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Shaler Area teacher helps to test Smithsonian online lab for schools

| Wednesday, June 15, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Shaler Area Middle School social studies teacher Tom Gray leads students from St. Gabriel School in Whitehall in May on a tour of the Gettysburg Battlefield. Gray has been invited to speak before the Congressional Education Committee about his experience with the Smithsonian Learning Lab.

Shaler Area Middle School social studies teacher Tom Gray is headed to Washington.

Gray was invited to speak before a Congressional education committee on June 16 about the Smithsonian Learning Lab and its “creative use and transformative power in the classroom,” said Ashley Naranjo, a learning initiatives specialist with the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access.

“It's obvious that he sees his students as creators and curators and the Learning Lab has helped his students achieve their goals,” Naranjo said.

Gray was one of 33 middle school teachers in 15 Allegheny County schools to test out the new Smithsonian Learning Lab over the last school year, Naranjo said. The opportunity was made available through the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and Heinz History Center thanks to a grant from the Grable Foundation.

The Smithsonian Learning Lab is a free online platform that allows teachers and students to create and share personalized collections of Smithsonian assets, Naranjo said. It offers users digital access to more than a million resources across the Smithsonian, including artwork, artifacts, specimens and recordings.

The lab has allowed Gray to bring the Smithsonian Institution into his classroom and helped his students take ownership over their learning, Gray said.

“It's completely digitized in the highest resolution possible for the kids to be able to zoom in and explore historical content,” Gray said. “There's really nothing like teaching the Civil War and bringing up a photo from 1863.”

Gray has taught at Shaler Area for 19 years and currently teaches American history to eighth-graders, covering the French and Indian War through post-Civil War Reconstruction. Along with fellow teacher Lynn Haffely, Gray began integrating the Learning Lab into classes at the end of October.

When studying Andrew Jackson, Gray had students act as Jackson's presidential campaign manager in the election of 1824. Students selected portraits of Jackson that portrayed the right symbolism and message to get Jackson elected, and then marked the images with little pop-up bubbles explaining their reasoning.

In a section about Lewis and Clark, Gray made a collection in the lab of various artifacts the explorers brought back after their journey west. Students had to use their historical knowledge and reasoning skills to figure out what they were looking at and how the items were used.

“The kids are holding their iPads and you could see them twisting it around, as if they were actually holding the item, and zooming in and zooming out,” Gray said. “I like to encourage kids to think in class. We don't do history like we did even four or five years ago anymore. There are no notes. We don't do lectures anymore. It's all hands-on learning.”

Gray is excited to present some of his experiences to the Congressional committee, although he said he may have a hard time paring his comments to the 10 minutes he's been allotted as part of the Smithsonian's overall presentation.

The Learning Lab has been in public beta since October 2015 and officially will launch at the International Society for Technology in Education Conference later in June, Naranjo said. The Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access, through which the lab was created, is continuing to partner with school districts and curriculum developers across the country, including a group of high school history teachers in Allegheny County next school year.

Gray already is planning lessons for next school year with the Learning Lab. He said for some of his more casual learners, the Learning Lab was the missing link to make education fun and personal.

“It's really amazing to see kids walk into a history class, and (they) can't wait to get there,” Gray said.

Rachel Farkas is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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