment is purposeful and connected to student learning. I also take a constructivist approach, which is rooted in the idea that learning is an active process, where students build understanding on a foundation of what they already know. I'm a believer in documenting children's thoughts and progression of thinking and making them visible. Allowing students ample time to reflect on their own process of creation helps them to learn and grow.

I also see myself as a fellow inquirer, learner, and a facilitator. I aim to design learning that is meaningful to my students. Many of my lessons focus on skill development and modern competencies like collaboration, communication, and critical thinking through project-based learning. This helps students to make meaningful connections to the content while also learning skills that transcend the classroom and help them to be effective members of society.

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