Two Case Studies: How Connected Educators Can Transform Schools

| October 28, 2013 | 13 Comments
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Figuring out which new teaching practices or pieces of technology might work in a classroom can feel like a full-time job. Lots of educators spend their free time researching new ideas and connecting with other educators, but there are plenty more that find the process confusing and overwhelming. How much easier would it be to have a dedicated staff person whose job is to bring new ideas into the district, support teachers and smooth the way with administrators?

That’s what Kris Hupp does for Cornell School District, a tiny district in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Hupp’s official title is 21st Century Teaching and Learning Coach, a job that started out as part of a state grant and has been incorporated into the regular budget. “My district made the investment in my position because they were seeing instructional shifts and a lot of that is this mentality that we’re in it together,” Hupp said.

“Our teachers want to learn and try new technologies, but if they try something and it blows up in their faces no one is going to be upset.” 

The most important thing about his job is to create trust with both teachers and administrators who sometimes find themselves on opposite sides of labor disputes and budget issues, Hupp said. “Sometimes we’re just negotiators, whether it’s that the administration wants something from a teacher or vice-versa,” Hupp said. “It really requires a tremendous level of trust.”

Hupp was uniquely positioned for the job since he’d worked as both a social studies teacher in the district. But he says it still took time for teachers to feel comfortable with him in their classrooms. They were worried he’d say something to an administrator that would bring unwanted attention. On the flip side, administrators have to respect the teacher-coach relationship and trust Hupp to have student learning as his goal.

“Our teachers want to learn and try new technologies, but if they try something and it blows up in their faces no one is going to be upset,” Hupp said. That freedom to experiment and learn from mistakes is crucial for garnering teacher buy-in.

Hupp also runs a Professional Learning Community (PLC) of both teachers and administrators. Right now they’re discussing formative assessment, and future topics will come both from Hupp and teacher suggestions.

[RELATED READING: The Key to Empowering Educators? True Collaboration]

Hupp’s strategy has been to start with the enthusiastic teachers and allow more reticent teachers to approach him for help when they are ready. “What happens is a teacher next door is doing something kind of innovative or creative and over time that uninterested teacher comes around,” Hupp said. His policy is to invite everyone to everything, but focus energy on the teachers who are excited.

Having Hupp in the district frees teachers to focus on using the ideas he’s already vetted and gives everyone a community for sharing ideas. The onus to discover, implement, document and fundraise for new opportunities doesn’t all fall on teachers and as a consequence everyone in the school ecosystem is a little less tense.

By acting as the connecting agent within the school, Hupp has helped push forward regular video conferencing with other schools around the world and the acquisition of a Gigapan unit – basically a robot that takes high resolution photos and stitches them together to create virtual experiences. He’s also done a lot of the heavy lifting on integrating technology into classrooms.

CONNECTING BEYOND THE CLASSROOM

Melissa Butler, another Pittsburgh educator, demonstrates a more traditional way to be a connected educator — collaborating with other people on a project that has grown far beyond her single classroom. Butler and Jeremy Boyle from Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab co-founded the Children’s Innovation Project.

The project works to bring technology into kindergarten classrooms as the basis for inquiry. Using mechanical toys, Butler and Boyle encourage children to imagine how the toy works, what could be inside and how it runs. The project isn’t to get kids making robots at the age of five, but rather to open their minds to discovery, collaboration, communication and imagination that will cultivate their curiosity and a habit of learning that will serve them throughout their lives. The project has attracted the interest of other teachers at Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5, where Butler teaches, and the project is now practiced all the way up through third grade. It’s even spreading to other schools.

“The process of learning and the explanation of knowing and wondering and noticing is the material, the form that we’re interested in,” Butler said. “We’re not interested in children creating robots or gadgets; it’s about them exploring with the raw material to gain deeper understanding.” Butler has implemented the program with her kindergarteners, trying to build habits of learning and observation by asking students to take apart electronic toys very slowly. This isn’t a take- it-apart-and-put-it-back-together-again exercise. It’s a more imaginative, slow unraveling of what might lie inside a gadget.”

The teacher’s job is to ask questions that open up thinking and curiosity. That kind of questioning is not a new tactic by any means, but it often gets crammed into a full schedule. This program is all about moving slowly.

“If you can become curious as a person and you know that curiosity is what fuels your thinking about the world, that habit carries over in math class, in social studies class,” Butler said. She wants kids to be comfortable with the mechanical vocabulary so they can talk about the things they want to make. And showing interest in their ideas helps build a learning disposition that will serve them well as they continue to learn.

The program also tries to engage families, asking kids to bring their observations and communication lessons home with them. “There are a lot of parents who don’t like the homework we send home because it’s hard and it really does require parent support to do this,” Butler said. She estimates about 80 percent of parents are on-board, sending homework back regularly. That engagement is important in any school, but especially high-poverty schools like Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5, where 70 percent of the students get free or reduced price lunch.

A strength of the program is that its teacher initiated and continues to reach out to new partners.  “We have a thinking community, a place where we can share and be inspired by people we work with,” Butler said.

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