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Teacher Ananth Pai’s do-it-yourself tech effort pays big dividends for students

He collected the best games for math, reading, vocabulary and geography and created a digital profile for every kid in his class and — voila! — instant engagement.

Looking at his students’ test scores a few years back, third-grade teacher Ananth Pai had an epiphany. The kids were all approximately the same age, but scores ranging from the 10th percentile to the 90th meant they were achieving at very different grade levels.

He needed to reach each on his or her level, but there were 20 of them and one of him. Even at that relatively generous student-teacher ratio, differentiation — the practice of tailoring lessons to pupils — seemed impossible without technology.

His district, White Bear Lake Area Schools, offered him a whiteboard, but Pai had other ideas. “That’s technology for the teacher,” he explains in a new, 13-minute video produced by the St. Paul-based think-tank Education Evolving (EE). “I want technology for the students.”

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When the district declined to give him the $6,000 it would have spent on the board, Pai, an Indian immigrant, and his wife came up with some and secured a matching grant from his wife’s employer. He bought seven laptops, two desktops, 11 Nintendo DSs and 21 digital voice recorders.

Then he collected the best games for math, reading, vocabulary, geography and other subjects available online and from game creators and created a digital profile for every kid in his class. Suddenly, kids were engaged — absorbed, actually, in getting to the games’ next levels. Voila! — instant differentiation.

In each of the next three years, his students’ growth doubled or even tripled. More than 200 visitors — national media, state lawmakers, functionaries from the Minnesota Department of Education — came to watch the fun. Still others visited the class virtually; some signed a student petition calling for technology for all.   

And why wouldn’t they? Pai’s work brilliantly showcased the potential for some of the ideas currently generating the most buzz in education policy circles: Blended learning, personalized learning, data-driven instruction.   

You can guess where this is going, right? A GameBoy in every cubby! Minecraft in every geography class!

Wrong. Pai’s brave experiment is fun to hear about, but the point of the EE video is that organizations resist change. (And the nonprofit is very careful to note that the resistance in this story does not accrue to a school, district or agency; it’s a systemic issue.)

“If this was business, there would be people making deals with me,” an emotional Pai tells the camera. “As a young man who had odds of everything in life going against me, starting where I said I started. And to come to the United States from which bags of food used to come to my school when I was a child, that had the stamp USA on it, and to find this kind of bureaucratic apathy is stunning.”

The video is well worth a watch, particularly because its point is not that technology will save the day for all. Rather it advocates a “Split Screen” approach, “working simultaneously to develop new and different models of school while continuing also to do everything possible to improve the existing schools in the traditional district sector.”

The last few moments wade into truly subversive territory: The charter law is an opportunity for teachers, it posits, and their unions.