Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Teacher Development: Fueling Teachers to Go High-Tech

How one elementary school trains and supports its staff to blaze a new digital trail.

April 26, 2010
Photo credit: Mark Wagoner

It isn't polite to ask a lady's age, but. . . let's just say many of the faculty at Forest Lake Elementary School, in Columbia, South Carolina, have taught at the school for decades. The teachers, almost all women, hardly fit the stereotype of the young, male computer geek.

So they get double kudos for defying expectations and turning their school into a high-tech learning-scape for young students. And kudos, too, to the Forest Lake administrators who have done a lot to empower them. Here's how they did it.

Tell, Don't Ask

Forest Lake principal Kappy Cannon didn't leave it up to teachers to decide whether they would join the digital revolution. As long as you provide adequate support, she reasons, you can demand that it be done. This mandate from the boss gave the school's tech-integration team a major boost. Also helpful: instructional-technology specialist Paulette Williams's sweet but insistent approach. When the school got interactive whiteboards, she gave teachers six months to relinquish their old overhead projectors. Then she said, "You can give me the projectors peacefully, or I'm going to take them." (Download Forest Lake's ideas for using interactive whiteboards.)

Appoint a Tech Specialist Who Knows Teaching

Williams taught for nearly 20 years -- almost ten of those at Forest Lake -- before becoming the school's tech maven a decade ago. So she understands what teachers need, and she can show them how to apply digital tools in the classroom.

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Set Aside Regular Collaboration Time

Grade-level teams at Forest Lake meet weekly to plan and solve problems. Every other week, each team joins Williams, curriculum coordinator Marian Scullion, and library media specialist Lizzie Padget for Collaborative Conference, a higher-octane planning session where they design multi-week study units. Williams suggests that if you can't charm 'em, feed 'em. She stocks the Collaborative Conference with ample baskets of Cheez-Its, trail mix, and animal crackers. The Williams-Scullion-Padget trio cultivates a relaxed environment, where teachers feel safe to vent their frustrations (which the tech team then, of course, tries to solve). Teachers who initially moaned about giving up a planning period have come to find that these sessions help with their lesson planning and resources, Williams says. "They do not come willingly at first," she adds, "but they will."

Build Technology into Lesson Planning

At Collaborative Conference, teaching teams fill out a detailed plan for their interdisciplinary study units. Among the required categories are technology components, useful websites, and pertinent videos from Discovery Education's United Streaming.

Provide Real-time Support

It takes a lot of trial and error to get the hang of this tech-integration thing. And Williams is a one-woman geek squad when it comes to helping teachers through the process. She offers sample lessons and carries a walkie-talkie for digital emergencies. She'll coach a teacher on a particular tech tool during a planning period. She also offers just to be present in the classroom the first few times a teacher tries something new.

Share Successes and have Teachers Present Them

No tech specialist, however skilled, can be quite as convincing as the teacher next door when it comes to encouraging innovation. Sometimes you just have to see it working in real life. Whenever Williams spots a teacher using digital tools in a new way (most recently, one did an online test with Google Docs), she pounces on the opportunity to have the trailblazer present it at the next faculty meeting. When she got samples of a new math program for the interactive whiteboard, she gave them to one teacher per grade and asked them to try it for a month and then share.

Make Training Relevant

One of Williams's standby training strategies is asking the question: "What can I teach for you?" Then she'll plan and deliver a lesson, based on the teacher's own curriculum, that models the benefits of a new tool. If she has at least three hours available to train teachers, as on an in-service day, she does a Make It and Take It workshop. Teachers bring a real lesson plan or project to work on. One past favorite: When learning how to build photo stories, teachers made their own family and wedding albums.

Keep Learning

The pace of the digital age doesn't allow you to rest on your laurels. Williams keeps up-to-date on the latest, greatest uses of educational technology by conferring with fellow tech specialists in the Richland Two School District and following other ed-techies through Twitter, RSS feeds on Google Reader, Diigo, Delicious, and Ning in Education. The district also provides tech training (no extra pay, just knowledge) to teachers who want to become informal mentors to their peers.

School Snapshot

Forest Lake Elementary School

Grades K-5 | Columbia, SC
592 | Public, Suburban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$4281 School
Free / Reduced Lunch
65% Black
27% White
5% Hispanic
2% Asian

5% English Learners

Data is from the 2009-10 academic year.

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Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • New Teachers
  • Online Learning
  • Professional Learning
  • Technology Integration
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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