Putting the LURE inLearning Community

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A homegrown staff development program is polishing up teachers' technologyskills and modernizing communication between home and school.

Professional DevelopmentTHE CHILDREN HAVE gone home and classroomsare empty, but teachers at Florida's Sebastian ElementarySchool are hard at work. It's Professional Learning CommunityDay. One Wednesday every month, teachers with likeinterests meet for professional growth. And the largestgroup by far is in the computer lab, working with teacherPaul Mucci and Technology Specialist Rhonda Drum, creatingclassroom web pages to enhance communication withstudents, parents, and the community. The meeting isscheduled to last two hours, but most participants will optto work on their projects between meetings, eager to sharetheir progress at the next session.

Traditional professional development often consists of "gathering the clan" in a designated location, for a predetermined period of time, in the hope that a few attendees will apply what they've learned. But this professional learning community, called LURE (Learn it. Use it. Run with it. Explain it.), has struck a chord with school staff. Threequarters of the faculty have participated, and the remaining teachers will follow suit in 2007-2008, when classroom newsletters go online. In addition, more than 100 of the school's students now maintain their own web pages.

What's interesting is that the project wasn't launched for the usual reason—as a way to boost student achievement. Using adequate yearly progress measures as a baseline, Sebastian Elementary students are making the grade quite comfortably. For the last four years, the school has received an A-plus rating from the state, indicating that students in grades three through five are meeting their testing benchmarks in all designated content areas. But Principal Patricia Donovan and her staff know that students need more than high test scores to be successful global citizens. They saw that the school was technology- rich, but usage-poor: The tools were there, they just weren't being applied in the classroom, primarily due to a lack of training and ongoing support.

A self-taught early technology adopter herself, Donovan surveyed staff and found that while several teachers had completed individual training, overall skill levels varied greatly. So in 2004, Donovan decided to target information and communication technology (ICT) literacy as a critical growth area for staff and students. It was time to make a formal commitment to bringing staff ICT skills up to par so they could be used to enhance instruction and strengthen the home/school connection. "I was looking for a comprehensive approach to teacher training and implementation," she says. "We have a small district with limited resources, and our central office staff was not in a position to offer a great deal of leadership in this area."

Donovan concluded that she needed to rely on outside expertise to prepare on-site leaders who could then design long-term professional development for the entire staff. The International Society for Technology in Education Institute: Leading with National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) caught her eye because it focused on building ICT literacy through local professional learning communities.

The institute offers personalized, long-term professional development to teams of educators. Individual teams, consisting of two teachers, an administrator, and a technology coordinator, form a local professional learning community that attends three days of face-to-face meetings and also works online with an experienced e-mentor between meetings. Through the course of the institute, members of the learning communities:

  • work collaboratively to develop and strengthen their leadership skills
  • identify research-based strategies to initiate and sustain systemic change
  • develop and implement a plan for use of technology as an instructional tool
  • evaluate the success of plan implementation and its impact on staff and students

Donovan learned that an institute was being launched in conjunction with the 2004 National Educational Computing Conference. This meant that Sebastian's group could attend two days of institute training, and then immerse themselves in the conference while their training was still fresh. Donovan invited Drum, Mucci, and fellow teacher Barbara Preziosi to join the team.

Just five teachers joined the learning community in its first year,2005-2006, but last year, nearly half of the staff signed up.

A Plan Takes Shape

"Our goal was to move the entire Sebastian staff forward in its use of instructional technology—not just a handful of the teachers," Donovan says. As a result, Sebastian team members used the institute as a vehicle to design a plan for an on-site professional learning community for other staff. Home/school communication is an important part of the overall instructional program at Sebastian, but most staff members relied on traditional methods, such as printed newsletters, notes, and individual telephone conversations, to share information.

Through its work at the institute, the team determined that the purpose of the new professional learning community would be to enable teachers to establish an online presence that promotes and modernizes home/school communication. The new teacher websites would encourage teachers to expand their ICT skills, and extend the school day by offering students and parents anytime access to important classroom information.

The team decided to use the district's new website as a portal for classroom web pages. Team members spent the first semester of the 2004-2005 school year learning how to use the site to build pages and developing learning activities to use with their colleagues. It looked as though they were ready to launch the expanded on-site professional learning community when they received some unexpected news: The new district website could not support the kinds of activities they planned to share with the rest of the staff.

It was a setback, but not a roadblock. When institute teams reconvened the following winter at the 2005 Florida Educational Technology Conference, the Sebastian group reported what had happened, then, finding itself at a technology conference, set out to identify new tools that would support its plan.

Due to budget factors, the team decided to look for low- or no-cost options. It quickly identified several web-based tools that could be used to build classroom pages. The learning activities were revised, and in 2005-2006, the team launched Sebastian's first LURE group. The learning community held four monthly two-hour meetings.

In addition, team members were readily available for coaching and extra assistance. Just five teachers opted to join the first year, but in 2006-2007, nearly half of the staff signed up. In addition to developing the classroom sites, teachers are designing lessons that incorporate online research, opportunities for students to make technology-based presentations, and podcasting. A handheld computer program has been instituted in upper-elementary classrooms as well.

Anytime access to on-site experts has led to smooth implementation and ongoing use of new tools. And because teachers are increasing their use of technology as an instructional tool, student exposure to various technologies and their level of ICT skills are also expanding. Those students who created personal web pages are maintaining their sites to date. Information literacy skills are improving, thanks to project assignments that require technology-based research and reporting.

Systemic changes are taking shape as well. The original team continues to take a leadership role on-site, modeling new uses of technology. For instance, team members now do much of their planning online using web-based tools. Staff members are also actively seeking grants and other funding opportunities to expand and enhance their use of technology. The upper-grade handheld computer program is the result of a successful grant application.

Finally, the ultimate goal of this project—home/school communication—will be taken up a notch next month, when every classroom's newsletter is scheduled to go online.

Susan Brooks-Young is an education consultant and authorbased in Lopez Island, WA, and Vancouver, BC.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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