Technology front and center for Houston Teacher of the Year

WARNER ROBINS -- Kathy Gibbs has a favorite quote, and she’s tried to live up to it as an educator.

The quote, from the late Rita Pierson, has come to define her efforts, which earned Gibbs the 2014-15 Teacher of the Year honors in Houston County.

“Every child deserves a champion -- an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be,” Pierson said on a PBS special.

Gibbs, who teaches fifth-grade English and language arts at Perdue Elementary School in Warner Robins, had previously taught some science classes, which lent themselves to the use of technology. As she began to transition to teaching language arts, she wanted to bring that next-generation learning with her.

“I just began saying, ‘How can I take the technology end ... and apply it to what we’re doing?’” she recalled.

Gibbs, 45, has done just that.

Her students use iPads and other mobile devices to make videos, write blogs, participate in social media and send emails as part of their classwork.

Principal Andy Payne, in his first year at Perdue Elementary, has taken notice.

“It’s ridiculous what they’re doing. They’re tweeting, writing blogs,” he said. “The kids are reaching out and understanding how technology can connect them with people worldwide.”

The blogs, which will operate through Gibbs’ own blog, are one area where the teacher gave her students some freedom. They can review books, write a personal narrative or even use the blog to teach people how to do something.

“They get to do it as their choice. We’re showing them that they can use their writing in a different way for an audience,” she said.

That audience factor is important to Gibbs. She even has her class presenting arguments to school board officials in the coming days over the merits of chocolate milk in the cafeteria.

“Kids need to understand if they’re only writing for me, they’ve missed the purpose,” she said.

The students also use the classroom’s Twitter account, and they recently made “book trailer” videos. Made in the iMovie application, the videos required students to select images from their chosen books and elsewhere, while also inputting text on a template.

That project was part of why 10-year-old Abbie Espinosa said she loves Gibbs’ class.

“She’s really nice, and she always finds a way to make our learning fun,” she said.

Espinosa also took what she learned home. She used her newly formed video editing skills to create a video for her mom’s birthday present.

“It made me cry,” said her mother, Donna.

That effort outside the classroom is another of Gibbs’ goals for her students. She said she didn’t just want her students to be consumers of technology, playing games and watching videos online.

She wants them to use that same technology to better themselves.

“If our children are going to become 21st-century learners, they have to learn how to produce technology,” she said.

Gibbs also wants to make connections beyond the classroom. Payne said Gibbs will often attend students’ church events or dance recitals to try to build relationships.

But it’s more than that. When one parent was working toward a college degree, Gibbs offered to help out by tutoring the parent in math.

“If I can make a difference in a mom, I can make a difference in the family,” she said.

That drive is likely why she’s seen so much improvement from gifted students as well as children who are struggling with assignments. When two students were “disengaged” with the writing process earlier in the year, she handed them iPads to use the OneNote app to complete their work.

The root of the issue, she found with at least one of the students, was writing by hand. Once he had a writing method that he was more comfortable with, the results changed.

“They sit and they take off with their writing,” she said. “They just have a joy in writing ... that I have not seen all year.”

It’s that effort to reach each student that makes Gibbs -- the mother of 16-year-old Mary Beth, 12-year-old Daniel and 10-year-old Aaron -- a top teacher, according to Payne.

He said he once asked Gibbs’ husband, Matthew, what her interests were.

“He said, ‘This is what she loves: her family, her faith and this job.’”

To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331.