Tech to help teachers, not replace them at PSD
For the past year and a half, Polk School District Superintendent William Hunter and the Board of Education have engaged in a full-on push to bring teachers and students on board for using technology as an additional method of instruction in the classroom.
For teachers, that means everything from lesson plans to tests are prepared online. For students, it means they are downloading and preparing their assignments on their individual iPad.
For some teachers, Hunter’s vision means learning new ways to be more creative in engaging students in learning. It means acknowledging the importance of preparing students to compete in a tech-centric world.
As for students, using instructional technology tools means lessons that can be designed to meet their individual way of learning.
While most teachers say they appreciate the need to use more technology in the classroom, some feel the move to technology has been too much too soon. They feel they are being asked to abandon their tried and true ways of teaching and that their opinions about the process going forward are not valued.
Hunter, who came to the district in March 2013, says he has always been passionate about instructional technology. He said one of the reasons he wanted to come to Polk was that the board had already shown its support for technology by approving the purchase of nearly $400,000 in iPads under the leadership of former superintendent Marvin Williams.
Hunter said when he saw the graduation rates in June of 2013 he felt immediate action was called for to “bring these kids along, to not leave them behind.” To do that, he put a new emphasis on intervention and remediation through a directed studies program, added instructional technology in the classroom with a personal iPad for every high school student, and introduced a suite of planning and resource support to train teachers to use the iPads.
“Really, Hunter said, “no one in the system was doing very much, even though they bought
all those iPads, they didn’t train anybody.”
The move has been accompanied by the purchase of iPads for every high school student (beginning in 2015-2016), the addition of a “mobile mind specialist” at each of the 10 schools, and a complement of training and support providing information on learning and assessment applications.
Simultaneous with the arrival of Hunter and the introduction of more instructional technology, as well as other unrelated changes, has been the resignation of 52 Polk teachers, not counting those who retired, with disproportionate numbers resigning from Cedartown Middle School (10) and Rockmart High School (15).
The resignations and the flurry of rumors as to their causes, is the reason the SJ is publishing a multi-part look at the Polk School District in an effort to separate fact from fiction as the new school year begins.
The first article looks at technology, its integration into the classroom and planning. In reporting the story, we reached out to teachers who had resigned or had complained about the technology transition, but we were unable to find a teacher who would comment on the record.
However, at the July 14, 2015, Polk Board of Education meeting, Kristy Gober, parent of a Rockmart High School student, summed up her concerns, based on her own observations “as well as conversations she has had with teachers.”
Gober is the sister-inlaw of DeAnna Williams, the principal from Rockmart High School who resigned her position in April of 2015.
The concerns expressed by Gober with comments from teachers and district officials in response follow:
Blending technology with traditional instruction
“I want a professional certified teacher standing up in front of my child and teaching a lesson.”
“Technology should not be used to the exclusion of textbook, pencil and paper.”
Robyn Teems, principal at Rockmart Middle School, has been an educator for 25 years and has worked as a teacher or administrator in grades K through 12. She said teaching is her passion and it is her responsibility to make sure her teachers have the flexibility to perform at their highest level in their classrooms.
Teems says she has understood from her first conversation with Hunter that the technology was to be blended with traditional instruction.
She thinks concerns about teachers being expected to forego traditional learning for technology is a “misunderstanding.”
“There’s blended learning going on in my school. You’re going to see teachers talking to their kids; you’re going to see teachers and students working one on one. “
“I expect kids to put pencil to paper every day, but that doesn’t mean I don’t expect the teachers to embrace technology. If they don’t, they are going to be left behind. My husband [ Assistant Superintendent Greg Teems] built a boat by watching YouTube. Ten years ago, he couldn’t have built a boat.”
Teems, who turns 50 soon, quit using textbooks years ago. In subjects like math and science, she said, “the state changes the curriculum every year, which means a new textbook. We couldn’t afford to keep up with all the changes. I quit using textbooks a long time before kids had iPads.”
Johna Tidwell, 44, has taught in special ed, coached girl’s basketball, and will teach Cedartown High School students health and physical education this fall.
Tidwell said at first the idea of instructional technology was a little scary.
“At first, I was very gunshy, I’m an older teacher and I was intimidated,” she admitted, “but the training we received has helped tremendously. It is just a new opportunity and a new way of learning. It’s not totally taking the place of traditional instruction. The foundations that we were taught are always going to be there, just like teachers will be.”
Tidwell said she is happy to get away from some forms of “traditional instruction,” like the work sheet and the rote learning of vocabulary words.
“That’s not effective. Teachers have to look at that standard and the students have to know the vocabulary they are responsible for. With instaGrok, they can look up the word, look at a video clip demonstrating what it means, and click on an image as well read a text definition.”
