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SEED Grant Partnership: Technology as Learning

SEED Grant Partnership: Technology as Learning

Written by Kevin Hodgson
August 25, 2013

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Other technophobes (in the school building) are listening and watching what we are doing. They feel that if we can do it, so can they. – Cathy

It’s becoming more and more evident in professional development circles that technology is no longer just a tool for learning, or an add-on activity thrown into the mix for the “cool factor.” Digital literacy is becoming the learning itself. Fortunately, in more and more schools, the days of one-shot technology tool professional development – sessions where some new-fangled device or software platform is tossed into the laps of teachers during staff meetings while a company representative drones on and on about the benefits and use in a hurried, all-knowing way before quickly departing the scene – may be nearing the end.

Or so one hopes.

The transition away from that flash-in-a-pan kind of professional development doesn’t mean the next level of meaningful technology integration comes any easier, however. But just as young people’s lives revolve around cell phones and computers, teachers are becoming more tech-savvy than ever. More educators now expect to be introduced to meaningful ways that the digital world can inform their teaching practice and offer solid examples of learning for students in the classroom.

When the Western Massachusetts Writing Project began a fruitful partnership with an urban elementary school through the use of a U.S. Department of Education SEED (Supporting Effective Educator Development) grant administered through the National Writing Project, we saw it as an opportunity to “bake” in the use of digital learning with writing instruction right from the very start. The primary focus of the SEED grant was a 30-hour professional development course around best practices in the teaching of writing that stretched from January to June 2013 with a cohort of a dozen teachers and administrators at a single school. One of the goals was to make technology a part of the course in ways that would become nearly transparent, at least in our professional development sessions, in hopes that such technology would begin to filter back into the classroom. As in many schools, the technology infrastructure, access to sites and firewall issues posed a significant barrier to implementing this goal.

The educators from the Maurice A. Donahue Elementary School in Holyoke, MA, were eager, if a bit unsure, about what technology might look like in this kind of professional development where the primary focus was the teaching of writing. This is a school that has had a series of top-down professional development organizations oversee the work in recent years, due in part to flat standardized test scores that led to oversight by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The Donahue School’s partnership with WMWP provided teachers there with a new direction forward, based on a model of teacher-driven inquiry projects and best practices in Writing Workshop, writing across the curriculum, research strategies and more.

This Digital Is resource seeks to document some of the work that was done to make the technology as seamless as possible in the professional development that ran from January to June 2013, so that the digital tools and spaces became a natural part of the instruction, and indeed, the expectation of the Donahue teachers as they began a classroom inquiry project of their own design.

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Google Drive: Value Teachers’ Voices

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I feel one of my strengths is finding ways to encourage dialogue between students about academic topics. I also feel that I strive to integrate technology into the classroom as much as I can. — Travis

Past experiences with top-down professional development led teachers at the Maurice A. Donahue Elementary School to grow accustomed to being told what curriculum they would teach in their classrooms. This was a result of its designation as an “underperforming school,” although the Donahue staff is clearly one that is rich with energy and experience, and passionate on behalf of its students. When the Western Massachusetts Writing Project began some initial planning work for the SEED grant partnership, a collaborative planning committee of WMWP facilitators and Donahue teachers decided that the first steps should be to validate the voices of staff members, and provide them with an opportunity to have input into the professional development. We were not coming into the school with “canned” curriculum; the work would be shaped by the needs of the teachers.

Technology played an important role in this early stage of the initiative, as we turned to the survey function in Google Drive to gather information from the entire staff (even though we knew the final cohort would be smaller, given the commitment of time and availability of resources). Some of the questions on the online survey were open-ended (“What are your strengths as an educator?” and “What do you want to learn more about?”) and some were bulleted lists developed by the planning team based on SEED grant expectations.

It might seem like such a simple step – setting up an online survey to gather initial views about what kind of professional development would be most meaningful for teachers  — but in many ways, it sent a clear message forward to the entire staff: their voices and their needs were going to be front and center. Planning team members were also on hand to help teachers access and use the online survey tool online during a staff meeting at the school. Again, we were purposely sending a clear signal about technology: this technology is a valuable data-gathering activity and there is support available.

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And we shared the results of the survey (complete with word clouds to pull out main ideas) right back with the staff as the Planning Team used the feedback as a guideline for developing the 30 hours of professional development that unfolded over the next six months. So, for example, the survey results demonstrated a strong interest in research writing skills, elements of Writing Workshop, and digital literacy, and those very topics became the heart of the six month program.

In this way, even those teachers who may not have joined the formal Professional Development session and workshops were still being represented in the planning stages, with the hope that this should make the distillation of learning from the cohort easier to share out with their colleagues as the new 2013-14 school year unfolds. Everyone had a hand in the planning the professional development, even those not directly involved.

