AMHERST, N.Y. — School districts across Western New York are hoping to have students back into the classroom full-time by the fall. But for now, hybrid models are in place.
Knowing the future of education might involve some sort of virtual learning forever, administrators within Amherst Central Schools knew a better solution was needed to connect students and teachers.
Lindsey Mack is a fifth-grade teacher over at Windermere Elementary School. In a "normal" year, Mack is a gifted specialist.
“There was a lot of flexibility we needed to manage, figuring out how to manage a group of 30-some kids every day,” Mack said.
And, trying to keep them entertained from her classroom to theirs.
"It was really difficult to try and manage so many faces on my screen, while also sharing my screen and using the document camera because there were so many windows open at the same time," Mack said.
Enter a unique piece of technology. It’s called the TIGER Stand or Technology InteGrated Educational Resource.
"I was able to take the Zoom meeting, and all their beautiful faces and move it," Mack gestured to the TIGER Stand.
Now, Mack's students are on the 55 inch 4k screen. It's as close as she can get to in-person learning while still being solo in the classroom.
"There have been times that if I needed to be up and working at the whiteboard, I can just turn the camera and teach in the way that I normally would," Mack said.
Upstairs, Amy Butzek, a reading specialist turned third-grade teacher, can now more easily monitor her students as they do their asynchronous work. Her students are all virtually learning this school year. The TIGER screen gives them a sense of normalcy, too.
"You know the principal can pop in and I can turn the camera and she'll do freeze dance with us," Butzek said. "I feel like it gives them a window into the Windermere world."
It also gives teachers a better glimpse into their students' world.
"They can actually see their facial expression," Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction and Technology Lynn Shanahan said. "So, if a child looks confused, they don't have to call them out. They can take them into a break-out room a little later."
Shanahan is to thank for this piece of technology. Knowing the importance of social, emotional health, Shanahan was determined to find a better way for teachers and students to connect. So, she reached out to Bill Naab over at Ink Labs. Within two weeks, a prototype of the TIGER was complete.
"A lot of people think we named it after the Amherst Tigers, but we didn't," Naab smiled.
Naab is a former educator. He wanted to give teachers and students the most "normal" experience possible, without breaking a district's bank. By tinkering, a cost-effective option is now streaming in three rooms at the elementary school.
"We thought, ok, we have to have students at home be engaged, but we have to let the teachers do what comes naturally to them," Naab said. "We want them to be able to stand in a room and not sit in front of a little computer screen."
The lesson plan now is endless. The focus can keep on these faces and less on the screen.
"I mean we were all starting from scratch, doing the best we could with what we had, Mack said. "To now, to be able to say I feel like an expert at this and I could keep doing it. I hope I don't have to, but I could."
This is just the beginning of Ink Labs and its innovation of WNY classrooms. Right now, its Technology Makeover Contest is underway. There will be three winners. The grand prize is a $25,000 tech makeover of a classroom. Those winners will be announced on National Teacher's Day, which is May 4.