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New Literacies: Entering the Future

Superintendent Kenneth Eastwood's district teaches critical skills for the next century.


As a child, Kenneth Eastwood, superintendent of the Enlarged City School District of Middletown (N.Y.) wanted to be a brain surgeon or even a fighter pilot. But when he grew older, he shadowed his father, a computer programmer, at his workplace in New York City and was amazed by the flickering lights and people milling around the monster computer machines that monopolized two and three floors.

His fascination didn't lead to a career in computers, but it did impact his direction. Eastwood, who now has a wall of awards and recognitions for his technology leadership in K12 schools, created environments so that children could learn the language of technological advances, or what is considered the new, critical literacies of the 21st century.

The new literacies is about online reading comprehension and learning skills required by the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs), including content found on wikis, blogs, video and audio sites and in e-mail.

Eastwood knows the value of literacy. For the third year, Eastwood has mandated a literacy course for the Middletown district's sixth- through eighth-graders, on top of the four core subjects of English, math, science and social studies. And just this past fall, ninth-graders started taking literacy, a 45-minute course. Not only do students learn creative writing, listening, speaking and communication skills in class, but they learn how to read Web material, distinguishing authentic sites from bogus ones, and how to efficiently search the Internet. The district, which has a comprehensive literacy instructional model for every grade, provides teachers with a methodology of how to teach literacy and provides scope and sequences as to which materials to use that will best meet the needs of all students.

"My focus in life is around how do you create the environments that produce the greatest change and improvements for kids?" says Eastwood. "The reason I was able to bring about technological change and improvement has everything to do with working with people that were highly motivated and wonderful change agents. My job is to help develop a vision and facilitate progress toward those goals."


Starting Out

Eastwood started off in education as an adjunct instructor at the State University College at Potsdam, N.Y., teaching undergraduates a course in classroom and behavioral management. After working as a resource room teacher he became assistant to the personnel director at the Liverpool (N.Y.) Central School District. In the 1980s, he served as administrative assistant to the New York Senate majority leader, Warren Anderson, acting as a district liaison with special interest groups and constituents, and helped develop an effective schools proposal for the state Senate, which had positive impact on low performing districts. And he was executive assistant to U.S. Rep. George Wortley.

"My focus in life is around how do you create the environments that produce the greatest change and improvements for kids?"

In the 1990s, he worked as an adjunct instructor teaching classroom management at State University College of New York at Oswego. He then went to Oswego City (N.Y.) School District, which has a 45 percent poverty rate, and worked as a director of secondary education and technology, then as assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and technology before becoming superintendent in 2001. He was credited for taking a technology-depressed district to one of national excellence. He also led teachers to implement the new literacies, such as analyzing text, in K12 classes. Student dropout rates decreased and SAT scores increased during his tenure at Oswego.

Eastwood left in 2004 in search of a new challenge. He took the job in the Middletown district, which has eight schools, lies 65 miles northwest of New York City, and is a high poverty (68 percent) and high minority district that is 33 percent black, 33 percent Hispanic and 33 percent white.

Technology Prowess

Soon after Eastwood started in Middletown, he conducted audits of all instructional programs, including technology, and found curricular and programmatic gaps. "We had to make changes to build the systems that would get us to a point where instructionally students were benefiting from their time in school," he says.

He shut down the science labs because research reveals that successful technology integration in general, including science, is best done in the classroom where teachers can integrate the instruction, versus taking students to a lab where another teacher instructs. He also upgraded the infrastructure with new wiring, more equipment, better technology and wireless capabilities. "There was some angst about it (among staff and administrators) as we were going backward, but we were planning for the future," he says.

Most buildings are wireless to advance computer use and allow security personnel monitors to use personal digital assistants so they can input or check information immediately on patrol. And the entire structure is built around Internet protocol systems in classrooms with all phones, announcements, clocks and emergency notifi cation systems connected and coordinated. The district also has 300 video surveillance cameras, which send digital pictures to the server. "Once it goes through the server, it's easily visible through access to our Web site for emergency purposes," Eastwood says.

