Getting Connected

Getting Connected

How technology improves communication among teachers, staff and parents.

At Lewis Elementary School in Portland, Ore., blog posts and e-mails have replaced paper notes stuffed in teachers' mailboxes. Staff meetings, now devoid of the exchange of routine information, are done in half the time and focus solely on best practices and curriculum. Planning for the staff holiday party? Done online. So too are the principal's advisories to staff, including recommended magazine articles, notice of cancelled meetings and even notes and minutes from various staff meetings.

"Using a blog doesn't just free me up, it frees up staff in my office who'd normally be hovering over the copier," says Principal Tim Lauer. "And it frees up teachers from having to run back to their mailboxes and then sift through reams of paper to figure out what's going on and what's most important for them."

Lewis Elementary is among a growing number of K-12 schools across the country that, following the lead of colleges and universities, is using technology to increase and improve staff communication and professional development. The tech use goes far beyond e-mail. Blogs, listservs, intranets, special Web sites devoted to connected educators even wikis are now in the technological arsenal, yielding regional, national and even global forums for staff members, particularly teachers.

"Technology has allowed teachers to connect not only with each other in their schools, but with teachers all over the country and the world," says Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, a professor of instructional technology at the College of William & Mary and a project manager for the Center for Teaching Quality. According to Nussbaum-Beach, online discussions allow first-year teachers to access a vast array of virtual mentors without having to march down the hall and observe someone's classroom or make a date with a teacher at another school. This new connectivity also provides an opportunity to prepare students for the 21st century and to create a unique approach to parental involvement.

Sharing Ideas

Blogs have become one of the most common tech uses outside of e-mail to improve staff communication and collaboration. "Blogging opens the door to cross-communication and building ideas on a topic rather than someone talking about something in a vacuum," says Nussbaum-Beach.

Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J., has 90 blogs that cover everything from library and cafeteria schedules to extracurricular groups to academics. Students and teachers subscribe to any blog of interest and access the blog using real-simple syndication (RSS), an alternative view of a Web page that allows subscribers access to content.

"Blogging, in its best use, is scholarship. It opens the door to cross-communication and building ideas on a topic rather than someone talking about something in a vacuum." -Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, professor of instructional technology, College of William & Mary

Each blog at Hunterdon Central has its own manager who updates information. The school's public information officer reviews the blogs to be sure the content is consistent, helpful and legal. Hunterdon restricts user comments on the blogs to prevent them from getting unwieldy, says Will Richardson, supervisor of communications and instructional technology. However, Richardson plans to come up with a solution to allow teachers to make comments on some of the school's blogs now in their second year of use such as lesson plans and other useful information.

At some schools, blogs have revolutionized the exchange of everything from staff tidbits to dealing with problem students. Since he arrived at the school in 2003, Lauer has been using blogs at Lewis Elementary to eliminate the weekly paper staff bulletin and speed up central office advisories to teachers. He never imagined that blogs would become something teachers would rely on and use almost 24/7. The previous principal had produced a weekly staff bulletin, which required compiling and organizing stacks of paper notices. Outdated information sometimes found its way in and teachers frequently misplaced the multi-paged bulletin. Now, says Lauer, teachers are required to check their e-mail at least once a day and most check the blog and bulletin a few times a day.

"I feel like I'm in much better touch with my colleagues and my principal," says Sarah Jones, who has taught at Lewis Elementary for seven years. "It's so much easier now because I can access the site from home, I can post information and questions and get responses back quickly from teachers instead of having to wait for days." Jones, who teaches both third and fourth grades, often uses the blog to seek advice on different teaching approaches. When one of her students was struggling with writing, Jones sent out a request for help. Within a day she had a handful of suggestions from several specialists at the school as well as the student's second-grade teacher, who described her experience with helping the child. "This has made me a more efficient and effective teacher because sharing information has become second nature. It's the way it should be," she says.

Improving Teaching Skills

Connecting teachers and improving professional development was the incentive behind the blog at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago. John Stoper, technical professional development coordinator for the small private school, started a professional development blog in 2004. Says Stoper: "With a traditional Web site I'd spend half my time creating the content and half my time wrangling with the Web site to get the information on it." The blogging software, he explains, is simple enough that a non-techie can upload information.

Like Hunterdon Central Regional High School's blogs, Stoper's blog is not interactive. Teachers can access information and share stories or photos, but they need Stoper's assistance to upload information. He prefers to limit interactivity to maintain the blog called Teacher Institute as a strong professional development vehicle. Several teachers at the school have their own blogs where they post assignments, pictures, lessons or other information and receive feedback.

Stoper's blog, which he uses as a teaching tool, includes photos, songs and booklists as well as curriculum and lesson plans. When teachers had to complete report cards using new software, Stoper posted a link with step-by-step instructions. He can also run training sessions from his computer and have teachers sign on from their own computers at school or at home and follow along. "It's as if they're looking over my shoulder and watching what I'm doing," says Stoper. "This is making a world of difference for us."

