Oct 31 2006

Teachers Improve Through SIP

A Wichita elementary school uses technology to create a bank of teaching videos for evaluating educational best practices.

Teachers often work in isolation. Educators and administrators must “open the doors” so teachers can see what’s happening in other classrooms — both inside and outside their own building.

At Jefferson Elementary School, one of more than 100 learning centers in Wichita Public Schools in Kansas, the increasing need to improve teaching techniques through Standards in Practice (SIP) had teachers asking for the opportunity to see master teachers modeling effective lessons.

According to the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, “Students can do no better than the assignments they are given, so those assignments must be demanding, rigorous and aligned with the highest of standards.” Based on this tenet, SIP was created as a quality-control tool to evaluate everything from classroom assignments to teacher and administrator performance.

SIP works by creating conversations among teams of teachers about the quality and validity of student assignments. Through a six-step process, teachers find out if their assignments are strictly aligned with standards, discuss techniques to strengthen assignments and improve instruction, and learn how to improve their practices.

Teachers In Action

As the need for tools to evaluate best practices arose, Jefferson staff identified a way to use technology to meet this need. By using digital video and presentation software to capture teachers in action, the lessons could be shared and evaluated electronically by staff members.

In 2004, the school won an Improving Learning Through Technology grant from Wichita Public Schools’ Instructional Technology Department. The funding from their winning project, “Standards in Practice Heuristic Observation Network (SIPHON),” allowed Jefferson to begin the video evaluation program.

The program has enabled Jefferson’s instructors to create videos and reflect on their teaching practices based on SIP principles and practices. At the core of the school’s technology integration in the classroom and the SIPHON project is software that streams efficiently and simultaneously to multiple participants at various connection speeds, while providing live collaboration tools during synchronous sessions. Jefferson hosts the server in-house, but many users choose the online version.

The school began by creating a bank of lessons for teaching and instructional purposes in order to foster a best-practices learning environment for both teachers and students. Elaine McEwan’s The Principal’s Guide to Raising Math/Reading Achievement explains that teachers need a bank of model lessons to pull from in order to increase their effectiveness in the classroom.

The software package includes a digital video camera designed as a Webcam that focuses on an instructor, which works with a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation that’s in sync with the captured video. Because of the simplicity of operating the Webcam and recording software, many teachers tape themselves.

The first year of usage was voluntary and was embraced by early adopters. Teachers had the option of using the videos for personal use or sharing them with the staff. The hope was to create a groundswell of support for the new tool without forcing it on anyone. During that first year of implementation, the staff encountered its share of technical difficulties and challenges, but Jefferson’s Student Technology Leadership (STL) team assisted teachers with the setup and use of the technology.

When the captured video is played back, the viewer can watch the instructor teach the lesson as the PowerPoint plays. Jefferson has modified this design to accommodate the grant by upgrading the camera, turning the camera around and focusing it on the classroom rather than just using it to show a close-up of the instructor. This modification allows teachers to view their individual teaching methods, along with their students’ reactions.

Once a teacher has taught the lesson and reviewed the streaming video with peers, he or she determines whether students grasped the assignment being taught. If it is determined that the lesson fell short of attaining its expected goals, the teacher is presented with a list of resources that may help achieve future success.

Courtney Britson, a first-grade teacher at Jefferson, says, “As a first-year teacher, I enjoyed the opportunity to have my lessons taped so I could see where I needed to improve my instruction. It is not only beneficial to see myself, but also [to view] how my students are reacting to my lessons.”

Increasing Acceptance

At the end of the first year of implementation, roughly 28 percent of the certified staff had participated in a taped video lesson. In an end-of-year survey, 62 percent of certified staff viewed the SIPHON lesson positively, 30 percent were neutral and 8 percent felt negatively toward it.

The second year has seen a dramatic increase in usage. During each grade level’s monthly professional learning community day, a half-day is dedicated to staff development and planning, and teachers provide one SIP lesson to share. Teachers are asked to bring four videos per year for review by grade-level members. The videos are viewed only by team members and for the sole purpose of improving student learning by creating better lessons.

The majority of teachers now embrace the new technology and look forward to creating lesson videos. By the end of the third week in a nine-week period, 89 percent of the certified staff had created at least one streaming video during the 2005-2006 school year. In the second end-of-year survey, 65 percent of certified staff viewed the SIPHON lessons positively, 21 percent were neutral and 14 percent viewed it negatively.

Jefferson is monitoring the success of this project by tracking the number of visits to the intranet site that stores the lessons and by adding up the number of times the equipment is checked out. The lessons are also available to the other district sites.

The school anticipates further success in the project’s third year, as additional uses for the grant are realized. During the 2006- 2007 school year, Jefferson Elementary Technology Students — a group that comprises students in the third through fifth grades — will use the technology to create videos that teach teachers and staff how to use existing tech resources.

SIPHON’s success has impressed people in the district. As Greg Rasmussen, former executive director of instructional technology and current assistant superintendent of elementary schools for Wichita Public Schools, says, “Finding effective ways to capture and share best practices is critical to the long-term success of our district.”

Lessons Learned: Five Big Ones

1. Do your homework. Never purchase a new piece of software or hardware without seeing it in action. If necessary, take a field trip.

2. Embrace early adopters. Teachers will often be much more effective in promoting a new program than a technology coordinator.

3. Get the numbers. With all the initial excitement over a project, don’t forget to collect baseline data.

4. Train early, train often. Invest in staff development, before the nonessential pieces of the project are underway, to help with the implementation.

5. Prepare for the best and the worst. Be enthusiastic about the project, but be honest about its successes and failures.

Todd Brooks is literacy coach and site technology specialist at Jefferson Elementary School in Wichita, Kan.