'Leveling Up' Technology for Teaching
Tami Lenker, M.Ed., Technology and Learning Coach, Blythewood High School, Blythewood, SC
Now in her third year in the position after starting her career as a classroom teacher, Lenker has helped to spearhead a host of changes, including an overhaul of the school's professional development program that has led to increased interest and participation in creative uses of technology.
THE Journal: You started as an English teacher. How did you end up moving into this position?
Tami Lenker: I went back to school to get my master's in educational technology, and did an internship with a technology and learning coach while I was still teaching. I stayed home for a while after my second child was born, and then eventually the district contracted with me to do classroom observations. That was about 10 years ago. I saw what people were doing with technology — some really good things and some really bad things — and I became more interested in it. Then more recently when I had an opportunity to go back to work full-time, I decided that the key to getting to this generation was to come at them from that angle.
THE Journal: How much has changed in those 10 years?
Lenker: Well, you still see both sides. Some teachers will just have kids reading the textbook online, and that conserves paper, but that's about the extent of it. But then you have classrooms where teachers are letting students produce their own videos or where they're tweeting out their projects using a popular hashtag, knowing that many more people than just their teacher are going to see it. At the end of the last school year, we had a green screen set up in the library for students to do their final projects for an environmental science class, and I saw a class of seniors in their last week of school who were all working so hard and wanting to be there. So technology is definitely powerful when it's used right.
THE Journal: What's been your main objective in this position?
Lenker: We've had technology for a while now — we've been 1-to-1 for a few years — and we've been trying to raise the bar, or we call it level-up, and to get the teachers to share with one another and collaborate more. That's started to happen, and it's become contagious. We've had teacher-led professional development where you have an open mic, they get up and give a little elevator pitch about something they're doing, and then afterwards people can choose to approach them for more details. We also did something like "speed dating" where we played music, everyone rotated and talked to a teacher for four minutes and then rotated again, so that they all got to see what other classes were doing, and it was less intimidating talking to a smaller group for a short time. We have an Innovation Incubator, where it's like the Shark Tank television show — you go before people with a pitch, and they choose to buy in or reject your proposal.
THE Journal: What was the rationale behind moving toward teacher-led professional development?
Lenker: Historically, we had Tech Tuesday, covering a different topic each week. A lot of teachers would sit there, get some PD credit for it, and then be on their way, and I could see that with many of them it wasn't transferring into practice. Some of them were completely lost, but they didn't want to get up and say anything because they were in a room with their peers and felt intimidated. Other teachers felt obligated to be there but they already knew everything and they could have been the ones teaching the session better than I could.
So we decided on a more individualized approach, with smaller groups, teachers talking about their goals and ideas, and then we would try to help them with the logistics. That led to great conversations and lots of creativity.
They also decided to change the name to Teacher Enrichment and Engagement — TEE Time.
And then we gamified it using a badging system.
THE Journal: The LevelUp program?
Lenker: Right. It's a digital badge program. We did research on what would make teachers motivated to want to come to professional development.
We had mixed feelings about badging because some thought it might seem too juvenile, but others said, let's try it. And the idea is that it provides proof that you've achieved something and don't have to keep going to the workshops to learn the same things over and over again. We have badges for things like blended learning and WeVideo, and as you get points you go up levels, then when you get to the top level you get a plaque to put outside your door. It's helped to celebrate great work by teachers who might not otherwise get that recognition, as well as creating great conversations.
THE Journal: You have a student-run TechB@r program operating out of the school library. How did that come about?
Lenker: My position – we used to be called instructional technology specialists, or ITSs, and everyone though that because IT was in your title it meant you were in charge of fixing everything. It made me second-guess taking the job – people just wanted me to fix their computer. I thought, this isn't what I signed up for, maybe I should go back to teaching. Then one day, a boy walked into my office and said, "I heard you could use some help." That gave me an idea, and we ordered t-shirts that say TechB@r with a nice logo; recruited students who were interested in technology and wanted to come in before school, during lunch or after school; did some training, and now we have them provide that technical support. It's been great – it makes them feel good, and it keeps us from quitting!
Dan Gordon is a freelance writer based in Agoura Hills, CA.