Dream On: Visionary Educators and Their Big Ideas

It takes more than a vision to be called a visionary. You also need the organization, determination, and spirit to see it through. We spotlight four educators whose innovative work with technology has earned them the designation.

The folks at Webster’sseem to have been of two minds when they came to define visionary. First, they are dismissive, calling a visionary “one whose ideas or projects are impractical.” Then they turn praiseworthy, describing “one having unusual foresight and imagination.” We’re going to go with the latter, for the four educators we’ve chosen to spotlight as visionaries conceived, developed, and guided technology-driven initiatives perhaps initially thought to be impractical. But their unusual foresight allowed each of them to imagine possibilities and outcomes that others could not, and they pushed through from idea to implementation, achieving what all now recognize to be great benefits for their districts, schools, teachers, and students. Perhaps, then, the best definition of visionary is the briefest: “one who sees.” Precisely.

Producing Web-Savvy Students

Type Martin Luther King into one of the leading web search engines, and chances are the first listing will be a link to the Wikipedia entry on King’s life. The second will probably be a link to the official website of the Nobel Prize. (King won the Peace Prize in 1964.) Or you might get a link to The King Center in Atlanta.

Keep going and you’ll see a website called “Martin Luther King Jr.—A True Historical Examination,” which features such essays as “Why the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Should Be Repealed” and “Black Invention Myths.” You’ll also find a link entitled “Attention Students: Try Our MLK Pop Quiz,” which takes you to a page featuring such questions as “According to whose 1989 biography did King spend his last night on earth in an adulterous liaison?” and “According to whom had King privately described himself as a Marxist?”

Clearly, all web content is not created equally, and Esther Wojcicki loves this particular example of that, though she allows that it’s just one of many. But where some educators see a good reason to keep students off the internet and far away from such disturbingly disparate search results, Wojcicki, who has been teaching journalism and English at Palo Alto High School in Palo Alto, CA, for the past 25 years, sees evidence of a new obligation for K-12 schools.

“Lots of schools simply cut off student access to the internet,” Wojcicki says. “But when we do that, we’re abdicating our responsibility to teach our kids how to use the web. It’s our job to teach them how to be intelligent consumers of information on the web as well as intelligent creators of it.”

Wojcicki has been developing a ninth- and 10th-grade humanities curriculum that intends to develop both of those skills. As a boost, she received a grant for the project from the Knight Foundation, which promotes the use of technology in journalism. The grant arrived in September, but Wojcicki was already engaged in the project with four Stanford University graduate students and several teachers from her school and nearby Gunn High School. She wants the curriculum to have wide appeal, so she’s also working with the State University of New York at Stony Brook, The New York Times, and the news service.

The program, dubbed Web-News Literacy, will have a variety of modules that teachers can use, either in an English class or a social studies class. The units will be created for use individually or as the core of a semester-long class. Some of the units will be based on novels, Wojcicki explains, while others will be article- or project-based. Four different writing styles will be taught: features, reviews, opinions, and news for the web. Wojcicki unveiled the first piece of the new program at the recent International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference: a search curriculum designed to show teachers how to help students use a search engine to find information on the web and analyze the results of that search.

Wojcicki has built the journalism program at Palo Alto High from a small group of about 20 students in 1985 to one of the largest high school journalism programs in the country, with about 500 participating students today. Students have the opportunity to work on a newspaper (The Campanile), a news magazine (Verde), an online publication (The Paly Voice), a daily television broadcast (InFocus), and a sports magazine (Viking). The publications have won numerous awards, including the Hall of Fame Award from the National Scholastic Press and the “Best in the Nation” award from Time magazine. The Paly Voice website has snagged two Webby Awards.

For this new undertaking, Wojcicki took the unusual step of adding a high school student to her development team. “He’s been working on websites since he was 10,” she says. “He’s helping to develop and build the project site. I wanted to show the power of students if you give them some freedom, independence, and encouragement.”

The Responsive Classroom

The soul-searching started about a year and a half ago, at the beginning of a districtwide renovation project. Hornell City School District, located in Steuben County, NY, was ready to upgrade its two primary schools, one intermediate school, and combined junior high and senior high complex. One of the goals of the project, according to the proposal, was to “enhance the learning environment with advanced technology and 21st century learning strategies.”

What bothered Hornell Superintendent George Kiley was that no one seemed to know what this “21st century classroom” should look like.

