Preservice | October 2011 Digital Edition

The Best Little Teacher Education Program Out There

The Blue Valley School District’s teacher training program models pedagogy and technology for tomorrow’s teachers while they’re today’s high school students. Colleges of education should take notice.

The technology rich teacher education program at Blue Valley in Kansas
Students in the CAPS teacher education program at Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, KS, work in classrooms with students of all ages, from kindergarten to high school, depending on where the CAPS students’ interests and career goals lie.

This article, with an exclusive video and interactive slide show, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's October 2012 digital edition.

Many undergraduate teacher education programs still treat technology as an elective, instead of an integral and inseparable part of the curriculum. So when T.H.E. Journal set out to find the best program for training tomorrow’s teachers, we were more than pleased to find one that matched our criteria of making technology an organic part of teacher preparation. But the real surprise was where we found it--at a K-12 school district in Kansas.

The Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, KS, created its Center for Advanced Professional Studies in 2009 to meet a need for project-based , hands-on education for tomorrow’s workforce. Open to juniors and seniors in the district, the half-day CAPS program provides real-world professional training, pairing students with professional mentors in fields such as engineering, business, technology, media, law--and education.

From Students to Teachers
Modeled on the state teacher’s board’s certification guidelines, the four-course teacher education program integrates technology throughout each of its semester-long courses to enhance and support the curriculum." Our take on technology in our teaching education program is that we should do what we’re hired to do, and that is to teach," explains Tammy Fry, the sole instructor for the CAPS Teacher Education program. As part of that charge, Fry believes,"We should teach students how to incorporate technology, how to use technology with their curriculum, rather than banning technology in the classroom."

Students in the program spend time in mentors’ classrooms early in the first course, and by the second semester they’re in front of classrooms throughout the district teaching their own lesson plans. Fry sees the program’s courses--titled "2020 Instructor," "2020 Instructor Internship," "Educational Technology and Gaming," and "Destination Avatar "--as a good progression for developing students into teachers who "not only know how to relate to students and teach curriculum, but can also talk the talk of their students, and who are aware of what is happening outside the classroom." (For specifics on each course, see "Meet the Courses," at the end of this story.)

There are more than 360 mentors from 250 businesses that participate in CAPS programs, helping students in a number of professional fields learn the skills that they need to succeed in the work force. For the students in the teacher education program, those mentors often come straight from the district.

Jordan Davidson, an alumnus of the CAPS teacher education program, is currently a sophomore at Kansas State University, studying to become an elementary school teacher. One of her mentors in the CAPS program was the fifth- grade teacher who inspired Davidson’s decision to pursue teaching as a career. "It was really cool to be able to shadow her and develop a relationship on a professional level with a teacher who had inspired me so much," she says. And, because of Fry’s emphasis on integrated technology during her instruction time in the CAPS building with the teacher education students, Davidson was able to inspire the teachers she worked with in return.

"In a lot of the classrooms I went into, I found that I was telling my mentors about technology that we were using, like Brain Pop or Ning, that they’d never heard of before, and they’d be really excited about trying it out," recalls Davidson. "They’re people who’ve been doing this for so long, and I’ve been doing it for a year, and it was so cool that there were these little things that they were learning from me."

A Model for Technology Use
The CAPS teacher education program offers its students exposure to a variety of classrooms, allowing them to explore different areas of teaching before committing to an undergrad program. Fellow alumnus Carolyn Wallace, currently a sophomore at Emporia State University, always knew she wanted to teach elementary school, but thanks to a memorable experience working in a middle school social studies classroom while in the CAPS program, she ended up adding an additional focus on middle school education to her degree. "One of the teachers who was mentoring me told me one day that I was a natural in front of the classroom," recalls Wallace. "I was like, ‘What? Did you just say that?’ I’ll never forget it."

Fry models so much technology use for her students in the CAPS courses that she has actually become a mentor herself. "She has really changed how I think of teaching," remarks Megan Perry, now a sophomore at Emporia State. "Just knowing how technology can work, how different websites can help me create better presentations, or how to create videos, has really given me a step up in the creativity factor."

