Spring 2009 Issue
One super-cool, tech-savvy teacher to go, please
Meet Tony Dutra - middle school teacher, department chair, doctoral student at Barry’s School of Education, Broward Teacher of the Year for 2010, and serious coffee drinker
By Paige Stein
In “The Matrix” nothing is as it appears to be. Whenever you’re told, “this is reality,” it’s not. The 1999 science-fiction action film depicts a future in which reality as perceived by humans is actually the Matrix: a simulated reality created by ‘thinking’ machines in order to pacify and subdue the human population.
The Matrix is also a year-long theme for Tony Dutra’s eighth-grade class at the Middle School Academy at Hallandale Adult Community Center. Posters and quotes from the movie decorate the walls: “How far does the rabbit hole go?” “Perhaps we’re asking the wrong questions?” “Welcome to the ‘real’ world.”
“I want the students to question what they see and hear, to understand that just because someone tells them something or they hear it on TV, doesn’t mean it’s true,” says Dutra, a reading teacher who is also a doctoral student in educational leadership with an emphasis on educational technology at Barry’s Adrian Dominican School of Education (ADSOE). In January, Dutra was also named Broward County Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year for 2010.
“I want [my students] to take the time and figure it out for themselves,” he adds.
In fact, much of what goes on in Dutra’s classroom and at the Middle School Academy is about flying in the face of a predetermined “reality.” These are students who have not succeeded in a traditional classroom -- some because they have learning disabilities; others because they are learning English as a second language, or have poorly developed social skills. For them, the “reality” of the classroom has largely been one of failing grades, disinterest and distraction.
“The students that come into the program are overage for their grade; some of them have been retained (held back) two times,” said Hallandale Principal Dr. Linda Lopez. “These are students where there is a really high likelihood of dropping out.”
The Academy, Lopez explains, is an accelerated program that offers the students the opportunity to earn enough credit to move directly to high school or at the very least “to get back on track” toward earning their high school diplomas. It is quite literally a place where they cannot fail. No student is given a grade lower than C. If a student doesn’t complete an assignment successfully, rather than giving him a failing grade and moving on, the student is given another opportunity to demonstrate competency through another project. If a student doesn’t complete a book report successfully using a PowerPoint presentation, for example, he can create a Podcast or an iMovie that shows he has learned the material covered in class and grasps the author’s purpose.
And Dutra isn’t just a part of the Academy program, he is department chair and helped to create its model. “He brought his leadership and technology skills to create a team approach among the other teachers and helped to identify the key components the students needed to learn. This allowed us to maximize our strengths when determining the Academy model’s structure and format,” Lopez explains, noting that in addition to the Academy, Hallandale Adult Community Center also includes an alternative high school, a teen parent program and Workforce Development Programs for adult education.
He also helped to “sell” the Academy model to parents, some of whom were leery at first. “He showed up at the parent orientation and convinced many of the parents to give it a try. He showed them that there could be a flame ignited in each student, something that would recreate interest in coming to school, in learning,” Lopez says.
Good teaching, bad singing
Sitting in Dutra’s classroom, even to the casual observer, it’s clear that he has the goods: the seamless showmanship of a natural performer that keeps the kids constantly paying attention, waiting for what he’s going to do next – sing (badly) or crack a joke – combined with a confident authority that makes it clear that when he says put away the computer, you need to put away the computer. Watching him in action, one can’t help but think that if a Hollywood actor were going to prepare for a role as a public school teacher/everyday hero; this is where he should come.
“He’s different from all the other teachers, says Kiara, 16, who wants to be a second-grade teacher or possibly do hair one day. “He laughs and sings [very badly]. Everything is fun, even when we have to read, it’s still fun; he makes a joke about it. He’s cool, he cares -- he doesn’t just act like it.”
