Interview: Evan Matthew Fuchs, 5th Grade Teacher and Digital Innovator

For the past 13 years, Evan Matthew Fuchs has been teaching 5th grade at the Green Vale School on the north shore of Long Island. A geek at heart, Evan is always looking for fun, cutting-edge ways to expand his students’ horizons, and dabbles in app development through his one-man company, Bored Kid Studios. As I described here recently (re: “Fantastic example of teacher using iPads to motivate & engage“), I met Evan when he brought a group of students to the museum. I asked him if I could interview him for this blog and he generously agreed.

Evan Fuchs, 5th grade teacher and digital innovator

Last week I ran into you with your students at the museum, in the Hall of Human Origins, each with an iPad in their hands. What was going on?

Green Vale is an independent school on Long Island, teaching students from early childhood through middle school. This year, as part of an initiative to further increase the presence of technology at our school, Green Vale provided every 5th grader with an iPad of their own and launched the 1:1 iPad Pilot Program. Since the very first day of school in September, fifth graders have been using the iPad in all of their classes. Among other things, the iPad serves as their planbook, notebook, and textbook. Along with the other two fifth grade teachers, Kathleen Pries and Meg Leonard, I have been exploring ways to use technology to support our students’ education. Our trip to AMNH was our first experience with our iPads out in the wild.

Before we left for the museum, I emailed each student an iPad-based scavenger hunt. When you ran into us, the kids were working to complete the hunt. Completely iPad-based, some tasks required students to find information about particular artifacts and fossils, and some items asked the kids to locate specific information in order to annotate a picture. A few of the tasks also involved the kids using their iPads to take pictures of certain exhibits. The scavenger hunt was intentionally non-linear, and the kids moved through Hall of Human Origins at their own pace. When I was able to step back and watch the kids, it was pretty exciting. The kids seemed very engaged as they quietly and independently moved about the exhibits.

The actual scavenger hunt was simply a pdf file that students opened on their iPads. The kids used our go-to note taking app, Notability, to annotate the pdf, as well as to insert their own photographs. In addition to being able to annotate pdf files, we like Notability because kids can use it to type, write, or draw notes. Notability’s design is also kid-friendly and feature-rich, yet not overwhelming. When we returned to school, the kids emailed their completed scavenger hunts back to us.

On what subject area were you focusing?

In grade five, our ancient history curriculum is the first half of a two-year sequence that continues through sixth grade.  As interesting as the ancient world is, our course of study is also designed to build our students burgeoning critical thinking skills. Who, What, Where, and When are good questions, yet I think Why and How are far more powerful.

Our trip to the AMNH is meant to be an introduction to our study of early man. We’re very fortunate to be so close to so many great resources. Seeing some of the very things they’ve read about can be a powerful experience for a student, and the exhibits in Hall of Human Origins provide additional depth and perspective that a textbook just can’t match.

How did the use of digital media change the youth’s learning experience?

Using an iPad is just plain fun. In the classroom, our students literally cheered the first few time we assigned homework because they got to enter the assignments into their iPads. Although they’ve stopped cheering for homework, I’m happy to ride that same wave of enthusiasm whenever possible. Yes, curiosity and learning should be their own rewards, yet kids are kids, and school should be fun.

For our fifth graders – ten year olds – I think the iPads also helped them feel more mature and scholarly, especially in a gallery that could easily challenge a young students’ composure. I’m not sure they can articulate their own feelings about it, but you could see our kids’ proud smiles as they moved about iPad-less high school students and adults. There was a genuine sense of “we’re doing work here”.

Using the iPads also allowed the kids to be self-directed and, mostly, self-sufficient. The assignment created instant differentiation for different types of learners: some kids focused more on the picture-taking tasks, while others gravitated towards the more traditional questions, etc.

How did the use of digital media change your instructional experience?

By structuring the trip around the self-paced iPad scavenger hunt, we, as teachers, were able to be coaches rather than docents. Logistically, we were free to move amongst the kids, and offer help and guidance to those in need without sacrificing the experience of the group. Since the very nature of a tablet captures a kids’ attention better than a ditto, we were all extremely pleased with the behavior and conduct of our students.

What would an educator need to know to be able to do what you did that day?

There’s no way around it: a trip like this requires a lot of preparation. I had been to the exhibit many times with previous grades, yet I still spent an entire afternoon in the gallery the weekend before I brought this year’s group. I took dozens of pictures, yet the final scavenger hunt only had seven images. I think it’s also important to be realistic with your goals for the trip. I saw this outing as a day that was more about the journey than the destination. I wanted the kids to be exposed to what a museum has to offer, as well as how an exhibit works. For example, we never explained how exhibit captions work in a museum, yet all the students quickly realized they could tell how old an artifact was and where it was found. I think it’s also important for students to feel comfortable and confident with the tools they are expected to use. Although this was our first field trip, the kids had been using Notability in class for several weeks.

What do you think other educators need to understand about the use of digital media to enhance museum-based education?

Education is reaching a tipping point. The role of the teacher is rapidly evolving into that of a knowledgeable guide rather than a sagacious guru. Our students have never known a world without the Internet. They’ve grown up having instant access to the accumulated knowledge of the entire human race, all easily searchable from a super-computer in their pocket. Museums, full of their larger-than-life exhibits and artifacts, are naturally poised at the intersection of curiosity, investigation, and wonder. While a museum can expand and complement classroom learning, digital media can expand and complement an exhibition. A connected student can experience the magic and majesty of a museum, while simultaneously exploring an artifact’s place in the larger puzzle of history.

To view more photos from the visit, please go here.

To view the original PDF, click here: Scavenger Hunt.

To view a sample filled out by a student, click here: Scavenger Hunt – Student