3 Sunset Elementary School teachers in Craig chosen for prestigious Microsoft forum
April 30, 2011
It was snowing Friday in Craig, and the students in Melany Neton's kindergarten classroom took their recess indoors.
A few children played computer games and drew pictures, while a few others played a game that has become familiar to them in recent weeks.
It's a game called restaurant.
Kindergartener Cheyenne Frazier put on a red apron, grabbed a notepad and pencil, and approached a classmate sitting at a nearby table.
"What would you like today, Maika?" Frazier said.
Maika Booth looked up from a menu and replied.
"I would like some pop, a hotdog, some fruit and a cake," Booth said.
Frazier ducked into a wood-frame playhouse and presented another student — a mock chef — with the handwritten meal ticket.
A few moments later, Frazier returned with a tray and presented Booth with a toy hotdog and the fixings.
It was child's play, to be sure, but the game also carries academic merit.
In fact, "The Kindergarten Kitchen" — a project developed by Neton and fellow kindergarten teacher Amy Jones — has been recognized by Microsoft.
The two Sunset Elementary School teachers have been selected to attend Microsoft's 2011 U.S. Innovative Education Forum in July in Redmond, Wash.
A third teacher from Sunset — second-grade teacher Cheryl Arnett — has also been invited to the forum.
This marks the second time Arnett's work has been recognized by Microsoft.
Last year, she was chosen by Microsoft for her multinational project "Digital Stories: A Celebration of Learning and Culture."
This year, Arnett's project "Making Learning Real — Giving Kids a Voice" got the nod.
Every year, Microsoft accepts applications from teachers vying for a spot in its U.S. Innovative Education Forum.
According to a news release from Microsoft, the forum "is a showcase of talented educators from around the country, and Microsoft will honor these teachers for effectively using technology in their curriculum to increase student engagement and success."
Beyond honoring those teachers, the forum is an opportunity for educators to exchange their innovative approaches to teaching, the release states.
At the event, judges will choose finalists to represent the U.S. at Microsoft's Worldwide Innovative Education Forum, scheduled for November in Washington, D.C.
Microsoft is accepting applications for the U.S. forum until May 15, but the three Sunset Elementary teachers were among 29 teachers to receive early notice.
Five of those teachers are from Colorado.
Up to 100 teachers will be ultimately be chosen to attend.
'Making Learning Real'
Arnett said she had a leg up on this year's competition.
At last year's U.S. forum in Washington, D.C., Arnett was chosen as a finalist. She later attended the 2010 international event in Capetown, South Africa.
"This year's project is based on everything I learned at the forums in D.C. and Cape Town, and from collaborating with the people I was there with," she said. "Last year's project was not intentional, but this year's project is really the result of all the learning I did."
The project, "Making Learning Real — Giving Kids a Voice," is a series of smaller subprojects that combined student research, writing and dissemination through computer programs and websites.
"The kids investigated real-world questions using teachers and experts from outside the classroom, and they developed creative projects to explain their learning," Arnett said. "And, using Twitter and the (students') blog, we put (the projects) out to the world, and they got feedback from around the world on their projects."
One subproject was "The Elder Project," which involved students filming their grandparents discussing their life experiences. The students then compiled the interviews onto DVDs, and sold the DVDs to family members to raise money for the nonprofit group, Christmas for Seniors.
Another subproject looked at Craig's urban deer population.
Second-graders interviewed then-mayor Don Jones, a biologist from the Smithsonian and a field officer from the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
They compiled their findings into a free brochure that was printed and distributed to area businesses.
The students have also tackled subjects like the depletion of orangutan habitat in Borneo, pine beetles, reducing lunchroom waste and more.
Arnett said the projects empower her students.
"The kids really got the message that they could do something," she said. "And, if you ask them, they'll say, 'Little kids can do something, and what we do is important.'"
Jones and Neton said their project took playtime to the next level.
They converted classroom playhouses into toy restaurant kitchens. They printed menus, gathered toy food products and created a mock economy.
"We have purposeful play in the afternoon as part of our day," Jones said of her students. "They each had roles that they played every afternoon as they were learning the different jobs."
"They role-played," said Neton. "We had waitresses, and bus people, we had chefs, customers and hosts."
By running the mock restaurant, the students learned to write meal tickets, add costs for a bill, accept money and make change for customers. Students were also taught table manners and courtesy.
"They were doing it," Jones said of the playtime. "They weren't just saying, 'This is what a waiter does.' They became the waiter and really stepped into those shoes."
The students then built on playtime by writing about their experiences.
"The children wrote descriptive paragraphs about what each of those jobs would be like in a restaurant," Neton said.
Next, the students used their writings to record voiceovers for digital slideshows, and posted the videos to YouTube.
The students also wrote restaurant reviews for Craig eateries and posted their reviews on Bing Maps.
The project culminated with a field trip, Neton said.
"The very last thing we did was we took the whole kindergarten to Vallarta's and we ate at a real restaurant," she said.
Jones said she was impressed with her students' level of engagement in the project.
"They were all working together with one concept, and they were all equally excited about it and all wanted to participate," she said. "The vocabulary that came out of it was wonderful.
"They had a great time."
Arnett said she was inspired to spread the word after her experience in Cape Town.
"Part of this innovative education forum is developing skills that you then go back and share," she said. "That's the whole point of it."
Arnett said Jones and Neton were keen to develop a project and submit their work to Microsoft.
"These two just really took off with ideas and have stepped up. They're doing incredible things with their kindergarteners," she said.
Neton agreed that Arnett's enthusiasm for innovative teaching was inspiring.
"Cheryl Arnett was our biggest support," she said. "She would help us and give us lots of ideas."
Early in the project, however, Neton said she was nervous about pairing young children with computers. Those fears, she said, were unwarranted.
"At five or six, they know how to use a mouse, they're adept at getting onto a program and manipulating it, and they have no fear, so they'll push buttons and see what happens," she said. "I actually think they're pretty advanced.
"They're definitely digital citizens."
Sunset principal Zack Allen said shifting toward technology in the classroom is appropriate.
"There are some things we need to change about the way we do business in the schools to motivate kids," he said. "Kids are changing, society is changing."
Allen said he was proud the teachers were accepted at this year's Microsoft forum.
"It's exciting to see Cheryl get that recognition again, and to have two additional teachers get recognized," he said.
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