Joliet Catholic Academy teacher incorporates technology into performing arts program

Jennifer Szynal: ‘Instead of fighting technology, we need to find ways to make it work for us’

Joliet Catholic Academy, 1200 N. Larkin Avenue, Joliet.

At first glance, Microsoft tools and a fine arts program don’t have much in common.

But Jennifer Szynal, a performing arts teacher at Joliet Catholic Academy, has integrated Microsoft tools into the program.

“The performing arts in and of itself is collaborative,” Szynal said. “You work together to bring an artistic creative presentation either through music or a theatrical performance. And [during remote learning] I had to find unique ways with technology to do that.”

Szynal is also one of three JCA teachers accepted into the Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts program and one of 27 Illinois educators who are a part of the global MIEE program for the 2021-22 school year, said Ryan Quigley, director of admissions and communications at JCA.

Jennifer Szynal teaches in the fine arts program at Joliet Catholic Academy and is one of three JCA teachers accepted into Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts program and one of 27 Illinois educators who are a part of the global MIEE program for the 2021-2022 school year.

To become part of that program, Szynal demonstrated how she integrated technology into JCA’s fine arts program. For instance, students created a virtual toolbox for future performing arts students and teachers at JCA.

“They had to pick five skills and they had to record two-minute videos explaining the skills,” Szynal said. “And then they created a five-slide PowerPoint presentation where they embedded the video and work page that went along with it. Essentially, it’s a virtual workbook with video and sound clips.”

So far, the toolbox has 80 videos, Szynal said.

Szynal also uses Microsoft Teams to organize classes. Students can access all class and resource materials once they log in.

“It uses cloud-based storage, so they’re not storing anything on the actual devices,” Szynal said.

According to the JCA website, the school completed its 1:1 initiative during the 2018-19 school year. A 1:1 initiative means students have their own electronic devices in order to access the internet and digital materials.

In JCA’s case, students have their own Windows-based laptop to use in school and at home, according to the website. JCA also is a Microsoft school, which means JCA “graduates will be comfortable both in the desktop and cloud-based versions of Microsoft,” according to the website.

At the same time, students need to continue developing their social and collaboration skills, Szynal said. And many students today simply don’t “respond well to direction instruction anymore,” she said.

“They love learning from each other,” Szynal said. “They love experiencing. I wanted to find a way they could continuously learn from their peers.”

Microsoft’s Flipgrid works well for that, Szynal said. Students record themselves with this online video chat platform and then receive instant feedback in the comments section, she said.

Say, for example, a student is struggling with a musical piece at home. That student can record a five-minute video and then upload it onto the platform.

“Other students in the class make comments on how to improve or what they’re doing well,” Szynal said.

Not only do students receive a “huge influx of support” for each other, but they also get focused feedback. In addition, students can make comments anytime. They are not limited to “a 45-minute class-time period,” Szynal said.

“It’s really amazing,” Szynal said.

Szynal said students today spend lots of time on their phones and “Snapchatting,” so it’s important to teacher to find ways to connect with students in the 21st century.

As adults, these students will live with social media, blogs, online publications and sharing information in “milliseconds,” Szynal said. She also feels technology complements the skills 21st-century students need to learn: problem-solving, decision-making, creativity and collaboration.

“Instead of fighting technology, we need to find ways to make it work for us,” Szynal said. “At least, that’s what I believe.”