All Eyes Forward
Grey Nun Academy uses technology to help students learn throughout the year while setting their sights on the future
by Leigh Stuart

Technology provides students of today with greater connectivity than ever before, and it has irrevocably changed the face of education. One school on the forefront of this evolution in education is Grey Nun Academy, a private Catholic coeducational elementary school in Yardley.

“In an effort to create independent, lifelong learners, our eye is focused on student engagement and motivation,” says Marianne Finnegan, school principal. “Technology in the classroom greatly increases students’ learning opportunities and depth of study, bringing the world into the classroom while serving as an effective tool to differentiate instruction, projects and feedback to accommodate varied learning styles.

“Our students have access at home and in school to a wide variety of devices, which function as the conduit for creativity and sparks intrinsic motivation within our students from prekindergarten through eighth grade,” she continues. “In addition, communication about student learning and understanding of concepts and skills is greatly enhanced, providing self-assessment and immediate feedback from student to teacher and teacher to student.”

At Grey Nun Academy, each of the school’s nearly 200 students, from the youngest pre-K child to the upper-division eighth grader, utilizes technology.

Instructional technology specialist Maureen Skelly is just one Grey Nun Academy educator working to help students utilize technology to the fullest. Skelly does everything from teaching students how to operate digital cameras and video equipment to helping them create entrepreneurial presentations.

“The old model was for students to go to the technology lab, use the technology in the lab, and then leave,” she says. “That is not our model. We use the technology lab as a springboard to go out and come up with projects. The kids have really done that, and their creativity has just exploded.”

Even during the summer months, Skelly helps students stay engaged with their school community. She challenged students to print a likeness of Gary the Gator, the Grey Nun Academy mascot, and take photos of themselves with Gary at different places they visited during the summer. Then, students were asked to post their photos and travel stories to the school’s Facebook page. Gary got to visit exotic places as far away as Kauai and Berlin. Even though one likeness of Gary got a bit chewed on by a goat during one student’s trip to a local farm, overall the project proved to be a huge success.

Skelly also leads students in exploring their creativity through Project-Based Learning. Through participation in community programs such as the UNLESS Project with the Philadelphia Zoo, Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge, Global Real Aloud and the Stock Market Game, students are able to participate and solve real-world problems and connect with communities outside of the classroom walls. Through the use of tools and programs such as Scratch, PowToon, iMovie and GarageBand, students’ knowledge comes to life.

Skelly, who is herself the mother of five children, feels that as important as technological innovations are, there are other things that are far more invaluable to a child’s education. She says, “Ultimately, it’s really the people that make a difference. Technology is just a tool to use to be a better teacher.”

Grey Nun Academy is providing such tools to enhance the learning of even the tiniest techies. For example, all of the classrooms at Grey Nun Academy have SMART Boards—interactive computers that take the place of traditional chalkboards—so even primary division students, such as those in first-grade teacher Elizabeth Ramsey’s class, can utilize technology.

Ramsey, who has been a teacher for nearly 30 years, uses the SMART Board in her classroom to access interactive learning activities and games that help students in areas such as reading, math and science. Students also use iPads to write their own stories.

“Through all of this technology, [educators] can really teach students so much more,” she says. “For example, when doing a story with paper and pencil, the whole process, from beginning to publishing, takes so long. Now, editing can happen right in the classroom with the student, so the process goes a lot faster.”

Another faculty member utilizing technology to move students into the future is fifth-grade teacher Rob Snyder, who proved he is willing to go the extra mile to make sure his students learn—even on days off.

Snyder devised a clever way for students to keep from falling behind in their studies during last year’s unprecedented bout of bad winter weather. Utilizing Edmodo, an online classroom platform, Snyder connected with students for lessons on all subjects during the days school was cancelled.

“We just kept having class online. We had a regular school day, and every hour we started a new subject,” he explains. “At the end of the day, we’d had a full day of class.

“Initially, the novelty was exciting for students, but even after, they still really liked the idea,” he continues. “We took lunch, did a scavenger hunt, and the students were interacting with each other from home. It got a much better response than I had expected.”

Snyder’s plan created such buzz that six Grey Nun Academy teachers already have plans in the works to hold their own online classes during any snow days this winter.

Theresa Van Praet, who teaches the gifted “Challenge” students, also uses Edmodo to connect with her students, share information, assign projects and track their progress. “We use technology in every aspect of the learning environment, from conducting research, creating virtual models and plans, to communicating between and among the students,” she says.

Like Skelly, Van Praet also engaged students during the summer months; her students watched TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talks on YouTube, visited the Edmodo site and posted notes and videos to share with each other all summer long.

“For the students, the use of technology is the default; it is what they are used to doing the most,” she says. “The trick is actually to get them to consider other sources of information, actually. Not everything is available on the Internet, nor is all of it true or relevant. Double checking data and finding other sources of information are also skills we work on. Technology is essential. I could not teach the way I do and the students could not learn the way they do without the technology that we use.”

“Students and faculty alike search for relevance in their learning,” Finnegan concludes. “It’s rewarding to witness growth in professional relationships among faculty as they seek to create small learning communities committed to ongoing growth and utilization of technology to support all learners. Planning and goal setting is fluid as the implementation of updated technology and applications is ever expanding, challenging us to explore all areas of curriculum and instruction through new eyes.”

Grey Nun Academy
1750 Quarry Road
Yardley, PA 19067

Photograph by Jody Robinson