For the teaching community, summer vacation usually means swapping lectures for laxity and note-taking for refreshing days at the pool or beach. But not so at Waldron Mercy Academy, located in Merion Station, Pa., where each summer, a dedicated group of teachers gathers to refresh their technological knowledge.
The unpaid professional development workshops, initiated at the school a decade ago, generally last one to five days per session, depending on the topic. Each workshop attracts up to 20 of the school’s 42 full-time instructors. The training focuses on showing instructors how to use technology as a teaching and learning tool.
“The goal is to help teachers implement technology in the classroom,” says Kate McKenna, director of technology at the private Catholic school, which serves 542 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
Past summer sessions included the use of Tablet PCs in the classroom, the ABCs of teaching with interactive whiteboards, working with digital photography and how to create a Web page from scratch. “Our kids are learning so much more using technology,” McKenna explains. “These are 21st-century kids, and we as educators need to prepare them for their future.”
“Technology has challenged me to find better ways to instruct my students and to get them to think about what they are learning,” says Sister Barbara Mac Williams, who is completing her 13th year at Waldron Mercy. The third-grade instructor reports that the workshops have been critical to achieving her goal of using the latest digital tools within each of the curriculum areas she teaches.
Eileen Aurand, who has taught at Waldron Mercy for 10 years, finds the staff development sessions rewarding. “Having had a long stretch away from the classroom [to raise her children], I viewed the time in training as a chance to bring myself current with what was occurring in the classroom,” she explains. “I believe teachers should keep themselves informed by using the training provided. It keeps things fresh and keeps us [aware] of new ideas.”
Applying what she learned from the workshops, Aurand taught her first-grade class to download digital photos to accompany their story-writing tasks. A classroom Web site serves as a one-stop resource for students and parents, enabling them to check for homework assignments and notices of upcoming events or view digital photos from a field trip.
“The children enjoy the interactive dimension of this equipment,” says MacWilliams. Her third-grade students recently used computers loaded with Inspiration software to learn about various landforms using organization and mapping techniques.
Mary Jane Ryan, who has participated in numerous training courses during her 17-year tenure at Waldron Mercy, believes a teacher’s ability to integrate technology into the curriculum produces a powerful learning dynamic. Pointing to research that shows kids learn best from other kids, Ryan hails a variety of technological tools as the perfect means to achieve this goal.
“That attitude in the classroom frees everyone from the fear of making mistakes or asking for help,” Ryan says. “Children and teachers thrive in an atmosphere of teaching and learning from each other.”
“This is how kids learn,” McKenna echoes. “They are used to technology. It’s more exciting for them to learn this way.”
To make the training sessions as convenient as possible, McKenna surveys teachers in the spring, requesting their input about times and dates desired for training, as well as any topics they would like to see covered.
As an incentive to attend, high-tech “treats” are given away at each session. Recent rewards included a Tablet PC and a handheld device. Although appreciative of the chance to implement these devices in their classrooms, the teachers are reaping even more valuable returns from their workshop attendance.
“I just couldn’t go back to traditional teaching,” Ryan says. “It would put such a different face on waking up in the morning. As it is now, no day is a repeat of another. It’s hard to know what kids will learn and share, or how they will see history. It’s dynamic learning.”
McKenna reports that the school’s eight Tablet PCs have been especially valuable. “A teacher can create a learning experience such as a PowerPoint [presentation] right on the Tablet PC and hand it to a student, and the student can participate,” McKenna explains. “It helps keep their attention.”
During a recent classroom observation of a lesson using an interactive whiteboard with a Tablet PC, McKenna recalls that “every single student was on task and paying attention to the lesson. You don’t normally see that. It was a great sign.”
To build on its summer sessions, Waldron Mercy maintains its focus on technology training throughout the year. The school’s full-time instructional support specialist meets regularly with teachers during their prep periods to complete individualized training by grade levels and to help with technology-focused lesson plans. And several of Waldron Mercy’s after-school professional development sessions include an emphasis on technology.
To complement its training, the school introduced Technology Make & Take, one-hour weekly “quickie-tech” sessions about a specific skill. “The idea is that teachers can learn it, take it back to the classroom and use it right away,” McKenna says.
“Our teachers have come so far, from a place where they were afraid to touch the computer for fear of breaking it, to [now] using whiteboards and the Internet and technology projects throughout their curriculum,” McKenna says. “Technology is tying it all together.”
“Technology blows the roof off of traditional learning from a textbook,” Ryan enthuses. “It’s fun! It’s interactive! And kids remember it. Former students come back to me and say, ‘Do you remember when we… .’ That’s learning, not teaching.”
Possessing the newest tech tools means very little if teachers can't effectively implement them into the curriculum. Kate McKenna, director of technology at Waldron Mercy Academy in Merion Station, Pa., sums up the importance of ongoing staff training: “We knew that if we didn't have meaningful professional development, we’d just end up with a lot of expensive equipment gathering dust.”
Here are some ways to offer professional development options at your school:
• Professional seminars are an excellent method to deliver comprehensive training on key areas of development.
• Online training instantaneously transports teachers to a virtual classroom, offering numerous training opportunities.
• Videoconferencing provides an interactive training forum, while bridging the distance between instructors and trainees and keeping costs low.
• After-school training offers a quick forum for teachers to improve their desired areas of technological development.
• Technology equipment vendors are often willing to provide software or hardware training either online or onsite.
• Web-based chat sessions and message boards allow teachers to exchange ideas and lesson plans.
• Knowledge sharing enables a teaching community to benefit from sending a few individuals to a conference or workshop. Ask those who participate in a technology event to present an overview of what they learned during a faculty meeting.
NOMINATING A STAR
Waldron Mercy Academy is the current winner of CDW•G’s Tinfoil Star Award, which honors educators who use technology to enhance learning. To submit a nomination, visit edtechmag.com and click on the “feedback” button to send an e-mail.
Melissa B. Tamberg owns a San Diego-based marketing firm that focuses on the IT and power industries.