When the technology overhaul is completed, which should be during the 2008-2009 school year, Eastwood says the district should have one computer for every three or four students in K12 classrooms. And in high school, about a quarter of the classrooms will have one-to-one ratios. "Although we want them to work in groups, they need to do individual work in the classroom," he says.

Curriculum Integration

On top of creating a better infrastructure, Eastwood added three years ago two new teaching positions to help coach and support teachers in infusing technology into the curriculum. The teachers in these positions are called technology integration specialists. A third specialist will come on board in September.

"It's about teachers teaching teachers," he says. "Teachers can relate to teachers. They know the issues, they talk the lingo and they sympathize with the change that is necessary to be successful."

Technology specialists help teachers shift from merely giving lectures to students to integrating a variety of technologies in the classroom to meet 21st century skills, according to Amy Creeden, technology integration coach.

All areas of learning for today's students must have some form of interactability to be successful. If there is no interactability in lessons, students will undoubtedly tune out, Eastwood adds. "Teachers have to be so much on top of their games to create interactive environments," he says. "We're trying to look at the new literacies and see how we can use their devices" and ensure that today's forms of communication do not spoil state and federal requirements to create literate students, he adds.

With a $1.5 million grant from the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology program, 100 teachers, mostly in grades 6 through 12, were put into the district's SMART Board interactive whiteboards program, which includes using the Notebook software program in lessons. Teachers work on Dell laptops, use LCD projectors and integrate various software programs, such as BrainPOP, Inspiration Software's Kidspiration, and Tom Snyder Productions' Reading for Meaning, and Web sites, such as Discovery Education Streaming videos, into lessons.

With such changes, students are out of their seats, "taking charge of their own learning," and teachers are "thinking out of the box," Creeden adds.

Creeden credits Eastwood's leadership in helping the program grow by "leaps and bounds." "He really has such a commitment to new and emerging technologies, and he encourages us to move forward," she says.

Literacy Comes to Middletown

Even before Eastwood arrived in Middletown, he knew the importance of the new literacies in Oswego, where he was schools chief for three years at the turn of this century. Donald Leu, a new literacy guru and co-director of the New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut, visited the upstate New York district to give advice about teaching youngsters new literacies. "He was focused on using resources to develop the best instructional interventions and building them so that the classroom environment and the instruction were high quality," Eastwood recalls.

Leu impressed upon Eastwood that all children learn equally well. "If you take that approach, every child must have some prescriptive plan, and you have to make sure their individual learning needs are taken into effect when instruction is provided," Eastwood says. That's when the power of technology is clear, because one teacher cannot do it alone. He or she would struggle to provide "all the variances around instruction to meet the needs of all kids," Eastwood adds.

"He's a tough person to work for, and he's a breath of fresh air."

The Middletown district's mandated literacy course differs from the typical English course in that literacy focuses more on writing and communicating, as well as reading material online. And literacy is embedded in math problems, forcing students to explain their calculations or solutions. English, on the other hand, focuses more on the rules of instruction. Eastwood says his push for new, critical literacies is in part answering the need to change the way students think and learn in the 21st century, and it's also a reaction to the way in which students already learn and communicate through social networking sites, blogs and chat rooms.

Over the past few years, teachers had started seeing text-messaging lingo in written essays and projects from students, Eastwood says. "That's the scariest part of it," he says. "It's second nature [to students]. It's a behavior that is fully ingrained."

Aside from that, Eastwood wants to help students learn how to collaborate on projects-a 21st century must-have skill. "Given students' current way of networking, they have become isolated as well," he says. "They have a difficult time interacting with each other and working in teams."

For example, he often watches youngsters "communicating" on trains or in the cafeteria via their cell phones using text messages. They can literally just turn their bodies and speak to each other, but they choose to text instead, he says.

Linda Hatfield, the district's literacy coordinator, says the literacy program teaches students how to identify biases in online text, how to research information and investigate who it's being written for and for what purpose. "So they are looking at it and collectively making a decision, synthesizing it in regard to the topic they are researching," she says.

And students learn how to research so they don't get overwhelmed by the reams of information or hits from a Google search. "We teach them how to refi ne their search skills," Hatfi eld says.

