Free At Last


By creating a user-generated, ever-growing library of original digital content, an Arizona school district has liberated its teachers from the restraints of a textbook-driven curriculum model.

Free At LastWHEN SUPERINTENDENT CALVIN BAKER of the Vail School District in Vail, AZ, substituted laptops for textbooks in Vail's first 1-to-1 high school in 2005, he saw that his district now had the freedom to purchase digital content the way he purchased digital music.

"People would say, 'So, what digital textbook are you going to use?' and we'd say, 'Well, we're not using a digital textbook.'" Baker says. "Why would we buy an entire textbook if we don't have to? When I want a song, I just go to iTunes and download the specific song I want. That's what we realized we could do at our [1-to-1] high school. Rather than buy a digital textbook, we could go out and find great material wherever we could and download just the pieces we needed."

The idea of allowing teachers to design a customized digital curriculum "playlist" fit with the district's established instructional model, which was to create a curriculum tied to the exact terms of the state standards, rather than try to wedge the standards into the rigid structure of a textbook.

Last year, Baker and his team moved that instructional strategy to the digital realm with the implemenation of the districtwide Beyond Textbooks Initiative (BTI). Baker says the initiative has created an environment that has drawn teachers even farther away from the traditional sources of digital curriculum.

"When I want a song, I just go to iTunes and download the specific song that I want. That's what we realized we could do at our [1-to-1] high school. Why would we buy an entire textbook if we don't have to?"

"I thought that when we implemented Beyond Textbooks, teachers would go out and find the 'music,' so to speak, that they needed and share it with their peers," he says. "The phenomenon that has occurred is that a significant amount of teachers are saying, 'All that stuff that's already out there is pretty good, but I'm going to write my own.' They're actually creating their own music. They're writing it, they're uploading it, and teachers all over the district now can use it."

Inverting the Curriculum

"What we've done for 10 years," explains Vail CIO Matt Federoff, "is taken our materials and content-- digital or otherwise-- and we've tried to shoehorn them into state standards. We were working backward. We started with what we had and then tried to make it work." Federoff says that to turn things right side up, the district needed to do what he calls "invert the curriculum": "We realized that what we should do is start with the standards, and use the standards to then select our content."

To do that, Federoff and Debbie Hedgepeth, Vail's assistant superintendent for curriculum and professional development, recognized that one of the initial steps of the Beyond Textbooks Initiative had to be to abandon the ponderous, paper-based notebooks that contained the district's instructional materials.

Spreading Innovation

Free At LastVail School District's Beyond Textbooks Initiative has caught the attention of neighboring districts looking for an alternative to standard digital content. David Woodall, superintendent of Arizona's Benson Unified School District, is in the initial stages of piloting BTI. For a small district like Benson, with about 1,100 students and 70 teachers, having access to the infrastructure and materials created by Vail is invaluable.

"When I saw the amount of time Vail had spent unwrapping standards, prioritizing them, and placing them on a calendar, and the amount of resources they had generated,"Woodall says, "I knew that it was something that would be very difficult for us to ever produce, and if we could tap into what they've created it would be very exciting."

Woodall has assembled a pilot team that has read-only access to Vail's iCal-based curriculum calendar and wiki server. The team is exploring the curriculum calendar, reviewing the resources on the wiki for each standard, and comparing them with how Benson now teaches those same standards. In August, Benson will launch its full-blown pilot, at which time teachers will begin actively using Vail's calendar and resources throughout the district, and contributing materials to the wiki as well.

"There are just so many possibilities there,"Woodall says of BTI's potential benefit. "The paradigm of 'This is what I have available so this is what I teach,' as opposed to 'This is what I need to teach, and here are all the resources I have to teach it,' is now tilted in our favor. There's the potential for having professional development links pertaining to particular standards on the wiki. In the long run, this could really reshape instruction. It's the ultimate tool for linking instruction and teacher creativity."

Woodall praises Vail for allowing his district to pilot BTI for free. "But even if there were a cost associated with it, I don't think we would blink. It's very teacher-student-friendly, and it's a system that's always evolving. When you buy a typical piece of digital content or software, you're buying something that will look the same day after day, year after year. Curriculum is always changing, and the system [Vail] created allows that to happen. It's always current."