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Edmodo: A Shared Professional Learning Space

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One of the questions I encountered while exploring Edmodo was: Can I put all of one student’s responses together to create a portfolio including assignments, responses, and grades? This question was answered when I took some time to explore the website. – Nicole

Early on, the collaborative Planning Team was in consensus that a space needed to be created outside of the school for the cohort of teachers to share, ask and answer questions and eventually, publish teacher inquiry projects. There are now more options than ever for online, networked venues, but we were looking for a space that was free, had low hurdles of entry for even reluctant technology users and might have ramifications for classroom applications for interested teachers. The school-centered social networking space, Edmodo, met all of this criteria, and more, and our collaborative space in Edmodo was up and running early in the Professional Development inquiry.

Prior to the deep work around classroom inquiry projects, the Edmodo space was mostly a place for the ritual writing in and out of the professional development sessions. Once the inquiry projects were underway, however, the space became an online home for teachers to could ask questions of facilitators and each other, seek clarification on reading and activities, call for more resources and share findings. Edmodo also became a virtual check-in point for facilitators and teachers. During the classroom inquiry project stage, WMWP facilitators set up smaller groups within the larger space so that “virtual coaching” could take place during the weeks between professional development sessions, offering another avenue for asking questions and receiving guidance. The online discussions nurtured continuity during times when face-to-face meetings were not scheduled, or rescheduled due to inclement weather.

Edmodo has remained a valuable archival space, as all participants shared their final presentations files and reflections there, providing easy access to a wide array of projects (from working with small group ELL reading instruction to using drama techniques to understanding open response questions) that remain online and available long after the Professional Development formally ended.

The implications of the work with Edmodo are two-fold.

First, the Donahue teachers in the cohort intend to create a space for their entire school, so that they can begin sharing and disseminating information about what they learned about the teaching of writing to other colleagues in the building, and establish a community of practice in a building where many teachers rarely see each other. Second, a number of teachers have already begun or are planning to begin to use Edmodo as an online writing space for their students. They have seen the value of online writing and sharing, and want to distill that learning into practice with their students.

Skype: Bringing in the Experts

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The Skype session with Chris was helpful as he put Common Core instruction into perspective for me.  He remarked that the standards are about habits rather than morsels of knowledge. – Travis

While the three WMWP facilitators brought in different backgrounds and areas of knowledge, it was decided early on to tap into video conferencing as a way to bring in even more voices and expertise for the Donahue teachers. While most of the teachers knew about Skype, a teleconferencing tool, very few had ever tried it. Given that Skype in the Classroom now boasts a large inventory of experts who can visit classrooms and talk with students, it seemed logical that our session should also reach out virtually to experts in the field of education.

One of the focus points of the professional development was on research strategies and writing, which was identified early on as a topic of high interest as it is now a focus of the Common Core, and the Massachusetts English Language Arts curriculum. Our primary text was Christopher Lehman’s excellent Energize Research Reading and Writing, and we reached out to Chris to see if he would be willing to Skype into a session in Holyoke from an office at Teachers College Reading & Writing Project at Columbia University. He agreed, and for almost 45 minutes on a Saturday morning, Chris talked about the role of many forms of research in the classroom and answered a wide range of questions from Donahue teachers.

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A few weeks later, we invited Maggie Beattie Roberts, also a senior staff developer from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and co-author of TCRWP Units of Study in Opinion, Information and Narrative Writing, to Skype in as well, and like Chris, Maggie was an invaluable voice in the room that day, bringing in her own experiences and research expertise in the field of education, with a focus on informational text writing, and again, answering questions from the group of teachers in the room.

While the books and articles we used certainly provided grounding in literacy practice, having the authors and researchers in the field in the professional development session with us was a great example of the power of professional connections and video conferencing capabilities. It also empowered the teachers to think of themselves as learners in a much larger network, tapping into the world of published writers and educational thinkers.

Padlet: Interactive Sharing and Writing

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I need to make the time to explore these sites and figure out how to add them to my teaching. They are simple ways to make learning more engaging and represent the type of learning that my students need to become college/career ready.  – Margaret

The tradition of Writing into the Day was something we honored and nurtured in the professional development sessions. The low-stakes activity provided a critical reflection point. At times, we used our Edmodo space; Other times, it was private writing. And once, we introduced the idea of the online collaborative space known as Padlet (formerly Wallwisher).  This particular writing prompt itself was borrowed from the influential educational blog run by Ruth Ayers and Stacey Shubitz called Two Writing Teachers. The Slice of Life prompt is simple enough – write about a moment from your week that had importance – yet the Slice of Life thinking can be pretty complex and deep.

The use of Padlet as a writing space showcased how collaborative writing might unfold, as we used the interactive whiteboard as a sharing space, showing how the writing of the participants was slowly populating the Padlet with deeply insightful words. The Slice of Life modification here was that teachers were asked to write about a meaningful interaction with a student over the past week, and then revise it into a six word Slice of Life.

