When Jon Kelley received an email earlier this summer telling him he had been named the middle school teacher of the year for the entire United States, he at first thought it was spam.

Then he opened the email.

"I was caught completely by surprise," he said. "I still didn't believe it."

He soon got a call from Suzanne Williams, vice principal at Dempsey Middle School, where Kelley taught sixth grade last year. He learned it was Williams who nominated him for the award, adding, "We kind of freaked out together."

Kelley accepted his award during a July 9-12 convention in Long Beach, California, held by the award's sponsor, Instructure, an educational-technology company.

More than 30 million people at universities, public schools and institutions use its Canvas Learning Management Platform, including Kelley, who took advantage of it last year in teaching science to roughly 116 students.

Each Dempsey sixth-grader was supplied with a Chromebook they could use at school. Combining the laptop computers with use of the Canvas platform proved "a big game-changer" in the classroom, Kelley said.

The result, he said, is that students were given "a sense of ownership for the learning. We want them to feel responsible for the learning."

Students were motivated to be proactive, he said, demonstrating a higher level of analytical thinking and showing their knowledge in creative ways.

The program also showed why each lesson was important, he said, demonstrating how it will benefit students throughout their lives.

Kelley cited a study of plant and animal cells as an example of how the program works.

The goal was for students to learn and describe the functions of a cell's components.

Students were given choices: They could diagram a cell model, or write a song or storybook that described a cell.

As long as the students demonstrated they understood everything about a cell, Kelley said, the learning objective was met.

He said he played the role of both teacher and facilitator, because students displayed a high level of initiative throughout the process.

"It gently pushed them past their comfort zone," he said.

At the beginning of last school year, Williams was an education specialist at Dempsey, helping teachers implement research-based instruction, Kelley said.

Williams said Kelley used a "very strong structured blending classroom ... a mixture of online lab and hands-on activities."

As students worked through the material, the Canvas system allowed them to move through a series of levels, similar to a video game, she said. As a result, she said, "students worked hard to get to the next level, doing learning in a fun way. The students definitely bought into the program."

"It has an effect on every aspect of your class," Kelley said, adding he saw students become leaders.

"Kids helping kids is one of the most beautiful things you can see. ... It makes classroom management easier with highly motivated learners. The sense of ownership leads to mastery in the classroom," he said.

According to the Canvas website, Educator of the Year Awards were given to teachers at six levels of instruction, from kindergarten to higher learning.

Criteria for the K-12 levels included affecting student engagement and achievement, improving achievement for at-risk populations and redefining classroom activities to prepare students for college and careers, according to the website.

"Jon represents some of the finest teachers we have in Delaware City Schools," said Heidi Kegley, Delaware City Schools superintendent. "He creates positive relationships with students and builds meaningful lessons that relate to real-life experiences. This award recognizes his efforts in the classroom and demonstrates the many ways our staff are making a difference for students."

District spokeswoman Jennifer Ruhe said Canvas is the learning management system used districtwide for teachers and students to create lessons and complete assignments.

The annual cost is $7.29 per user, she said, or about $45,000 to cover the 6,200 licenses for current students and teachers.

Kelley said he is serving as a teaching and learning coach during the 2019-20 school year.

"It will be very bittersweet because I won't have a classroom, but I'm very excited about the opportunity to work with other teachers. ... In the new role, I can expand my reach a little and build positive relationships with kids, and be more creative about how to do that," he said.

The Dempsey staff, he added, is "incredible in every way."