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Inspiring Creativity With No-Tech, Low-Tech and High-Tech Tools

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As resource center director at Hubbard Woods Elementary in Winnetka, IL, Todd Burleson serves a dual role as both head librarian and technology guru at the K-4 school. More than two years ago, he began working closely with the school’s art and music teachers to explore technology in new ways, starting with a schoolwide project inspired by the Peter Reynolds book The Dot.

THE Journal: What was it about this book that resonated with you, and how did you end up turning the project into something bigger?

Todd Burleson: It’s a really beautiful story about not being afraid to be creative, focusing on a little girl who doesn’t think she can draw and her teacher who gets her to believe in herself. I found out about International Dot Day, in which schools all over the world celebrate the book, and we decided this would be a great way to kick off the school year and get kids excited. We used no-tech, low-tech and high-tech tools to expand the ideas of creativity, compassion and empathy. We investigated dots in the form of Braille alphabets, Morse code, splatter painting by Jackson Pollock and pointillism by Seurat and Lichtenstein. We imagined musical notes as “dots” and used a variety of apps on the iPad and computer to “compose” using these dots. It all culminated on a beautiful day where students filtered through the resource center and celebrated the message of the story while using technology to be creative in new ways.

THE: What’s next?

Burleson: This year I’ve paired with a children’s author who is coming to our school in November to help our fourth-graders get an understanding of how to create a picture book. The students will work on different pieces of narrative writing in their classes, and they will use that to create a 28-page book. I’m working with the art teacher to help them explore different illustration styles, and then we’re going to turn those into interactive e-books. There will be a “Read to Me” feature, in which the kids will read their own book and add sound effects, as well as other interactive elements. And for the kids who are interested, I’m going to work with the music teacher to turn the books into pieces of music.

THE: What have you learned from these experiences about how technology can improve the learning experience of your students?

Burleson: One of the things I’m a big proponent of is making kids see that they are creators, not simply consumers, on their devices. They can make materials that others can absorb and explore. Particularly for children up to age 10 like the ones I work with, technology can make your work look better. If you write something by hand, people can tell you’re 10 years old from the handwriting. But if you type it and put it into an interactive book, you could be 50 years old and no one knows the difference. So it levels the playing field for children in a way that traditional media can’t do.

THE: How do you see the success of these activities in the kids’ responses?

Burleson: I see them getting beyond the point of just having fun and realizing that they are creators. When I was a kid, we would have an author come to our school and tell us we could be authors if we wanted. I would think, “Well, not really.” But when a kid sits down and makes his own book, that is incredibly powerful. At the end of the last school year, our kids did the standard third-grade animal project, but then turned them into interactive books. They felt like they were on top of the world, because these books looked so great.

THE: How do you make sure your teachers realize technology’s potential with their students?

Burleson: Well, it’s exciting but also a little overwhelming to try to keep up with all of the changes that are happening in technology. And I know that if I feel that way as a tech person, it’s going to be even more overwhelming for teachers. My role is to distill things in a way that it is useful for them. I write a weekly column for our teachers called “Todd’s Tuesday Tech Tips,” and I always try to find some aspect of technology that they can use in their everyday teaching that will make their life easier, not harder. Teachers appreciate when I take things and break them down into reasonable, meaningful steps that they can accomplish. That’s my goal: to make it easy for them to stay on the cusp of these exciting changes.

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