What the Padlet site did was open up a door for conversations and understanding about what colleagues were doing, and sharing that in a collaborative space made even more visible with the use of an interactive whiteboard. Remember, this was a cohort of teachers from all areas of the school, from early childhood to middle school, and they barely see each other in the hallways or in staff meetings. Talking about teaching practice and learning from each other is a rare opportunity for many of them.

Interestingly, a number of the teachers took the Slice of Life of idea right back to the classroom, using it with their students as a writing activity. While it would have been nice to think that Padlet might have been used, too, with students, that did not quite yet happen. But Padlet as a collaborative space made visible the possibilities of the writing, and the reflective sharing that can happen, and that had reverberations in the classrooms.

Interactive Whiteboards: Students at the Center

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What we have found throughout our research is that students using an interactive whiteboard (have increased) interest and enthusiasm for learning because our students are tech-age babies and technology is a part of their everyday lives, so it makes sense to incorporate it into their classroom environment. — Iwona

Like many schools, the Donahue School has invested in interactive whiteboards, and like many schools, it has not necessarily followed up with professional development for teachers on how to use those boards. While that kind of professional development was outside of this particular grant purview, a number of the teachers involved in the SEED grant wanted help figuring out how to use the school’s new SMART boards for writing instruction.

It would be untrue to say that the PD sessions took full advantage of the possibilities of the Interactive Boards, partly due to infrastructure difficulties and firewall issues, but a series of activities designed to break the ice around their use helped support a collaboration of two teachers whose inquiry project examined the potential of engaging students with interactive board activities.

The main message, and the emphasis of these activities, was to put the board in the hands of the learners, not the teachers, and that was a message that resonated through the reflections of the educators. So, for example, using Draw a Stickman to talk about character and plot development involved teachers, somewhat reluctantly, at the board, drawing items to move the story along. That reluctance said a lot about the misperceptions of the whiteboard as a place for experts, instead of all learners.

The use of the interactive board within the safe confines of our professional development sessions allowed some of these teachers to finally have time to experiment with the device beyond use as a projection screen, ask questions about possibilities and work through some of the technical issues they faced in implementing their inquiry project.

A few inquiry collaborators also took advantage of the mini-grant option to purchase interactive whiteboard materials for their projects by buying a series of titles and software-based lessons from which to choose from with their own students.

But it was not just these teachers who worked to integrate the SMART board into their classroom instruction. Other teachers also began to explore how the boards might be a collaborative tool for classroom learning and instruction, opening up the door for more student-engaged practice with technology. This became evident during the presentation phase of the course, as almost all teachers showed increased comfort with the SMART board as a tool for sharing with the cohort.

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Barriers and Firewalls: Roadblocksto Technology and Learning


I have decided to use Prezi, which will be a brand new experience for me.  The learning is endless with this project. – Brad

The administration of the Donahue School has invested considerable resources into technology, with computer labs and rolling laptop carts and interactive boards available to most teachers. The school principal is an advocate of digital media as a means for learning, and she rightfully is proud of the technology she has been able to purchase for the building. The Donahue School is far ahead of the other elementary schools in its school district, in terms of hardware equipment.

But difficulties still exist on many levels for teachers thinking of engaging students with 21st Century skills. The district’s firewall is rather Draconian, and most requests for site access must go through a convoluted process in advance. Tech support is available, but not always accessible when needed in the moment.  For example, during the Skype session with Maggie Roberts, the video feed would not stream, and with no way to fix it, the session turned into a radio-style broadcast.  Teachers adapted quickly, a crucial skill when using digital media for learning.

Meanwhile, professional development that fully integrates technology into learning has been limited in scope at Donahue, as other needs in the school and district have taken precedence. Again, this situation is not unique to the Donahue School.

One of the goals of the NWP SEED grant initiative was to spark interest in digital literacy through the relatively seamless use of the tools in the professional development delivery, providing a mentor space for technology experimentation that might lead to classroom practice. The result became clear in many of the final reflection papers, as teachers talked about how they were introducing Edmodo to motivate reluctant writers, using the interactive boards for collaborative data gathering in a science class and for story planning in a writing class, and exploring alternative tools other than Powerpoint for presentations (such as Prezi and PowToons).

Finally, one collaborative team of teachers whose inquiry focused on the interactive boards hope to bring what they learned to the rest of their colleagues early in the school year, presenting their findings about the way the boards can help spark writing with students. They now see themselves as “experts” with the technology in the building, taking ownership and leadership to fill the void. Whereas before the SEED grant, these educators were reluctant to even approach technology, now they see it as an important road towards learning for themselves, as educators, and for their students, as learners in the digital age.

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