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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teachers Helping Teachers: The Path to School Improvement

An effective mentoring program in El Paso, Texas, helps teachers successfully integrate technology into the classroom.
By Jorge Descamps

Gloria Contreras (standing) helps teachers develop evaluation standards and rubrics for technology-based projects with their students.

Credit: UTEP

Every Monday morning at 8 o'clock, Gloria Contreras joins her team of third-grade teachers at H.D. Hilley Elementary School to discuss strategies for integrating technology with classroom activities. Experienced and beginning teachers alike bring their questions to the meeting:

How do I find the time to use HyperStudio with my science activities?

How do I evaluate technology-based lessons?

How can I increase the memory in my computer to run my software?

As a technology mentor teacher, Gloria listens to these questions and shares her ideas with her colleagues. Both Gloria and her mentees benefit from the experience: Teachers learn how technology can transform traditional instruction, and Gloria deepens her practice by reflecting on her own teaching with technology.

Gloria is part of an innovative mentoring program resulting from a partnership between the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and area public schools. Two U.S. Department of Education Technology Innovation Challenge Grants have enabled 350 teachers to enroll in a UTEP master's program integrating educational technology and teaching. The centerpiece of the program is a mentoring class designed to enhance the technology and leadership skills of teachers as they mentor other teachers.

By using mentoring to transform classroom teaching, this grant has been one of the primary forces driving the school technology reform agenda in El Paso. As graduates such as Gloria mentor at least three other teachers at their schools, an estimated 1,000 teachers will benefit from the program by the end of the grant period in 2003.

Students transform their traditional pencil-and-paper stories by adding original art work, graphics, and sound elements.

Credit: Marcos Martinez

Theory to Practice

Why a separate course on mentoring? Because the theory taught at many universities does not necessarily translate into classroom practice. During the course, Gloria practiced her mentoring skills with a cohort of five teachers. "We developed skills for effective interpersonal communication, such as being a good listener and providing meaningful support and guidance to our colleagues. Not only did we learn the theory, but we learned how to support each other," she says.

For example, using their skills from the course, the cohort developed an integrated unit on air pollution -- a topic of great concern in El Paso, a metropolitan area of 700,000 sitting on the Rio Grande. Gloria and her colleagues discussed the role of technology, conducted research, collaboratively wrote the lessons, and chose appropriate graphics and software for the topic.

Continually reflecting on the lesson objectives, members of the group mentored each other every step of the way. At the start of the course, some cohort members were strong writers; others were more technically savvy or had better research skills. Over time, however, all members were able to improve upon all these skills; each teacher learned to give and receive support in a non-threatening atmosphere.

As Gloria says of the experience, "In order for us to learn, we had to learn together."

Underlying the UTEP course is the assumption that mentoring involves more than just teaching others how to use technology. It also involves guiding class members as they discover new ways to use technology most effectively, and working to resolve the challenges they encounter while helping other teachers use technology. Gloria practiced how to be a mentor through simulation and role-playing. The instructor divided the class into small groups. Half of the participants played the role of mentors and the other half played the role of mentees, reenacting situations they experienced at their schools. Group discussions followed these dramatizations.

First-graders in Maria Aguilera's class create multimedia stories from activities in their Writer's Workshop.

Credit: Emerald Jasmine Maese

Becoming a Learning Organization

The mentoring course gives teachers a clinical setting in which to examine and share their teaching practices with the instructor and cohort members. The mentoring relationships developed in the course help break down walls that in the past have isolated teachers, allowing colleagues to become members of a team. By continuously reflecting on their practice, the mentors experience their own professional growth at the university and at their schools, which helps each school become a "learning organization" where participants support each other as they integrate technology into curricula.

Back at her school, Gloria took "baby steps" to help other teachers learn to use technology. "I thought, 'There's no way I could mentor other teachers, motivate them, or get them enthused -- it's just going to be too much work.' Then I realized that if I could get one teacher interested, I could get others interested."

"So, I visited first-grade teacher Maria Aguilera and saw her students' beautifully written stories hanging on the wall," Gloria continues. "I asked Maria if I could borrow the students' work and put the stories into HyperStudio. Maria and her students saw how the technology transformed their work, making it look professional with added sound and graphics features. As Maria witnessed her students' enthusiasm, she decided to accept the challenge herself and worked with me to learn how to implement technology in her classroom. As a mentor, I had my first mentee."

Exchanging Ideas

During Gloria's initial meetings at her school, she asked teachers what areas of technology use they were most interested in. She then used her own students' writings to highlight how technology tools support learning. "Teachers at my school would say, 'I like what you are doing, but how do I get my students started using technology?' This is exactly how the mentoring course supported me. I demonstrated an idea to make the lesson more concrete for our teachers, and they learned valuable skills, such as using a scanner and converting files using multimedia tools."

"Our first step as a group was to develop a five-point rubric for assessing technology-based lessons," Gloria says. "These rubrics help students understand what is expected of them by defining what kind of work earns five points, four points, and so on. For me, the rubrics provide a means for assessing the students' projects. These rubrics are now posted in each room."

A mentor helps reduce the anxiety of new learners by adjusting learning tasks to fit their proficiency level. Without one-on-one mentoring, many teachers are afraid to use technology in their classrooms. Leslie Chavez, one of Gloria's mentees, explains, "I had three computers in my classroom and never knew what to do with them. With a mentor's help, I've been able to realize what is possible. We've expanded our Writer's Workshop by having students create and publish their own stories using computers. Gloria is here when the questions come up, and the ongoing day-to-day contact makes the difference."

"I was afraid to use technology because it's hard to show students something I don't know," continues Chavez. "Now I feel comfortable letting students work through problems that may arise with the technology. I was afraid they would learn it 'wrong,' and now I know that's not true. The students often help me."

The experiences of Gloria, Maria, and Leslie are not unique. Graduates of the UTEP program are taking the skills they learn back into their classrooms. They are mentoring colleagues in their schools and are more involved in campus technology planning activities. They report that their students are working more cooperatively, are learning more, and are more willing to try new things. Through its innovative use of mentoring, the UTEP program is providing teachers with the skills to transform their schools into twenty-first-century learning institutions.

Jorge Descamps, Ed.D., is co-director of the 1995 El Paso Technology Innovation Challenge Grant and professor of education at the University of Texas at El Paso.
An adaption of this article is published in Edutopia: Success Stories for Learning in the Digital Age.

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