In the Trussville City Schools, administrators, principals and teachers are building a joint commitment to new ways of teaching and learning.
Suzanne Freeman’s conversation is fast and full of energy, and the favorite word of the Trussville City Schools superintendent is “clear.”
She is clear about the district’s approach to teaching and learning, clear about the need for a close relationship between school and community, and clear about the urgency to prepare students for life and jobs in the 21st Century.
“We feel our core business is very clear and our direction is very clear,” Freeman said during an interview in early March. “We have to design engaging and intellectually rich school work for kids. We have to teach at high levels. And we use technology to get us there.”
In some ways, Trussville City is like a start-up company working to build a strong customer base. Top leaders in the two-year old district were mostly brand-new to the city when they launched the new school system in the summer of 2005. Freeman, her leadership team, and the TCS school board had the rare (and much envied) opportunity to focus nearly all of their attention on the future – not the past.
Students from Paine Intermediate School host a booth at The Safety Fair held by the Alabama Fire College to share their knowledge of Risk Watch issues. Here they've turned the tables by interviewing students about risks. The interviews were recorded and turned into podcasts for the school's website.
But they also knew their progressive vision for the 4500-student school district would require them to educate their middle class community about the changing nature of learning and work. Parents and civic leaders needed to understand why district leaders believed it was imperative to break away from the traditional teacher-centered, lecture-driven approaches to instruction and move toward project- and problem-based teaching strategies that push students to constantly apply what they are learning in meaningful ways.
“The world really is flat, and that’s a scary idea for a lot of adults to deal with,” says TCS school board member John Alex Floyd, Jr., who is well aware of the rapid changes in the way the world communicates through his “day job” as editor-in-chief of Southern Living magazine.
In a multimedia world, heavily influenced by digital technologies, students are no longer content to always be “sitting down in straight rows like we did and memorizing if you had to,” says the 59-year old Floyd. “With all the tools we have now, we have the ability to crack the code of (student) involvement and engagement to a greater degree.”
During the first months of the new Trussville City School system, Freeman and Pat Hodge, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, spent many hours in large and small meetings, talking with members of the community about their vision of 21st Century learning.
“We talked to church groups, civic groups, neighborhood meetings, and parents on back porches,” recalls Hodge, a widely respected former principal and central office instructional leader (with previous stints in Mountain Brook and Tarrant). “It didn’t matter to us – we just wanted to share our thinking about the changing world and hear from them about their hopes and dreams for our schools.”
Hodge and Freeman have continued this practice over the past two years, as the new school system has begun to evolve. Most recently, they toured the community to discuss 21st Century skills, using as a jumping-off point a December 2006 article from TIME magazine titled “How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th Century.”
“It’s another way to talk about how our kids are doing and how there is room for improvement in terms of student learning,” Freeman says. “We make it clear that we are committed to teaching the content in the state Course of Study – that’s non-negotiable. But we also talk about going deeper with kids. One of the ideas that’s in the TIME article is the need to target conceptual understanding – it’s not enough to just memorize the right answer.”
Linking technology and cutting-edge teaching
While technologies and Web-based learning are part of the conversation, Freeman says, she and Hodge always present technology as a means to an end. “Technology is really a tool. Kids love technology, and it also helps us teach in new ways. We want to use technology to reflect real life as much as possible, because we think that’s what the learning that goes on in schools needs to be about.”
Freeman and Hodge often show a short video describing why search engine behemoth Google – which organizes employees into collaborative teams -- was recently chosen as the best company in the United States to work for. The purpose, Freeman says, is to help parents and civic leaders see that “the world where our students are going to work and live as adults is quite different than it was 20 years ago. Now we have to prepare kids to be responsible self-starters who can organize and complete tasks.”
In a letter that begins “Dear Citizens of Trussville,” Freeman recently laid out the vision clearly and succinctly, linking the district’s focus on higher order thinking and problem-solving to digital and web-based technologies that help “make learning meaningful and engaging.”
Freeman wrote, in part: “We must teach students to conduct research using the internet and other sources so that they develop the skills of analyzing, integrating, and evaluating information for accuracy. Teachers and students must contantly develop their skills to use various forms of media to communicate, dialogue, and exhange information, thoughts, and ideas that enhance their learning. One way to do this is by utilizing social networking tools to enhance student and teacher learning….” Freeman goes on to mention and briefly define blogs, wikis and podcasts.
In another more detailed community document, Freeman draws on district data and research from national and international studies to answer a series of “frequently asked questions” about the direction of the Trussville City Schools. One question asks “What do you think the role of the teacher is?” Freeman’s frank answer describes a vision for teaching that will clearly require many teachers to stretch far beyond their current practice.
“One of our system beliefs is that teachers are instructional leaders and curriculum designers,” it says. “Hence, our goal is to empower teachers, provided they are truly focused on engaging all students, so that students are learning at high levels.”
