By Jennifer Wohlleb
Technology in the classroom is nothing new, but incorporating it into classroom lessons and curricula can still be a gray area for some teachers.
Thanks to a $30 million, four-year, Race to the Top–District grant to the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, the 17 eastern Kentucky school districts served by the co-op now have a districtwide innovation coordinator to help educators tackle this issue.
PHOTO: Fifth graders at Floyd County’s Prestonsburg Elementary School use their district-issued, take-home laptops as part of the regular classroom curriculum.
“Through the grant, we were able to support each district so they would have an innovation coordinator at the central office level,” said Jeff Hawkins, KVEC’s executive director. “For some districts, that’s a new type of position, to have someone there who is really focused on looking for new opportunities, making connections and trying to figure out what the next step in the evolution of education is. The grant does not pay for that full person, so that means that districts have made a commitment of that being a goal, so that speaks well of the districts involved.”
These positions are just one piece of the grant (see sidebar below), which aims to personalize and improve student learning, among other goals. Each district also received funds to create a Next Generation classroom in each of the 100 schools in the region, including a 70-inch, interactive Mondopad, which is somewhat like a giant iPad, for each of those classrooms. The grant also helps districts move toward funding one-to-one technology for students.
“That will allow each of those schools to have at least one classroom that is capable of linking to all of the other classrooms and be able to do dual credit course work, etc.,” Hawkins said.
Middlesboro Independent Schools is getting ready to hire its innovation coordinator and Superintendent Steve Martin said a position like this is crucial as the role of technology in the classroom continues to grow.
“Almost as we’re doing things (with technology), there are more new things, and it’s hard sometimes to discern the things we want to grab hold of and use with our students,” he said. “You can’t do everything, even in the field of technology. That’s one thing I think the innovation coordinator will help us with in our district, trying to part some of that out, trying to find what’s good and what’s valuable, what has some backing behind it, and what has some numbers to show how it’s been successful.”
How it works
Because personalized learning is one of the grant’s main goals, it looks different in each district. Some districts are providing students with take-home devices, others are leaving them in the classroom. And those devices include tablets or laptops.
But the district innovation coordinators meet at least monthly, if not more frequently, to share ideas and research. Back in their district, these coordinators often have their own leadership teams, usually consisting of a teacher from each school as well as others from within the district.
Harlan County Schools’ Assistant Superintendent Brent Roark, who is the district’s innovation coordinator, said using these teams builds capacity.
“They’re being trained on how to use the technology and how to focus on the personalized learning and how to really change what their instruction looks like in the classroom,” he said. “We will get a new crop of teachers every year that will come into this. We won’t just have nine teachers exposed to this from my district (at the end of the grant), we’ll have 36 teachers, four from every building and this gives us a pretty good base to build on.”
These teachers from each school covered by the grant also received training from the University of Kentucky’s Next Generation Leadership Academy. A new group will go through each year.
Floyd County Schools’ Innovation Coordinator Courtney DeRossett sees her main role as helping teachers generate ideas about technology and use innovative teaching practices.
“We need to make sure that all of this exciting information and technology and all the funding that has gone into this grant gets utilized,” she said, “not just for the duration for the grant, but that we’re truly changing the practices of teachers from now on, when this grant is over in four years, that we still have the benefits of it.”
Technology in action
DeRossett said teachers and especially students have been quick to embrace the greater role of technology in learning.
“The second day the Mondopad was put into place at Allen Central High School, the kids were all over it,” she said. “I was getting there as the kids were leaving class and they didn’t want to leave. It has a five-finger touch, so five people can be on it at the same time. It’s by far better than anything I’ve seen.
“It can go from a Smartboard to a computer to integrating both, so you can be bringing in your Word document and then incorporating it in with a picture, then mesh the two and mark on it. It has a camera on it, so you can film your lesson in HD quality and then send that to your students who were sick that day. Or they can link in and watch the lesson in real time through the board and it’s as if they were in the same classroom.”
Floyd County started its one-to-one program by providing all fifth and ninth graders with their own laptops. The program will be expanded to different grades over the next three years.
Teachers in those grades had a special two-day professional development session, part of which included officials from Blackboard, who walked teachers through the learning management system, which DeRossett said will help teachers not only with the use of technology to enhance their lessons but also to streamline their work.
“Blackboard is a place for the students and the teacher to communicate within the content,” DeRossett said. “The teacher can post videos, a reading assignment, an article, and they can post questions underneath it or a discussion board. They can post tests and quizzes and the student will have to log in and they can get feedback and it immediately goes to the teacher. They can post their assignments and it immediately goes to their teacher.”
