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The Marriage between Technology and Curriculum

I am a former curriculum director who loves technology. It’s a fairly new love affair. We’ve been a serious item for almost six years now. Here’s the backstory: I began teaching in 1998 when my students would get to go to the computer lab once a week for a lesson planned by the librarian. I was pretty much on crowd-control during these lessons. I add that to say that I’m a self-taught tech integrator who was definitely not born a digital native. As my teaching progressed, so did my time leading lessons in the computer lab. But technology available to my students in the classroom was minimal, at best. My last year in the classroom (2010-11), I had my teacher computer and three old iMacs for my students to use. They could basically only use them to play games and take Accelerated Reader quizzes. I was a pro at making copies on transparency sheets to use on my overhead projector. My weekly computer lab trips were usually reserved for publishing writing pieces, typing practice, or math fact drills. We are, obviously, not talking about any innovative technology infusion.

After I became the curriculum director for our district in the fall of 2011, I quickly realized that we needed to catch up with some forward-thinking districts when it came to tech integration. Our elementary schools were just getting equipped with SMART boards that year. Our math teachers at the high school had Promethean boards and doc cameras. The other middle and high school teachers had LCD projectors. That was as tech-rich as our district got. In that year, I started a blog, joined Twitter and LinkedIn, and began immersing myself in learning about edtech solutions for transforming instruction. I followed edtech leaders, subscribed to blogs, read articles, and attended conferences on the subject. At one point, our Director of Technology visited my office and candidly said, “You know, when I heard you were named our new Curriculum Director, I was a bit worried.” I just laughed, because I knew he was referring to the lack of technology integration I previously had in my classroom. He went on, however, to assure me that he had changed his mind and knew they’d made the right decision when they hired me. That only happened because I was motivated to further my own learning and stretch my thinking when it came to teaching and learning.

The second year in that role brought about even more growth. Our district was wanting to move to a 1:1 environment for our 5th-12th grades for the following school year. That led to me being appointed as the 1:1 steering committee chair to conduct research, explore options, and learn as a team in order to make the right decisions for our students. During another office visit from our DoT, he joked that he’d just read an article about how tech directors and curriculum directors should be married. We laughed about this, but the point was, and still is, completely valid. Technology and instruction are no longer separate entities in schools. These two facets of a student’s education must work seamlessly together. I was fortunate to work with a DoT that understood and respected that fact. I was the one who got to attend instructional technology trainings and workshops. I was the one who led that integration into our classrooms. And being a former classroom teacher, the current teachers were more open to the idea of change coming from me. But it took both departments working together to provide devices and ongoing professional development in order to sustain lasting change.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I am still working within the technology-curriculum marriage. As a consultant, I often get to work with districts who purchase Dell laptops and/or Chromebooks for their teachers and students. I get to go in and provide training for teachers and administrators, and then work one-on-one in job-embedded professional development with them multiple times throughout the school year. I like to say that Dell is the foot in the door, but the true work lies in transforming instructional practice. I show teachers how to use technology to leverage rich resources and learning opportunities to provide their students with personalized learning experiences in student-driven environments. I don’t just give them a list of good websites. I don’t just teach them on a specific student-centered learning strategy. I marry the two together, and beautiful learning is born through this union.

 

Purposeful Collaboration

I collaborate virtually on something with someone every single day. Some recent examples include:

  • sharing a grocery list with my husband through Google Keep
  • planning an anniversary party for our parents with my siblings via group text messages
  • Scheduling school visits with teachers and administrators through a shared Google Sheet
  • Working on a writing project with a colleague using shared Google Docs
  • Collaborating with other eLearning peers in a Slack community
  • Reviewing a Policy and Procedure guide I wrote with my team via Join.Me
  • Working on a procedural table with colleagues through OneDrive
  • Having a virtual meeting to discuss a current project with district leaders in another state using Google Hangouts
  • Attending a board meeting with people in Lima, Peru from my house in Indiana via Skype.
  • Email (obviously, too many examples to discuss)
  • Messaging with my PLN via LinkedIn and Twitter to grow professionally together.