Eastwood and Hatfield also encourage teachers of literacy to drill into students the idea that you cannot believe everything you read online in part because there are various sources contributing to various Web pages. "It's a process," Hatfi eld says.

"The vast majority of what they read online now tends to have false information in it," Eastwood adds. As a child, Eastwood recalls that encyclopedias and textbooks he used in school were nearly 100 percent accurate. But now, the amount of information online-for example, 20,000 articles for one subject-make verifying facts much more difficult, he says. "That's the problem," Eastwood says. "They have to be better adjudicators of fact to make sure what they're reading is true and valid."

Testing and Assessment

The literacy course is also held to high standards, following the same New York state testing pattern as English language arts, Eastwood says. "We believe that after four years, the literacy skills should have been or would be developed enough to perform successfully on state examinations," Eastwood says.

Teachers use their own assessments quarterly to see where students fall and if and where they need help, and once a year, students take fi nal exams and state exams.

Sue Short, Mechanicstown Elementary School principal, says students were struggling with state assessment exams in English language arts in the late 1990s. But Eastwood realized "quickly we were missing some key components that would help us become successful," Short recalls.

There was no scope or sequence in place, and teachers didn't know what they had to teach, she says. And they had no way of assessing student literacy skills. Students in grades K2 now undergo a primary literacy assessment that is aligned with DIBELS, or Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, a set of tests that focus on skills for learning to read.

"I think if we can get our kids to be literate-to read, write, speak and listen well-they can succeed in anything else they do," Eastwood says.

Academic Transformation

Like any great change, people will undoubtedly resist. It was no different at Middletown's schools when Eastwood overhauled the technology and literacy programs, among others. "There was a stage of chaos and complaining," Eastwood recalls. "Once we worked through it, things started to dramatically improve. The success of change always has to deal with the stick-to-it-iveness."

Before Eastwood became superintendent in 2004, Middletown High School, a high poverty and high minority school, was identifi ed under the No Child Left Behind law as needing improvement in 16 areas. But last year, the school met every state accountability standard. The school will stay off the list if it meets all accountability standards again this year, and both middle schools have dramatically improved their accountability status and could be off the list of needing improvement in another year, Eastwood adds.

"I think early on they thought, 'We'll never accomplish this,' " he recalls. "And now they believe they can do it."

Attendance is also up and above average, so the district is no longer in the bottom 10 percent statewide, he adds. The dropout rate has decreased to just shy of 7 percent from 17 to 25 percent prior to Eastwood's arrival. And there is a 36 percent increase in the number of students graduating in just four years compared to five years. Half the graduates are also heading to four-year colleges, when four years ago, only 48 out of 265 graduates did so, Eastwood adds.

Teachers have undergone summer and after-school in-service programs to grasp the literacy program. And any overtime beyond the school day is rewarded with stipends or an equivalent salary, which often comes from grant monies, Eastwood says. "Teachers have been wonderful in understanding the need for extra time," he says.

Selena Fischer, director of special education, attributes the district's successes to Eastwood's leadership and his push for literacy. This push catches elementary students who might normally fall behind and possibly be put in special education, Fischer adds. "He's a tough person to work for, and he's a breath of fresh air," she says, referring to his high expectations. "He has such an excellent knowledge base of curriculum, and he's good with transportation and buildings and grounds. He's a CEO of a large corporation and he's not afraid to allow his administration to expand their knowledge."

Time Is Now

Eastwood knows he has done the right thing with literacy, but wishes he had more time. "If we waited a long time to make change, you would have had many cohorts of students" not armed with literacy skills, he says. "That's a crisis for me. We can't wait. We have to take care of the kids in the system now."

With more time, he says, he could have better communicated how the literacy program could be taught, and have staff and teachers spend more time in understanding best practices. For now, he hopes to bring in an educational consultant to videotape master teachers in action, teaching the elements of best practices and providing helpful vignettes that work around new literacies and any type of instruction.

Hatfield describes Eastwood as "brilliant." "He is a leader who is in the forefront in technology and literacy," she says. "A lot of superintendents don't have a lot of knowledge in that area. And he truly values it and has a wealth of knowledge. I think he really wants what is best for kids and he wants to do what's current."

Angela Pascopella is senior features editor.