Propelling Forward With a Student-Centered Technology Lens

If there is one thing Tina Henckel, Director of STEM for Norwalk Public Schools in Norwalk, Connecticut knows, it’s how to pivot. Since 2018, Henckel and her team have been working to define what Project-Based Learning (PBL) looks like for Norwalk. Like many districts, those plans have changed with the transition from traditional learning environments to virtual or hybrid models. However, the strong foundation Norwalk built in previous years kept authentic, student-focused learning at the forefront.

Norwalk Public Schools is a district of choice, which means the district’s 13,000 students can request to participate in a program at any one of their 21 schools. With more than 50% of students receiving free and reduced lunch and significant special education and multi-lingual learner populations, the district is committed to providing live, student-focused learning opportunities at all levels, no matter the learning environment.

Focusing on the Big Picture

Back in March, when the pandemic started, Norwalk was able to offer live instruction from day one. This required a focus on adapting traditional learning strategies to a virtual model. The district hosted small group sessions for teachers to increase their capacity for technology integration, focusing on tools that were most critical for engaging students, helping them move from point A to point B for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.

An important component of this work was to continue a long-term focus for Henckel: focusing on the big picture versus the day to day. “The pandemic forced us to look at teaching and learning from a global perspective as opposed to isolated week by week or daily planning. Teachers had to learn to compact their curriculum, combining or eliminating lessons based on pre assessment results.”

At first the district focused on technology tools, especially as more resources were available for free. District leaders highlighted readily available technology tools they knew would be most impactful in the classroom and would maximize student engagement. Moving into the 2020-2021 school year, the district reached another pivot point: how to select tools focused on engagement and feedback that could be used in a hybrid environment. “We needed to change the way we were thinking from a technology lens to a more student-centered lens,” says Henckel.

From there, a small group of teachers and coaches continued to focus instruction on small tasks that built to larger culminating tasks. They used hyperdocs to break large units into tasks over time. Not everyone was ready right away and teachers needed plenty of scaffolding for staff with less comfort managing high level technology integration in a hybrid environment.

Defined Learning as an Anchor

One school in particular chose to work collaboratively across content areas to create integrated tasks together. The school was ready to launch transdisciplinary tasks prior to the pandemic, but needed to redesign those units to fit the hybrid model. They chose to implement the integrated units in tandem with traditional curriculum. Fridays became PBL days. This provided time for teachers and students to work together on their projects and navigate through different content areas to build the knowledge they needed to successfully complete the culminating projects. The units, designed to enhance the curriculum, provide students with a variety of options. For example, sixth grade students are focused on how to develop a healthy community.They are working to design small businesses that support healthy living, which could include anything from a food truck or online store to a traditional business with a storefront. Eighth grade students are working to transform an area of the school building, such as an unused courtyard, to make the space useful in some kind of multipurpose way.

To support this work, teachers use Defined Learning tasks as an anchor. The GRASP (Goal, Role, Audience, Situation, Products) model from the Understanding by Design Framework by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins is used in every task, using research resources and provided rubrics to support the work. While all teachers were trained on how to identify tasks and use the components, teachers needed some support to adapt tasks to the virtual environment. Training focused on how to customize and build tasks, as well as how to break them up and use the individual components. Teachers who used Defined Learning tasks as-is previously became more experienced with customizing, adding their own twists. They adapted the driving questions at the beginning of the tasks or used a career video as a stepping stone to spark student interest for a unit that was coming up. Henckel says, “Thank goodness we started that work before COVID-19! It’s taking so much more time to teach in this environment! Now teachers can focus less on how to use the platform and more on how to manage a task in the classroom, providing effective feedback on a regular basis so students can grow, learn and revise throughout the project.” For example, the district science curriculum already included an alignment between tasks and the pacing guides so teachers did not have to search the platform to find a task. Henckel’s work now includes introducing teachers of all subject areas, such as unified arts, to “look under the hood” and identify links to standards in Defined Learning tasks.

“From a negative life changing event comes something positive,” says Henckel. She hopes the district is propelled toward a more technology-forward environment that engages students and focuses on providing feedback. When students are face to face, teachers are able to check for understanding and provide real time instruction, avoiding the time constraints and technology glitches that make it take longer for students to respond. Henckel believes, “It will be so much better without restrictions. We are more comfortable with the technology. Now we need to focus on student discourse.”

Moving Forward

To accomplish this, the next challenge is increasing the level of collaboration and small group instruction in the classroom. The district was on a pretty good trajectory prior to COVID, but health mitigations have forced an individualized atmosphere. Henckel hopes students and teachers will begin to renegotiate space in the classroom as barriers are removed. She wants to see less teacher talk and more students working together on projects. She believes the students are ready. 

The next pivot will involve a continued emphasis on what teachers have learned so far this year: choosing the right tools, good unit planning, and professional development focused on high-leverage strategies for student engagement. This next phase will involve weaving in new routines and becoming more fluid in questioning for higher-order thinking, allowing students time to think. Teachers will also focus on relationship building. Henckel believes this may be an element schools have taken for granted. “We spent a lot of time building norms in the virtual world, but we need to rethink those norms when we come back into the buildings. There’s another level of emotional support that we need to address to build relationships effectively.” With the foundation Norwalk has been building for years and continued throughout the pandemic, this renewed focus on people is sure to be a success.

About the Author: 

Meghan Raftery is a curriculum consultant with special interests in authentic learning, literacy and content integration, and student engagement.  She can be reached at


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