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Where We Began.............Where we are...........

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Cross Posted with NECC2009

Several years ago, a team from our high school attended High Schools New Face Conference in Western New York. Will Richardson lit a spark in several of us teaching us a plethora of tools- blogs, wikis, podcasting, RSS feeds, etc… The notion of ‘connecting with students’ was at the forefront. Students today are ‘connected’ electronically more often than not, have access to information quicker than many of us could ever have imagined and share an enormous amount of information via social networks. We knew we wanted to harness the power of the internet and do so in hopes that students will begin to gather, learn and share information in a way different than the traditional ’sit-n-get’ format found in many high school classes.

Our district had already begun to use some on-line learning and remedial programs for pre and post teaching which provided teachers (and the students) immediate feedback and monitoring of progress. Adults were well aware of the frequency of which students were on cell phones, iPods and connecting daily on MySpace and Facebook. C0uldthey not be taught to use these same concepts for learning? Would they enjoy learning more and as a result, wouldthey improve their achievement? Lets take one step further. Would teachers not become reignited about teaching and learning? Could teachers begin to collaborate on an etirelydifferent level? Would students become more engaged? Obviously, a team of us believed the answer to all these questions and more to be ‘Yes’! And so, we began our journey.

We started with a few extremely motivated teachers. Blogging was the start. Posting assignments, homework (being absent was not longer an excuse to not having work done!) and even lecture notes. A student would volunteer to be ’scribe’ for the day and post the day’s lecture/class notes. Students will use a blog to have discussions and collaborate on projects. Students (and teachers) would embed videos, presentations, and resources in their blogs. This is about the time that some students began to experiment with podcasting.

The next step was for students and teachers to begin to collaborate: sharing information, building off of each other’s contributions and creating a place to store resources. The Wiki became the platform. Use of the wiki expanded blogging to include a site for many courses in the high school. Syllabi, homework, project assignments and handouts can all be found on a virtual platform for students. Students would also post completed assignments and create team projects with the help of classmates.

Teachers learn relatively fast, but students were learning faster. Knowing that if teachers were going to use these tools, they would quickly need support. With the support of our Board of Education, I appointed a teacher on special assignment to actually train and work with teachers directly in the classroom, assisting them with lesson development. An Action Planning Committee in our high school consisted of a group of teachers vounteering to meet early morning, before school to share their craft and changes in their teaching. The spark had been lit, the flame began to grow.

Throughout this process, I believed as a leader that I needed to be a role model. I began to use web 2.0 tools in my everyday work. I blogged about the changes in our high school, and blogged for our community highlighting various achievements in our school districts. I even attempted a blog for students to have yet one more vehicle to communicate with their Superintendent. I would embed resources, presentations and podcasts. The intent of my message was these tools are effective, can be time savers and a way to quickly and easily spread and share your work and ideas.

Resources, the ’storage’ of resources, along with accessibility ( ’anywhere’ and ‘anytime’ ) was needed and introduced. Tools such as googledocs, social bookmarking (del.icio.us) and various virtual platforms were taught and used by both students and teachers. This became a quick lesson: not everyone had to ‘reinvent the wheel’. Friends could help each other. Find a resource that not only you need, but know of a friend that may be interested, store it and share it! As more teachers expressed interest in integrating technology within the classroom, accessibility to computers needed to be addressed. Instead of replacing stand alone computers, we began to purchase laptops on mobile carts. Teacher carts were also set up with a laptop, projector and audio amplification. Entire classes of students can be on-line at the same time and made dependence upon scheduling classes in computer labs a frustration of the past.

At the same time, our district had embarked upon a long-term relationship with Silver and Strong Associates providing professional development in “Thoughtful Education” pedagogy. As teachers developed units and lessons with more depth and differentiating for the different learning styles of students in a class, it became logical for us to have a platform for teachers to share their ideas, lessons and units. We introduced the social network Ning to our teachers. There, they could combine all the learning of the past and integrate the various tools in one place: blogging, interactive collaboration, storing of resources, posting of presentations, etc… It is our hope that as time goes on, our entire faculty will engage in collaboration on a virtual platform in addition to face-to-face learning teams. At the same time, we know that good leaders need to be involved in side-by-side learning with teachers and to model the traits and behaviors expected of teachers. Our administrative team has also begaun to use Ning for administrative collaboration as well as to interact with our teachers as they post to the social network.

As a school superintendent, the development of a true learning community across a K-12 district with 6 buildings has been exciting to observe. While at first, the integration of technology seemed to be “extra” work, teachers and students now see that it becomes ‘part’ of the work. We are far from full implementation. Empirical evidence related to improved student achievement is difficult to isolate. What we do have is anecdotal information from both students and teachers that they are more engaged and interested. The assumption is made that if students are interested and engaged, they are more likely to achieve at high levels.

Before ending I would like to share a few examples of what I have seen both as a parent in the district and as the superintendent-

Podcast projects:

One elementary class had students write their parents a Valentine’s Day Poem. Instead of just sending the poem home in written form, each student read their poem in podcast. The link for the podcast was sent to each parent in an e-mail. What a wonderful surprise parents had to ‘hear’ their Valentine’s Day poem in their own child’s voice!

For a European History project, a student created a radio show to have taken place during World War II demonstrating their understanding of the events of the decade. The radio show episodes were recorded in a podcast and submitted as a final project for grading.

Social Bookmarking:

Students and teachers are sharing articles, videos, and news articles along with a variety of other resources using their del.icio.us account. Along with many teachers, I have a network of people I follow that I can view and find resources for projects we have in common.

Read/Write Web:

A plethora of information is available by reading blogs. I read blogs by students as young as third grade posting information about what they have learned studying the Titanic. I have followed a student blogging about his favorite sport (hockey) and another student blogging about family vacations. I have probably learned more from reading blogs over the past three years, than any other source.

I can monitor many high school courses detailing what the content is, what assignments are due and view projects posted related to the course by students.

Social Networking:

As stated above, teachers are posting a variety of lessons and units in every subject across all grade levels. Our administrators are beginning to use Ning to post resources for each other, ask questions and get feedback from their colleagues as well as posting activities and questions for our book studies. This continues to be a work in progress.

The most important thing we have realized is that one thing we can be sure of is how fast technology changes. We planned early on that we needed to teach skills vs. the products available. While Blogger, PBwiki, Ning and Skype may all be popular, everyday there are new vendors improving sophistication and ease of use. Both our students and teachers are trained in skills (posting/commenting to the Read/Write web, collaboration, social bookmarking and networking). The platforms available will surely change. It is our belief that in order for students to be successful in the 21st Century, they will need to be proficient in many of these skills.

Neil A. Rochelle

1 Comment

Bravo for your district's efforts. I whole heartedly agree with your statements concerning skills over products. I often feel that we are Microsoft training institutions while there are many other products students might choose to use. The ability to word process, use a spreadsheet and a database should not be product specific. We should be teaching students how these applications work not training them on particular software products. I have teachers and students who are very proficient in the use of a software package, but have very little understanding of exactly how these applications work therefore when faced with a authentic/unfamiliar task, they are not able to cope. They are limited to repeating tasks they have been "trained" to completing. As Daniel Pink has stated clearly, this left-brained work will be moving to other countries in the world. Our students need to have a much deeper understanding of how spreadsheets and databases work rather than just how to work them.

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