It can be used to give tests and quizzes, which will be graded automatically if the questions are multiple choice.
“And even with an essay, the teacher can put in a rubric and it can scan and check for plagiarism automatically,” DeRossett said. “When I was a teacher I had to highlight three sentences and run it through Google to make sure that it wasn’t plagiarized, for every single paper. It automatically scans their papers and anything they turn in for plagiarism, and it scans them across the pool of students who have turned in work.”
And those are just examples of the basic things teachers can use this and other types of technology for.
“Once all the teachers buy into it and learn it, it will make their workload easier, and it will give them more time to create lessons to engage the students,” she said. “There is a lot to Blackboard, there is a lot that teachers still need to learn and that is where I come in, and I’m anxious to get in and start working on that part now. Every teacher has an account, every student has an account, and now that they’re all logging in and familiar with it, we’ll have those conversations and trainings to go deeper into beyond just posting a lesson and posting a video. Now we can go into the lets-make-your-life-easier part.”
Harlan County’s Roark said teachers in his district have embraced these changes.
“We have a lot of young, new teachers who are receptive to technology, and a lot of our seasoned teachers, they see the change out there and they’re wanting to learn, as well,” he said. “It does require time. The biggest thing is not the actual use of technology itself, but how to use the technology to effectively deliver instruction in the classroom, how to increase engagement with it; it’s how to use the technology to get the most out of it for our kids.
“Anybody can turn on a Mondopad or a Smartboard and put some kind of device in a child’s hands; it’s what they do with it after it’s in their hands, it’s how they apply it and what they learn from it.”
KVEC’s $30 million Race to the Top grant
Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, said there are five major components to its $30 million Race to the Top–District grant from the U.S. Department of Education:
• Increase personalized learning opportunities for every student, k-12 in the 17 KVEC districts.
• College and career success. “We don’t want to say college and career ready,” Hawkins said. “We’re pretty ambitious; we want to make sure our graduates are successful when they enter the world of work and when they go on to higher education.”
•Educator effectiveness. Being able to support the state models for effectiveness through various activities. That’s aimed at teachers, principals, superintendents and the other staff folks who fit in the PGES model.
• Accessible data. “We have the ability to utilize all of the state tools for data analysis, but we also have the ability to create some new processes along the way and connect all of those together so that we actually have everyone knowing what is the pertinent data for their role and their needs, and being able to use that effectively in decision making and do it in some careers in real time,” Hawkins said.
• Next-generation learning environments and the use of technology. (See main story)
Hawkins said the grant also has two value-added components, kindergarten readiness and wellness. KVEC plans to work with early child-care providers to create more rigorous academic environments so students come to school better prepared to learn. He said the co-op also wants to provide schools with a menu of health-care providers to work with on clinic visits and improving student health.
The grant also involves students in real-life problem solving through the Students Transforming Appalachia with Real Solutions (STARS) initiative. And it provides teachers with scholarships to work toward a graduate degree so they are dual-credit certified and to gain certification in a high-needs area or grade level.
Hawkins said sustainability is the end goal. A “doomsday” clock in the co-op’s office counts down to the end of the four-year grant.
“And at the time we want to be able to reverse the clock so that it goes forward and we’re still able to sustain this type of good work and collaboration that focuses on kids,” he said.
‘If we had money” obstacle removed for teachers
In its push toward innovation and personalized learning, KVEC’s Race to the Top - District grant is making mini grants available to teachers who have innovative ideas they want to try in their classrooms.
“It could be something like measuring the potability of water in a nearby stream, so they could use that mini grant money to buy test kits and have students track the water over a period of time,” said KVEC Executive Director Jeff Hawkins. “We want them to be creative.”
One hundred, $1,000 grants will be awarded to teachers in the grant’s 17-district region, and those teachers will attend a Promising Practice Summit this month that will be webcast nationally.
“Each of those teachers will explain to the people in their workshop what they applied for and what they hope that promising practice will be able to do, and be able to share some of those innovative things that are taking place across the region,” Hawkins said. “Then in April, they will all come back to an Action Research Summit and be able to talk about the actual results of the innovation that they initiated in their classroom and webcast that nationally.”
Courtney DeRossett, Floyd County Schools’ innovation coordinator, said these grants help remove the “if we had money, we could do this” problem faced by so many teachers.
“We have teachers applying for these mini grants that go anywhere from creating a table that’s a dry erase board that’s adjustable for kindergarten-third grade, with cushy seats, so kids are more engaged,” she said. “We have other schools that are looking at hands-on microscopes that can be attached to your laptops that turns it into a digital telescope. We have some things that are simple but innovative all the way up to high-tech gadgets.”