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A Box Elder Teacher's Tech-Savvy First Graders

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Heidi Coffin
First-grade teacher Heidi Coffin was named a Digital Innovator by PBS.

Igniting Kids' Natural Love of Learning

Heidi Coffin’s first-graders are some tech-savvy kids.

The digital feats her industrious 6- and 7-year olds from Box Elder and Ellsworth Air Force Base perform on their iPads and desktops sound more like college-level curriculum than first grade learning. On a typical school day in her bright, computer-filled classroom, her 21 students research databases, use document cameras, upload photos, and post videos online.

Coffin says when it comes to technology, kids are naturals. “They’re digital natives,” Coffin says. “Their minds work digitally. The technology helps them dive deeper and reach those higher order thinking skills to be able to succeed.”

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Coffin knows her stuff when it comes to teaching with technology – so much so that PBS named the first-grade teacher from Badger Clark Elementary a 2016 PBS Digital Innovator, for which she’ll receive one year of professional development from PBS.

“Technology is integrated throughout everything in an adult’s life,” says Coffin. “It shouldn’t be any different for a kid. Many districts don’t even have technology teachers anymore because the technology is integrated right into the classroom. There’s not ‘computer time’ for most districts.”

On an average school day, tech is the norm.

What does a media-rich lesson in first-grade fundamentals – reading and math, for example – look like in Coffin’s classroom? For much of her curriculum, Coffin starts with PBS.

“In first grade, we focus so much on phonics and how to decode words,” says Coffin. “Electric Company is one of my favorites. I incorporate a video clip from the show. PBS has already integrated the common core standards and pulled extraneous content from the clip. The video gets the kids engaged and ready to learn our concept for the day. Then I send them to their iPads to investigate more about the concept or to do a word work activity. “

Next, the students may pull out their iPads for a spelling test or deploy their tablet’s video recorder to record themselves reading. “They’ll review the video to help with their fluency,” says Coffin. “The tech is integrated all day long.”

For Coffin’s students, digital media engages and reinforces, but does not replace, the basics. “Technology is not the only thing that provides the classroom education – it’s more the medium that we use,” she says. “I’ll incorporate a math clip from Cyberchase,” says Coffin. “The kids enjoy the fast pace, the cartoons, the humor. Then I’ll give a math problem on a sticky note website like Lino. They do the problem on a white board, take a picture of it with their iPads, then upload it to our class website. We can see everybody’s work simultaneously. We talk about their math strategies because the technology generates discussion."

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Coffin says media helps learning take place anywhere. “When we play a clip from Electric Company or Cyberchase, the kids yell out, ‘Oh! I watch this at home!’ They get really excited and it builds off that,” Coffin says. “At home, they might not understand fully the content the clip is talking about, but we build off what they see at home and then they realize it’s not just a classroom thing – it’s a real world thing and they can apply it other places and access it anywhere.”

Teaching tech means taking risks.

Incorporating technology, says Coffin, means taking risks using trusted, kid-centric sources and being a student as much as a teacher. “My students know how to do stuff and they show me how things work. I make mistakes, and my students sometimes show me how to do something. They really enjoy the PBS app I loaded onto their iPads and I can give them free reign. Many of them already have it on their devices at home. If they want to keep learning about something, which many of them do, they’ll go home and watch it again.”

Coffin’s tech-based curriculum is based on the SAMR Model, an acronym for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition. “We don’t just want them substituting their learning,” she says. “We want them redefining with technology. The kids are the ones creating. They’re hands-on.”

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Coffin’s digital innovation extends to parents, who can access her class website for a daily blog and uploads of their kids’ work, as well as websites and research databases the kids use in the classroom. “The response to technology in the classroom is mixed for parents and staff,” says Coffin. “Many embrace it and understand that is where our society is going. Others are a little hesitant, but they don’t mind me taking the lead.”

Networking with like-minded colleagues.

Earlier this summer PBS sent Heidi Coffin to the PBS Digital Innovator Summit in Denver. “It was amazing to see 52 teachers from all over the country talking about how important it is to engage students in technology,” says Coffin. “We kept seeing #PBSLovesTeachers, but teachers love PBS, too. PBS really understands where teachers are coming from because they have that education foundation.”

Coffin says she continues to learn from her colleagues and her students. “One of the other PBS innovators is a kindergarten teacher whose students use 3D printers and power drills to build prosthetic hands. They sell them for $30 apiece. It was so inspiring. I feel like I need to up my game. My students can do so much more than what I am even giving them.”

Coffin’s students can expect a fun, challenging school year.

To learn more about SDPB and PBS K-12 resources for teachers, visit: and