Sonja Vaughan's students use a smartboard

Lessons with laptops: Teaching technology to children

When Sonja Vaughan began teaching kindergarten and first grade 20 years ago, many classrooms didn’t have computers, teachers didn’t have email and she didn’t own a cell phone. Now the veteran teacher is going back to school this fall at her same district, but in a whole new role: technology specialist at the brand new Lake Stickney Elementary School in Lynwood.

As the technology specialist, Vaughan will teach weekly classes for kindergarten through fifth grades in a technology classroom that is unlike computer labs of the past.

“Traditional labs are desktops with monitors; this won’t have that” Vaughan said. “Computer labs now are mobile. This will be laptops that can be stored in a rolling cart. We have wireless – think about how much that has changed.”

Although her students are exposed to technology on a daily basis, she still has plenty to teach them.

“I want kids to understand the power of technology and how it can enhance their lives,” Vaughan said. “I want them to understand how important it is to organize their files and use programs efficiently and effectively. There is a lot of value to teaching kids those basics; they’re thrown into it now, and I think it can be empowering for them to understand the basics.”

Vaughan plans to teach her students things many adults may take for granted, such as how to properly format a document or execute a keyboard shortcut.

“An example of something that’s really hard to teach to a little kid is what Control-Alt-Delete is,” Vaughan said.

Teaching kids to code

Vaughan's student writes on a smartboardRecognizing how quickly technology is changing, Vaughan wants to equip her students with skills for the future. One of her plans for the upcoming year is to introduce her elementary students to coding through a program hosted by local organization Code.org.

“Their mission is to teach kids about coding and how learning different parts of technology can open a lot of doors,” Vaughan said. “The kids do different coding lessons and activities, and at the end they get a certificate that says ‘I Participated in Hour of Code.’”

Coding is something you may not automatically associate with elementary school teachers, but it has been a side hobby for Vaughan for more than a decade. Continuing education classes led by a librarian at her school are what initially sparked her interest.

“Technology became my hobby.” Vaughan said. “I designed web pages for friends, designed graphics, designed worksheets and papers to use in my classroom. I love working on my laptop and playing around, I have fun with it.”

Vaughan was able to combine her interest in technology and passion for teaching with a master’s degree in integrated technology and learning from City University of Seattle. Her love for kids, interest in technology and the foundation of skills she gained from CityU helped her get to where she is today.

“The interesting thing is when I first started my master’s degree, I had just gotten nine computers in my classroom and the internet was still relatively new,” Vaughan said. “At CityU in the methods courses, we learned about how kids learn. We learned that when they’re young, kids need to use a lot of hands-on learning, and if they use the computer too much it can stifle their creativity… Part of my master’s was helping me slow down and figure out a good balance, rather than thinking, ‘I have these computers in my room and I have to use them.’”

Launching a small business

Sonja Vaughan with her familyAfter finishing her degree, Vaughan continued pursuing her hobby of designing web pages. One day her husband suggested she merge her love of teaching with her interest in websites into a small business.

“My husband saw how I would buy tons of stuff for my classroom: teaching supplies, furniture, office supplies, etc.,” Vaughan said. “His family has been in the office supply business for three generations, and so said to me, ‘You’re doing this stuff on the computer, why don’t you design your own website and set up a place where your friends can buy supplies all in one spot because you know exactly what they want.’ In 2013, I launched Supplies by Teachers.”

Through her online store, Vaughan is able to curate and sell items for teachers and also busy families. She works with local PTAs to create school supply kits and emergency kits that meet the needs of specific schools, and then donates five percent of the proceeds back to the PTAs.

“I really enjoy it, but I’ve had to find a balance,” Vaughan said. “The positive thing is that when the business is busy, it’s during the summer when school is out.”

Looking forward to going back to school

As she prepares for school to start, Vaughan is looking forward to her new journey as a technology specialist.

“The reason I’m really excited is because this is a dream job for me,” Vaughan said.

Through her classroom, Vaughan will be able to equip her students with skills for today and prepare them for the technology of tomorrow.