As an assistant principal charged with introducing teachers to new technology, I continually ask myself how we can advance student engagement and implement strategies via technology that invoke teacher and student creativity, while maintaining the rigor and integrity of the curriculum. These concerns drive me every day in normal times, but with the rise of hybrid and remote learning, they are at once heftier and more urgent.
At the start of distance learning, I emailed the staff resources such as videos and demonstrations for particular tools; but while my intention was to offer support, the emails were largely unread by an already overwhelmed staff working on the front lines with their students. Missed opportunities were sitting in those in-boxes, and even if teachers did explore resources I shared, they often wound up feeling uncertain about how to proceed. Fresh ideas lay dormant, with little reprieve in sight.
I went back to my fundamentals and immediately knew that answers could be found among the teacher leaders right in front of me.
Conceiving a Digital Learning Team
I decided that we needed a team that would function much like a professional learning community (PLC) and that I would call it a Digital Learning Team (DLT); the way I envisioned it, through this team, colleagues could connect to support each other, share ideas, and build student engagement.
At my high school, the DLT is composed of five innovative and tech-savvy teachers from various content areas including chemistry, Spanish, and social studies, as well as our media specialist. Each one has unique skills and experience, so they are equipped to meet the diverse needs of the student body. The DLT gets together every other week to continually assess and develop new ideas and techniques that meet the needs of our teachers and students.
Starting With Grounding Questions and Feedback From Teachers
The DLT immediately asked critical questions to frame their work:
- How can we continue to promote authentic learning?
- How can we implement platforms/websites that teachers can use indefinitely, even after the pandemic?
- How can we use platforms as replacements for techniques that teachers used previously in in-person classrooms?
- How can we re-create formative assessments for students in the virtual classroom?
- What can we do to effectively assist teachers and directly connect with them?
Our goal was to help teachers navigate today’s circumstances and build student engagement in a way that was easy for teachers to understand. But it was quickly clear that the questions weren’t enough to guide us; we also needed feedback from teachers with detail about their needs that could keep us on track. We developed a comprehensive survey for teachers, and the data from it demonstrated that they wanted short professional development sessions from their peers to help connect content to technology. Data from the surveys also helped us to understand which platforms teachers implemented most and therefore which ones we should focus on.
A Plan and Strategies Emerge
Armed with that data, we developed a plan with four comprehensive strategies to connect and support teachers while providing information, engagement strategies, and professional development opportunities.
Digital learning teams and team captains: Each of the five DLT members is assigned to a department to coach and support; these team captains provide individualized instruction showcasing platforms such as Flipgrid, Pear Deck, and TeacherMade, as well as innovative applications for new Zoom or Google platforms. The captains regularly check in with the departments they coach and provide mini-lessons specific to their content areas, such as how to use the whiteboard feature in Pear Deck so that students can solve multiple math problems simultaneously; how to use Flipgrid for debates in social studies; or how to use Kami to teach about text structures. DLT members share a platform and then ask the department teachers if they have used the platform (if so, how; if not, why), how the DLT member can help them, and if they plan on attending presentations to learn more.
For example, Gabriela Sikorski, a Spanish teacher and team leader, worked alongside her World Language department to share Jamboard as an assessment tool. Since her demonstration in September, the utilization of formative assessments via Jamboard has increased and provided teachers with necessary daily data to make informed decisions about student understanding of new material. This information is used to differentiate students’ needs and plan the next day’s lesson.
Digital learning newsletter: Each month the staff receives a digital learning newsletter highlighting a platform or website. Every newsletter contains an overview, video tutorial, and engagement technique. For example, for a newsletter focused on Flipgrid, Spanish teacher Laura Tetto wrote about Flipgrid engagement strategies, while Gina Policastro, our media specialist and technology coach, provided a video tutorial covering related content. She also shared specific ideas for using Flipgrid during lessons, such as for character analysis review or a virtual debate, or for practical purposes like video response exit tickets.
Digital learning app: Our staff survey told us that we needed to condense and organize the resources into a user-friendly app. Jennifer Allessio, our high school chemistry teacher and science coach, designed the DLT app, which teachers can easily access from their desktop or phone. The app was created in just minutes using Google Slides by resizing the slides and linking them together, and it can be updated throughout the year as new ideas and materials surface.
Lunch and Learns/Tech Talks: As the fall progressed, teachers voiced the desire for models and interaction with experts. In response, we developed Lunch and Learns and Tech Talks, in which the DLT reviews a specific platform in brief, live sessions.
We record each session so that they are available on demand for teachers who cannot attend the live session. Staff members can engage with the expert and are encouraged to ask questions and share ideas. These 20-to-30-minute sessions have yielded great results for the teachers and the students. After one session, a teacher commented, “The quick, teacher led sessions are the BEST, [I] can not wait to try the new techniques like posing a Do Now question on Pear Deck and getting immediate responses from students.” After a Lunch and Learn focused on TeacherMade, teachers felt a sense of relief when they realized the platform could save them precious time; the DLT demonstrated how teachers could use the platform to easily convert existing documents to a digital format that students could engage with directly and that teachers could use for automatic grading.
Prior to each Lunch and Learn or Tech Talk, we send teachers a video teaser (not unlike a movie trailer and made with Biteable) that emphasizes reasons for attending and what specifically teachers can learn. I also created a calendar of the offerings in advance so that teachers can plan ahead of time and choose which sessions they want to attend.
The Digital Learning Team has been essential during hybrid and virtual learning. Teachers rely on the team to help them learn new platforms and take risks in their classrooms. They feel supported and are applying strategies they never thought were possible. Carolyn Bonifazi, an English teacher in my school, is a case in point. She shared that the support of this team and access to her team captain bring a sense of relief and community to her work: she now confidently applies Pear Deck to check for understanding, Kami for students to read and show their text evidence, and Flipgrid for presentations and student collaboration and response. She also refers to the DLT app and newsletters to bring new ideas into her virtual learning classroom every day.
The Digital Learning Team continues to create new content to advance the success of its staff and students. We are creating an Instagram account to share simple strategies for the various platforms and are hosting a Tech Showcase where teachers from all content areas can share what tools they use and how they use them. We also continue to expand our tech series lessons, share new platforms such as Parlay Ideas, and keep teachers up-to-date on new features from standard platforms such as Google Classroom and Zoom.