"We had these huge binders with all of the state standards and curriculum information for each grade level and subject that we distributed to the teachers," Hedgepeth says. "Any time a change was made in the standards, we had to create and distribute materials and make sure the teachers swapped out the old materials in their binders. It was difficult to manage. We were looking for an easier way to make all of our resources accessible. Matt and I realized we needed to electronically organize all of our materials around those core essential standards so that a teacher could look up [any] standard and be able to easily find the resources that supported the instruction for that objective."

Around the same time, Vail transitioned to Apple's Leopard operating system and server, providing the district with tools it didn't have before, including iCal calendar software and Web 2.0 components that became the engine of BTI.

By starting with a blank slate and adapting these standard computational features to function in an educational environment, the district built a powerful system that matches its exact curricular needs, rather than adapting existing materials to the state standards. For each grade and subject taught in the district, Federoff, Hedgepeth, and the BTI team created a corresponding iCal calendar, which resides on the district's server. On these calendars, the BTI team has mapped out the concepts required by Arizona's state standards, assigning a date to when each one should be taught. Teachers subscribe to the calendar that's applicable to their classroom, and can subscribe to and simultaneously view multiple calendars if necessary.

Inscribed at the top of each standard's wiki page is this note: "This is a place to share ideas and resources, a launching point for the unlimited potential of teacher creativity. The intent is to empower, not to restrict."

The concepts appear on the calendar as hyperlinks. With the click of a mouse, the teacher is taken to a wiki page created by the BTI team specifically for each standard. On the page, teachers will find all of the resources available from the curriculum department to assist in teaching the standard, including an "unwrap" document, which is created by the curriculum department and outlines what the students need to learn about the concept, provides questions teachers should be asking, notes the level of rigor at which students should be learning, and provides sample tasks that students can do to demonstrate learning.

The standardized, calendarized curriculum and the availability of standardized materials and expectations for each concept within the curriculum are integral to the success of the initiative. "You have to have a good foundation to put technology on top of," Superintendent Baker says. "You cannot use technology as the foundation. If you don't know where you're going, adding technology just helps you get nowhere faster. What we're so excited about with Beyond Textbooks is that we know we have an instructional system that works, and now we're adding the best technology to make it better and to be able to share with other districts what we know works."

A Launch Point for Creativity

Inscribed at the top of each standard's wiki page is this note: "This is a place to share ideas and resources, a launching point for the unlimited potential of teacher creativity. The intent is to empower, not to restrict."

It's this sentiment that makes BTI so powerful.

Teachers are encouraged to post their own materials to the wikis-- lesson plans, activities, presentations-- producing an ever-expanding library of educational materials created by teachers and tested in classrooms throughout the district.

"We want to enable our teachers to use their creativity within the realm of a standards-based curriculum," explains Hedgepeth. "With the calendar and the main wiki pages, we have agreement on what we're going to teach, when we're going to teach it, and the level of rigor at which it will be taught. But how one teacher moves his students through the learning process-- that is his art of teaching. That is his creative experience."

Baker believes that the most significant contribution teachers make to the wikis are the presentations they design themselves using Keynote, Apple's version of Microsoft's PowerPoint. "They are directly pinpointed at the instructional objective that we want taught," he says.

Vail teachers can draw from digital content services that the district subscribes to, such as Discovery Education Streaming and BrainPop, allowing them to embed relevant educational video and audio files into their presentations. Active hyperlinks to free, web-based content can also be included, allowing teachers to direct their colleagues to websites they've found that best supplement the teaching of their presentation's objective.

Any time new material or revisions to older material are posted to a wiki page, an RSS feed sends an e-mail to a designated district staff member. Although the staff member quickly vets the materials before posting them, Federoff stresses that there is no need for a gatekeeper to approve original content because teachers must attach their name to anything they post.