Dutra’s ability to use technology in creative yet effective ways, particularly when combined with his engaging personality, has also set him apart from others in the field. For a recent class project, for example, students wrote rap songs comparing and contrasting two of Obama’s speeches: his inaugural address and his breakout speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. They used GarageBand software to create their music. Instead of the more traditional book reports, his students also used Archos 605 (a series of portable video players) to do Siskel and Ebert type reviews of novels such as “Monster” and “The Face on The Milk Carton.”
Another element of Dutra’s success is his willingness to deal with anything head on. When one of the kids says something about someone being a Mexican, Dutra doesn’t ignore the remark. Instead, he stops and says to the class in general, “Hey, why did you put your opinion on me? Don’t be a hater. We’re all different.” Dutra then goes on to correct a student who says he’s Brazilian. “Actually, I’m Portuguese,” Dutra explains. “Brazilians speak Portuguese but we’re different.” There are many different ethnic groups his small class of 18 and everyone really gets along, so issues of race rarely come up, Dutra says. But when they do, it’s better to deal with it out in the open.
Similarly, when he’s telling students not to forget to complete their Comic Life assignments, in which they create an “All About Me” comic strip, highlighting their future aspirations and most memorable traits, he makes sure to remind them not to flash any gang signs in their pictures. “You can do it my style, old-style,” he says flashing a peace sign, “but no fingers sideways or like this or like that. I know what that means.”
Encounters like these are what Dutra refers to as “teachable moments” or times when he “comes across something that’s not in curriculum.” How to walk in a hallway, how to raise their hands and not shout out answers, how to deal with racist words, think about their futures, treat others with respect ¬– it all comes up in the classroom. “You have to be strict sometimes in order to raise the bar because that’s the way the world works,” explains Dutra, who adds that his biggest hope for all of his students is that they graduate from high school.
Although Dutra clearly loves being in the classroom now, that wasn’t always the case. As a student at Cooper City High School, he was far from a standout. “I hated school. I used to sit in the back row and try to fade away.” He did, however, have a Spanish teacher, Mrs. Peak, who as it turns out may have been that teacher, the one that successful people often mention, the one that gave them a little self-confidence, that pushed them, however subtly, in the right direction. “She was constantly coming up to me, encouraging me. As caring as she was, I don’t know if she or I realized what she did for me back then.”
After he finished school, Dutra went to work as an accounting assistant at Gourmet Brothers Coffee in Boca Raton. He hated it. “It was boring sitting in a cubicle all day,” he says. “I wanted something that would be different every day, something where I could have an impact.”
And he found it. As cliché or black and white as it may sound, Dutra knew he loved teaching from his first day in the classroom. “A day in the classroom is never like the day before,” says Dutra, who also won a Microsoft U.S. Innovative Teacher of the Year Award in 2007 for his use of the media player.
“I never have a ‘bad’ day or a day when I feel like I can’t get up the energy to do this.” But, he does admit to “crashing on the sofa” for at least an hour or so every day when he gets home from work. “I need my time, just sitting there, vegging out, before I can get up and start doing anything,” says Dutra, who lives in Hollywood with his three dogs named after English authors.
The desire not only to further his education but to be able to better assess the effectiveness of classroom technologies is what led Dutra to Barry. “I tried online college, but it didn’t work for me. I needed the face-to-face interaction with professors and colleagues,” he said. “I chose Barry [for my doctoral studies] because many of the best people I knew in leadership roles in education had gone there.”
Similarly, Dutra’s passion for teaching and technology impressed ADSOE faculty from the beginning. “I was impressed right away by his creative ideas for using technology in teaching and learning,” said Dr. Joel Levine, associate professor of education. “We have a lot of outstanding students, but Tony stood out on first meeting.”
The ability not just to use technology in the classroom but to know how and when to use it to maximize effectiveness is becoming increasingly important in K-12 education, Levine notes. “Kids nowadays are exposed to all different types of technology. They multitask on a regular basis and are very visually and auditory oriented. So it’s important to know what strategy to use when,” he says. “You have to change activities on a regular basis. Studies show that the average student forgets half of what he learns in a typical lecture, so it’s important to change activities every 10 to 30 minutes. This is where Tony’s outgoing personality and unbelievable teaching strategies really come into play.”
