On a recent, chilly Friday morning, Charles Musgrove and I walked into Leslie Swanson’s classroom at Brownwood Intermediate School. We went to assist her with a grant application to become a Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Digital Innovator. I expected to find Swanson excited to teach, given my recent introduction to her as she applied for and received a grant from the Brownwood Education Foundation. Through that application, I learned that Swanson is completely dedicated to her students and that she brings a great deal of enthusiasm to her classroom. I was not, however, prepared for what I witnessed that Friday morning.

Swanson, who lives in Cisco and commutes daily, was leading a “bell ringer” assignment (an assignment that begins a class period and helps focus students and reviews current concepts) with her class, though the school day had begun only ten minutes earlier. Swanson says that she loves Brownwood ISD so much that she willingly makes the hour-long journey twice daily to get to work. At the invitation of the Brownwood Education Foundation, Swanson had applied for and received a grant that enabled her to purchase Chromebooks for use in her sixth-grade classroom. She has successfully integrated the Chromebooks purchased through that grant into math instruction on a daily basis, and she incorporates several web-based curriculum programs and other technical tools into daily lessons, including the daily bell ringer assignment that begins each lesson.

Observing her class that morning, I was struck by the image of students using technology with such ease at an early age, as they are much more advanced in their technical abilities than I am, despite working with office technology on a daily basis. As students watched a PBS learning video and then worked a digital math assignment, they simultaneously used dry-erase markers and worked out problems by hand on their desktop. You see, Swanson also believes in hands-on work for her students, encouraging them to use their desktops as an actual scratch pad, having discovered that the dry-erase markers could easily be erased from the desk surfaces without leaving a trace of residue.

A proponent of a blended learning model, in which students use a combination of technology and more traditional classroom techniques, Swanson is passionate about giving her students the best opportunity to learn. An advantage of web-based learning is the teacher’s ability to immediately see student responses and assess trouble spots. When asked about the benefits of technology in their classroom, students were eager to give their opinions. Student Christina Castillo said, “I learn so much from watching the examples we get to see from videos and computer programs I feel like I learn more and have fun doing so.” Another student, Azteca Badillo, added Swanson “lets us learn from the videos we watch, but she is so good about stopping and asking us if we are working too slowly or too fast. She cares about where we are, and she makes sure we understand our work before we move on.” Other students chimed in about the fun they have in writing on their desks, working towards reward points, and earning privileges upon reaching achievement levels.

The video filmed will be submitted by Swanson to PBS Education in response to an invitation for a chance to become a 2017 PBS Digital Innovator. The PBS Education organization promotes digital learning through extensive digital content and use in the classroom. Once submitted, Swanson becomes eligible to be the one teacher chosen from the state of Texas to sit on a nation-wide panel as a Digital Innovator for the year, wherein she will receive professional development opportunities, receive technology-driven awards for her school and/or district, and attend a week-long, all-expense-paid trip to the PBS Digital Innovator Summit in June of this year. When asked how many educators within Texas were invited to apply for the program, Swanson said that she was not aware of that number. “To be chosen as the state representative for the program would be awesome, but as long as I learn more about effectively reaching my kids in the classroom and can become a better teacher through the process, while perhaps getting some technological tools donated to the district, then I will consider myself as having won.”

As the class period ended and our filming was finished, I was surprised that the students wanted to stay and visit with me rather than make their way to PE class. When I asked why they were so excited about their teacher and their math class, I received a several loud and enthusiastic responses. “ Swanson is so nice, and she cares so much about us.” “This class isn’t like regular math….it is a lot more fun.” “Our teacher is funny and has fun with us, but she also stops and helps us when we need it, even before we have to ask for the help.”

As the Executive Director of the Brownwood Education Foundation, I left that classroom feeling such joy, having seen students actively engaged in learning, enjoying themselves, and watching a teacher who deeply cares for her students strive to give them the very best, of both herself and of the tools that she can compile for them. As representatives of our Foundation approach our partners in education throughout the community and ask for financial support of our endeavors, I feel good in knowing that the grants we award are used so effectively. To see a grant used to bring technology tools to the classroom is exciting. To see the teacher take that grant and use it as a springboard to enhance her teaching skills and try to bring even further benefit to her students is truly thrilling. Not only has Leslie Swanson found a way to excite her students about their learning, she has motivated the Brownwood Education Foundation to continue their efforts to partner with Brownwood ISD and provide classroom grants and teaching awards to the teachers in our district who share their passion about education.