Mount Pleasant in Central Michigan is home to one of the state’s largest universities. Central Michigan University, with 20,000 students, almost double the population of the city and is known as a “college town”. From its beginnings as a teacher’s college, the university now offers programs ranging from health and science, engineering, business and communications, and technology. The student and faculty researchers embark on new and innovative ways to improve teaching and learning methods. 

Sponsored by the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, the university’s Child Development and Learning Lab (CDLL) is a facility for training and for student and faculty research. Their vision is “to provide one of Michigan’s most relevant, comprehensive, and innovative educational, developmental, and professional opportunities for Central Michigan University students, children, families and Early Childhood Professionals.”

Central Michigan University Child Development and Learning Lab

In addition to providing quality education and care to young children, the laboratory offers a program where university students observe and study children under the supervision of trained early childhood educators. It is also a facility for research in child development and family relationships. 

Father of two Nate Jonaitis, lead teacher at CDLL and Storypark advocate is a member of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and as such has a strong interest in using technology with children. Holding a bachelor’s degree in child development (ECE) and a masters in educational technology, it comes as no surprise! 

He caught up with us to tell us a little about himself and his work at the Lab. Having a strong interest in technology, Nate has created a technology lending library for the use of all area early childhood educators and caregivers to use. In terms of using technology in his role as lead educator, over the years he has used several different platforms for documenting children’s learning and communication with parents.  Nate tells us “Storypark has been, by far, my favorite platform.”

children using technology

The Child Development and Learning Lab run a little different from other learning services. Two-thirds of the children enrolled are Head Start children, the other third are tuition-based. There are 4 classes in the Lab (2 pods consisting of 2 connected classes) with children aged from 3 to 5 years of age attending. The children’s day consists of free play, with a morning meeting and small group time. Teachers are assigned a group of children for small group time, but the rest of the day children are free to travel around the school to play and explore in any area they choose to. All teachers are responsible for and work with all children in a very relaxed environment where children’s interests determine the direction of the learning program. 

The lead teachers and student teachers can often be found in different rooms each day, as they seek to observe and study the children. As a research facility, there are observation booths behind two-way glass which allows students and researchers to listen, observe and study the children and other student teachers. Nate tells us “as a lead teacher here, we are not only responsible for the children, but we are also responsible for mentoring and evaluating our assistant student teachers and our lead student teachers.” It really is a very unique learning environment. 

Like many early learning services, the CDLL faced an all too familiar struggle. Finding an effective way to communicate with busy parents, and having family engage in children’s learning appears to be a common occurrence in learning services around the world. 

The staff have found that since using Storypark to communicate with families and to document and share children’s learning, family participation has increased noticeably. Nate tells us one of the greatest things, is the ease of using Storypark. Having just enough features to make it interesting to use, yet not so many choices as to feel overwhelming or intimidating, Storypark strikes just the right balance.  

The teachers at CDLL value parent engagement, and have found having the ability to contact families through the Storypark conversations feature is an incredibly effective way to share important information. Having this additional avenue to communicate with families means busy parents, or parents that may not drop off and pick up their children are able to remain involved in their child’s learning journey. 

child holding stick insect

The story editor is quick and easy to use, and the teachers have noticed that parents are really appreciative of seeing what their children are involved in at the Lab. Nate tells us that using Storypark to document and share children’s learning, gives families talking points to spark conversations with their children at home. “It is really cool that they can comment on stories as well as getting them involved.  One of the features I have just discovered, that I also love, is that you can respond in the comments of a story as a student in that class. This is so cool! You can now include the children in those interactions as well…what a great idea!”

Being able to see how many views a story has had from family members is also something that the teachers find valuable. Even if there are no comments on a story, it is great to see the number of views and who has viewed a story. This enables teachers to engage parents in face to face conversation 

Like with many learning services, getting all staff up skilled and onboard with using a new form of technology has taken time, but Nate tells us that since spending more time using Storypark, the other teachers are really enjoying using it.

“A lot of people are scared of technology and the cool thing about Storypark is the ease of use.”

He really values Storypark as being a platform where teachers are able to collaborate in multiple ways, on each others learning stories, when working on group projects, and when planning. The team at CDLL are moving towards using the planning feature much more extensively, with much of their “paper-based” work being transferred to the planning area. Being able to plan as a large group of educators can be challenging, but the team at CDLL have found that using Storypark, they are able to plan, get input and work together as a team online! This is also a fantastic way to involve student teachers in program planning. Nate has created a template on Storypark which the teachers use for small group time. This is a simple way for the teachers to add what they are working on with their group of children. Nate is then able to provide feedback, and learning stories are able to be linked afterwards. A simple but effective process that cuts back on time, paper, and allows for collaboration across the team!

Nate shares that the student teachers are able to build a teaching portfolio on Storypark during their time at the Lab, meaning that once they have completed their teaching degrees, they are able to share their work using a tablet during job interviews. He reports that this has been a game-changer for his students. 

child using technology to explore projected image

The learning tags feature is utilized really well at CDLL. “We are constructivists with a Reggio inspiration and it is great to be able to add Reggio tags to our stories as we don’t use them anywhere else” shared Nate. “Summing up, Storypark is my favorite platform that I have used, and I am always thinking of new ways to use it. Soon everyone will be on the platform and we will have everything on Storypark. It will make everyone’s lives so much better!”

Nathan JonaitisNathan Jonaitis is a two-time alumnus of Central Michigan University.  He has a Bachelors in Early Childhood Development as well as a Masters Degree in Educational Technology. Nate is a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

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