Fellow doctoral student Richard Foster also cites Dutra’s engaging personality as a valuable asset not only in the classroom but when sharing information and experiences with his fellow students in the leadership education program. “Tony’s a lot of fun, not a clown, not super serious, but super knowledgeable. His personality, his ability to use plain and simple English when explaining something, is his biggest asset,” says Foster, who adds that Dutra’s ability to integrate technology into the classroom creatively is vitally important in light of a tendency among some educators to “teach down.”
“Sometimes teachers can teach down to a student’s level instead of bringing the students up to a higher level. Technology helps teachers to do that; it gives them a vital tool when they’re trying to teach up,” says Foster, director of technology and assistant secondary principal at The Hollywood Christian Academy.
Dutra’s willingness to share his strategies with other teachers is an important part of what makes him Teacher of the Year, Lopez explains. “It’s not a popularity contest. The voting is done by secret ballot,” she says. “If he had just stayed in the Academy, the rest of the school wouldn’t have known who he was, but he is always willing to share with other teachers, to give up his personal planning time to explain or help with something. He’s a teacher-leader, and he became that way because people respect his knowledge and his willingness to help everybody here.”
As part of his doctoral thesis, Dutra is hoping to have the opportunity to share his techno-savvy with a wider audience. He has developed an electronic lesson planning tool using FileMaker Pro that allows teachers to more easily define their objectives and utilize various graphics and other high-yield strategies to meet their objectives. It also includes different dropdown options which allow a teacher to incorporate into the plan National Education Technology Standards (NETS), Exceptional Student Education (ESE), and the criteria for other educational standards.
“You don’t have to put all these things into it, but when you’re writing a plan, it makes it a lot easier to be able to click on something and see what you really think is going to help you achieve your objectives and what’s not,” he said.
And learning how to evaluate which technologies and strategies are effective and help you meet educational goals is a vital part of leadership education, notes Levine. “At the master’s level students learn about a variety of technology tools and how to integrate them into the curriculum, but at the doctoral level it’s really about how to evaluate, make strategic decisions and implement them on a broad level.
Although Dutra’s still perfecting his electronic lesson planning program, constantly adding or removing data, he plans to copyright it and have his thesis completed by spring 2010. He also hopes to test it on a wider audience of educators, starting with reading teachers. “I think it’s a good place to start because everybody teaches reading in their curriculum – science teachers, social studies teachers.”
Despite the budget cuts facing most school districts, Dutra says he is optimistic that his technological innovations and tech-savvy teaching style can – and eventually will – have a broader impact on teachers across the state or even the country. “Just teaching the traditional way isn’t going to work anymore; integrating technology is the way the future will continue to go.”
Luckily, if he ever doubts the veracity of that statement, he has a roomful of teenagers to remind him. “They teach me stuff I don’t know every day. They’ll say, ‘Mr. D. you can make [that software] run a lot faster if you do this or you can get it to sound better like this.’ ”
Make that a double
As Broward Public School Teacher of the Year, Dutra is in the running to be Florida Public School Teacher of the Year, something which has happened before at Hallandale Adult Community Center. In 2001, another teacher from the school, Henry Brown III, was named Broward's Teacher of the Year and went on to win the title of Florida Teacher of the Year. For her part, Lopez says she is pleased but not surprised to have another Teacher of the Year in Dutra. “[From his initial job interview here], you could tell he was born to teach. He gets in front of a classroom and there’s a light that goes on in his eyes. He gets charged up from the students’ energy as they do from his,” she says. “You can’t create that or make it happen. It’s real. I saw it all over his resume, but I also saw it in his eyes.” So what does Dutra, himself, attribute his success to? “I treat each student as if they were my own kid. And I start every morning with a double espresso.”