During the program, students build a portfolio to demonstrate their experience and progress, and are encouraged to explore personal areas of interest. At the end of each course, they present digital and physical portfolios for assessment. Further honing their presentation skills, students in the CAPS teacher education program have had the opportunity to present with Fry at various national education conferences about their experiences. Students also have the option to earn college credits through a partnership with Baker University, a private university in Baldwin City, KS ; those credits are transferable to other schools throughout the state.

Of the more than 50 students who’ve participated in the CAPS teacher education program since the program began in the 2009-2010 school year, all but three have continued into teacher training programs in higher ed, and many of the program’s alumni continue to communicate with Fry and her current students via the program’s private Facebook group. "The biggest thing that I’ve heard from our alumni about their experience in higher ed is that they’re not getting into the classroom soon enough," remarks Fry. "They leave our program, where they’ve been in front of a classroom for what seems like forever, and now they won’t be in a classroom with students for at least a year." 

Combine that delay with the lack of integrated technology in many higher ed programs, and it seems as though CAPS alumni are often taking a step backwards when they begin their undergrad degree program. Jordan Davidson has recently begun observing classrooms in her sophomore year at KSU, an experience she can’t help compare to her time in Fry’s program, where she logged more than 40 hours at the front of the class.

"We write journals about what our experiences are in the classroom, but there’s no recording or any technology involved. We write up a Word document, print it out, and hand it in to the professor," Davidson says. "Whereas in CAPS, what was really cool about posting our experiences to the Ning was that we could all see each other's posts about our experiences and give feedback online."

After leaving such a tech-forward program, Carolyn Wallace was shocked when she didn’t see a classroom with an interactive whiteboard until her sophomore year at Emporia State. She begins student teaching this year, and is certain that her time in the classroom will not be recorded for video feedback from her professors and her classmates as it was at CAPS. "That video feedback was so helpful," remarks Wallace. "It’s just those extra little things that we did in CAPS that aren’t possible in a bigger college setting, because the instructor just isn’t going to take the time to record all 30 of us and e-mail feedback."

That doesn’t dampen Wallace’s excitement about getting back up in front of the classroom, though. "I know that there’s so much technology I can bring in, as long as I’m at a school that has the resources," she says. "I’m always thinking now of different ways that things can be done using technology."

That passionate, technology-focused attitude is part of what Fry hopes to instill in her students, who will take their experiences in her program to their higher ed programs and eventually into classrooms of their own. "We have students who are juniors and seniors in high school who are showing us that the sky’s the limit," Fry says. "We can do these things; we don’t have to sit our students in desks and read to them and preach to them and feed them information. They have an interest, it’s tapped, they found it on their own, and they just soar."

Technology: Unlimited

The CAPS teacher education program at Blue Valley School District (KS) prepares future teachers to take full advantage of an ideal 21st century classroom, where technology is abundant and project-based, collaborative, personalized learning is unencumbered by state testing. Tammy Fry, instructor for the CAPS Teacher Education program, expounds on preparing her students for the prospect of working in a district that is less forward-thinking.

When training these future teachers, how do you meld your vision for what teaching can be with the reality of what many teachers unfortunately face in their schools--a lack of technology resources, an emphasis on teaching to the test, adherence to school policies that restrict the use of mobile devices?

Fry: I want my students to be change agents. They all know the concept of teaching to the test. We talk about that a great deal. They have to realize, as teachers, as within any profession, you don’t just have free reign. There are certain parameters within which you must survive. However, how you prepare students for the test, if that is the focus of the district, can be very different.

So, an effective 21st century teacher must be able to be creative within the limits of their situation, even with something as rigid as the idea of teaching to test?

Fry: Right. There are some things in education--probably a lot of things--that we cannot change. But, I tell my students that they should never quit trying to change, and never quit learning, and always be looking for a bigger, better thing that you can use with your students to help them succeed. There is no perfect way to teach, but as teachers we need to be flexible, and to take a challenge, and to go the extra mile to try to get a student that wouldn’t normally be successful in the status quo, to be successful using another approach.