The document says teachers will be expected (and supported) to design engaging work for students using a variety of resources “which could include the textbook, resources on the internet, books, media, field trips, a variety of technologies, etc. to ensure that all students are doing work that is meaningful and relevant to them….”
Preparing Teachers for 21st Century Learning
Trussville City Schools’ Director of Technology, Shawn Nutting, received the distinguished 2007 Marbury Technology Innovation Award
Freeman’s district leadership team includes both director of curriculum and instruction Pat Hodge and director of technology Shawn Nutting, whom Freeman hired from industry to help TCS infuse 21st Century tools into every aspect of the district’s operation, from a one-to-one student laptop initiative to a comprehensive student data management system.
Because they “are both always thinking down the road,” Freeman says, Hodge and Nutting have become close collaborators who “are on the same page” about the total integration of technology and instruction.
Hodge adds that “the technology department 100 percent supports – and is sometimes the driving force behind – curriculum improvement. Shawn and I, philosophically, are on the same page about education and what we think the opportunities should be for students.”
One of Hodge’s first initiatives has been to involve every teacher in the school system in a curriculum mapping initiative “so that we figure out what it is that we want our students to know and then take it deeper and infuse technology into that planning.”
When Hodge wanted to create a software-based management system that could help anticipate individual student needs and tailor curriculum planning around those needs, she turned to Nutting. “He asked me to tell him what I envisioned, and I wandered all over the place because I didn’t know quite how to explain it. But he got it. And he found a product that would support it. It worked – it’s a success.”
This close working relationship between technology and instruction was further strengthened in the 2006-07 year when Nutting recruited teacher April Chamberlain direct from her Paine Intermediate School classroom to fill the new position of District Technology Integration Specialist.
Fellow April Chamberlain talks about Eduwikipedia at her learning stations. Eduwikipedia was created as a resource for teachers about web 2.0 tools.
Chamberlain drew the attention of district leaders for her innovative use of the Web in her daily classroom teaching, including projects that involved elementary students in blogging with soldiers in Iraq, developing a website for kids about safety and risk-taking, and securing grants to start an in-school TV station at PIS.
In 2005, Chamberlain was also selected as one of the Alabama Best Practices Center’s ten 21st Century Teacher Fellows. Nutting said her professional development experiences in the Microsoft-sponsored ABPC program was “icing on the cake.”
“April has been a huge asset in our office, because she’s really the one who’s designing our 21st Century schools,” Nutting says. “She’s constantly on the Web with other creative educators around the country -- and the world, really -- talking about new ways that teachers can use what’s available on the Internet to engage kids and deepen learning.”
“She has a list of things she wants us to do that’s 25 miles long, but that’s a good thing,” Nutting says, “because she’s always challenging us to think beyond the present moment.”
Nutting and Hodge also see Chamberlain as the “credibility link” between the central office and the 300-plus teachers and administrators in the Trussville system. Chamberlain spends much of her time in the district’s four schools, visiting classrooms and meeting with teams of teachers at various grade levels and content areas to discuss technology integration ideas. She also supports the district’s “technology team leaders” –- four teachers in each school who receive a small annual stipend to serve as “first contacts” for faculty with questions about everything from equipment failures to setting up a safe blog or wiki for classroom use.
“We don’t have much credibility with teachers,” Nutting says. “We’re the IT guys. But educators in our system can’t really argue that where we want to go with technology is crazy, because with April we have a 10-year veteran of the classroom who is standing right there saying it can be done, I’ve done it, and can point to other teachers in the district who are doing it.”
From Chamberlain’s perspective, her many years in the classroom and her own time spent as a technology team leader at Paine Intermediate help her empathize with teachers who struggle to adapt to 21st Century teaching strategies.
“We’re introducing a lot of technology, but we’re trying not to overwhelm our teachers,” she says. “It’s a situation where ‘you don’t know what you don’t know,’ so we’re trying to raise awareness about the tools available on the Web, and the way teachers are using those tools, and then support teachers if they want to try something new.”
A Hard Learning Curve
During Trussville’s first year as a school district, Chamberlain says, much of the technology focus was on investments in equipment and infrastructure, including laptops for teachers throughout the system.
“It was a hard learning curve for us,” she says. “Spending money on equipment didn’t make change happen. We found that dozens of teachers weren’t even using their laptops in their classrooms. We saw that change was going to require workshops, activities, classroom visits that helped teachers see how technology could pay off for them.”
A major turning point, Chamberlain and other district leaders agree, was the Trussville Educator Technology Conference, held in January 2007. The district’s 300 teachers gathered at Hewitt-Trussville Middle School for live and online presentations from a mix of outside experts and a dozen innovative teachers from across the system.
“We’re a small district and we think every teacher needs technology training,” says Chamberlain. “We know we can’t afford to send every teacher to an outside conference, and even if we could, it would be difficult to assure that each teacher got just what they needed in the way of training.
