February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Three Digital Dynamos, Now in the National Spotlight, Tell All


And the winners are….kids from all over the nation! Thanks to the 2016 PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovators Program, 52 outstanding leaders were honored. For the fourth year, PBS has sought worthy candidates from every state plus the territories and District of Columbia and found amazing educators who are expert in implementing technology and digital media in teaching. The winners, each of whom answered essay questions and created a video to compete for this award, will receive a full year of professional development and training resources from PBS. They’re also invited to participate in a special summit to be held at the ISTE conference in Denver in June.

To highlight the variety and depth of achievement among those lauded, we reached out to a particularly dedicated trio to learn their secrets to success in fostering digital literacy. Allow us to introduce you.


Liz Castillo, a K-8 technology resource teacher at the Punahou School in Honolulu, HI

Nira Dale, a K-12 district ELA instructional specialist with the Florence city schools in Florence, AL

Nira Dale, a K-12 district ELA instructional specialist with the Florence City Schools in Florence, AL

Jared Knipper, a kindergarten teacher at Syracuse Elementary in Syracuse, IN.

Jared Knipper, a kindergarten teacher at Syracuse Elementary School in Syracuse, IN

SLJ: What was your reaction when you found out you were the winner for your state?

Castillo: When I first learned that I was named a digital innovator for Hawaii, I was so excited—it’s truly an honor to be recognized by PBS.

Dale: I was pleasantly surprised, as I had seen the footage of the accomplishments of the previous winners from my state, so I knew I was in good company. I was also very excited to learn that a part of this year’s activities would include attending the 2016 Denver conference.

Knipper: I didn’t fully realize that I was the only representative from the state of Indiana. I think I told my wife first. I’m pretty thrilled to represent our community and Syracuse Elementary.

SLJ: What’s the most important part of your job?

Castillo: I’d say supporting student learning and teacher professional development. I always strive to find ways to connect the integration of technology with student learning. I think that technology should not be taught just for the sake of it.  When used effectively, it can help personalize learning, engage students in the creative process, and connect them to the world beyond their classroom.

Dale: My primary role in my school district is to provide embedded support for teachers in their professional learning. This might include the areas of instruction, technology, and the basic implementation of pedagogical strategies.

Knipper: The kids! I try to make sure they enjoy school each day and are challenged on all levels. Teaching kids how to think on their own and solve their own problems is a major focus in my classroom. Technology has allowed me to ensure my kids can document their learning. I can create an environment where they largely control what they do and seek out what interests them.

SLJ: What’s usually the hardest part of your day?

Castillo: The toughest aspect is keeping up with the ever-changing advances in technology, the introduction of new apps and updates to existing ones. Although this is a challenge, it’s also something that I really enjoy.

Dale: My role is very project-based, but it’s also results-driven, so it can be quite challenging to prioritize when I am attending to multiple needs of teachers across grade levels in my district.

Knipper: Finding the energy! Five- and six-year-olds are needy—they take a lot out of you, physically and mentally. But the constant self-reflection and drive to keep my kids interested in anything new and exciting is totally worth it. I’ve found that early morning workouts aren’t fun, but they definitely keep my energy level up.

SLJ: What inspires you to keep going?

Castillo: I have the privilege of working with students, teachers, and administrators on a daily basis and I love finding ways that technology can support innovation, meaningful learning, creativity, and critical thinking.

Dale: My favorite thing is helping teachers to discover the ‘human resources’ they have among themselves. One of the ways I’ve done this is by creating an online video repository for all teachers and administrators across our district. It features local teachers using strategies and best practices in their classrooms. I am always excited to hear how a teacher in one building was able to adapt and use a strategy from a teacher in another building, found on the website!

Knipper: That’s easy—hearing the kids solve their own problems and make things that they thought weren’t possible for them to make. I love that my kids think they can make anything when they’re in my room. The greatest inspiration in teaching is passing that constant drive of knowledge and new things on to your students. Seeing them take what they know and apply it to something they created—it’s the best feeling in the world.

SLJ: What’s next for you, now that you’re ‘famous’?

Castillo: I am excited to join the extended PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator community. I would like to continue to learn more about PBS resources and share these with the teachers with whom I work. Lastly, I’d like to create possibilities for connecting our students in Hawaii with the rest of the world.

Dale: I look forward to meeting many more educators who are as passionate about student learning as I am. Since being chosen for this award, I’ve been encouraged and inspired to expand my platform and share ideas on education and best practice by writing articles. I’m also excited that a part of the obligation during the first year as a winner of this award is to contribute to the PBS blog.

Knipper: In short, more of the same. I want to help our schools work towards more project-based and technology initiatives. The things kids can do are amazing, so much more than a test score or data point. I want to help get more creativity and free thinking into schools.

Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a freelance reporter and the former research editor of Parenting. 

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