Animated Education

Snohomish students getting early exposure to tech futures

Kelly Sullivan

Riverview Elementary School fourth-grader Roslyn “Roz” Marks talked earnestly while demonstrating how with coding she could make a pocket-sized robot move around and blink the colors of a traffic light.

The Snohomish School District student explained that she and her peers first learned the skill set by writing down directions on paper. They found the process tedious, as precision was paramount.

The symbols couldn’t be written too thick or thin, otherwise the Ozobot couldn’t read them. Eventually they switched to a computer program that creates perfectly formed code.

Marks’ friend Bella Andrist now has one of the mechanisms at home that she plays with. The girls agree they felt certain the assignments were given to them by their teacher just simply for enjoyment.

The students were two of hundreds offering assistance and presenting on the modern materials they work with in the classroom every day. Matt King of the school district’s Instructional Technology Department headed up the first Future Ready Education Expo. The event was hosted at Valley View Middle School on Wednesday a few hours after the final bell rang.

King said many of the relevant academic advances made in recent years were largely made possible by a technology levy voters passed in 2014. The funds have put nearly 4,000 new laptops in the hands of teachers and kids in the kindergarten through 12th grades since the start of the 2015 school year, according to the school district.

Last Wednesday’s expo was hosted so the community could see what strides have been made as a result of their support, King said. The opportunity has allowed more students and teachers to access tools that individualize and improve the learning experience. It also helped further build up the school district’s infrastructure, so that those critical connections can be made virtually anywhere on a campus, he said.

That night Spanish educator Jennifer Litz was stationed inside a classroom. She demonstrated the instructional software Smart Lab. The program aims to engage kids, she said.

They can play games together instead of taking a multiple choice practice test on paper to prepare. Litz said she has seen her students’ motivation spike while using the platform to work through problems.

King said all of the work staff and students are doing throughout the school district is to make the process as personalized as possible. The approach ensures a greater likelihood of a successful academic career, he said.

Families and educators filled the cavernous commons area of the recently remodeled middle school building. A massive projection on the right side of the room showed a cartoon character talking animatedly. Occasionally, she would burst into dance.

Passersby were invited to sit down and record the character’s audio using their own voice from a prewritten script. Terry Thoren, former CEO for the Klasky Csupo company, which created the Rugrats and The Wild Thornberries cartoons and used to animate The Simpsons, watched on as the students he has worked with for nearly two years since the introduction of his production system, Wonder Media Story Maker, led the process.

The school district’s staff and students are some of the first in the world to use the program, which is meant to inspire an excitement for education in kids, Thoren said. In recent years, he has been working to develop and connect at risk children with tools they can use to make learning more engaging.

The expo was the first time the school district demonstrated publicly what Wonder Media can help students accomplish. Sixth-grader Sienna Dilling said working with Thoren and the new program has changed her in and outside of the classroom. Voice recording has improved her grammar skills through the process of script writing and she feels more confident in life, such as when she is communicating with people.

“It’s taught me to use enthusiasm in my voice,” she said. “So it’s making me a better person as well.”

Thoren said the local Lions Club donated $15,000 to the school district, so it could build a dedicated space for the work. He said Wonder Media has spread to dozens of districts in 19 states. Many of the skills taught through the program — such as healthy life habits like looking at the world with wonderment — can be applied in careers that exist in the U.S. He said entertainment especially could benefit from a broader perspective.

“We need more content that is intentional, inspirational and aspirational,” Thoren said.

Riverview Elementary School teacher Kimberlee Spaetig-Peterson said she has watched her kids learn how to grow self-esteem and come out of their shells. She said she has students who are very shy outside the classroom but, when they are using Story Maker, they light up and are confident and proud.

Special Education Support Specialist Kali Rib said using Story Maker has helped her teach students where they can find safe spaces in their lives. She said it has opened up an easier route for them to learn how to take care of themselves if they are having trouble regulating their emotions.

Dilling’s mother, Melissa, is also an educator at Penny Creek Elementary. Her daughter comes home and talks about all the effort and time she pours into Story Maker. It was the first time she saw the program in action, and she said she plans to do whatever she can so her students can access it.


Photos by Kelly Sullivan:Terry Thoren, Wonder Media Story Maker co-developer and the former CEO for the company that produced Rugrats and The Simpsons, works with Snohomish School District students during the first Future Ready Education Expo at Valley View Elementary on Wednesday, Jan. 10. Elliot Smith plays Minecraft during Snohomish School District's first Future Ready Education Expo. Rowyn Grant and Taylan Allison are shown how to use Smart Lab programs.


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