How a Teacher in Rural Idaho Got $260,000 for New Technology

By Dr. Matthew Lynch

With an annual budget of $75 to spend on school supplies for her first-grade classroom, teacher Melissa Hunt of rural Blackfoot, Idaho, has purchased an interactive whiteboard, new headphones for her school’s computer lab, a 3D printer, and even a disco ball. How’d she do it? Yes, she’s frugal with what Stoddard Elementary gives her, and yes, she does spend a bit of money out of her own pocket. But after 28 years in the classroom, she has figured out a better way to pay—and to connect with the people who care about her students.

Donors Choose Mrs. Hunt

When you walk into Hunt’s classroom, you may see students engaged in a group lesson using their Promethean ActivPanel, dancing and singing to an educational music video, or sitting quietly at their desks using their laptops to write thank-you notes to the generous (and mostly anonymous) donors who have made their interactive classroom possible.

Hunt has collected donations for more than 100 projects through the education-focused crowdfunding website Think of it as Kickstarter for classroom teachers. Teachers log on and write a description of what they would like for their classroom, and individuals, foundations, or businesses can donate as much or as little as they desire.

Hunt’s first endeavor with was three years ago, when she wanted to buy headphones for the school’s computer lab. In a matter of weeks, the project was fully funded, and 30 sets of headphones were shipped to Stoddard Elementary. She has gotten more ambitious since then, funding more than $260,000 of projects big and small, from winter clothes and African drums to iPod touches, laptops, and her latest large purchase: an ActivConnect by Promethean that links her student’s mobile devices to the ActivPanel. And then there was the disco ball, which only took days to fully fund. What does a first-grade teacher need such a thing for?

“The disco ball works wonders for my students,” said Hunt. “I use it for brain breaks, and parties when my students complete their work,” said Hunt. “It keeps students on the edge of their seats, because they’ll do anything for a dance party. Once the disco ball is off, my students know it’s back to business as usual. I can’t imagine my classroom without it!”

Spreading the Wealth

As she was outfitting her classroom with the latest and greatest technology, she noticed that other classes and grades had little to no technology outside of the shared computer lab. Hunt thought, “With all this engagement and technology in my classroom, I can’t imagine sending my students onto the next grade without the same experience. They might start to think school is boring.”

This thought inspired Hunt to apply for a $105,000 Farmers Insurance Thank a Million Teachers Grant for her school. She won the grant, and now every teacher at Stoddard Elementary has an ActivPanel and a cart of iPads to share. Hunt said she never turns her panel off. She uses it for every subject, every day, and has found that it helps streamline transitions from one lesson to another.

“We need tech in every classroom and in every student’s and teacher’s hand. It’s the pen and paper of our time, and it’s how today’s students learn,” Hunt said. “They’re so used to being ‘plugged in’ at home, why would we un-plug them at school?”

Spreading the Word

Then came another roadblock on Stoddard’s journey to the interactive classroom: All the teachers had the newest technology, but nobody knew how to use it, besides Hunt. She and her fellow teachers spent the entire summer learning how to transform their old, outdated worksheets into interactive lessons incorporating flip-charts, videos, and songs that get students involved in learning. Now neighboring schools come to Stoddard and ask for advice on how to get teachers and students using new technology.

But Hunt doesn’t see herself as a tech guru. “There’s nothing spectacular about me. I’ve just found a way to engage students. I don’t think of myself as tech-savvy. In fact, I don’t even know if I’ll ever catch up to my high school daughter when it comes to tech, but I’m sure going to try,” Hunt laughed.

She said Stoddard teachers learn best from each other, so if one teacher has some tips and tricks to share, why not pass on the knowledge? Despite offers to move into administration, Hunt has chosen to stay in her first-grade classroom, where she’s having so much fun inspiring her students to be actively involved in their education and helping her fellow teachers learn and grow using technology. However, Hunt does spread her passion for learning by traveling to neighboring districts and connecting with teachers all over the country to share her stories of success with “Without technology there’s no way I would feel the same way about teaching,” said Hunt. “I can hardly wait for the next school day.”

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