Blue Valley is a tech-friendly district, and its policies allow for the use of personal mobile devices in the classroom. But what about school policies that place limits on technology?

Fry: At one conference, we presented on using cell phones in the classroom. How you can use cell phones much like clickers, so students can answer questions and we can see the responses right up on the board and then discuss. We text all the time, and we use a class Twitter account. We had a lady come up to us afterward and say that she couldn’t use any of this because her students can’t have cell phones. My students and I discussed how sad it was that instead of trying to do something to change that, or to at least show the students how this technology can be used, we’re just giving up and saying we can’t do this ‘because.’

I don’t want my students to be teachers who say ‘we can’t do this because.’ I want them to be people who take full advantage of the information buffet that’s out there. Sure, use textbooks, teach the curriculum, but know that we have lots of different learning styles in that classroom, and if there’s one little kiddo for whom technology makes a difference, then why not use

Meet the Courses

2020 Instructor: In the first course of the program, students become familiar with educational pedagogy. Technology is integrated throughout, and 21st century learning skills are incorporated into every aspect of the course. "My students don’t even say ‘we’re going to use technology here,’ or ‘we’re going to use technology there,’" remarks Tammy Fry, instructor for the CAPS Teacher Education program. "They accept that technology is an everyday thing." Ning is used to create a classroom website with forums, blogs, videos, and other tools. Students participate in weekly online forums, where they discuss professional journals that they’ve read or address issues in education. They begin observing their mentor’s classrooms, learn about lesson planning, and develop presentation skills. By the end of the first course, students are up in front of their mentor’s classroom, teaching a 21st century lesson. 

2020 Instructor Internship: Students in the second course perform two six-week student-teaching internships with teachers in the district, while continuing to use the tools they learned in their first semester. In addition to actually teaching, 2020 Instructor Internship students collaborate with teachers on lesson plans, attend staff meetings, go to PLCs, and attend professional conferences. All students bring a laptop to the classroom, and use the webcam to record their time spent at the front of the classroom.

"I can do a real-time viewing of them, and the students who are in the classroom with me at the time can actually watch their peers teach," explains Fry. "Also, because I can record the feeds, I can use the footage later as the basis for self-review, so they can note things they want to change, their demeanor in front of the students, their techniques, and so on. These recordings have been really beneficial."

Students in this course are also given the opportunity to participate in mock interviews for teaching positions at the district; they must tailor their portfolios to the job description, brush up on their interview skills, and sit down for a one-on-one interview with the district’s hiring personnel. "When we’re done with the interviews, I’ve had principals ask, "Do they have to go to college?’" laughs Fry. "The principals have said that we need to target these students so that when they’re done with their undergrad teacher ed program, we can bring them back to the district. That’s pretty powerful."

Educational Technology and Gaming: This course explores the latest research on educational technology and offers students the experience of harnessing the power of gaming, digital story telling, and collaborative virtual experiences in education. The course takes students into teaching environments beyond the K-12 classroom, allowing them to collaborate with teacher education professionals at the University of Kansas and Emporia State University, researchers at the Jones Institute for Educational Excellence, and the Kauffman Foundation, as well as training professionals at businesses like Sprint and AMC Entertainment , whose home offices are in Kansas City.

Destination Avatar: Teaching the Future: Added to the program in 2012, students in this course research current and future trends in mobile applications, social networking, augmented reality, immersive education, virtual classrooms, and more. This course is designed to push the limits of creativity in teaching, to seek out ways to connect with non-traditional learners, and to prepare future teachers for a classroom of students who were raised on hand held, touch screen devices.

"That little 2- or 3-year-old boy who’s watching a Barney movie on his mom’s iPhone, he’s the student that my students will be teaching," explains Fry. "If we teach the same way we’ve taught for years and years, we will lose him. The things that he and his peers will be used to, hands-on learning, finding their own solutions, those are high-level skills. If we don’t tap into those skills and carry them further, it will be a travesty."