This teacher skyrocketed kids' confidence and tech skills in 2 years

By: Neil Gladstone
Verizon Innovative Learning Award-winner Dawn Martesi explains what she learned while bringing Armstrong Middle School into the digital age.

Back in 2014, Neil A. Armstrong Middle School didn’t even have Wi-Fi.

“We were a kind of chisel-and-slate people,” recalls Dawn Martesi, an instructional coach at the school.

Yet just two years later, Martesi’s common-sense approach has helped build Armstrong into a truly tech-savvy middle school in Bristol Township, Pennsylvania.

Now, Martesi is being given an award by Verizon Innovative Learning, the education initiative of the Verizon Foundation to recognize her leadership in integrating smart tablets, collaborative apps and digital cameras into everyday life at Armstrong. The first ever Verizon Innovative Learning Award celebrates the use of technology in schools.

Photo by Michael J. Le Brecht

Lifting students into tech leadership

When Martesi’s middle school became a participant in Verizon Innovative Learning in 2014, it received devices, round-the-clock data plans and instructional support, and it was up to  her to help roll out the new technology.

Martesi’s experience was in special education and reading, and over time she’d grown into a role as the school’s instructional coach, teaching new techniques and offering support to teachers.

But her discomfort with technology made her a bit concerned about being Armstrong Middle School’s digital coach.

“At first I was afraid to say I was the one supporting this technology program. I didn’t want to be laughed at,” she says.

So she attended her first technology seminar, given by the Verizon Foundation’s nonprofit partner Digital Promise, with a humble plan: Admit what you don’t know and ask as many questions as needed.

Learning how to use the new tools was just a small part of the challenge. Martesi knew that in order for these big changes to catch on, she needed her students’ help.

She created the Tiger Techs, a team of students who teach their peers about new tools and apps and support teachers with research projects.

“The teachers were relieved to see the kids take the lead,” she says. “And the kids stepped up and took ownership.”

Martesi remembers one particular seventh grader with a learning disability who was sent to the office often for misbehaving. He asked to be a Tiger Tech and soon grew into a reliable authority at the school.

“The next year, his discipline referrals all but vanished,” she says. “Teachers would come to me and say, ‘I can’t believe he’s leading a class in front of 30 eighth graders.’ He would come to me and say, ‘This is the best part of my middle school experience, being a tech.’ He hadn’t felt so important coming to school. Now, he felt really needed.”

Collectively, the students at Armstrong Middle School have helped launch projects like Hour of Code, a global event to teach people around the world the basics of coding in one-hour sessions, and National Engineer’s Week, which teaches students the basic concepts of engineering through hands-on activities.

During this shift, both students and teachers learned a new way of working together.

“Kindness and patience are the keys to everything. Being empathetic to people’s struggles and validating those struggles and saying ‘I hear you,’ has changed how we all have learned.”

Photo by Michael J. Le Brecht

Preparing for tomorrow

The program also has raised the school’s profile within Pennsylvania.

Martesi’s students recently gave a presentation about the best learning apps at a technology conference for schools in the county.

“That’s like a whole new ball game for kids. It changes the way you see yourself and what you’re capable of. You feel like you have the same opportunity as everyone else,” Martesi explains.

“I’m a firm believer that your zip code should not determine your opportunities in the world, and Verizon has given us that opportunity.”

Neil Gladstone’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, People and USA Today.