Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Year in Review

A Fly on the Wall

Have you ever heard someone decide not to attend the big game because there was a better view on offer from home? This is the situation at a Bronx middle school, where the “big game” is being viewed with bated breath from afar thanks to the marvels of modern technology.

When Mr. Jason Levy, Principal of C.I.S. 339 School of Technology conjured up his vision of the school as an authentic 21st Century learning network, he took the brave move of continuing a professional development partnership with me, an Australian consultant, despite my impending return home with my family.

“How would you like to keep working for us from Australia?” Mr. Levy proposed. “Wouldn’t that be something!”

The Principal’s view was that schools today should reach beyond their walls. He is in the process now of achieving exactly that – thanks to his own passion for technology, and the drive of some brilliant teachers.

Many schools can probably boast of the use of technology somewhere, somehow in their curriculum, but C.I.S. 339 has adopted a whole school approach to technology-enhanced change. The wiki that was used for communication last year has now spawned not only a generation shift for some tech-fearing teachers, but also a more united, collaborative community.

Some school change experts have discovered that technology can increase the rate of change for a school, and that has definitely been the case here.

We started the year with a thematic “spider’s web”, encompassing not just online learning, but support structures and interconnectedness between teachers as colleagues, teachers and students, students and students, students and parents, and teachers and parents.

The explanation that accompanied the “spider’s web” was that if you get stuck, you’ll only end up in a bigger mess if you thrash about. If you help to create and maintain the paths of the web as a team though, you will be part of an awe-inspiring network.

The ‘threads of the network’ are really held together by the formation of teacher-led teams. Instead of coaches as instructional leaders, teachers facilitate their own meetings and record all agenda items, minutes and next steps. This was a daunting experience at first, but it has seen the emergence of teachers confident in their own abilities and decision-making, and teachers who are keen to exercise initative.

At the start of the school year we set up a communications network using gmail, Google Talk, blogs as professional development eportfolios, and Google Docs for shared planning and record-keeping.

Having a common platform of communication was essential, and this has paid huge dividends now, as information is shared and recorded more effectively.

This then progressed to the use of iGoogle for organization of online communication, and Google Groups for organization of resources. After surveying all teachers, we established a PD plan based on teachers’ own S.M.A.R.T. goals for professional development, student growth, and improved communication with parents, students and colleagues.

The school’s technology coach, Ms. Christina Jenkins has been instrumental in running after school professional development sessions for teachers, and now teachers are sharing their expertise by facilitating sessions themselves.

We started mapping initiatives across the school so that instead of isolated ‘pilot programs’, we had shared experience. Our Celebrations Pages are an ongoing record of these initatives.

So far this school year, I have taken on the varied roles of coach, cheerleader, commentator, critic, and cameraman. Teachers have engaged in online professional development through screencasts that I have created, but our intention is for learning to be more self-directed.

Some of the “players” are teaching me new tricks almost as quickly as I can formulate the next strategy, as teachers are teaching each other. One particular team has decided, on their own, to take turns in videoing their own lessons to enable peer review of their instructional methods. This is a startling breakthrough as it personifies both the spirit of sharing and the desire to keep on learning and improving.

Our next step is to draw in students and parents. I am very excited about the potential for us to keep parents more informed than ever before about their children’s education. Our dream is to set up “triads” and “transparency” – online learning relationships between teachers, students, and parents, which are visible beyond the boundaries of the classroom.

When the student work starts emerging online, I think we’ll have many interested ‘flies on the wall’.

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