Alumnus leads the way to developmentally appropriate technology in the classroom

Technology is changing the way educators teach, but until recently, they had little guidance on how to integrate technology into their lessons.

An Erikson alumnus is among those leading the way to developmentally appropriate technology in the classroom.

During the day, Brian Puerling, M.S. ’11, helps teachers at Chicago’s Catherine Cook School determine when and how to use technology to foster their students’ understanding. Outside of school hours, he is an author and international consultant and presenter on children and technology.

While studying at Erikson, he began working on his first book, Teaching in the Digital Age: Smart Tools for Age 3 to Grade 3, which was published in 2012, along with a companion guide for families. In 2014, Puerling contributed a chapter to Technology and Digital Media in the Early Years: Tools for Teaching and Learning, a book edited by Chip Donohue, director of Erikson’s TEC Center. He expects his second book to be published in 2016.

Along the way, Puerling collected honors including PBS Teacher’s Choice Award from the PBS Innovative Educator Award program and an Early Career Fellowship with the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College.

Among his other accomplishments are becoming a National Board Certified Teacher, the gold standard in teacher certification; serving on the Sesame Street Teacher Council and the board of the Chicago Metro Association for the Education of Young Children (AEYC); and advising the television network Nickelodeon.

Technology calling

Puerling found his calling while teaching preschool at Burley Elementary School, a Chicago Public School in the Lakeview neighborhood. Technology is deeply embedded in Burley’s curriculum, as it offers a literature, writing, and technology magnet program.

Puerling quickly saw the large role technology could play in providing meaningful and authentic experiences for students. He also saw its power to connect students with each other, the school community, and those outside of their immediate community.

He began by facilitating video conferences with children’s book authors, and by asking his students to share with the class the books they had created by projecting the books using a document camera.

“As I tried out different kinds of technology, I really noticed the excitement, enthusiasm, and the ownership of learning that the kids were showing,” says Puerling. “I kept delving deeper and deeper into classroom technology, trying new things and observing what was most successful at providing students with new experiences and new information.”

Soon he was presenting locally, and then nationally and internationally, on his insights.

“A lot of people were interested in how to thoughtfully integrate technology into the classroom and in sharing what they’d learned with me,” says Puerling. His work was filling a critical gap: few teacher preparation programs seriously consider the developmentally appropriate use of technology in the classroom, but teachers knew that they needed to understand it.

Trailblazing work

At Catherine Cook School, Puerling became the first director of education technology.

“This is a newer kind of position in the entire field of education,” says Puerling. “Schools are beginning to realize that IT professionals can’t effectively integrate technology in the classroom, as they don’t have a background in education.

“It really comes down to understanding children and their development: how they learn, think, and process information. It’s about the child, not the technology, as technology is just a tool for teaching, learning, and building relationships and connections.”

Puerling focuses on building teachers’ skills and confidence. He works with them to identify any concerns or barriers to integrating appropriate technologies and helps them set goals for moving forward. Puerling models and co-teaches lessons with technology, and presents strategies to individual teachers and at grade-level and faculty meetings.

To build teacher confidence, he also encourages teachers to share what they’ve learned at conferences and in the school’s newsletters and blogs.

“Teachers feel safe to embrace vulnerability and try out strategies and approaches they may not have considered in the past,” he says.

There’s not yet an app for that

Catherine Cook School’s more than 200 iPads are an important part of the school’s education technology, but Puerling often finds himself wanting more than the available apps offer to his students and children nationwide.

To help solve that, he is creating his own app in partnership with developer Synvata and children’s book author and illustrator Todd Parr as part of his Early Career Fellowship at the Fred Rogers Center.

When completed, the app will enable children to draw and record accompanying audio narrations. Children can then send their creations to friends and family members for immediate feedback. Designed for three- to eight-year-olds, the app allows children to communicate in ways they understand: words and pictures. It also harnesses children’s inclination to create through art.

Erikson deep dive

Puerling’s path to early childhood leadership began at the University of Wisconsin–LaCrosse, where he studied early childhood and elementary education. The nearly six-year program placed students in nine classrooms before graduation. Puerling also worked with children at the university’s child care center, which had the field’s seal of quality: NAEYC accreditation.

His curiosity about education was nearly insatiable, leading him to spend many Friday and Saturday nights at a local bookstore, reading his way through the entire education section.

Puerling wanted a similarly rigorous experience in a master’s degree program and found Erikson.

“I knew that there was a lot more to know, but I didn’t know what it was,” he says. “After doing my research, I could tell that an Erikson master’s degree was unique and would help me really dig deeply into theories, ideas, and practice.”

He credits Erikson for making him a better thinker and writer, and reaffirming the importance of reflective practice. Even after graduation, he remains connected with Erikson, partnering with the TEC Center on presentations, webinars, and conferences.

“No one has all the answers, but together, we can become much more intentional about the choices we are making for our classrooms and programs,” says Puerling. “If you see yourself as a learner and open your mind to different perspectives, you will find the information you need to support your practice and the children and families we serve.”