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Digital tools connect with tech-savvy students

| Saturday, May 27, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

=Ask Jacob Kern about healthy eating, and the Connellsville High School junior can drop lines to a rap song about chasing water rather than soda or trans fats.

He wrote the lyrics and recorded them for his health class. Students here have created thousands of media projects this school year on everything from the laws of physics to the Spanish-American War.

Kern, 17, a media intern at the school, said the unconventional assignment helped him understand the material: “I like it a lot more than the traditional reading books. It's stuck in my head.”

While media innovators largely focus on the latest social trends and tools for communicating to the masses, cutting-edge educators are driving their own classroom revolution with new digital tools — video, audio recordings, the internet and more. Technology is “relevant to their life,” Justin Aglio, Montour School District director of innovation , told me. “Students will engage things that are relevant to them.”

Kindergartners are so used to having digital devices in their hands, it can be awkward when teachers hand them a No. 2 pencil, he said.

Older students are even more dedicated to electronic devices: Outside of school, teens average nine hours of entertainment media per day and “tweens” average six hours , according to Common Sense Media, a San Francisco nonprofit that helps young people engage with media and technology. Educators have to adapt to connect with tech-savvy students.

“People will not agree that technology is the greatest thing in the world,” Aglio told me. “But people will 100 percent agree that it's not going away.”

At Connellsville, teachers and students are breaking down walls — literally. School officials turned the traditional library into an interactive learning center with video and audio recording studios.

The changes meant eliminating out-of-date nonfiction books — Jimmy Carter hasn't been president since the students' parents were in school, after all — and created unexpected opportunities. Besides, the school library ended up offering more titles than ever on e-readers.

Students in an English class plotted locations in Romania where the “Dracula” novel takes place, world cultures students led virtual tours of distant lands, and physics students created safety videos demonstrating laws of science.

“They come up with some amazing things,” said Marianne Pouliot, the physics teacher. “That's why I don't want to put a box around them.”

The students are excited about learning too, said longtime English teacher Sarah Skoric.

“They want to communicate,” she said. “They know, they remember and they want to share.”

School board members and administrators have invested in the future, but teachers have been creative about making do and seeking grants, said Kevin Ghost, director of technology. �The returns have been better than expected.

“It's refreshing me, getting me excited again,” Skoric said, “because after 22 years, you can get in a little rut.”

Andrew Conte is the director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.

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