Microsoft Picks Seward Alaska: Through Young Eyes

By Heidi Zemach for SCN

Seward Elementary School 1st-2nd grade teacher Leigh Ray, 50, a woman who came to a teaching career later in life, after a career as a professional web page designer, has received prestigious recognition by Microsoft Corporation. Microsoft has selected Seward Alaska: Through Young Eyes, a place-based project Ray designed for her students last year, to be one of the finalists in a national competition to showcase projects that exemplify the creative ways that American teachers are transforming classroom learning through technology. The Seward teacher’s reward will be to attend the Microsoft Partners in Learning 2012 U.S. Forum at the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington next month, where she will share her classroom project and ideas with other teachers and a variety of judges. The project will compete nationally to win a place at the software company’s world technology education forum in Athens, Greece, to be held later in the year. (Check out the project here:)

“We’re proud of her accomplishments and how she integrated technology with her first and second graders.” said Seward Elementary Principal David Kingsland.

“To be selected is an honor,” said Ray, who has only taught in the classroom for one year. “It’s an honor for the kids, and all the hard work they did, and it’s my background that enabled it. That’s the benefit to having a teacher that knows or understands technology.”

Seward Alaska: Through Young Eyes, was the only project selected from Alaska. Ray notes that many other teachers at Seward Elementary School also are using digital technology on projects that make subjects interesting and meaningful. But as she was the only teacher who applied for the competition, Ray’s glad to be the face for the things being tried at Seward Elementary.

Mrs. Ray’s 27 students decided to focus on some of the unique historical aspects of Seward which are often overlooked by the tourists who visit, and often are little known by local residents too. Every week for five weeks beginning in April, the students researched a different topic including our historic buildings, the Alaska Flag, the Iditarod Trail, and the 1964 Earthquake. They broke up into four different technology teams, and then presented what they had learned via that particular technology. One team produced a Seward History website that will be linked to the Seward Chamber of Commerce, Community Library and Seward Historical Society’s websites. Another team produced brochures on those topics that are being distributed at the Seward Chamber of Commerce and the library.

The photography team selected old historic photographs, manipulated them, and created a scripted photo-collage on the website. The team also wrote articles and captions for old photographs that were published in The Seward Journal. The podcast team interviewed guest historian Lee Poleske, and produced audio podcasts on their topics, including their narration, questions and his answers. A link for these were posted on the Seward City News website.


“I just think what was really neat was how excited they got with the project,” Ray said. “We’re going to be famous, we’re going to be famous!,” the eager six and seven year old students gleefully said. “And in a sense they are, because they’re reaching a much broader audience, and they understood that. It really made it a lifetime learning experience, and that’s what made it exciting learning.”

What makes it so easy to absorb our history in this manner is the freshness of the youngster’s voices, and their eagerness to not only explain an understand their history, but to put it into their own modern frames of reference, make it personal and question why things happened the way they do.
For example, on the Alaska Flag:
“I feel strong when I see the Alaskan flag,” said Joshua.“The Alaskan flag makes me feel happy because Benny Benson made it here in Seward,” said Luke. “I was named after the Alaskan flag,” said Alaska.

Some gems on the 1964 Earthquake:
“It was shocking to know that the second tsunami was going 100 miles an hour…faster than the people could get out of their houses,” said Tommy. “I’m surprised that only 12 people died because it was a big, big earthquake,” said Connor. “Why didn’t the water put out the fire?” asked Marcus.

These youngsters also got to use software which they can use for any purpose now, or as skills in professional life, such as Exel, Internet Explorer, Movie Maker, Photo Story, Publisher, Skydrive and Skype, Songsmith, Windows Sound Recorder, Windows Media Player. Their reading buddies in Erin Flowers’ fourth grade class, and students in Bob Barnwell’s 5th and 6th grade class also got involved by peer-reviewing the project, answering a history quiz that the younger students designed, and commenting on the unit through a social networking site.

Even though she is now a technical whiz on the Internet, Leigh entered adulthood before the personal computer came into our lives, and she had to learn it largely on her own. That’s still basically how teachers are learning these skills, Ray said. Although the emphasis in education these days is all about bringing 21st technology skills into education, as Ray was getting her teaching degree, which she received from the University of Alaska Fairbanks as recently as 2010, very little emphasis in the curricula was paid to the educational use of technology. That’s why contests such as this one by Microsoft, using peer review, and judges who are experts in technology from the private sector, are so important, she said.




  1. Leigh,

    What a great opportunity to showcase your work. I’m so excited for you….GOOD LUCK.

  2. How wonderful! Good job Leigh!

  3. Congrats Mrs.Ray! It’s great to see innovative, inspiring people become teachers, and exciting to know that Seward students have you as their teacher!

  4. Way to go! You are showing a great model for Alaska. I reposted this on my State Dept. of Education blog: I’d love to talk with you more about possibilities of what is next.