Teaching the art of human connection through technology

Renton Prep integrates technology and learning to develop compassion and empathy.

There’s been a lot of international eyes on Renton Prep Christian, a Microsoft showcase school that’s taking a non-traditional approach to teaching students to be responsible citizens of society.

Educators and delegates from countries like Taiwan, Croatia, Brazil and South Africa have been visiting the school to see how students are using technology to develop and amplify compassion and empathy.

“They’re really interacting with the technology in a way that’s emphasizing humanity and empathy and compassion, and something for global good, rather than sitting behind the screen and passively receiving information,” said Michelle Zimmerman, executive director.

Renton Prep has garnered the reputation of integrating new technology — including visual reality and artificial intelligence — with learning methods that go beyond test scores. Technology isn’t the enemy in the classroom. Rather, it’s a tool to help teach digital natives how to be productive members of society, Zimmerman said.

“We know from a lot of research that technology can be instrumental if we drop a piece of tech in front of a kid and say go at it,” she said. “You can argue they are digital natives and that they know how to swipe or open the apps, but that’s missing the human component and it’s making assumptions that kids know how to interact with others in a productive way.

“We also know from everything school violence to social media attacks that technology can be used to obliterate human connection and pit people against each other quickly. Part of our digital citizenship programs is to help them look at people as humans who are valuable and worth respecting, whether they agree or disagree, whether they understand the perspective or not.

“When that becomes the foundation for a student, when it comes to technology, it becomes easier to see people from other parts of the globe as humans and not just the other.”

Even with the rapid and unprecedented growth of technology, Zimmerman said the role of educators become more crucial.

“Does teacher’s job become obsolete? No,” she said. “The reason why is because whoever programs the machines has to program them, and with that comes the responsibility of ethics. We know that from self-driving cars. If there’s a decision and it needs to crash into a thing, whoever programs it needs to make the decision. As we look into the future as technology intersects with digital citizenship, things like philosophy for the kids to understand at much younger ages. They’re going to need examples of humanity, and that’s why Shakespeare is still relevant.”

Ask eighth grader Welela Solomon and she can tell you how Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” can help better inform the functions of artificial intelligence.

“During the time of Shakespeare, they never thought about (AI),” said Solomon. “But the way they were living life at that time, you can ask ‘How can you change something that’s new?’ You can see that they were slowly building up to AI. Instead of AI, they had newspaper reports, and that has built up to what we have now.”

After seeing a live performance of the show at the Seattle Shakespeare Company, Solomon and her peers have been presenting at various conferences on the importance of connecting seemingly disconnected ideas and why studying history is essential to develop empathy, learn how people communicate and help inform how to move forward in this tech-first world.

Solomon was able to present her findings recently at Renton Business Launchpad, an event sponsored by Renton Chamber of Commerce. She is also gearing up to share her findings along with Zimmerman at SXSWEdu in March. It will be the school’s third appearance at the conference.

Solomon said she’s not too nervous to present at SXSW since she has had a lot of experiencing presenting it previously.

Even after exploring the recent developments of AI and learning about its implications, Solomon said she’s optimistic about the technology and that, if paired with important pieces of literature like of Shakespeare’s, it can be a useful tool.

“AI is not all bad,” she said. “It has its negative aspects to it. It can be bad, but it can also be good. It has changed over time. If we use it to make our world a better place it’s going to help a lot.”

Solomon is one of the few students who are learning to use technological tools to better understand and explore humanity. Other students have been using Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” and Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” to explore social issues and human connection through the use of technology.

The school has been making its rounds around various tech and education conferences to showcase their non-traditional educational model. About 45 students and 11 teachers have presented in conferences last year, including New York Academy of Science and Medicine, Microsoft’s Hack the Classroom, Seattle Film Summit and more.

As technology evolves, so does the curriculum. For Zimmerman, this constant change isn’t bad news. Rather, it provides a unique opportunity for the school to focus on equipping students to enter the workforce, be successful and become responsible citizens.

“One of our goals is to realize that things will continue to shift and we need to keep up with that,” she said. “It may feel like constant change, but the mission, vision and action stays consistent — digital citizen, who we are as humans, how we act in society, how do we create a safe environment and be a people who cares. That stays consistent.”

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