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Tony Vincent
photo by Tim Fitzgerald

Vincent Empowers Teachers, Students With Technology

by Wendy Townley

Click over to the iTunes Music Store, the online music retailer and brainchild of Apple Inc., and you can download thousands of podcasts on countless topics and trends from around the world.

A podcast is any file, commonly saved as an MP3, which features the spoken word and can be cataloged and downloaded via the Internet. Think of it as a favorite radio talk show available for listening, often times for free, using a computer or MP3 player (such as the iPod) at any time.

UNO alumnus Tony Vincent discovered the allure of podcasts in late 2004. He often grew bored listening to music while exercising at the gym and found that listening to the dialogue-driven content passed the time much more quickly.

At the time Vincent, was a fifth-grade teacher at Willowdale Elementary School in Omaha. Vincent was already a technology savant and primarily self-taught in areas such as desktop publishing and Web design.

"When I started teaching, I remember it started out being able to take an image from a Web page and putting it into a word processing document. That was so cool," Vincent recalled.

Vincent began teaching with technology at Willowdale, in the Millard Public Schools district, by creating worksheets with kid-friendly graphics. Web pages followed for Vincent, who, in 1999, created a Web page for his students. (Today the Willowdale Web site can be viewed at www.mpsomaha.org/willow)

Next Vincent used technology to create his well-known Roving Reporter project.

The Roving Reporter was a brainchild project that Vincent developed in 2001 to improve his students' writing skills. Each day he assigned one of his students the title of Roving Reporter. The student would take copious notes of the day's lessons and activities. That evening the student would write a report of what happened in the classroom. The next day Vincent would review the paper with his student, adding photos and graphics, and post it all online.

Vincent said he found the students' writing skills changed dramatically during the course of the school year, as each student served as Roving Reporter about six times over the course of nine months.

"By the end of the year, we'd have a log of what we did every single school day," Vincent said. "But some of the students wanted to rewrite their old work, because their work had improved so greatly over the year during the Roving Reporter project."

The Roving Reporter project did more than just improve student writing. The yearlong assignment, Vincent said, improved communication between the students and their parents. Parents, on a daily basis, could check in on what their students studied in the classroom.

When summer vacation rolled around, Vincent created a CD for his students that contained each of the Roving Reporter projects for every school day as a souvenir and reminder of their work.

Google searches by teachers and students around the globe brought more attention to the Roving Reporter project, as Vincent's Web page was discovered and viewed countless times during the school year.

"We had readers from all over the world seeing what was going on in our classroom," Vincent said. "Teachers would email me (about projects), or students would e-mail me to reach my students about things they were working on. My students had a worldwide audience."

Vincent also shared his Willowdale Web pages at educational conferences, thereby expanding the project's exposure to an even larger audience.

In 2004 Vincent transitioned from fifth-grade teacher to Willowdale's technology specialist, a full-time position that provided the opportunity expand technology's reach inside (and outside) the school.

While the Roving Reporter project only showcased his students' written skills, podcasts, Vincent envisioned, would take the "reporting" work one step further. Podcasts would allow students voices' to tell their stories.

Once students drafted written reports on any number of classroom topics or projects, Vincent would record the students reading their reports and posted it online.

Using audio editing equipment on his school computer, Vincent brought the students' voices to life online, now available to the global community. Vincent named the podcast Radio Willow Web, borrowing from the school's name.

"It turned out great," Vincent said of the first episode of Radio Willow Web. "It was by second-graders who used part of their language arts center time to write and record the project."

No teacher voices appear on the Willowdale podcasts. Only students host each podcast and narrate the segments, which today are focused on a specific topic for every new episode.

Riddles and quizzes related to the topic (the U.S. Constitution, for example) are also a regular feature on each podcast.

When Apple Inc. added podcasts to its iTunes Music Store in 2005, only two podcasts were available in the K-12 section.

Radio Willow Web was one of them.

"(Radio Willow Web) was an early template for a lot of podcasts," said Vincent, who later created a detailed resource packet on producing podcasts for any teacher interested in adopting his project. "We have a lot of imitators, but we don't mind that at all."

Neal Grandgenett believes Vincent is the ideal educator who teachers should imitate when introducing technology in the classroom.

"He's an innovator who inspires," said Grandgenett, who is a professor in UNO's College of Education. "He's just the sort of teacher who inspires anyone who works with him to push the envelope and reach for excellence in ways other people maybe haven't considered."

Last year, after eight years with Willowdale, Vincent left teaching for the consulting world. Today he travels around the country, speaking to educators and school districts about technology in the classroom. He documents all of his work on his Web site, www.learninginhand.com

"He really strives to help people get to where the technologies are being used and where they will be used by being really forward-looking," Grandgenett added. "He's a catalyst for good things to be happening in education."

Undergraduate education students at UNO have studied Vincent's work in the classroom and have benefited greatly from the experience, said Neal Topp, a faculty member of the Teacher Education Department at UNO.

"He has a really good idea on what's going to work in regard to technology and how we can help kids learn," Topp said. "Some people in technology are really good with the technology but have trouble getting to the idea of how to get kids to learn. But Tony figured that out."

Topp said Vincent has unveiled the mystery behind teaching technology, both to students and teachers.

"(As educators) it's part of our job to make sure everyone can use (technology)," Topp added. "One thing Tony has said over and over again is if he can help teachers use technology to help their students, they'll use it. Tony doesn't just teach technology, but how we apply it in our classrooms, as well."

Vincent doesn't have summers off anymore, but he loves his work nonetheless.

"I miss being in the classroom, but I love what I do now," he said.

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