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Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Long and Winding Road

Motivating others to integrate technology...

What began almost four years ago, after attending in an in-district workshop on wikis, is finally beginning to come to fruition. That is, teachers integrating technology that enables them to expand the walls of their classroom, communicate globally, and to inspire and motivate all learners (but particularly, reluctant learners).

While attending this particular workshop I was, at first, contemplating how I could utilize this tool as an administrator. As those thoughts wandered, the instructor repeatedly said the words “expand the walls of the classroom”. That caught my attention and then I had no problem envisioning how the teachers I worked with could utilize a wiki to do just that.

Knowing the many demands already placed on teachers; IEPs, PDPs, PLCs, ADD, ADHD, ODD, NCBL, NJ ASK…and the list goes on. I knew it wouldn’t be as easy as simply sharing a philosophy or demonstrating several of the tools in action. So I developed a plan that would hopefully inspire others to integrate some/any web 2.0 tools into the classroom. I’d like to share certain elements of that plan, which were successful, unsuccessful, and some of the positive results.

The number one component of the plan was to model and lead by example. The nagging question of how could an administrator utilize a wiki was answered. Develop a “faculty wiki” that would expand my walls, serve as a communication tool, and resource for teachers. It still needed a carrot, therefore if information that was normally shared at a faculty meeting could be done “outside of those walls” at one’s own convenience, the face-to-face faculty meeting would be shortened for all and could thus begin 15 minutes later (we have ours before school).

Once again, it sounded great in theory, but not the immediate success one would hope for. During the first year, there were a couple of failed attempts and a couple of success stories as well. The so called attempts (failed, but not really), I must share the blame for and should have seen coming, they were there just to satisfy the principal’s desires and were merely examples of technology for the sake of technology (nothing worse in my mind). However, after discussing this with our technology resource teacher, we both agreed rather than stifling the attempt, we would live with it until we felt the time was right to assist in tweaking it to accomplish our goal; technology integration to expand the walls, collaborate globally, and inspire/motivate. In the end, almost four years later, we have several very successful classroom wikis and this year a grade level of twelve fourth grade teachers created a wiki dedicated to sharing curriculum and lessons. They also developed a Google Site designed to meet the needs of our gifted and talented population (dedicated teacher was cut due to budget restraints) through problem based learning activities, complete with blog, Google Docs for collaboration, and inter-class communication capability. Lesson learned – be as specific and explicit as you can when explaining the goal of technology integration.

Another failure, at first, was the purchase of eInstruction’s student response system, a.k.a. “clickers”. The most attractive aspect of these was to motivate and engage the reluctant participant. There are other benefits, including student assessment, assessing the effectiveness of instruction, and running records.

We solicited teacher interest, provided professional development, and supplied the tool. However, the most attractive tool or numerous benefits are meaningless if the technology simply doesn’t work. It just so happened that the software was never operable on a consistent level on our network. In hindsight, we assumed and were led to believe, that the software needed to be installed on the teachers’ computer in every classroom. In that case, it increased the overall in-house management and possibility of malfunction. After a year of little or no use, a teacher installed the software on her own laptop and connected it to a projector on a traveling cart. This eliminated the reliance on our network, our IT department, and our hardware. Her success spread quickly and interest was once again elevated. Lesson learned – technology that doesn’t work has a negative effect on motivating technology integration. We now have four sets of twenty-eight individual response clickers, on a dedicated cart, with a dedicated laptop (don’t ever think money is an obstacle, just one that can be overcome). Each is assigned to a specific area of the building and reserved through our media center via Google Calendar.

Lastly, how simple and valuable Skype can be in order to collaborate with experts in the field. This one would be an easy sell; it is web based, requires little in the way of hardware, and there are experts who love to promote themselves.

Back to component number one of the plan; model. We had two teachers conducting an evening book chat with parent and student. The chat was focused on bullying and the book they chose was Loser, by Jerry Spinelli. A simple e-mail to Mr. Spinelli and a connection was made. However, Mr. Spinelli was somewhat camera shy and only agreed to a live conference call. Not to be defeated, the grade level was reading Deadly Waters by Gloria Skurzynski and Alane Ferguson, once again a simple e-mail connected us with both authors whom happened to be mother/daughter. Rather than Skype, they suggested we videoconference with them while they were conducting the same at the University of Missouri with another classroom from a local school. It was a simple process, an outstanding learning experience, and a hit with all. Unfortunately, there was not another attempt to Skype or videoconference after that. After two years of continuing to promote these opportunities, we have had some success stories that I am certain will be contagious throughout the building. Most recently, one of our third grade teachers Skyped with her sister’s third grade class to discuss a book both classes had read. When it was over, one student commented that they had missed their regularly scheduled language arts class. The learning process was invisible to him. They had in fact discussed with their Skype mates several skills they had been focusing on; theme, plot, characters…Lesson learned – perseverance.

I hope the experiences I have shared will assist someone through the same process, lift the spirits of anyone that is as discouraged as I was at times, and inspire others to give just one tool a try. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a by-product of utilizing any web 2.0 tool; classroom management made easy. Please visit my blog and view the post on March 1, 2011. During the three video clips you can’t help but notice that all students are participating, none are off task, and the teachers do not redirect any student behavior. Conclusion, when students are actively engaged, motivated, and excited, learning and behavior are natural.

Michael Gregory is the principal of the Alpine Elementary School in Sparta, New Jersey. Due to budget cuts last year, his previous school (grade 5 only) was closed and the district restructured its two remaining K-4 buildings to include a pre K-2 school and his current grade 3-5 building with a population of 850 students.

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