Cooperation Among Schools Leads To Innovative Program

Memphis City Schools go live with an innovative online instructional technology program.

Three key ingredients — collaboration, mentoring and professional development — provided the building blocks for the creation of a new online environment for Memphis City Schools (MCS) by its instructional technology division.

MCS launched its program in 2002 funded by an IBM-sponsored Reinventing Education grant aimed at helping school systems bring about the technical vehicle for creating a collaborative online environment. Behind the scenes, the participants began setting goals, organizing the stakeholders and creating the plan.

After four years, and a number of iterations, the online entity launched locally in February, with five Web-based courses, one open forum for new teachers, a national board mentoring forum for current candidates and a virtual community of literacy teachers and leaders building on prior professional development in teaching reading to young children.

Teachers, principals, media specialists and guidance counselors can create a classroom Web site with multiple pages by selecting a template, layout styles, graphics, fonts and colors before going live. School calendars, homework, classroom events and classroom news will be accessible for students and parents via the Internet. The Web site can be updated easily and quickly, and it shows new content immediately.

MODEL FOR COLLABORATION

During the development, the West Virginia Department of Education (DoE) hosted a server with nine other grant sites. Shared information became important. Software requirements that were adjusted to meet the needs of each site increased collaboration across the other grant sites.

The West Virginia DoE and Marshall University, Reinventing Education 3 grant partners, collaborated to develop IBM Teacher Workplace (TWP) electronic portfolios for teacher education and in-service teachers, explains Donna Landin, project director for the West Virginia Department of Education.

Currently, 55 high school teachers are developing portfolios to document the use of SAS inSchool Curriculum Pathways content and gains in student achievement over the school year, while 1,200 students are documenting and providing evidence of use and learning based on SAS inSchool content through the implementation of student portfolios, Landin says.

During 2005, West Virginia and Memphis City Schools teachers collaborated to host a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) Entry Four discussion. The IBM TWP provided the online meeting space for this forum. The success of the forum has prompted continued use of TWP to support online learning communities.

Memphis City Schools serve 8,000 teachers, all requiring different levels of support in their professional growth. Instructional technology, a division of curriculum and instruction, maintains three full-time staff positions and six integration coaches. An online community provides another avenue for supporting teachers and administrators.

Professional development courses are now available anytime, anywhere through the newly developed online portal. The online community requires a user name and password for access and then admittance into a specific course or forum, provided by the course facilitator. Participants who complete the course receive specific SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) credit toward certificate renewal.

The first course, the Virtual Community for Elementary Reading, piloted last year, was successful. “Teachers’ Workplace allowed me not only to collaborate with colleagues on my own time, but also to share information, feelings and thoughts when I could totally devote myself to the topic, unlike a 4 p.m staff meeting after a long day,” says Jennifer Cordera, a participating teacher.

Sandra McKnight, a district literacy administrator and course facilitator, says, “I worked with my colleague, Barbara Hellman, to research articles for the online community. We tried to find articles that would give teachers real food for thought and spur discussion. My teachers seemed to enjoy being a part of the virtual community. They loved having the opportunity to read articles and reflect on them from home.

“Some of the discussions were quite long and involved — and they really did respond to each other. I believe that the most important part was the sharing of ideas and the professional growth that everyone experienced.”

SUCCESSFUL PILOT

The pilot’s success has launched this year’s Elementary Literacy Laureates Virtual Community where graduates continue their collaboration with discussions, readings and idea sharing. The community began its work in October and will continue throughout the school year.

To date, graduates have discussed how their training changed their preparations for this year’s instruction, tips on classroom management and how to create a positive classroom environment. The discussion provided an article, Evidence-Based Literacy Education and the African-American Child, with questions for the participants to respond to and then share their ideas.

Three graduates of the Literacy Academy (a year-long professional development program for reading teachers at Memphis City Schools) serve as facilitators for this online community. They are Debbie Preslar, Georgian Hills Elementary; Regina Presley-Hill, Cherokee; and Joy Burks, Douglass Elementary. As the community continues each month, new articles will be added and new conversations will begin.

The discussion forum for new teachers addresses planning, teaching strategies, assessment and evaluation, classroom management, professional growth and communication, and the Tennessee Framework for Evaluation and Professional Growth process. Facilitators Shanda Boone, Linda Peete, Carla Maitland and I monitor discussions, offering help and information. The forum is open to new teachers who request registration. Greg Keith, new teacher staff development coordinator, designed the forum components and submitted the material for development online.

With the coming of a new semester, five additional online opportunities are available to teachers interested in continuing their professional growth in an online environment. The five new courses include Teaching and Learning with Technology, netTrekker Basics, Introduction to United Streaming, Just in Time-Atomic Learning and Introduction to MS Publisher. All courses offered will have SACS credit available upon completion of the course.

The instructional technology team members will facilitate the additional offerings for the spring. Each of these courses helps teachers become more technology literate, while learning to use technology as an instructional tool. The vehicle for their learning is the new technology, but the content is the focus.

In preparing for the new hardware installation, planning and communication were essential. The hardware — new blade servers — had to be ordered and received by the IT department. Permissions needed for remote software installation were obtained, the hardware was set up and an IBM specialist traveled to Memphis to finalize the installation. Once the specialist arrived, the process took two days.

William Walker, the special projects coordinator who assisted with the network installation, says, “Information technology utilized project management processes to implement the new hardware into the centralized server farm of Memphis City Schools. The IT network operation center will maintain support of the hardware backup, restore procedures and network performance monitoring. The installation effort required coordination of MCS’s internal IT department, the instructional technology department and specialists from IBM.”

The hardware that was required to establish this environment for a district of this size includes eight blade servers, each with different applications supporting the entire portal. The portal, which provides a Web access repository of personal and shared files, enables collaboration, reflective practice, evaluation, distribution, and journaling of professional knowledge, skills and practices for a learning community.

What is the single most important thing the technology team can do to support IT investments in their school districts?

79% train teachers to use technology effectively

Source: Poll of 63 EdTech readers

Linda Eller is a staff development coordinator for instructional technology in the Memphis City Schools.

Oct 31 2006

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