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"Walls to Windows" immerses students in technology

Westfield (N.J.) Public Schools planning to create connected, collaborative learning community
Westfield (N.J.) Public Schools' "Walls to Windows" technology plan will include BYOD this school coming school year.
Westfield (N.J.) Public Schools' "Walls to Windows" technology plan will include BYOD this school coming school year.

Administrators at Westfield (N.J.) Public Schools don’t just want their students exposed to technology, they want them immersed in it. The district’s goal is to create a connected and collaborative school community that empowers Westfield students to thrive as 21st-century learners. The implementation plan for that goal is called “Walls to Windows.”

“Classrooms are mostly walls,” says Paul Pineiro, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction, and programs in Westfield, an affluent northern New Jersey suburb with 10 schools and 6,310 students. “We want classes to be fully opened for our students—a room of virtual windows that allow students to see the world outside. Students can access zettabytes of information and learn from it, including conducting virtual field trips and lab simulations, and using Skype and Facetime.”

The initiative comes two years after the district’s funding was restored. Gov. Chris Christie recognized that New Jersey schools were falling behind in technology initiatives, and in 2011 he approved a 4 percent budget increase (up from less than 2 percent in 2009) for Westfield, Pineiro explains. “By then, our computer equipment was five to 10 years old, so we conceived the Walls to Windows vision to bring us up to date with the latest technology and make our district competitive,” Pineiro says.

The district employs technology specialists who help teachers troubleshoot problems or suggest different technology uses. But in April 2012, the board voted to add two master technology teachers, Nancy Latimer and Jeanine Gottko, to train roughly 500 teachers to use digital tools in their classrooms.

The master teachers’ largest initiative includes training teachers to use iPad apps for student project collaboration, educational content, and ongoing student assessment. In addition, they hold monthly “tech talks” and after-school workshops for teachers. In one session, Latimer showed teachers how to post homework questions as links in Google Drive for students to access after school. In another, “she showed the teachers how they could poll the class and the information would immediately appear anonymously on her laptop screen,” says Piniero.

Latimer and Gottko write training tips in a daily blog, build web pages with sample lesson plans teachers can use, and are also available for in-class support, should teachers have questions about a program they’re using during the school day.

This past May, Latimer, Gottko, and Pineiro presented a “tech day” at the New Jersey Association of School Administrators’ semi-annual conference, where they discussed their experience training the teachers. “Administrators were really interested in the iPad rollout,” Pineiro says. “A lot of people stayed afterward and wanted to know how difficult it was to convince the administration to put budget dollars against it.”

In 2013-2014, Westfield will roll out BYOD, and Pineiro expects teachers to need training on how to most effectively use Google Drive and Google Apps for education. Latimer and Gottko will also introduce a new website for teacher training and will help teachers prepare for the shift to the Common Core, which goes live in the Westfield district in 2014-2015.