“So by developing our own technology conference, and utilizing the teachers who are currently using the technology in their classrooms as presenters and trainers, we really maximize. And it has more validity when it comes from someone who uses it every day in a classroom. We’re also helping our teachers identify people they can go back to for help – in their own schools and in other schools in the district, because we want to encourage that kind of cross-collaboration.”
Chamberlain says the district IT staff also helped staff the conference. “That’s something we’re big on here – keeping the tech staff tuned into what teachers are thinking and what they need. Because if you sit in the IT office all the time, you lose the sense of what it means to have 30 kids in a classroom trying to access the technology.”
Plans for next year’s conference include expanding it from four hours to a full day with more hands-on opportunities and more focus on how to use the technology to deepen learning. “Our district is very involved with Schlechty’s Working on the Work (WOW) program, and we want to help more teachers see how Web 2.0 tools and other technologies can really support the kind of learning process represented in WOW,” she says. “Our goal is for technology to be the invisible thread that runs through all of our curriculum and instruction.”
Chamberlain also knows enough about teacher culture to recognize that despite her personal teaching credentials, she is now an employee of the central office and needs her own “credibility bridge.” That’s one of the reasons the district is creating the new role of “Lead Technology Teacher,” adding a fifth member to each school’s technology leadership team.
Trussville City Schools teachers stand by their learning station.
Like the existing technology team leaders (TTLs), the Lead Technology Teachers (LTTs) will be full-time classroom teachers. They will receive extra professional development and release time (and be compensated with a $1000 stipend) to develop cutting-edge technology-infused lessons that focus on 21st Century skills. The lead teacher will model the lessons in his or her own classroom and spread the knowledge in after-school workshops, annual tech training days, and other venues.
Every other week during the school year, Chamberlain says, the Lead Technology Teachers will have the option to participate in 75-minute training sessions “where I will work with them to create technology enriched lessons and units, plan workshops for schools, and meet virtually with other educators around the world, so we can collaborate in a truly global environment.”
Chamberlain says the lead teachers will focus exclusively on teaching and learning strategies, while the four tech team leaders in each school (who receive $500 stipends) will continue their role as troubleshooters and hardware/software experts.
A Districtwide Vision
While Trussville’s leaders would not yet claim to be a cutting-edge 21st Century school district, it is clear from interviews with students, teachers, principals, district office staff and members of the community that the change message are beginning to permeate the entire system.
Erin McGuyer, a social studies and technology teacher, says the district’s vision is not isolated in the central office. “It may begin there, but it’s not skipping our school-based administrators and coming straight to us. All of our administrators realize that we’re in this together, and we all have a responsibility in integrating technology.”
“And I think our administrators lead by example,” she adds. “Many have their own blogs and wikis. Every one of our schools has a resource wiki aimed at their grade levels, where anybody in the entire world can gather and contribute useful things.”
“I think that’s pretty cool and pretty unusual. In the school system where I worked in before I came here, yes, there was some expectation that we would use technology, but you never saw administrators using it themselves,” McGuyer says.
Sunny Williams, principal of Hewitt-Trussville Middle School, agrees that she and her principal colleagues fully share the district’s 21st Century vision.
“From everything we hear and read, it’s clear that we don’t have a choice. We have to change,” she says. “If we don’t, we’re doing our students a huge disservice. The job requirements these kids are going to have when they’re grown we can’t even imagine. So how can we teach them all the facts they need to know to be successful 20 years from now when they’re my age?”
“So what we need to do is teach them how to be adaptive, how to find the information they need,” Williams says. “What you do when you don’t know something, that’s more important in some ways that the individual facts. We still have to cover the content, but the way we go about getting the content across can also teach them how to deal with ambiguity, how to solve problems, how to work together.”
Williams, who models the push toward 21st Century learning by keeping her own principal’s blog, where she engages in regular conversations with students, acknowledges that some teachers are much more willing than others to embrace new technology-infused methods of teaching.
“I struggle with teachers sometimes who are a lot more hesitant to move away from their very teacher-centered approach to learning. They are uncomfortable giving students more control. I’m excited about the possibilities that change brings, and I try to communicate that,” she says.
“It’s true that with the potential comes the negatives – like with safety issues and the Internet. You have to teach kids to deal with those negatives, but the possibilities are amazing. And that’s the philosophy in this district. As educators we owe it to our kids to pursue these possibilities with all our might.”
School board member John Floyd anticipates that over time, Trussville will develop a teacher force that’s largely committed to student-centered, media-infused teaching. “I think we’ve been smart here in not saying that every teacher has to (become technologically proficient) instantly,” he says. “Instead, we are helping them see the value of using technology for greater student rewards.”
Quality teachers teach for only one reason, Floyd believes – to help children learn. “And any way you can help students learn to read, or do the math, or understand the science, or figure out things for yourself, that’s your job as a teacher.”
The responsibility of the system’s leaders, he says, “is to provide teachers with the best tools to do that – regardless of what the tools are. And then help them understand how to be successful with those tools. And I think that’s at the heart of our program. The winner here is not the teacher, not the school system, but the student.”