TELL Awards Ceremony Highlights Educators’ Technological Innovation

Gratitude, collaboration and a love for teaching were all palpable at the Transforming Education through Leadership and Learning Awards. 

The virtual ceremony, which took place on Sept. 24, honored seven educators and administrators for their effective strategies and success stories within their classrooms and school districts. Hosted by the Lower Hudson Regional Information Center, the TELL Awards (Transforming Education through Leading and Learning) is a celebration of teaching and learning excellence across the region.

The prestigious awards are given to individuals who continually demonstrate innovation, showcase best practices and implement systemic change in teaching and learning. Winners of the Outstanding Teacher and Outstanding Leader categories were nominated by their colleagues and peers; the winner of the Outstanding Partner category was selected by the LHRIC.

“We are here to reflect on their vision and willingness to take risks,” said Kathy Conley, Executive Director of the LHRIC. To the honorees, she added: “Your dedication promoting the value and role of technology and instruction was obvious to those who were on the TELL Awards committee.”

The event was organized by Sarah Martabano, the LHRIC’s Manager of Educational Technology, and several members of the TLI Committee. Leslie Accardo, the LHRIC’s Model Schools Coordinator, served as the event’s Master of Ceremonies. In addition to congratulating the award winners, Ms. Accardo applauded their constant efforts to develop positive outcomes and enrich educations of students.

“This is our first-ever virtual Technology Leadership Institute event,” she said. “This is our favorite event. It is an opportunity to honor each other.”

This year, there were three winners of the Outstanding Teacher award: Caroline Browne, a social studies teacher in the Greenburgh Central School District; Jessica Kingsbury, a math and technology enrichment teacher in the Port Chester Public Schools; and Marko Markolovic, a high school social studies teacher in the Blind Brook-Rye Union Free School District.

As someone who strives to engage students at their own level, Ms. Browne was recognized for her innovative work in teaching students how to create podcasts. She is continually motivated by finding new approaches that will help her students learn at their own pace and apply their knowledge of new technologies.

“I’m truly honored to receive this award,” said Ms. Browne. “The kids really enjoyed the project and I enjoyed helping them apply more modern technology to their work. It’s wonderful for them to be able to create their own podcasts. It’s great to see them light up.”

Inside Ms. Kingsbury’s computer science classroom, students are given control of their own learning. Rather than telling them how to make their robots move, she tells them the “end goal” – what their robot can do – and challenges them to figure out what code could complete that task.

“My colleagues and I don’t view technology as the goal – it’s the tool to help us get to our goal,” Ms. Kingsbury said. “This really comes down to connections with the students. I think that’s why my robotics program was so successful.”

Mr. Markolovic commented that his technological journey started with the LHRIC. “I took a podcasting class with an iPod Touch. I left the room saying that I have to do this all the time and how can I do that?” He and his director soon after discussed how his new knowledge and passion could be implemented within the curriculum.

Over the years, Mr. Markolovic has been an effective teacher because he provides his students with authentic learning experiences and project-based lessons. Using iPads in class has allowed them to choose how they want to reflect on their learning.

Another category in the TELL Awards was for Outstanding Leader. Those honors were given to: Joshua Culwell-Block, the Director of Technology, Innovation and Mathematics in the Chappaqua Central School District; Rekha Singh, the Building Technology Coordinator in the Byram Hills Central School District; and Duane Smith, the English Chairperson in the Byram Hills Central School District.

Mr. Culwell-Block expressed gratitude for his district’s willingness to explore technology and STEAM-related avenues. He noted this his district never says “no” to an idea; administrators might say “maybe” or “yes, but…” – however, they never shoot down an idea that has the potential to benefit students.

“Our teachers and leaders are going to propel us to new heights,” said Mr. Culwell-Block, who has created environments, professional development and learning platforms that allow students to grow, reflect and harness the power of a highly technological world. “Leadership is really about relationships, having a plan and being thoughtful. Any idea you have can either die in a ditch or can be propelled up into the sky.”