She likes instaGrok, but variety is the key to using apps, she said. “And I do go back to the book and let them understand that they need to know how to search for information, they need to know how to use an index or table of contents,” she said
Creative Freedom and Flexiblity
“I want the teacher to be able to be creative and thought-provoking and freely and actively involved in how and when to use it.”
Response on creativity:
In mid-July, the Polk School District put on its second annual Mobile Minds University, a conclave of demonstrations by Polk teachers and administrators of ways to teach with technology.
What the more than 500 participants from around the state learned was that using technology in the classroom is not about a student cutting and pasting text from Wikipedia while a teacher monitors the class rather than teaches it.
Hunter says he believes technology helps teachers be more creative, not less so. Creativity in lesson planning has no limits now that resources like a news clips of a civil rights march, or an audio file of Harry Truman speaking to the nation about dropping the first atomic bomb on Japan, can be added to a lesson plan with the inclusion of a url.
Teems said she supports creativity in her teachers and she believes working with the instructional technology coaches helps them develop their ideas.
“They typically come to the PLCs with an idea they’ve developed but want help in understanding how best to implement it with technology,” Teems said.
Tanya Roscorla, managing editor of the Center for Digital Education magazine, says teachers need support and training to fully utilize instructional technology,
“Instructional technology is not an easy out for teachers. It requires more planning and more coordination than traditional instruction does,” she said. “You can’t just give a student an iPad and a teacher a Smart Board and call it learning through technology. A teacher has to have a plan.”
Roscorla did some research on the Polk School District before talking to the SJ.
“I would say, just from what is described, that the district is following standards you find in high performing districts.”
Response on flexibility:
Everyone interviewed for this article brought up the ability of technology to reach learners of all levels. “I’m just amazed how students who have a very difficult time learning, they get it, and they aren’t intimidated, they want to present their projects and they want to talk in class. It has allowed everyone to have a voice in class, which has been huge to me,” Tidwell said.
“And it’s not just the lower level learner. It’s not just the average learner. Lessons can be adapted for the higher level learners that keeps them interested and focused instead of waiting for the rest of the class to catch up with them,” she said.
Not all teachers are sure of how much flexibility is actually allowed under directives from the superintendent as communicated to them by their principals. Dr. Dorothy Welch has been teaching for 33 years and has taught math at Cedartown Middle School with excellent results since the day the doors opened. She said one reason teachers are apprehensive at Cedartown Middle School is that they don’t know how much control, if any, they have over their instruction. “We hear blended approach and then we hear at the end-of-year meeting, that next year there will be ‘no more than 10 minutes of direct instruction.’ We are getting mixed messages,” Welch, who is president of the Polk Educators Association, said.
“We need to know what the expectations are of using technology all the time. As a math teacher, I may need more than 10 minutes of direct instruction. I just want teachers to have leeway to do what they think is best for their students in the classroom. It all comes around to teacher’s having input.”
Hunter said this is definitely a case of miscommunication.
“I would never say that. I would never limit instruction,” he said.
CMS principal Tamra Walker agreed.
“We will work to clarify this at CMS,” she said. “Direct instruction is essential and there is no 10-minute limit at CMS. The teacher role is still the most critical piece.”
iPads, toy or tool?
Students will be playing games and texting instead of doing classwork.
Tidwell said teachers are aware of the challenges in giving students, especially teenagers and middle school students whose lives revolve around social media, an iPad to use in the classroom and to take home. Monitoring is a big part of teaching with technology, she said.
According to students, it’s easy to have two screens up on the iPad and just switch back and forth between the lesson and social media when the teacher comes around. But teachers say they are hip to this trick and that it’s pretty clear when the students are switching screens.
“It can be a challenge if you are not going to be engaged with them, there has to be a constant monitoring and engagement of student and teacher,” Tidwell said.
Becky Sweat, who worked as a speech pathologist in the district before retiring at the end of last year, says all parties involved may be losing sight of just how big the change is and how many layers of learning are in play. “It’s not just the teachers or the students or the mobile minds people, it’s everybody. Everybody is still learning their job.”
She said it is especially hard for teachers right now, because the state department of education recently instituted a new, tough teacher evaluation system. “So teachers are learning something entirely new that they are going to be evaluated on while they’re learning it, but the evaluation won’t take that into account.”
“Everyone is not going to be comfortable overnight, everything is not going to go smoothly from the beginning,” Sweat saud,
Tidwell agreed. “We have to be willing to try because at the end of the day, it’s not about us, it’s about them. It’s about them learning and preparing for the world.”
Rockmart Middle School students Megan Clanton, Megan Johnson, Maryann Earwood, and Anbria Daniels work with Joann Fort at PSD’s 2nd annual Mobile Minds University.
Teachers hold iPads to their faces as Robin Hunter teaches a class on using applications on iPad to engage students. Hunter is a foundations coach in instructional technology for Polk School District.