 

We live in an age of mass collaboration, and the tools provided make it easier than ever. I don’t have a favorite platform, as you can probably tell I choose the one that best meets the needs of the task. What are some of your favorite ways to collaborate?

All of us are works in progress

When I started teaching, our evaluations had three categories: Excellent, Satisfactory, and Needs Improvement. Then, there was a list of characteristics and behaviors with check boxes next to it. I’m pretty sure I never received a mark less than Excellent. And that is what I wanted. That yearly evaluation was something to just get over with. The follow-up conversation with the principal was a formality to hear her say I was doing a great job, and then move on. A few years ago, Indiana adopted a more stringent plan for teacher evaluation and accountability. There was an extensive rubric with various categories and four evaluative terms for your work: Highly Effective, Effective, Improvement Necessary, and Ineffective. This occurred right as I moved from the classroom into district administration. I remember the superintendent telling principals that teachers that only had a year or two of experience couldn’t receive any Highly Effective ratings as that implied that they didn’t have any areas that needed growth. I was tapped to work with teachers who fell into the Improvement Necessary and Ineffective ranges. In my three years as the curriculum director, I was never asked to work with any of the teachers in that capacity. This new evaluation tool was more effective than the old, however, I still didn’t use it to better my own work performance. Instead, I looked to feedback from my peers, my boss, and the teachers I worked with. I knew that I wasn’t Highly Effective in every area of my job, and I also knew that there was always new learning to be found. I am a work in progress. And whenever someone gets to the place where they think they have no more improving to do, there is a major problem. Here are some ways I’ve learned to keep moving forward and making progress in my professional life:

 

  • Have an open mind.
  • Connect with others.
  • Find the ways I best learn and then seek out those opportunities.

 
These practices have done far more for my professional growth than any observation/evaluation ever did. How do you continue to progress?

Ask Questions – Good Leaders Listen

This fall, I worked with a great group of educators in Texas as they begin the process of transforming their instruction by integrating technology into their daily lessons. I led them through a two-day process of evaluating their current teaching and thinking critically about what changes they can make in the way they interact with and instruct their students.

Toward the end of the first day, one of the young teachers approached me and explained how she began the school year teaching economics, but just a couple of weeks prior, due to staff changes, the principal came to her and asked if she’d switch and take over the AP Macroeconomics classes. What do you say to your principal, but yes? So she accepted and has been in survival mode ever since. She was frustrated by the required textbook and how boring she felt her class was (contrary to how she’d like to be teaching), and couldn’t see how to infuse technology into such a rigid curriculum.

I could’ve just heard her words, told her a couple of quick tech tools and sent her back to her table. But that wasn’t what she was needing. I chose, instead, to truly listen to her. Strong leaders take in all of the information available to them when they listen. I focused on body language (this poor lady was ready to bolt), the tone of her voice (strained, at best), and the actual words she was saying (she was literally crying for help). Then, I started asking questions.

I went back to her seat with her, pulled up a chair, asked questions, and continued to actively listen. I asked her to show me the curriculum she was supposed to use. I asked her how the students could access it. I asked her how she liked to teach in other courses. I learned so much through asking questions and listening, that I was able to be a much better support and serve her more effectively by listening first.

Do you feel listened to, or merely heard? If you are in a leadership position (and teachers, you are all the leaders of your classroom, so this definitely applies to you, as well), do you take the time to actively take in all that people are (and aren’t) saying to you? To be a servant leader, we must first be active listeners. This makes the journey about those we are serving, and not just about a title or position. The focus moves away from us, and onto those whom we are serving. So ask questions, and then just listen.

 

The Four Components of Student-Driven Instruction

All learners deserve the opportunity to own their learning. They take this ownership when they have input into the what or the how of instruction. The more choice you offer students, the more they will embrace the learning. With technology integration, we no longer need to rely on the teacher as the sole expert in the classroom. Now we can access experts around the world, including those sitting in the next desk over.