“At the start of the project we tried to define it,” Kiley says. “We asked ourselves, What exactly would this mythical classroom look like for us? Everybody talks about this thing, but does anybody really know what it is? I couldn’t answer that either, but I did know we needed classrooms that would respond to student needs as we move into this great unknown future. And I knew we would needed technologies and practices to support that model. So instead of calling it the ‘21st century classroom’ we called it the ‘responsive classroom,’ and that gave us a more concrete context.”

The responsive-classroom concept blends pedagogy, technology, and classroom design in such a way that it revamps the teaching paradigm. Still described as “in the works” by Kiley, this new model coordinates online and classroom teaching. The core instruction at Hornell will be delivered by online teachers through Oklahoma-based virtual learning provider Advanced Academics, Kiley says, which the district already works with to offer its students a number of supplementary classes online, including a Mandarin language course taught by an instructor in Beijing. The students will interact with the online curriculum over the internet and will have 24/7 access to their online teachers through phone, e-mail, and instant messaging.

The term virtual learning tends to turn teachers off, Kiley says, so he opts for blended model. He argues it’s also more accurate. The district’s classroom teachers will be no less integral to the learning process, he says. The new approach will free them to act as coaches and guides, working with students on projects individually and in small groups.

“Their role will be much more powerful,” Kiley says, “because they’ll be able to use project-based learning incorporated directly into the traditional model. We’re trying to get out of the box, and our teachers are excited about that.”

The remodeled classroom, expected to be ready next year, will be highly malleable, thanks to a set of movable glass dividers that can be made opaque. The dividers will allow teachers to create small sub-classrooms in which groups of students can work together on various projects. Every classroom in the district will be equipped with an interactive whiteboard, a large projection screen, and a Harkness table—a large, oval table around which students and teacher sit facing each other. Hornell plans to enhance this Harkness table with built-in touch pads to facilitate a Socratic-style exchange between teacher and students, with all students, even the shy ones, able to chime in. “The aim is to create a space that’s supervised, but also adaptable to conversation and collaboration,” Kiley says.

But the real cutting-edge piece of technology in Kiley’s vision is a telepresence system from Cisco Systems. Telepresence is the advanced videoconferencing technology now entering business environments. Kiley believes the technology will have a huge impact on Hornell’s students by connecting them to a host of resources beyond the classroom, from schools in other countries to experts and celebrity guests. During a demo, skateboarding legend Tony Hawk made the case for improving math skills directly to a class of students.

The responsive classroom is yet a work in progress, but Kiley points out that the technology already in place is being credited for some impressive results: The district’s graduation rate has climbed over the past four years from 58 to 86 percent. “We have to prepare our children for their future, not our past,” he says. “The only way we can do that is to expose them to the technologies that they’re going to use out in the world. And I don’t think you can do that piecemeal. I think it has to be a concentrated effort to educate the child in all aspects of the technology.”

E-learning From Cradle to Grave

When your goal is to create a unified
e-learning system for a school district as large as Albuquerque Public Schools (APS), you’d think the last thing you’d want to do is expand the project. But Tom Ryan, the district’s CIO, understands that sometimes more is more.

“When we started, we were looking to create an online presence for our district that would not compete with our local schools for student monies,” Ryan says. “We wanted a system that would be supplementary to them and offer online learning options that not only addressed the needs of our rural schools, where they might not have a highly qualified teacher or enough students to justify having the class, but also our urban schools, where they might have issues around overcrowding.”

With 139 schools and nearly 90,000 students, APS is the largest K-12 district in New Mexico, so the scale of the initial project was daunting enough. But Ryan had served on a state committee that approved technology projects already funded through the New Mexico Legislature, so he knew that the APS e-learning initiative was also facing a rigorous approval process. He also knew that the state’s colleges and universities had been trying to get approved a proposal for a learning management system (LMS) that had been getting vetoed by the governor. And he was aware that New Mexico was rife with siloed systems that performed redundant functions across various state agencies.

“It became obvious that if we consolidated some of these initiatives, we’d have a more effective system at a better cost,” Ryan says. “So we put together this vision for a cradle-to-grave online learning system, and we presented it to Gov. Bill Richardson, who had said that he wanted some new transformational educational initiatives. He got excited about our program, and so did the Democrats and the Republicans in our Legislature. So they funded the project.”

