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Targeted Instruction :: On Target

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Using technology to pinpoint problem academic areas can enable students to catch up, keep up, and get ahead.

On Target MARY ROONEY, an eighth-grade English and language arts teacher at the K-8 John Welsh School in Philadelphia, spotted a problem. On one of the recent “mini” tests the school administers every six weeks to help students prepare for the state assessments, her classes averaged scores in the 80s, but in evaluating the results, Rooney noticed there were two questions in particular that gave her students difficulty. “The questions dealt with the roots of words, which students are supposed to have some familiarity with by the eighth grade,” she says. “Only two or three students gotthe questions right.”

In response, Rooney chose to focus on Latin and Greek pre- fixes and suffixes and trying to incorporate elements of these concepts in all of her lessons, pulling words apart and evaluating what their different components mean and where the roots of words come from. When the next test rolls around, she hopes to see substantial improvement. “We are shooting to have 50 percent of the students get the questions right on the next test, and then to hit 85 to 100 percent by the end of the year.”

What made it possible for Rooney to extract such precise data and focus squarely on a specific area such as word roots is the instructional management system that John Welsh teachers use. The ISM, from SchoolNet, helps them break down student scores, pinpoint soft spots, and then make the necessary adjustments in advance of the next assessment.“Now I can make accommodationsand familiarize [my students]with those areas,” Rooney says.“By the next time they take thetest, we’ll know whether this targeted instruction has worked.”

Rooney’s use of the ISM is indicative of the way much of educational technology is being used today: as a way to target and meet individual educational challenges, whether the challenge is poor writing skills or simply a student’s difficulty grasping certain subject areas on par with his peers. And in one unique example of targeted technology use, a comprehensive eLearning program is teaching students IT skills with which they can one day create a career.

A Tool for Retooling

Rather than merely being used to prepare students for state tests, the SchoolNet tool has become an integral part of teaching at the John Welsh School. It allows teachers to immediately spot problems called out by the results from the six-week mini tests, and then to apply revised and targeted instruction to prevent students from falling off.

Rooney uses the data from the tests to group students according to her evaluation of what they need. If several students appear to be struggling in one area, she can put them into a small group for some targeted instruction or projects designed to bring them up to speed with the rest of the class.

[Using the instructional management tool] is less about teacheraccountability to the administration and more about schoolaccountability to the students, and making sure they are exposedto everything under the sun and as prepared as we can get them.’
—Mary Rooney, John Welsh School

Rooney and her fellow John Welsh teachers write reports for school administrators outlining how they intend to fix the problems the test results have uncovered. “It helps me retool what I’m teaching,” she says. “When I can analyze the data and see the weak areas, I find they usually make sense. I can look back at my lesson plans, and usually I can immediately see why the students didn’t ‘get it.’ There was something I missed or something I didn’t spend enough time on. I can adjust how I teach so I’m addressing those areas. It’s a more efficient way of teaching; instead of guessing, I can see exactly where the issue is and I can strategize how I teach. It makes me ‘own’ it more. It makes me really accountable to my students.”

Rooney says that despite some initial reluctance, the school’s teachers and administrators have come to like the new ISM.“Instead of looking it as just anotherthing we have to use, it has become atool we use to help us focus on both studentstrengths and student weak spots.It’s less about teacher accountability tothe administration and more aboutschool accountability to the students,and making sure they are exposed to everything under the sunand as prepared as we can get them.”

How to Teach Writing

One area that teachers are zeroing in on with technology is writing skills. The National Writing Project, a federally funded program that serves more than 100,000 teachers a year, builds programs and conducts research designed to help teachers help their students become successful writers and learners. It bills itself as “the premier effort to improve writing in America.”

The NWP is in its fourth decade, with roughly 200 writing project sites housed at universities in all 50 states. Each site conducts a four-week summer institute for which teachers of all grade levels and all disciplines are selected to attend. To be chosen, the teacher must have some type of experience teaching writing. Most also have a best practice to share.

“One thing that has made the program very successful is that we recognize there’s no definitive way to teach writing,” says Mary Ann Smith, director of government relations and public affairs for NWP. “There are certainly practices that tend to work, but we are always open to exploring new approaches.”

Smith says it’s critical to remember that there is a big difference between assigning writing and teaching it. “It’s not easy to teach writing. But it’s important to remember that every student has the ability to learn to write. Instead of just assigning writing projects, teachers need to really teach it and figure out what it takes to move students forward.”

The basis of every instructional method the NWP teaches, says Executive Director Richard Sterling, is getting students to write. To do that, so must the teachers. “If you teach writing, you should write yourself,” Sterling says. “Teachers need to acquaint themselves with the craft before they can teach students.”