Student-driven classrooms empower students to synthesize research to address authentic tasks. Mrs. V does a great job fostering research and information fluency skills with her AP Government class. One recent project involved students using resources and technology to explore the different types of campaign ads. They researched various campaign ads, identified key details of each type, and then worked with peers to create a recorded ad that either attacked the opponent or flattered their chosen candidate. In addition to understanding campaign ads, they had to have a working knowledge of their candidate and his/her opponents.

In student-driven classrooms, the students use appropriate digital tools to collaborate with peers and experts regardless of physical location in meaningful and purposeful communication. Mrs. S often designs challenges that promote collaboration within and beyond her classroom to address authentic tasks. In a recent visit, I saw her introduce the newest student-led projects. The ninth-grade students chose which groups they would work in and assigned roles for each student within their group. Students will access assignment information within Blackboard. They will communicate with Mrs. S and each other via email, texting apps, Blackboard, and Google Drive for communication and collaboration throughout the project. Mrs. S introduced a GANTT sheet and how to use it for time management and accountability. She also set midpoint conferences where every student meets with her to show work that they have completed to date. Students are driving the communication efforts by choosing the appropriate digital tools to complete all aspects of the project, while also using the group norms they established within their groups.

In student-driven classrooms, questioning techniques and critical thinking strategies are enhanced as students work to solve problems in authentic tasks. Ms. W works with eighth-grade students in an alternative school. Some would argue that she has an even bigger challenge in engaging students in relevant learning. She gladly accepts that challenge and works diligently to provide her students with authentic learning opportunities. Recently, her students learned about Hurricane Katrina through video, first-hand accounts, and research. They also discovered that New Orleans is at risk for flooding again. They used that information to create a solution for how to prevent mass chaos/death again and created presentations using Google Slides to share with the class. They synthesized their research to provide three solutions that would help prevent the damage done during Katrina. This is a real-life problem that the students are working to solve.

Creativity and innovation are fostered in student-driven rooms because students get to develop original ideas and create products by applying critical thinking, research methods, communication tools, and collaborative processes. One example of this comes from Mrs. M’s English 3 class. Students were given a list of topics referring to the Great Depression and its impact on America during the 1930s. Each student chose one topic to research and then created an original digital project using: Prezi, Word or Publisher (brochure), LucidPress, Posterini, MakeBeliefsComix, or a video app. Mrs. M strives to introduce students to new creation platforms to increase their comfort levels as they build their repertoires. At the same time, she empowers them to find other digital creation tools that she has yet to discover.
All of these experiences, designed by the teachers and those that happen organically, move students to engage at a deeper level and allow for real learning to occur.

Snippets from Student-Driven Classrooms

I love this chart, created by Tony Borash, and adapted from Henrico County’s Teaching Innovation Progression (TIP) Chart: 

I use the TIP Chart when working with teachers on increasing student-driven learning via best practices surrounding technology infusion. Here are a few snippets from recent visits at the Bill R. Johnson CTE Center in Crowley ISD.

Mr. H teaches a Correctional Services class. The lesson I recently observed involved students creating radio communication tools. They were given access to the Course Communication List and then collaborated as a team to determine if they needed anymore 10-codes or codewords.  Students accessed their research and information fluency skills to research other department 10-codes for examples as well as to think about codes that would have helped in previous scenarios they experienced in prior classes. Their jobs were to create tools that explained proper radio communication and proper use of duress codes to other law enforcement classes. They were split into two groups for the project. One of the students is the Captain of the class (voted as such by his peers), so he appointed the topic to each team leader. Lieutenants (Team Leaders) were charged with making sure their teams remained on task. There was a group participation rubric to guide the teamwork aspect, as well. Prior to this lesson, Mr. H had shown students some various tech resources (Marvel Comic Maker, Storyboard That, video, Prezi, etc.) that they could use to create a final project that would teach about their particular communication tool. Students were actively engaged throughout the class period.

