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Guest Blog: Breaking Out of Isolation on Digital Learning Day

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May 22, 2012 04:57 pm


The following blog post comes from Gerald W. Aungst, supervisor of gifted and elementary mathematics in the School District of Cheltenham Township in Pennsylvania.

In January of 2012, Wyncote Elementary School in Cheltenham began conversations about the upcoming Digital Learning Day scheduled for February 1. The principal, Dr. Crystal Clark, had asked the staff to think about how they could integrate technology into their teaching. Wyncote has teachers who she knew were highly fluent in technology use and others who she knew were becoming anxious at the thought. Not unlike many schools.

She was pleased with the response she got. “There was a willingness to share their tricks of the trade,” says Clark. “Teachers can live a very isolated existence, and everybody just assumes that they know.”

Her request sparked conversations among the teachers. They discussed the tools and software they were already using. “It just started this exchange of resources,” Clark said.

Teachers were made aware of websites they had not encountered before when their colleagues talked about them. Some discovered that other people had been trying out some of the same things they had been using themselves, and they suddenly had a partner to bounce ideas off of. “Once some people heard how others were really using technology, everybody signed up for something in the digital learning cycle,” Clark said.

The conversations continued both formally and informally for the next few weeks leading up to their very successful Digital Learning Day event. In the process they discovered several important lessons which can guide any school that wants to help its teachers break out of their technological isolation:

1)    Start where you already are. It is important to recognize that even the self-proclaimed technophobe is using technology to some degree. It is almost unavoidable in the twenty-first century. Honor what is already happening in each classroom and share it. Get to know what your fellow teachers are doing, but avoid comparisons. Wherever you are on the technology integration spectrum, know that you have something to give to someone else, and also something new to learn. Be open to the kind of conversations that happened at Wyncote in January.

2)    Partner with another teacher. Digital technology equipment and expertise is not universally distributed at Wyncote. Some classrooms have interactive whiteboards (IWBs), for example, and others don’t. Laptop carts are available, but there are not enough for every classroom to use them at once. “Classrooms where some teachers just didn’t have access to something, or they just really didn’t know how to do something, they paired with a teacher who did. I had some classrooms who did a co-teaching kind of lesson,” Clark said.

3)    Take a risk. Every teacher at Wyncote took one step in a new direction on Digital Learning Day this year. For many, it was a risk to try out a technology with which they were not familiar. But the benefits of stretching became clear. Fourth grade teacher Dawn Stock, for example, has used an IWB in her own classroom, but the experience of reflecting on the process with her student teacher on Digital Learning Day got her thinking more about the possibilities of the tool. “I’m thinking about how to manage the Smart Board with what I like to do, with my teaching style,” Stock said. She noticed that students respond differently when she uses the IWB so she is adjusting both her instruction and how she uses the tool to adapt.

4)    Share with parents. An important part of Wyncote’s planning was parent involvement. They shared ahead of time some aspects of their conversation, and also prepared information about the different ways the school was using technology to benefit the students and parents. On Digital Learning Day itself, parents were invited into the school, and there were specific lessons and activities highlighted for parent visits. Clark has also made efforts to keep the PTO involved and informed. During a PTO meeting, she set up computers where students demonstrated several of the programs and web sites in use at the school and provided parents with their own login information.

5)    Imagine—then plan—your next step. Clark is already reflecting on the outcomes of Wyncote’s first Digital Learning Day and thinking about how to make technology more a part of everyday instruction. One conversation she is having with her staff is around scheduling. For example, Clark has noticed that use of one online resource increases dramatically in the weeks before the state assessment. She suggests that it might have a greater long-term impact if teachers were to plan to use the site for the first ten minutes or so of class every day.

Teachers at Wyncote are still talking and thinking about ways that digital technology can improve learning in their school and they are continuing to work together, breaking out of their classroom isolation, to make it a reality every day.

Gerald W. Aungst is a member of the Digital Learning Day Educator Working Group and the Supervisor of Gifted Education in the School District of Cheltenham Township in Pennsylvania.

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