Ryan led the K-12 component of what was a uniquely inclusive statewide e-learning effort joining the New Mexico Public Education and Higher Education Departments. The state bills its Innovative Digital Education and Learning in New Mexico (IDEAL-NM) program as the first to encompass all aspects and stages of learning, from traditional public and higher education
environments to teacher professional development, continuing education, and workforce education. IDEAL-NM implements a shared e-learning infrastructure using a single statewide LMS, a web conferencing system, and a help desk. Its services are open to all New Mexico K-12 schools, higher education institutions, and government agencies.

“This project started with a group of people who wanted to change the face of education,” Ryan says. “I was just one of those people.”

Ryan’s commitment to tech-based education dates back more than 30 years, first as a teacher, then a principal, and later a district administrator, and has earned him several awards for technology innovation. His doctorate is in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in learning technologies. Today he leads an 80-plus-member technology staff, and, as a founding member of IDEAL-NM, serves on the group’s advisory board.

The initial IDEAL program, piloted in 2007, ran districtwide, Ryan explains. “We ran it [there] while we created the state environment,” he says. “We had to figure out a teacher training program, a mentor model, and contracts with the IDEAL model and the school district.” The program has been up and running statewide now for about two years. More than half of New Mexico’s schools are integrated into the system.

“We didn’t do this to make a cheap alternative for education,” Ryan says. “We’re trying to provide a high-quality learning
environment that provides not only an internal collaboration, but collaboration between the school districts themselves. The system allows us to think about how we provide a quality learning environment for kids that isn’t the same thing we’ve been stuck with and tweaking for the last 200 years.”

Investing in Human Capital

The last place you’d expect to find a former carpentry teacher—a self-described “shop guy”—is on the bleeding edge of high-tech education. But Larry Rosenstock, co-founder and CEO of High Tech High (HTH), finds no contradiction in his unusual career path.

“We’re no more about the technology than carpentry is about the nails,” he says. “The purpose of technology in our schools is production, not consumption. We want kids doing and building. It’s about the integration of head and hands.”

High Tech High (HTH) was launched in 2000 as a single charter high school by a coalition of San Diego business leaders and educators. Since then, it has evolved into an integrated network of schools spanning K-12. It also provides a comprehensive teacher certification path and recently added a Graduate School of Education program.

The “high-tech” in High Tech High doesn’t mean the schools are training computer programmers or engineers, Rosenstock says, but that the students use leading-edge technology to research, produce, and present across disciplines. He describes HTH as “an inquiry-based liberal arts school where the lines between ‘technical’ and ‘academic’ are deliberately blurred.” But he adds that HTH produces twice the national average of students who go on to science, technology, engineering, and math majors in college.

The 11 years Rosenstock spent teaching carpentry in urban high schools in Boston and neighboring Cambridge after earning his law degree led him to believe that vocational education was a means of segregating students by class, race, gender, and language ability. “I realized on the first day that the working-class kids in Boston whom I was teaching carpentry to were every bit as bright as the middle-class kids I was just in law school with,” he says. “They didn’t see themselves that way, their parents didn’t see them that way, and their community might not have seen them that way, but it was clear to me that they absolutely were.”

The problem Rosenstock recognized during his years as a carpentry teacher is one that he says persists today: “We are underutilizing the human capital we have in this country. And that’s a problem this school was founded to rectify.”

High Tech High currently operates nine schools in San Diego County, including one elementary school, three middle schools, and five high schools. A core component of its mission is to “integrate technical and academic education to prepare students for post-secondary education in both high-tech and liberal arts fields.”

“We all know that level of educational attainment is the strongest predictor of wage rates and job placement rates,” says Rosenstock, who also served as principal of the Rindge School of Technical Arts and of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. A key influence on his career was the time he spent directing the federal New Urban High School Project. The project, which ran from 1996 to 1999, studied six inner-city schools that used school-to-work strategies, such as internships. The findings of the study would ultimately underpin the HTH curriculum.

“The single institution in our society that affords the greatest opportunity to rise above economic and social disadvantage is education,” he says. “And it’s probably the least-changed institution in our society.

“People ask me what technology can do for education. The main thing it can do is, through simplicity, elegance, ubiquity, and access, provide certain populations with the ability to do certain things they could not otherwise do. It’s all about providing students with options they wouldn’t otherwise have.”


Advanced Academics:

Cisco Systems:

High Tech High:


Paly Voice, The:

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of THE Journal.