 

Mr. C teaches Advanced Commercial Photography.  I visited during a lesson on studio lighting. For this lesson, the students worked in groups to research a studio portrait style that they found visually interesting. Then they worked to replicate that lighting style by first using lightingdiagram.com to virtually place their subject, camera, lights and background. Once complete, the pair/small group went to the studio to use that diagram to place subject, lights, and camera in a similar arrangement to see if their capture was the same look as the one they researched. Through research and collaboration based on prior knowledge, the students learned about the placement of lights, exposure, shadows, form, key lights, fill lights, background/hair/rim lights, while using online software to plan before they shoot. Their critical thinking skills were tested if the lighting diagram planning failed to yield the “look” they were hoping to achieve. Mr. C intentionally designed this opportunity to allow students to synthesize research, communicate/collaborate with peers, and apply critical thinking skills to address an authentic task.

 

Mr. M teaches an Advanced Film class. During my most recent visit, the school was having a pep rally. Mr. M’s class was responsible for filming the event. They had to employ knowledge of recording equipment by using proper monitoring of equipment to ensure quality recordings; setting appropriate levels before recording using broadcast standard tools; identifying standards for logging notes or comments in the original recording process. The students were given crew positions the day before the pep rally and were to fulfill the requirements of each position during the production phase of the pep rally projects. The setup was similar to other events some of the students had previously filmed so those students were able to take on the teacher role in different aspects of production. One student was the director who decided where the cameras were set up and what shots the cameras needed to cover. The director wore a headset that allowed him to talk to the other students to give them instructions throughout the production.

I saw evidence of student-driven learning in various areas. The students accessed prior knowledge and experience to address the authentic task of filming the pep rally. Communication and collaboration among peers took place throughout the pep rally to ensure quality results. More communication and collaboration happened after the pep rally during the editing process. Students used critical thinking and problem-solving skills to determine key placement for setup, camera lighting and positioning.

You may not teach photography, corrections, or film, but what strategies did these three employ that you could apply in your classroom? This journey to student-driven classrooms is about transforming instructional practice, and these teachers are setting the pace.

Other posts on this subject include:

Solving Real-World Problems in High School Engineering

Student-driven learning in the math classroom

What Student-Driven Learning Actually Looks Like (Hint: It Looks Fun)

“But that’s not how I learn” – Part 2 of What Student-Driven Learning Really Looks Like

 

Solving Real-World Problems in High School Engineering

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I grew up in a small town. I’m raising my children in that same small town (I know. Sounds like a John Mellencamp song). While I love small towns for many reasons, I do get a bit envious of the learning opportunities that bigger districts can provide. One of my favorite districts to work with is Crowley ISD in Crowley, Texas. They have a CTE center there that boasts of some of the best teachers I’ve ever met. For many of them, teaching is a second career after leaving the military, law enforcement, or some aspect of the business world. I’ve written about some of them in the past. I got to hang out with them again this week, and they brought their A game just like they always do.

The class I observed taught by Mr. P was Principles of Engineering. When I visited, the students were already a week into their projects, and on day four of the collaborative design phase. Their purpose of the project was to design, create, test, and evaluate a compound machine while collaborating effectively with others in a design team. I love this sentence from the lesson plan Mr. P shared with me prior to my visit, “There is no one lesson or objective today as students will be directing me to assist with whatever “step” they have achieved.” Doesn’t that statement get right to the heart of student-driven learning? The students were all designing, building a model of, and then completing a CAD of a machine that could remove the hardtop cover of a Jeep. They had an authentic problem to solve. Before my visit, the students had already sketched their designs on grid paper. They were all in the model-building phase, choosing from a variety of materials (i.e. Fischer Technik, Legos, or VEX components). While circulating among groups, Mr. P saw a common issue that needed to be addressed. He was able to pull them back together as a whole class to demonstrate how to draw a gear on Autodesk CAD design software. The students would watch him draw a step, and then they would do the same on their own computers. This was a step they would all be taking next in their projects as they all incorporated some type of gear into their machines.
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At the conclusion of the project, students will write a reflection piece about themselves, as well as evaluate their peers as part of the collaboration process. The groups will vote on the best design to then build to scale and test on a real Jeep. Doesn’t get more real-world than this, right? 

If you like these practical examples of real teachers facilitating student-driven learning, stay tuned. I’ll be sharing more stories from Crowley ISD soon.