Elementary Schools : Washington : Peer to Peer


BRIAN IS 8 YEARS OLD and sports a buzz cut, applecheeks, and vivid brown eyes. He is an internet explorer, justback from a Googled journey into the virtual wilds of the naturalworld. Riveting his attention on the teacher, he bursts out with abravura performance on the zoology of llamas.

His tale completed, he rejoins a circle of third-graders sitting cross-legged at the front of the classroom, recounting spring break adventures. As each story unfolds, the teacher, Teri Bratt, with the aid of an interactive whiteboard, guides her young learners through an internet search for an image or website that will visualize the report. When deeper research would enrich the story, she sends a student off to a nearby laptop.

As new words and unfamiliar contexts arise, Bratt takes the time to question and instruct, all the while connecting the visual feast of the World Wide Web to the critical disciplines of core subjects. A reference to Century, FL, becomes a writing lesson.

"Who knows what century means?" she asks. Hands shoot up. "Hundred-- that's right!" she says. She takes a moment for pair-share: "Talk to the person next to you and create a sentence using century." Heads bobble and nod. Sentences take shape out of fevered whispers. Pair by pair, Bratt's students give full, con- fident voice to their literary creations.

Communities of Practice

Bratt, a teacher at Barnes Elementary School in Kelso, WA, credits her innovative use of technology in her classroom to her involvement in the state's Enhanced Peer Coaching Program, a product of the federal EETT initiative. She is one of 184 peer coaches across the state, working with colleagues to support the transition from traditional stand-and-deliver pedagogy to a learner-centered, technology-enhanced instructional practice.

Launched this past school year, the program, Bratt says, has transformed her teaching, even after 23 years in the classroom. While training her peers in technology integration, she picks up new teaching approaches herself through the ongoing exchange of instructional practices and fresh ideas that occurs between peer coaches as well as between coaches and trainees.

"With a mentor close by, teacherslead each other fromconcept to practice, at theright pace at the right time."

"I've always looked for nontraditional ways of engaging my students," Bratt says. "As I get better at technology integration, my students' learning experience becomes richer." She is part guide, part co-learner. "I see technology as a teaching partner. I don't have to know everything; the kids and I can learn together."

During the 10-session training program, Bratt and her fellow peer coaches meet with teachers at lunch and after school, by e-mail and telephone, to develop activities that take full advantage of technology. They work as a team in the classroom, practicing new, learner-centered instructional techniques. Over the 10 sessions, theory comes to life through demonstration and practice-- face-to-face and online. Trainees learn how to build a regionally based community of practice within Moodle, a virtual learning environment. Here, discussion threads relate observations, experiences, and new opinions about pedagogy. Teachers share what worked and ask each other how to improve.

Regional goes global on the Microsoft Innovative Teachers Network, where peer coaches publish teaching and learning resources as they interact with educators all over the world. The state of Washington's peer coach trainers integrate this channel into the way their peer coaches work and connect with each other.

Brenda Ward, principal of Barnes Elementary, says that technology integration without peer coaching puts another burden on teachers-- it's one more thing they must know and apply. "Teachers can empathize with the learning curve of a fellow educator," Ward says. "This empathy is the great strength of peer coaching. With a mentor close by, teachers lead each other from concept to practice, at the right pace at the right time."

In Bratt's classroom, the student who visited Century, FL, shares a remarkable find: She passed a school that bears the same name as her teacher. Bratt's students decide to send an e-mail to the school's third-grade class to call out this surprising common ground. They find the teacher's e-mail address on the staff list, and the writing lesson picks up again.

Dear students in third grade,

This spring break, one of our classmates visited your town and drove by your school. She was very surprised to see that the name of your school is the same as our teacher, Mrs. Bratt.

Century looks like a nice place. We live in Kelso, WA. We would like to find out more about your school and Florida. We hope you can e-mail back to us.

Dennis Small is the educational technology director for the stateof Washington's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.