Waltham Integration Network: Connecting Teachers to Investigate and Improve Digital Learning Across Contexts

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It’s easy, as an educator, to feel like an unmoored ship in a vast sea.  Pricks of light in the distance indicate other ships, largely unreachable.  Even though teachers in the same districts and schools work closely in a physical sense the gulf of communication can be vast and many good ideas and techniques are not shared and refined amongst a larger pool of minds.

Teacher Inquiry guides exploration of new ways of teaching. Still from project video.
Teacher Inquiry guides exploration of new ways of teaching. Photo from project video.

This is what Elizabeth Homan, of Waltham Public Schools in Waltham, MA, is changing with her program Waltham Integration Network: Connecting Teachers to Improve and Investigate Digital Learning in Urban Settings.  While the name is complicated, the aims are simple. This project proposed to bring together a small group of teacher leaders from across an urban school district to engage in collaborative inquiry and teacher-research related to the integration of digital technologies in classroom practice. The goal of this project is twofold: (1) research the challenges and possibilities of digital integration in a high-needs urban school district, and (2) increase the capacity of the district’s digital professional learning opportunities for teachers.

How can collaborative inquiry for teacher development work?

By keeping research at its center, engaging teachers in conversations about “what works” for their digital learning, and helping teachers support their colleagues in reinventing their teaching to meet the needs of today’s very “plugged in” learners. The first year was largely preparatory with an articulation of goals and a formulation of an action plan that would turn into quarterly meetings.

Project Website - walthamintegrationnetwork.org
Project Website – walthamintegrationnetwork.org

At the start of the project, cohort members worked to identify the student learning goals for the year and articulate how their goals could be measured using qualitative or quantitative classroom data. These goals could be as simple as learning how to create and fully integrate a new tool, such as a classroom website, or it may involve an entirely new approach to instruction, such as “flipping” the classroom.   Later in the year, team members shared classroom artifacts, lesson plans, and examples of videotaped practice from their classrooms with other team members in quarterly face-to-face workshops, connecting their practice with research-based approaches and examples.

The project will continue to meet these goals through recruitment of additional teachers, teacher mentorship of new recruits, sharing teacher work through the blog and, in the summer, development of video evidence of teacher practice with technologies.

How can collaborative inquiry impact educators?

Classroom video helped teachers better understand the impact of new teaching strategies. Photo from project video.
Classroom video helped teachers better understand the impact of new teaching strategies. Photo from project video.

The educators at Waltham Public Schools have been busy.  In their first year they have recruited research assistants to help mentor teachers at the middle and elementary school levels.  They have also developed a number of #WINproj spaces for sharing practice. From their blog (walthamintegrationnetwork.org) to their twitter hashtag (#WINproj) and Facebook page, these educators have worked this year to foster a digital voice for the network and to develop consistent expectations around the content and design of their website/blog and social media interactions.  The teachers have worked throughout the year to archive photos, examples of student work, or videos of their practice, which they will use this coming summer to develop video reflections on their experience and what they have learned.  And because the project and leader are new to the district, much of this year has been about building relationships, learning what’s happening in the buildings, and building excitement for the project.

How can collaborative inquiry improve instruction and pedagogy?

Teacher blogging strengthens teacher collaboration.
Teacher blogging strengthens teacher collaboration.

The first and most obvious benefit is a larger network of teachers and educators who have bridged the communication gap.  Partnerships between teachers have formed both online and in person.  The teachers are also becoming increasingly proficient with web writing and familiarity with the online tools such as the blogs and message boards.  It’s clear they’ve been doing something right as they’ve been asked to present at the National Council of Teachers of English in November which will serve to get the word out about the program and widen the network of the educators involved.

How could this program be improved?

According to the team, the biggest challenge the program participants faced was that of time.  Not expectantly they had trouble with the temporal logistics of getting so many teachers in the same space physically.  More support and training for online meeting spaces is paramount for the growth of this project.

On a lesser, but no less important note, they found that some teachers needed to get acclimated to blogging.  While they’re perfectly proficient in the classroom, the public articulation of methods of pedagogy doesn’t come easy for everyone.  More support for first time bloggers would have a large impact on the productivity and communication between all parties.

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