Waltham Integration Network: Connecting Teachers to Investigate and Improve Digital Learning Across Contexts
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
Collaborative Planning for Project Based Learning
Teaching, despite being surrounded by literally hundreds of human beings on a daily basis, can be a very isolating profession. An educator could be likened to being a single island in an archipelago. While they are a part of an entity larger than themselves the vast gulfs that separate them keep them from fully benefitting from each other’s resources. Coupled with the daily slog through textbooks, homework, and testing, it’s easy to see how a teacher’s passion for education could wane. Is collaboration with other teachers a way to improve teaching and learning? The educators at San Francisco Community School (SFC) proposed exactly that in the Collaborative Planning for Project Based Learning project funded by McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation.
What exactly is Project Based Learning (PBL)?
According to the Buck Institute for Education PBL is “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge.” You can learn more about types of PBL from John Larmer at Edutopia. Put more simply, it’s learning by doing. PBL is a model that shifts its focus away from a teacher-centric approach and emphasizes student directed assignments. With a focus on relevant assessment and real world relevance, PBL is a very exciting alternative for both students and teachers to traditional classroom learning.
What are the benefits of PBL for teachers and students?
According to the National Education Administration, PBL “makes learning relevant to students by establishing connections to life outside the classroom and addressing real world issues. In the classroom PBL gives teachers an opportunity to build relationships with students by acting as their coach, facilitator, and co-learner.” In the past few years the increased access to technology in schools, even underprivileged ones like SFC, makes this type of learning much more accessible. The large format of the projects also lend themselves to being easily shared between teachers and with parents who are invested in the student’s learning process.
How are the educators at SFC implementing PBL?
It’s not an easy approach, especially if you have limited resources and time. According to the original proposal by Jessica Fishman, who is spearheading the project, “The Collaborative Planning Project (CPP) will allow SFC teachers to work together for three days in summer study groups to establish essential learning objectives, develop long-term project-based curriculum and develop common learning strategies for the coming year.”
The teachers used the text Understanding by Design by Wiggins & McTighe as their guide as they work through the ideas of backwards design and the building blocks of project based learning. The teachers were also be divided into groups based on grade ranges so that, when sharing, they could manage and engage each others needs and expectations as students moved through the school. This collaboration will create essential bridges between educators so that ideas and proposals may flow more easily between them.
After two years of implementation, where are they now?
Jessica Fishman was happy to report that the project met or exceeded all the goals they had set.
According to the proposal the goals were as follows:
- Project-based learning methods to support student learning in real-world, meaningful challenge-driven projects.
- Teachers will identify and develop performance-based assessment opportunities and rubrics that are aligned to the projects and indicate the extent to which students have mastered the essential learning outcomes.
- Culturally-relevant instructional strategies designed to engage and support students who are traditionally under-served by public schools.
- Vertical alignment and calibration of expectation and rigor K-8.
By working in their individual grade level groups the teachers created concrete plans for their fall cycle. Not only did they create a solid collaboration plan, they created a set of assessments along with K-8 vertical integration and alignment. The problem they’ve run into both years was that very few teams had time to do initial planning. As a result, many teams were forced to meet again over winter break to finish their planning for the spring. The extra time spent in each others company only strengthened the personal and professional bonds between their educators. Now, with the project plans in place, it’s a much smoother transition for new teachers joining the project.
When teachers are able to truly collaborate it opens up worlds of opportunities, not only for the students, but for the educators as well. There is no reason to cease learning, especially when one is a teacher. The benefits of project based learning are clear, but the added collaboration between educators will only amplify that effect.