Focus on: Engage Students, Transform Schools

Think of someone you idolized as a child—someone who had an exponential influence on your life, who shaped your worldview and motivated you to think creatively. The presence of that someone, whether a scientist, an athlete, or even a fictional character, had the power to inspire you.

What if you were able to meet your childhood idol? Imagine the experience of hearing those precious words of wisdom, the excitement of being able to ask all of your most burning questions and feel a personal connection. For any child, it would be a dream come true. For students at Harding County Schools, it was a virtual reality.

For soon-to-be retired educator Sue Ann Clanton, technology played a role in assisting teachers and students to reach their creative educational goals. It was a way to make connections, a way to bridge the gap between large distances and differences. Students could reach outside of their rural area to gain knowledge from idols and influencers around the country and around the world.

This is a real story of digital transformation.

Small school, mighty goals Harding County, South Dakota is a small county of only 1,255 residents. This is an area where everyone knows everyone. Teachers bear the responsibility of driving their students to field trips and parks and have no problem hand delivering special assignments to homes. Some students drive as far as 54 miles just to attend school. For a community so small, they are extremely passionate about being creative in their approach to quality education.

With twenty years of teaching experience, Sue Ann Clanton has spent the last eleven teaching third grade in Harding County. There, she has seen the impact technology can have on students firsthand.

“I started Skype in my classroom in 2010 because a teacher in Maine sent an email out wanting to Skype with a third grade classroom in every state,” explains Mrs. Clanton. “From there, my students have become the kings and queens of Skype.”

The students made connections with educators and other students across the country, including new friends in New Jersey, Maine, and Georgia. Two instructors from New Jersey and Maine even visited Mrs. Clanton’s school to speak to the classroom and experience the culture of South Dakota. The students, thrilled to be building relationships across the country, held a school assembly to share all the facts (for example, state birds and state inventions,) they had learned from their new friends through Skype.  The students were engaged, passionate, and committed to building new virtual relationships.

However, the integration of technology in the classroom did not come easily. Harding County faced some early difficulties due to weather issues and Wi-Fi availability.

“Every time I wanted to Skype, I had to send a note out to every teacher alerting them,” says Mrs. Clanton. “I tried to pick a time when the high school and middle school kids were in lunch so that no one would be sucking power away from my Skype session.”

Then, the school’s added security cameras took more time away from the Skype experience. Administration and Mrs. Clanton struggled to figure out why the teacher could no longer connect.  Unable to connect at school and with approval from the students’ parents, Mrs. Clanton took the students to her home to plug into the video chatting application.

After meeting with a Microsoft team at a conference in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Mrs. Clanton connected the experts to the Harding County tech coordinator to solve configuration issues. Once those problems were solved, Mrs. Clanton was able to fully integrate Skype into her teachings.

“Now I can Skype in school and I don’t have to pile all of my kids into my Tahoe and haul them up to my house,” she laughs. “We were very dedicated and we did not want to miss out on this opportunity.”

With Skype finally set up in her classroom without issue, Mrs. Clanton’s students explored far beyond Harding County’s 2,600 square miles of ranch land. From visiting with Mrs. Clanton’s niece in Belgium, to touring the botanical gardens in Phoenix, to speaking with former First Lady Barbara Bush, the students completely embraced the power of the video chat application.Engaged students become involved authors“My mom won’t ever let me buy any books off my [tablet],” one student explained to Mrs. Clanton.  She encouraged him to look for free books rather than paying for them through his device. After showing the student how to access the free portal, the first book they found was Nikki Powergloves: A Hero is Born by author David Estes.

Located in Hawaii, David Estes primarily writes fantasy and science fiction, but in Harding County, he is known for his children’s series, Nikki Powergloves.

“A couple of weeks later, I needed a new read aloud [book] and I hadn’t been down to the library nor had I picked one so I just tried that one,” she explains. “Holy cow! That one just gripped them.”

Because it was the end of the school year, Mrs. Clanton didn’t have time to read more than one book to her class. Therefore, she started the next school year reading the first four books of the series to her students. From there, the teacher had an idea that would transform her students’ reading and learning experience.

“I finally got on his [Estes’] blog and told him how much my students loved his books and asked if he would Skype with us,” the teacher explains. “He wrote back within fifteen minutes and said he would love to Skype with us.”

During the Skype session, one of Mrs. Clanton’s students questioned if Estes would ever add a thirteenth Powerkid character to the series. The author’s reply: “If you make one up.” Not afraid of the literary challenge, Mrs. Clanton and her students jumped at the chance to show their creativity.

“We had to come up with a power source for this character,” she says. “We had to come up with a backstory. We had to come up with twelve powers, twelve colors, and twelve symbols to go with the powers. We came up with George Powerglasses.”

They sent the character back to David and rejoiced when they received the beta copy of book five of the series. The students soon became editors, highlighters and sticky notes in hand to review the new series entry. On the last day of school, it was another Skype session with David to explain what they liked, what they didn’t like, and areas they thought could be improved.

Then David asked the students what they wanted to see in book six. Full of imagination and storytelling confidence, the students spouted out too many ideas to count.

After receiving the sixth book in the mail from David, Mrs. Clanton recognized that many of the children’s suggestions were heavily featured. She and the students decided to read the book over the summer, where they realized the author had put heartfelt messages towards the end of the book about the students and Harding County community.

“After we Skyped with him in September, he sent us each a copy of both books, personally signed for each kid,” Mrs. Clanton explains. “He also listed all of their names in the acknowledgements of both books.”Harding County transformedToday, Harding County is still as small and as quiet as ever, but for a handful of kids it doesn’t feel that way. For many students, big dreams have overcome small proximities.

“I’ve never had anything that has engaged students as much as this author has,” says Mrs. Clanton. Technology has empowered the classroom to bridge the gap between large distances and differences. Students gain knowledge from idols and influencers around the country. They can travel the globe and experience unique perspectives from thousands of miles away.

These students are authors, creators, and explorers. They’ve been given the opportunity to shape their favorite stories in a way that few readers ever have. That wouldn’t have happened without David Estes’ openness and involvement. It wouldn’t have happened without Sue Ann Clanton’s vision for a more engaged, passionate classroom. And it wouldn’t have happened without the power of technology through Skype.

Microsoft is proud to partner with Sue Ann Clanton and Harding County Schools as they continue to engage the leaders of tomorrow.

Related Content