Inside the data-driven classroom, where every student is an individual

SPONSORED: Fairbanks-area teacher Eric Rush uses apps, hands-on learning techniques and an open, flexible classroom concept to create a learning environment that’s as unique as each of his students.

SPONSORED: For more than 20 years, BP has been recognizing Alaska's exceptional teachers — like Eric Rush — through the BP Teachers of Excellence program. Since 1995, the company has honored  more than 750 educators for their dedication to teaching and inspiring students. Nominations for this year's awards are open until Feb. 1; the program is also accepting submissions for the new Educational Allies Award, which celebrates the unsung heroes in Alaska's schools, including principals, teaching assistants and other staff members.

Tracking student progress? Analyzing class behavior? Drilling down on reading skills? There's an app for that — and it's probably already being used in Eric Rush's third-grade classroom.

Rush teaches at Ticasuk Brown Elementary School in his hometown of North Pole, and when it comes to teaching style, his is data-driven, tech-forward and designed to engage students as individuals and critical thinkers.

Rush says many of his students today — too many — walk into his classroom on the first day of school unprepared for third-grade work.

"The last few years teaching third grade, I've never had a whole classroom ready for third grade right from the get-go," he said. "Some of them are still reading at a first-grade level."

Rush said it's critical that he not only helps each of his students get caught up, but that he does it without making them feel discouraged.

"I have to make sure I'm bringing them up to the (third-grade) level … but also building their confidence and self-esteem," he explained. "If they weren't nurtured that way in previous grade levels, they're going to have trouble wanting to come to school."

And that's one area in which Rush has embraced data and technology — as tools to help him assess, evaluate and encourage students as individuals. When students have a wide range of needs, there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all (or even a one-size-fits-most) approach to helping them learn, and Rush has found that digital classroom tools can help him support and teach his students based on their personal needs.

For example, when a student is struggling to read, a reading application can track exactly where the struggle lies.

"If I know there's a student that's having trouble with comprehension, there's a program for that," he said. "It gives me more of a detail of where I can really work with that student — what part of comprehension? It really allows me to be more efficient."

Technology can also help identify patterns of behavior that point to areas where a student could use support. In Rush's class, students scan a QR code when they take a bathroom break. That feeds a Google Form that keeps track of who leaves the classroom and when — data that Rush can review to look for trends.

"(If) they keep leaving at math, maybe they don't understand a certain concept in math. Maybe they don't like math," he said. "Then I can bring it to the parents' attention on a conference — maybe we need to support them differently."

Positive reinforcement for good behavior also gets a lift from technology. Rush uses a program called Class Dojo that notifies parents in real time when students receive points for things like working hard or completing a task. Students also hear an audible alert when someone gets bonus points. (Students can lose points for poor behavior, too, but only parents get that alert.) Rush incentivizes good behavior with classroom rewards at the end of each week.

Rush's approach to teaching isn't just tech for the sake of being techy. As a teacher in the Information Age, he sees a classroom that has changed significantly since his own childhood, when the teacher was the primary source of knowledge. Now, Rush said, his job as a teacher is to help students navigate the universe of resources available to them.

"My role is to guide students to relevant and important information," he said. "They need to be able to do their own research."

Adults, he points out, get to choose the best ways to give and receive information, whether it's opting for audiobooks over paperbacks or texting over video calls. He tries to do the same for his students by giving them a variety of ways to explore and express what they're learning.

As part of his BP Teachers of Excellence award, Rush was able to participate in a teacher course offered by Alaska Resource Education that provides hands-on learning curriculum for teaching students about Alaska's resource industries — from identifying rocks using jelly beans to drilling into a cupcake for pretend oil.

"I just want to give them options — not just one way or my way," he said. "Kids thrive with that. They feel like they did it their own way."

Rush recalled the story of a student who, while learning about Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., wondered about which of the civil rights leader's relatives were still alive.

"That's a great question," Rush remembered telling her. "How about you go look for that?" And she did. After she had done her own research, this student who was usually reluctant to speak in front of the group was excited to tell her classmates what she had learned.

"When she found that information" on her own, Rush said, "she wanted to share it."

Rush's classroom is set up to encourage exploration. Instead of desks, he has a few standing tables, some tables with whiteboard surfaces, beanbag chairs, cushions and lawn chairs. The classroom isn't paperless, but he said he tries to use paper "efficiently." The space is designed to make students feel comfortable and leave room for exploration.

"I don't have a teacher's desk," Rush said. "We need that space for robots to be able to move around."

Rush said his classroom is built around a "growth mindset" — that his students can achieve anything they want as long as they work hard and stick to it.

It's the same approach he brings to working with at-risk students in the after-school and summer programs in which he teaches.

"I really enjoy doing that," Rush said. "It's giving students a chance to see something different, to explore new programming." The students he teaches in the summer have trouble in reading, math, behavior or all three. Rush said he offers them the same kinds of creative, hands-on learning opportunities that are more typically provided to students in gifted and talented programs.

"These kids just are amazed by robotics or engineering, building a roller coaster from cardboard tubes and marbles," he said. "Just seeing how they feel — they feel like they accomplished something great — it's really rewarding."

Rush recalls that his own favorite teachers, like North Pole High School choir director Bruce Hanson, were the ones who helped him build his confidence. Hanson, who was recently named Music Educator of the Year by the Alaska Music Educators Association, encouraged Rush to try out for solos and helped him realize his own potential.

"I hope that I have done that to my students," Rush said. "Knowing that they are capable of being able to do anything as long as they persevere, continue to work hard, and learn from their failures."

This story is sponsored by BP, celebrating the teachers who bring a world of possibilities into the classroom.

This article was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with BP. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.