Accordingly, during the summer session, teachers spend significant time practicing and fine-tuning their own writing. They meet in groups and exchange feedback on each other’s finished pieces of writing, whether poems, short stories, or essays. Sterling says the feedback is critical. “When they write, they need an audience for their writing. The use of the audience is a model they can then bring into their own classrooms.”

It’s not easy to teach writing. But it’s important to rememberthat every student has the ability to learn to write. Instead of justassigning writing projects, teachers need to really teach it and figureout what it takes to move students forward.
—Mary Ann Smith, the National Writing Project

And many have, through the use of blogging, which engages students in a form of writing they enjoy, as well as creates an audience of fellow students for their writing. Teachers can set up their own in-classroom blogs and require students to log in and write reports or provide feedback on something the class has done. They can then monitor what students post and provide corrections and constructive criticism. Teachers are finding that, through participation in blogs and the use of similar tools, students are practicing writing more and regarding it less as work.

Blogging is one of the methods encouraged through the NWP Technology Initiative, a program designed exclusively to promote the integration of technology into writing instruction. The initiative is currently being piloted in schools in Alaska, California, Michigan, West Virginia, and New York. In New York, for example, teachers who have completed the institute training meet regularly to share knowledge and inquire about new media tools, such as blogs, that have the potential to change the ways in which students learn and to improve how reading and writing are taught. Whether the digital vehicle is e-mail, blogs, or podcasts isn’t significant; what matters is that these are all tools that involve students in writing and bring them into the company of distant audiences, which supports the learning that comes when writers see what readers make of their work.

Creating IT Pros

One real-world application of targeted instruction is as a means of teaching students the skills they need to become information technologists. Launched in 1997 by Cisco Systems, the Cisco Networking Academy Program was initially developed to teach students to design, build, and maintain computer networks and to credential them to work on Cisco products. Over the years, the curriculum has expanded from a single, cumulative four-semester, 280-hour course to include a total of 16 courses within nine curricula covering various IT concepts and skills such as website creation and object-oriented programming, and more complex concepts such as applying advanced troubleshooting tools. Courses are designed to give students authentic technical experience to help prepare them for IT careers as well as post-secondary IT-related degrees. The academy delivers instruction in 165 countries via web-based content, online assessment, and hands-on labs. The program’s coursework supplements students’ curriculum at their regular schools; interested teachers can become instructors once they pass the required training course.

AT A GLANCE: The National Writing Project

WHO: Richard Sterling, Executive Director
WHAT: Provides training for teachers to help their students become better writers. Calls itself “the premier effort to improve writing in America.”
WHERE: Headquartered in Berkeley, CA. Conducts annual summer institutes at nearly 200 sites on university campuses across the US.
CONTACT: Phone, 510-642-0963; www.writingproject.org

“Students get hands-on time to learn and practice IT skills through a comprehensive eLearning program,” says Gene Longo, the academy’s senior manager. “It gets them excited; they learn real skills they can then take out to the market. It truly gives them hope, confidence, and skills that they need to go out and get a good job.”

Longo says many students have benefited from enrolling in the networking academy, but one—an immigrant girl from inner-city Columbus, OH—stands out. The girl, whose family was living below the poverty line, excelled in the program and went on to become the first person in her family to attend college. “It changed her life,” Longo says. “She went into the academy with little hope that she could finish high school or ever get out of the inner city. It’s just amazing to see how this program can jumpstart students into realizing that they do have a lot to offer and that they can someday be in a successful career.”

Jeff McDowell, chair of the information technology department at the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, ND, has helped many students through the Cisco Networking Academy. United Tribes serves a student population from more than 75 federally recognized American Indian tribes across the nation, with many of those students enrolling in an effort to improve their lives. McDowell introduced the academy to his school six years ago.

“It’s really important we teach students realistic career paths,” he says. “We focus on getting our students the information and skills they need to pass the industry certification—we tell the students this is how they get the skills and knowledge that will help them prove that they can do the job.”

What McDowell especially likes about the academy is that the program can be personalized to fit how a student best learns. For example, if a student responds best to hands-on activities, the curriculum can be made primarily hands-on and interactive. Students also learn at their own pace.

Three of McDowell’s students completed the academy and then returned to become IT directors for their tribal communities.“It’s important that tribal governments also keep upwith technology,” he says. “These students are providingtraining for the workers in those offices, networking theoffices, providing everything from tech support to training tocreating the network itself.”

Ultimately, as McDowell knows, what marks students who have fallen behind or who face a particular educational challenge is a lack of confidence. This is where technology can step in, helping students achieve or overcome something they previously could not. “All I can do is give them confidence that they are learning,” says McDowell. “Once they see that, it opens all kinds of doors.”

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Justine Brown is based in Cool, CA, and specializes in writing about technology, education, and government.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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