Tennessee: BEACONS Project Gets Blue Springs Elementary On the Road to True Technology Integration

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"Looking around our school building, it's hard to imagine all the changes that have occurred in just one year." This comment by Blue Springs Elementary School Principal Sheena Newman is often ech'ed by the teachers, parents and students from this small, rural school in East Tennessee, which has about 195 students in grades K-5. It was just one year ago that we at Blue Springs embarked on a journey to transform our school into a model for technology integration. The BEACONS (Becoming Excited About Computers Offering New Strategies) Project was funded by a Tennessee EdTech competitive Launch grant. These funds have not only provided students the opportunity to learn with the best of tools, but have given the teachers the necessary training to use these tools effectively.

Increasing Tech Literacy for All

A key requirement of Tennessee's EdTech project is the creation of a technology coach position at each competitive grant winner's school. Too often, professional development is completed in a whole group setting, where teachers are given "one dose" of training and then expected to implement the new strategies on their own. This is why a technology coach is now available to give "just in time" training to teachers in real-life situations, thereby ensuring that these new strategies are likely to continue. As tech coach for Blue Springs, I have been designated as the "keeper of the flame" for our BEACONS Project. It is my responsibility to design, manage and implement strategies for technology integration. Our teachers are learning that technology is not a separate curriculum, but an appropriate and critical part of everyday learning. We have implemented a comprehensive professional development plan that includes after-school and summer workshops, visits to other schools to view examples of best practices, and attendance at regional and national technology conferences. By setting aside time in the school schedule for grade-level technology integration planning, we are able to design activities that address not only the core curriculum standards, but also incorporate ISTE's National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) as well.

And the results have been phenomenal. It has been extremely gratifying to see the increased levels of tech literacy for both students and teachers. Our teachers are realizing the power and potential of computers and the tremendous impact technology can have on student motivation and learning. It is routine to see a member of the student Technology Team defragmenting a hard drive or installing critical updates to Windows XP. This might not sound extraordinary until one discovers that these are 10-year-olds providing scheduled maintenance. In addition, Blue Springs has initiated a student-written newspaper in which reporters are given their assignments and press badges by a faculty sponsor. It then becomes their job to gather the news and manipulate text and photos into a page layout program. The newspaper, appropriately titled "The BEACON" is delivered to all students twice each month.

Parents of Blue Springs students have also benefited from the BEACONS Project. Classes are offered in how to use software that will not only improve their viability in the increasingly demanding job market, but also gives them skills that they can use to assist their children as well. A school Web site, www.bluespringselementary.com, was created that presents a chance to "shine" our BEACONS and allows for increased two-way communication between school and home. Special celebrations also are held that showcase technology. Parents witness their child's success firsthand by viewing student-created technology projects and multimedia presentations.

Partnering for Success

Another unique component of the Tennessee EdTech Launch grants is the partnering of a Launch school with a TLCF (Technology Literacy Challenge Fund) Pilot school (part of Tennessee's first round of technology integration grants). Blue Springs has been very fortunate to have a sister school in the Bradley County District as a mentor. This school, the Black Fox Elementary School, has been an important factor in the success of our BEACONS Project. Their original efforts to change the way they use and view technology was the inspiration for our own journey toward technology integration. Our schools have worked closely to develop activities that can connect our respective students technologically.

Cindy Ray, Black Fox Elementary School's technology coach, has been an invaluable resource, helping with tried and tested strategies and ideas. Blue Springs faculty members were paired with teachers from Black Fox with similar classroom assignments. This relationship has helped create an exchange of ideas at a more personal level. It is our hope that both schools will become part of the future Orbit Centers that the state envisions for systemic change. Each school plans to reach out to other schools in Bradley County to provide training and resources, assisting in efforts to integrate technology districtwide. Bradley County Director of Schools Bob Taylor agrees with this bold vision and is committed to providing the necessary support to enhance technology education in the school district. As testimony to this fact, six schools from the district have been given approval to apply for the new EdTech Launch 2 grants that will be awarded this year.

The success of the Blue Springs Elementary BEACONS Project is perhaps best expressed by Suzanne Wallace, veteran kindergarten teacher with 30 years of experience: "Where was I, technologically speaking, before the grant on a scale of one to 10? I was definitely a one. I have surprised myself! I can do things I didn't think I could learn. I thought I was too old for new tricks. Now I try to integrate technology into each week's lessons. I look for more ideas on the Internet and use PowerPoint presentations for review."At Blue Springs, we have only just begun our journey toward true technology integration. It is our goal to become a shining example that will light the way for other schools in Tennessee.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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