Ms. Singh is a firm believer that the amount of technology that a school has is not nearly as important as how it uses it. She encourages students to be problem-solvers and nurtures faculty members to learn new concepts and ideas. Ms. Singh continuously strives to infuse original and creative curricular technology into her school building.

“Our technology people are the backbone of the district who are truly transforming, learning and leading,” she said. “The pandemic makes you realize that you always work through challenges. This new normal is testing the strength of our team and, if I do say so myself, we are accepting the challenge and showing up.”

While reminiscing about his career, Mr. Smith recalled asking his department to examine how literacy was changing in the 21st century. He saw what he called a “radical transformation” and understood early the benefit of infusing technology into ELA. He and his colleagues began engaging in work that students could relate to and that they see regularly, including photos, videos, multimedia documents and voiceover narratives.

“Technology has allowed us to communicate in ways that are so rich,” he said. “My work is to provide teachers with some inspiration for students to have authentic products, like podcasts and research papers. The district is so willing to take risks in the classroom, and I am blessed to be among that crowd.”

Lastly, the Outstanding Partner award was bestowed upon Ron Velez, the Director of Management and Information Systems/CIO in the White Plains City School District. Mr. Velez noted that throughout the coronavirus pandemic, many educators have been working long hours to ensure that students are receiving the education they need.

“Today is a day of thanks,” he said. “I’ve always believed that it takes a village to run a school district. Our partnerships are now more important than ever before.”

Throughout his career, Mr. Velez has focused on how technology can provide opportunities for students and staff members to become more independent, creative and innovative. His emphasis on equity ensures that students are receiving instruction that suits their needs – he designed his district’s 1:1 iPad program and adopted the Schoology Learning Management system, which allows students to extend their learning beyond the classroom. This initiative helped the district have an effective remote learning plan during the pandemic.

The awards ceremony was preceded by a keynote address given by Dr. Devorah Heitner, the author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in their Digital World.” In her lecture, “Raising Digital Natives,” she investigated what it means for students to grow up connected, as well as what social-emotional learning milestones are appropriate while navigating the Digital Age.

“Students are growing up in an environment where everything is coming to them from devices,” she said. “It’s not usually the device itself that is causing us to have certain feelings; it’s the information coming through on that device – like unwelcome updates, news, emails, weather notifications.”

Throughout her lecture, Dr. Heitner discussed what digital tools students can use and how they can get the best out of those tools to further bolster their learning. Additionally, she examined the importance of not only fostering skills and digital prowess, but also showing empathy and developing students’ curiosity.

“Kids are wired to learn – a lot of this technology will just click into place for neurotypical kids,” she said. “Kids are a lot more discerning about and more critical of technology than adults give them credit for. We want to think about what we can do for these kids during these times.”

Often, there can be a disconnect between what students know about technology and what their parents know. Dr. Heitner said that educators must ensure that students know how to access quality information and know how to use the information when they acquire it.

“Parents have been taught to fear screens – the more kids use screens, the worse it is,” she said. “We want to relieve parents from that misunderstanding. For many families right now, (living through a pandemic and how it has impacted education and childcare) is the most adverse event of their childhoods. Parents feel very powerless right now. We have to acknowledge that parents are living through a trauma – this is the worst thing that has happened to our kids.”

Dr. Heitner explained that learning during the pandemic has been difficult. Some students may lack resources or a proper work environment, while others may have many distractions at home. However, the situations could have been worse without technology.

“This global pandemic would be affecting us much more profoundly if we did not have these online tools to work from,” she said. “It’s so wonderful that your region is so advanced in terms of access and having every educator empowered. But, of course, not everyone is starting from that position.”

Above all, Dr. Heitner emphasized that empathy is valuable in any environment, but especially in a virtual one. Empathy applies to a wide range of areas, including attendance, access and other daily barriers that students may face.

“Our empathy recognizes that many of our students don’t have control of their environment and may not have everything they need to learn,” she said. “For our kids to still pick up some life skills throughout this pandemic is an incredible thing right now. All of this empathy can help us.”