Listservs and Electronic Bulletin Boards

In addition to blogs, listservs have become an increasingly useful way for schools to communicate not only internally but with parents and the larger community. Hunterdon Central has a listserv with more than 3,500 subscribers most of them parents. According to Robinson, it's one of the school's strongest ways to disseminate information.

"I feel like I'm in much better touch with my colleagues and my principal." -Sarah Jones, teacher, Lewis Elementary School, Portland, Ore.

Even relatively ancient forms of listservs are still worthy for some districts. While Tim Taylor, technology coordinator of the Marion School District in Ark., appreciates the ease of listservs, he sticks with a tried-and-true e-mail and electronic bulletin board system called FirstClass that his district has used since 1995. Although a decade with the same e-mail system may place the district behind the times, Taylor says the software allows district officials to adapt it to suit their ever-changing needs. "This is the easiest system in the world to manage and has helped us communicate information with teachers anytime, anywhere and about anything," says Taylor, who inherited the FirstClass system when he arrived at Marion in 1997. The district mainly uses it for staff news and notices. Because information is posted in only one online location, everyone knows where to find it. "It's a wonderful accountability device."

The Wonderful World of Wikis

Accountability is also a big factor for Portland's Lewis Elementary, especially when it comes to everyone knowing what was discussed at staff meetings and the next steps planned. Rather than clog up the school's bulletin board or its blog, Principal Lauer created wikis to post notes and minutes from meetings. Wikis operate similarly to blogs in several ways except a critical one wikis allow anyone to edit the Web page content. While public use of wikis can be problematic, when used at a school with an administrator overseeing changes, it is quite effective, says Lauer. "One person takes notes and posts them to the wiki, but others can add comments and additional information," he explains. "So by the end you have comprehensive notes and perspectives of what was discussed." What's more, wikis allow Lauer and his staff to save all the copies of work and edits so nothing is lost. A wiki may invite the problem of too many cooks, but Lauer says that is outweighed by the shared leadership among teachers.

Blackboard

Five years ago, staff development meetings at the Amarillo Independent School District in Texas involved printing up a notebook on important curricula, handing that out to each teacher in the 52 schools and then either pulling teachers out of their classrooms or having truncated staff development meetings and asking the teachers to continue the discussion on their own. "There just wasn't enough time for rich collaboration," recalls Dirk Funk, instructional technology facilitator for the district. Teachers already had e-mail accounts but, says Funk, they weren't using them to share professional information.

When district officials started looking into programs to start an online school in 2003, they decided to consider software that also allowed for cross-communication among teachers, between administration and staff, and between the schools and parents. They settled on Blackboard, an Internet-based, file-sharing network that lets them deliver courses, store content and host discussion boards. After two years of operating an online school, Amarillo school district officials expanded their use of Blackboard to include a teacher-collaboration component. Funk and other tech officials tweaked the Blackboard model to use as a collaboration tool for teachers. That move has transformed teacher collaboration, helped standardize curriculum and provided a central repository of information for everyone to access, says Funk.

Teachers can log in and access the site from anywhere and at anytime. Once inside, they can post their lesson plans, learning objectives and other information to a designated area and view or download another teacher's postings. There's a discussion board where they can brainstorm about best practices and seek advice from their peers. So now, staff meetings continue on long after the face-to-face meeting has ended, at teachers' leisure and for extended periods of time. "The collaboration piece has exceeded our expectations," says Funk. "We never foresaw how far teachers would go in their creativity or take what they've learned online from one another and apply that in their classrooms so quickly. There's just a lot of communication happening in unexpected ways."

For Lori Vanden Berghe, collaboration has meant an expanded and interactive teacher academy. Vanden Berghe, a language arts and English teacher at Caprock High School (in the Amarillo school district), attends monthly staff development meetings as part of her school's Teacher Academy. For about 50 minutes, teachers share alternative learning strategies and lesson plans, pass out assignments or view short PowerPoint presentations. With the addition of Blackboard, much of the review happens before the staff meeting. Now when the teachers meet, they come armed with questions, comments and opinions about teaching strategies. "I can't imagine going back to the way it was before," says Vanden Berghe. "With the technology we can post lesson plans and access them any time. After all, we are in the 21st century, the least we can do is to communicate virtually."

Nussbaum-Beach says she believes that as more teachers become more comfortable with technology, the more powerful their use of it will be. The key, she says, is for administrators to embrace the technology and realize its importance. The other critical component is patience. "When you're implementing these new offerings it's going to take time and some teachers may be resistant. At first it's baby steps, but then it can mushroom and become an invaluable tool."

Lucille Renwick is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and editor.


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