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.
Why does this matter in real life?
One of the chief complaints you hear from students is “How can I actually apply what I’m learning to the real world?” And while there is no helping Algebra in that department, there are a myriad of other subjects that can benefit from a dose of real world interaction. This is what the Digital Art Afterschool Studio is doing. It’s taking a cue from larger real world curriculum programs, such as Career Oriented Curriculum and focusing on digital artistry and community involvement.
What is Career Oriented Curriculum and how can it benefit students?
According to District Administration, a website focused on creative solutions for school districts: “A summer job for a 16-year-old typically involves serving coffee, scooping ice cream, or babysitting the neighborhood children. Some students at Miami-Dade County (Fla.) Public Schools, however, spent their summer vacation designing a children’s Web site for the city of Miami Beach. An increasing number of students are finding themselves mingling among professionals with internships in local businesses—the culmination of a work-based learning curriculum.” These real world experiences are invaluable to students as they do two things:
- Reality Check Experiences like this show the students the real life application for what they are learning.
- On the Job Experience Projects like the digital after school studio create professional connections that go beyond graduation and help move our students forward professionally.
One organization with a stellar track record in this area is the National Academy Foundation (NAF). Since 1982 they have worked tirelessly with teachers and schools to create and implement career-oriented curriculum. Schools that work with the NAF will frequently require an internship with a local business before allowing the student to graduate. According to NAF:
“Over 90 percent of NAF students graduate from high school, and four out of five students continue to college or postsecondary education. Of those students, 52 percent earn a bachelor’s degree.”
How do you do it?
So how are the teachers and students at Overton High School, where the Digital Art Studio program has been in full swing for two years, applying the idea of career oriented curriculum to their specific needs?
According to their proposal “The after-school Digital Arts Studio program … enables students to build professional-level skills, as they develop their artistic portfolios. … The students will be introduced to client-based projects where they are expected to develop a working relationship with the client resulting in a marketable product.”
The program operates similar to a small graphic design studio. Taking place three times a week for two hours after school, students have the opportunity to really put work into a portfolio, and increase the possibility of scholarships and if a professional internship is tacked on, some AP credit. Projects are introduced from the needs of real world clients who the students and teachers reach out to. The projects can be anything from helping a local business create a print add to designing a website for a church event. This helps create crucial bridges between the school and the community around them, ultimately strengthening both.
This program has had to start small, accommodating only a few students at first. The principal and instructors consult with local ad agencies to create an interview process for students to simulate a job interview. The students selected work together to create a marketing campaign to alert the community to their presence and start soliciting clients. It is their hope that this model will, after a couple years, become self-sustaining.
What is the impact of a Career Oriented Curriculum?
So where are the students that have already passed through this program? Here are just a few of the success stories.
- Olivia Campbell, a second year participant, was awarded a full scholarship to attend University of Tennessee’s summer program for her Digital Art exhibited in the West Tennessee Regional Art competition last winter.
- Darion Beasley, King Hobson, and Maurico Farmer (all second year participants) were selected as three of the thirty-three students chosen to be represented in the Frist’s Museum’s exhibition Tennessee’s Top Young Artists.
- This year’s West Tennessee Regional Art Competition just released their awards and participants currently in the program won Best Graphic Design work, Best Photographic work, and placed in several other categories.
- One of the program’s participants, Cesar Pita, was just offered a $66,000 scholarship, the Presidential Scholarship, from Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, one of the finest art colleges.
And these are just a few stories of success as this program continues to grow.
It’s clear from the work that NAF does and how Overton High School applies it to their own program that career-oriented curriculum puts students at a huge advantage over their peers that do not participate. By giving students an education grounded in reality, rather than existing in the abstract on the white board, we strengthen their chances of succeeding in the real world. Forging professional connections early on only increases the chance of future employment and education. By also giving students a personal stake in how their work is perceived by the community at large we give them the opportunity to push themselves to create something they can be proud of.
Learn More with these Related Links
- Career and Technical Education: Research
- Linking Learning to Life
- Career-Oriented Curriculum Delivers Critical Skills
- Proof is in: Career-oriented education works
When student publishing and mentoring come together, student engagement and writing skills explode!
When students write for an authentic audience, research has shown that they take more pride in their work. Throughout a student’s school life, they are writing stories, book reports, research reports, “What I Did Last Summer,” etc., but it is often for a very small audience, perhaps just the teacher.
This is not to say that this writing is not important in the learning process. However, it becomes a different kind of writing project when you are actually writing for a real audience and writing for a real purpose.
According to Anne Rodier, “Over time we have discovered that our students are just like us: They have to grow into being writers. They have to believe that what they have to say is important enough to bother writing. They have to experience writing for real audiences before they will know that writing can bring power.” In this blog you will learn about an innovative program called BOOM!
How are mentoring and literacy combined in an after-school program?
BOOM! is an after-school program and literary magazine produced by students at Manual High School in Denver, Colorado for their fellow students and their community. The mission of BOOM! is to develop the writing skills of students in a positive, mentoring environment that equips them for success in high school and beyond.
Two afternoons a week BOOM! writers work with community volunteers (many whom are professional writers) who tutor them as they write articles and fictional stories. The students sign contracts with their volunteers to ensure their attendance and timely completion of their articles. They also work with professional graphic designers to design the 30-page publication. A few of the article categories include: The Pulse of Manual, What’s Good in the Hood, We Got Game, and Creative Fiction.
BOOM!’s program and its one-on-one mentoring help kids of all abilities, from extremely talented to barely literate writers.
The program focuses on three key areas which support students in:
- expressing themselves
- improving writing abilities
- gaining confidence and life skills
The program was funded by McCarthey Dressman Educational Foundation and is a collaboration between the school and the Volunteers of America Community-Connect office at Manual with a goal of having students write about their school and their community which culminates in a professional publication.
What is the impact of an after-school literary magazine project?
Over the past three years that BOOM! has been operating, the program has mentored 30 students, produced 11 publications and reached more than 4,000 student and community readers.
BOOM! is not only improving literacy, it is making a difference in students’ lives. Mentors serve as role models and often remain close to the students after they have exited the program. Teachers see the program as another tool in assisting students in becoming writers and successful in school. And, as students see their name in print, it makes them proud and allows them to see themselves as authors and to find writing to be an outlet for their creativity. It is no small surprise that all graduating BOOM! students have been accepted into universities. This makes combining literacy and mentoring an excellent model of a collaborative program between a school and a community organization.
What do the participants say?
Some quotes from BOOM! students, teachers and principal at Manual High School:
- We don’t have people to help us in the classroom. There’s one teacher and 26 students. But here it’s more like 7 mentors and 10 kids. They help you make sure you are writing the correct way and going outside what you normally can do. I find now I can go more in depth with analysis in class when we read books. My grades have gone up in my English classes and I feel more confident. It’s helped me create better personal essays for college scholarships. Even though you might think BOOM! is about writing, it’s about being able to express yourself and have someone help you along the way to express yourself. – Ronnie
- I joined BOOM! to get involved and meet new people. I see now that I’m in college how it helped me become a better writer. From all the interviews I did, I feel confident talking with new people, meeting new people and having very professional conversations with them. I feel comfortable writing longer college essays. – Dani
- BOOM! was the major factor that got Dani to college. She went from a passive student to taking an active interest in her future. – Manual teacher
- BOOM! offers students the individual attention and instruction they need. – Manual teacher
- We have to find a way to get this program to reach more students! – Manual principal
To learn more about BOOM! and the strategies highlighted in this project, visit these resources.