Friday, February 19, 2010

ARRA Grant Offers Hope for Closing Digital Divide.

Normally, I don’t get too excited about grant funded initiatives. My experience has taught me grants can be at best a temporary boost to a program, but more likely to put it mildly, they become an unbearable burden not worth the time and effort it takes to administer them. The ARRA grant our district has been awarded is different. I am excited and hopeful that the technology integration specialist we have hired, albeit for only the 18-month duration of the grant, will help us establish the sustainable momentum we need to make lasting changes, ultimately laying the ground work for greater success for all of our students.

Our district is small by urban and suburban standards. Two schools currently serve fewer than 1000 kindergarten through tenth graders and we’re different than many districts in that, while we are a public school district, we are not supported by local property taxes. And no, we’re not charter schools either. We’re a district created and maintained by the MN State Legislature and the ten or so districts from which we draw our students. This structure poses some unique challenges, but every district faces its own set of challenges and these days most of these have to do with trying to the best they can with limited resources. Suffice it to say, our district has never been able to fund a district-wide technology integration specialist position. In the past we have had technology specializing teachers in each of the schools and we have a tech support specialist in each building, of which I am one.

So why is this new position different? And why am I hopeful given that the granting is only funding a year a half? This technology integration specialist position will make a lasting difference because unlike our previous specialist positions, its purpose is to assist and coach teachers. As described in the posting summary, the person who fills this position will focus almost entirely on “planning, implementing and supporting the effective integration of technology into curriculum.” This person will also “provide leadership in developing and implementing a multi-tiered approach to professional development.” In the past our school technology specialists have been competent and committed, excellent teachers of students. In fact, these teachers were so good, classroom teachers sometimes had the idea they could take pass when it came to using technology themselves. This caused a digital divide between classes whose teachers embraced technology and those whose teachers waited for the specialist to come in, or in some cases never asked the specialist to come in at all, to teach a technology-infused lesson. With this new model, this specialist will work with “tiers” of teachers at their different levels of need so that all teachers will gain skills and comfort using technology with their students. This is a more sustainable model that we hope will set on a path to closing the existing digital divide and give all our students the access they need to today’s technology.

Three well qualified individuals interviewed for this position. They each demonstrated a different set of skills and any one of them would have been able to this job impressively. The committee chose the individual we believed has the experience and creativity to lead the staff in new directions as well as a personality amenable to building the relationships necessary for successful coaching and collaboration. Having had the privilege of getting to know him a little better today over lunch, I am even more excited and hopeful to begin working with Carl Anderson when he starts as our new Technology Integration Specialist on March 1.

Photo cropped from IMGA0929.JPG on Rick McCharles' Flickr photostream.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Our Amazing PLC Team Challenge

Maybe you have heard of or seen The Amazing Race, a CBS television show. I haven't watched the program but from promos I have seen I get the sense that teams have to travel from place to place and complete some tasks along the way rather like the scavenger hunts we used to do for entertainment as kids. It is with this idea in mind that my colleague and I designed this morning's hour long technology staff development activity.

Our goal was to expose our teachers to a number of available technologies in a way that encouraged them to learn from each other in a non-threatening way. We came up with the idea of assigning a different series of tasks to each of four teams. We hoped that accomplishing the tasks together would give them experience with procuring and using the various equipment we have and teach them some skills they could use in their classrooms with their students. And so that all the participants could benefit from what each of teams learned, we challenged them to come back and use the technologies to present what they had discovered to their peers.

As it is in every school our staff has a wide range of comfort levels and experience using computers and digital technology. We decided to group the teachers for this challenge in their newly formed Professional Learning Committees. Looking at these groups we could see that each group had some early adopters, some willing followers, and at least one novice or technophobe. It seemed like the best way to go. With any luck the teams would work together, learn some new things and have a positive technology experience that would bolster their confidence, increasing the likelihood they be able to see way to use it in their lessons.

Here are the challenges we devised:

Team 1: Checked out a document camera and an LCD projector. They were to take these to a classroom and come up with ways to use the camera to teach a lesson with pattern blocks and read aloud a picture book.

Team 2: Also checked out a document camera and an LCD projector. This team was directed to use these tools to demonstrate an activity and to show student work.

Team 3: Found a YouTube video related to a unit they were currently teaching and went to our tech support wiki to find ways to show that video to a class on an interactive white board without actually showing it in YouTube.

Team 4: Checked out a laptop cart, logged into the laptops, took a screenshot depicting the drive where they would save if they were students, pasted it into a Word document and printed it to the media center printer, which they had to find and add.

It's likely you're thinking these are pretty elementary tasks, but for most of our teachers these were fairly new experiences and they only had a half an hour to complete them before returning to the media center where they shared their stuff using the IWB, document camera, and LCD projector. I am quite pleased to report they all did an amazing job completing their tasks and most followed the given directions. Team 1 showed us their pattern lesson, but then they went on to tell us how they would be able to take the camera around to project what individual students would do on the floor as that's where they usually work with manipulatives. Team 2 decided expand on their assigned to use a digital camera to take photos of each other using the demonstrating how students would use the document camera. Team 3 demonstrated how to paste a YouTube link into SafeShareTV to show the video without all the YouTube distractions, and Team 4 proudly displayed their printed screenshots. They also relayed what they had learned about how students might feel when logging into the laptops...some get in quickly while others aren't able to and may fall behind if the teacher goes ahead with directions.

When asked if they had learned something they hadn't known before, all the teachers raised their hands. When asked if they had learned something they could use with students right away, most raised their hands. When asked if they had fun, almost all raised their hands. The best question I heard at the end was, "When can we have another one of these?" Yes! I hope the answer is, "Soon."