George Lucas Educational Foundation

Collaborative Crusader: Creating a Twenty-First-Century Learning Community for Teachers

A high school English teacher starts a one-woman quest to modernize teaching in a small town.
Sara Bernard
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Lisa Huff

Credit: David Julian

Giving instruction for a new-millennium makeover is an uphill battle for national organizations, let alone for solitary educators in the trenches. But Lisa Huff, a pioneering English teacher at Batesville High School, in Batesville, Arkansas, is doing just that: She's heading a movement to transform teaching and learning at her school one eager -- and sometimes apprehensive -- colleague at a time.

"We can't keep doing what we've always done," insists Huff. The fifteen-year veteran taught traditionally until four years ago, when her online master's degree in curriculum and instructional technology through Grand Canyon University revolutionized her teaching. Now she's intent on emphasizing project learning, creativity, problem-solving skills, and technology -- from blogs to wikis to RSS feeds -- to engage and connect her students.

Although the Batesville School District is a member of the Arkansas 21C Network (an offshoot of Yale University's School of the 21st Century initiative), Huff maintains that her school still lacks the support and resources needed to move the instructional revolution from talk to action. High test scores and a high-caliber staff notwithstanding, she says, "I want us to be better."

Thus resolved, she marched into her principal's office last school year and made her case: For any real transformation to take place, she said, teachers need a "twenty-first-century learning community." For Huff, this means a small group of committed individuals working together to become comfortable with new technologies and new practices. She believes a peer-coaching model is the only way to nurture the metamorphosis necessary for classrooms, principals, and school boards.

She asked to start small, with just one teacher from each academic department. She'd help bring them up to speed on new technologies, expanding to tech-integrated and project-learning lesson planning. If new teams were added each year, she argued, within five years everyone on staff would have gone through this coaching.

Principal David Campbell found his initial conversation with Huff exciting, "but when you're an administrator," he says, "you have to look at both sides of the coin." Would this be a worthwhile endeavor, given everyone's limited time and the school's limited budget? Echoing the sentiment of many in his field, he admits, "I grew up without a lot of technology, and I'm resistant to change."

But Huff's enthusiasm led Campbell to agree to a trial run. Huff recruited four instructors as well as Campbell and the Batesville school board president, Paul Hance. Participating teachers can allot a portion of their required professional-development hours to this initiative -- a small but significant first step.

Called the 21clc, the group held two full-day training meetings during the summer and now meets monthly throughout the school year. In between, it maintains a group wiki and personal blogs using EduBlogs as a host. Group members have compiled iGoogle pages and use Google Reader to subscribe to each other's and other educators' blogs, as well as gather new content from around the Web. They are also planning a blog-based book club, beginning with Grant Wiggins's acclaimed book Understanding by Design.

"We've created a real network here," says Huff -- a network that's designed to help participants battle what she sees as the biggest hurdle between educators and technology: fear.

"When Lisa asked if I wanted to do this, a large part of me was terrified," concedes Hance. Fortunately, he says, "it's been much easier to grasp than I thought it would be. Months ago, I would have had a difficult time finding a blog page, let alone putting a blog together."

Still, when it comes to reform, this is a drop in the bucket. "I'm just an English teacher," says Huff. "I have a full class load." To scale the idea and improve instruction districtwide, teachers need the support of technology coaches who have more time than she does, she adds.

Huff hopes the success of the fledgling 21clc group will bolster the movement so that the necessary funding and staffing will eventually follow. The good news so far is that her colleagues are beginning to share her vision.

Sara Bernard is a former staff writer and multimedia producer for Edutopia.

Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

liebes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A technology coach -- absolutely! I want to to learn new technology and employ it in my classroom, but the time it takes to learn it by trial-and-error in the classroom is just not efficient! I also need time to learn it and to experiment with it before I have to present it before a class. Time and training are my two biggest hurdles to incorporating any new technology in my classroom.

nilah cote's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Reading how one teacher can move a school is very inspiring. I especially like hearing about teachers who push their administrators toward 21st century learning. The peer-coach model that gives these teachers professional development time to learn from one another is an excellent idea.

Pat Bucci's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was excited to read this teacher's enthusiasm for helping others create 21st learning experiences for our students. I recently attended a workshop given by Heidi Hayes Jacobs in which she excited her group of administrators, supervisors and teachers about the possibilities of technology integration to truly prepare our students for a 21st century world. I have been researching opportunities and ideas to ignite enthusiasm in my staff and assist them in seeing the possibilites. I also understand the need to provide support and staff development. Websites such as this one provide ideas and I thank you.

Helen Grossman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We have formed a similar learning community for technology at our school through the MI champions inititive grant. Seven members of our high school staff, one from each curricular area attended the MACUL conference and have maintained an ongoing dialogue with a technology coach. It is a wonderful model for learning and has served to inspire all members of the MI Champions team to continue to enhance technology skills and integrate technology into the classroom on a daily basis.

Amy Benoit's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is reassuring that some teachers go the extra mile to help their students. I have a son with ADHD, in the eighth grade, and problems with school, and the school doesn't seem to want to change the way they do things to help him or any other student. I am looking into alternative schooling and classes for him, either school part time and online classes the other time. I am at a loss as to what to do with him. I am afraid he'll get "lost in the cracks", and will be unsuccessful in life because of his school experience. So, good luck to you all, and I will continue my search for answers that I know that are out there---somewhere.

Blythe Moynier's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach at a middle school in central California and we are a program improvement school in year 5 status. We have 2 people on our staff,only 2 who are considered to be technology experts. Although we are very busy carrying a full load, an increase of 200 more students this year as a result of a local middle school closing, we desperately need to be brought into the 21st century with respect to technology. , These two caring and gracious individuals have been trying to do the same thing as the teacher in the article. they have our administrators on board but our principal feels as if the rest of our staff should be on board with these trainings. The problem? We have a staff of very closed minded, traditional people who are not open to this idea. We are hoping to persuade them but how do you bring a group of teachers who have spent 20 years in the classroom into this century and on board to technolgy and its importance in the classroom and at the site?

Patty Olds's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The reality is that the staff really does not have a choice. Their students have grown up in a "digital playground," and are already light years ahead of the teachers in their everyday use of technology. We can not expect to engage students of the 21st century using third world methods.I am sure many of these closed minded teachers are also the ones who are grumbling about the students being lazy, inattentive,and disruptive. Kids are smart. They know that there are better ways to get the job done. Why revise and rewrite a paper by hand when it can so easily be done using a computer? The only way to bring the teachers on board is to have them see how much growth the students are making with the use of technolgy, as well as how engaged they are. Your admin should make a point of "showing off" the classrooms where technology is being used effectively.

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