"The peer review mechanism is very powerful," he says. "It is no small thing to put your materials out there with your name and your school on it and say, 'Okay, here's my contribution.' The teachers take a lot of pride in their work. They often say, 'I need to post it, but it's not ready yet. I need to clean it up.' All of your colleagues are going to be looking at your work. So it better be good, and because of this, it will be good. You cannot overstate the importance of a peer review mechanism, even an informal one."

Teachers can comment on each other's materials, creating a community of peers to offer support and encouragement as they work toward the common goal of finding the best ways to teach the standards. "Teaching is inherently lonely," Baker says. "You close the classroom door and you're all by yourself. Doesn't matter how great you are, most people never see it. Now our teachers can show off their creativity to all of their peers. They can publish their work."

The district doesn't require teachers to post original content to the wiki, meaning that even teachers who are uncomfortable with new technology can still benefit from the initiative without feeling pressured to contribute. The system is so easy to use, though, that the number of teachers who have supplied content to wiki pages surprises even the BTI team. "With most new technology, you tend to have a small amount of teachers who post most of the content," Federoff says. "In the short time since we started this initiative, we're well past 50 percent of our teachers providing content."

Baker attributes this enthusiasm to BTI's reliance on materials that are rooted in the talents and experience of its users, rather than typical digital content purchased from vendors. "There are lots of great programs out there that you can just plug and play, but so often those are just done from the district on down and there's no ownership or buy-in for the teachers," he says. "The fact that this is dynamic and interactive has just been huge in making it successful and getting teachers involved."

One of the more involved teachers is Kelly Creasy, a fifthgrade teacher at Vail's Ocotillo Ridge Elementary School. Creasy explains that teachers' textbooks don't always align with state standards, so teachers have to look elsewhere to find standards-based instructional materials. BTI has made that effort much easier. "Before, we just had the paper calendar that mapped out when the district felt we should address each standard," she says. "You were just on your own. You'd try to find your material wherever you could. You were working with your team at your school, but it was just your school-- just a grade level-- working together."

By replacing the paper calendar with iCal and linking the standards to a wiki, the new system put the resources Creasy and other teachers need right at their fingertips.

"Now we can share these other resources we have found with everyone, not just the people at our site," Creasy says. She has been regularly posting Keynote presentations and other content to the wiki since the initiative began. "It's so easy. You try the presentation out in your classroom, see if it works, and if it works really well you post it."

As a result of communicating with other teachers via the wiki, Creasy has seen her peer network grow since she began posting. "Normally you just have the other teachers here at your site, and occasionally if you're on a committee or if you're at a meeting at the district office, you might touch base with other teachers in your grade level, but that's such a rare occurrence," she says. "Now you're finding out names; I know other teachers because of what they've posted on the Beyond Textbooks site. I've gotten e-mails from other teachers saying that they liked what I posted and wondering if I had anything else. I've started to form partnerships with other teachers, sending materials back and forth."

The Beyond Textbooks Initiative is also providing a support system for newer teachers. Mikelle Cronk, a rookie fifth-grade teacher at Vail's Sycamore Elementary School, whom Federoff calls a "prolific" contributor to the BTI wiki, has used the initiative to benefit from the classroom wisdom of her more seasoned peers.

"If I'm looking for content on a certain objective, I can go right to that objective's wiki page and see what other teachers have used, what's been successful, what's been most beneficial to the kids," she says. "For a new teacher, it's such a huge blessing to see how these objectives are taught."

Recently, Cronk found herself at a loss trying to figure out the best way to teach the concept of figurative and literal language to her fifth-graders. "I was near the end of creating my presentation for that objective, I was feeling burnt out, and I just couldn't think of any more examples of figurative and literal statements," she says. "I went on the wiki, and another fifth-grade teacher had posted pages of excellent examples of figurative vs. literal language that had worked in her classroom. I was able to incorporate them right into my presentation and some of my follow-up materials."

Cronk says the wiki is also a great resource for teachers to discuss methods or materials that didn't work. "There are definitely some things that I've tried in my classroom that have not been successful. If I share them on the wiki, I explain which parts didn't work out so well, and offer some examples of what I would try differently in the future. I think it's important to be able to learn from other teachers' mistakes."

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Jennifer Demski is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.