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At conference about the future, some students are already there

Attendees at a conference today about the future of education spent their morning imagining classrooms with beefed-up digital offerings — until students from an innovative New York City high school showed up.

During lunch at the New York Times Schools of Tomorrow conference, a small group of students from iSchool, a centerpiece of the Department of Education’s Innovation Zone, filed into a basement room to demonstrate how they are already using technology in their classes.

In a class called “#disastercamp,” Chanel Mowatt dreamt up a mobile phone app that allowed people find loved ones using geotagging technology after an earthquake or a hurricane destroyed communication infrastructures.

“If I really want to make a difference in someone’s life, I need a tool that’s going to help me actually do it,” said Mowatt as she paged through her SlideShow presentation.

In another class, called “Sixteen,” students chronicled the lives of 16-year-olds from around the world. Using Skype and other multimedia tools, the students connected with their contemporaries living in London, Australia, Utah and even Nigeria.

“It opened my mind,” Piel Martinez, a senior who said she plans to attend law school.

At the iSchool, one of the leading pilot high schools participating in the city’s $50 million Innovation Zone initiative, Principal Alisa Berger said her students pick “real-world challenges” at the beginning of the school year, then spend the next 11 weeks working toward solutions that aren’t found in the back of any book.

“It’s really about us focusing on the big ideas and what matters in the world,” Berger said. “That learning happens anywhere and not in 45-minute, five-times-a-week segment blocks as a traditional high school is structured. ”

For the students, their work was less about proving that technology could enhance learning. For them it was simply a more fun way to do school.

“You get to study things what you like and do it in a way that’s fun,” said Bria Lewis, a senior.

Lewis took a class called “iMovie Film Adapatation,” and today she presented a movie trailer she wrote, produced, acted in, and edited. The trailer, below, was for “Cry, the Beloved Country,” a novel about apartheid in South Africa.

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