Oct 30 2007

Sparking School Reform

Sparking School Reform

Chris Rother

Pennsylvania’s Classrooms for the Future initiative is an ambitious undertaking that aims to transform high school classrooms into 21st-century learning environments. To date, the $200 million, three-year program has equipped 357 high schools with the essentials of 21st-century classrooms. This initiative is designed to improve teaching and learning in Pennsylvania’s high schools by creating technology-enriched instructional settings in English, math, science and social studies classes. Yet Project Manager Holly Jobe says Classrooms for the Future is not a technology program. “It’s a school reform effort,” asserts Jobe.

A peek into any of the thousands of classrooms involved in the undertaking confirms Jobe’s assertion. Take the group of at-risk learners who used to frequent the principal’s office in one school. When the math teacher assigned the task of designing and creating a geometric container on the computer, all students showed up for every lesson, completed the project and demonstrated a new level of excitement and engagement. In other schools, students take on the role of Hamlet characters and blog about their tragic trials and tribulations during English class. “They’re writing, assimilating and creating something new,” notes Jobe. In other words, these children are reaching the highest National Education Technology Standards.

Notebook carts and interactive whiteboards are key ingredients of the program, but the true enablers of systemic change are the coaches supplied to each participating school. “The coach gives teachers someone to rely on who understands how to integrate technology in a meaningful way,” says Mark Erb, director of technology, Upper Merion School District. Coaches set the stage for successful change by providing real-time assistance and helping teachers learn about and build instructional strategies around tech tools such as flip charts for whiteboards, says Ron Meisberger, technology coordinator for Pine-Richland School District.

Coaches provide support and technical know-how to integrate technology. In Upper Merion, the social studies teacher turned to the coach to assist with an upgrade from the traditional oral presentation on a geographic region to a wiki space that facilitates postings and discussion of the conventional oral report on a region.

Other essentials include administrative support. Principals, superintendents and curriculum directors need to understand how teachers interact with this technology and remove any barriers that remain. At the same time, teachers need to grasp the impetus for and implications of the program. To help teachers reflect on their practices, the state offers a series of online courses, beginning with an overview of the need for change.

Pennsylvania’s comprehensive program has demonstrated significant outcomes in just over a year, and provides an excellent blueprint for educators and politicians across the country.

Farewell to the Sage on the Stage

The push for 21st-century learning skills across the country means a change in most school classroom models. Although most desks still face forward, the instances where a teacher lectures from the front of the class, the sage on the stage model, are decreasing. These days, you’re more likely to find students collaborating on projects with teachers acting as facilitators for hands-on learning.

In Pennsylvania’s Upper Merion School District, work is completed student-to- student and student-to-teacher. But it is also completed between students and the world, where children collaborate with international peers via the Internet. “This model can extend the 40-minute class period ad infinitum,” says Mark Erb, the district’s director of technology. For example, social studies wikis allow students to connect across the globe at any time.

Making Sure Tech Integration Reaches the Classroom

Pennsylvania’s experts offer four ways IT directors can help teachers use technology in their classrooms:

  1. Make technology seamless for teachers by preparing equipment prior to lessons. Keep notebooks and whiteboards updated.
  2. Work with the vendor before and after sales, focusing on planning, product knowledge and support.
  3. Embed professional development into the school day. The tech coach and tech resource teachers at Pine-Richland High School meet with teachers every day.
  4. Collaborate with administrators to establish and monitor expectations.

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