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February 10, 2011

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THE TECH EFFECT: When ‘Birds of a Feather’ Try Their Wings

THE TECH EFFECT: When ‘Birds of a Feather’ Try Their Wings

I was circling the school parking lot when I saw a bumper sticker that read “Teachers are in a class of their own.” Perhaps it was because I was on my way to talk with teachers in an innovative school located in a neighboring district, but the double-entendre of that particular catchphrase caught my attention.

It’s not news that teachers, more often than not, work in relative isolation. I once read an article that referred to schools as “a cluster of cells connected by a parking lot.” Despite the nearly constant connectedness made possible by the digital age, regardless of the warmth and closeness of the faculty, there remains a kernel of truth in that observation. After all, our attention is trained on our students and our multiple roles as instructor, cheerleader, counselor, and disciplinarian. Curriculum demands, student performance, and district and state requirements need constant consideration. You only have to spend a single day in a classroom to grasp how deeply schedules and deadlines rule learning. Time is King—and time is short. Is it any wonder that we walk into our respective rooms, shut the door, dig in, and repeat for the next 180 days?

In the scant time allotted for professional collaboration, we naturally tend to nestle into our grade- and discipline-specific niches, interacting with colleagues who understand our world and who are dealing with like issues. The conferences we choose to attend, the staff development opportunities we select, and the professional organizations we belong to mirror this. Ditto with Ning sites, listservs, webinars, and other online connections. Before long, we discover that we are full-fledged affiliates of the Birds of a Feather Syndrome.

I can certainly relate to that. For many years, I kept my feet and my mind firmly planted in the media and technology world. After all, I had so much to learn about this ever-evolving field. The vast majority of my professional development time was dedicated to geeking around with my own kind at technology conferences, consortiums, and workshops.

A light bulb began to burn above my head after I spent several days in dialogue with teaching professionals from every strata of the educational system at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards national conference. These fellow teachers were deeply interested in what I had to say about multiple literacy learning. I, in turn, was equally fascinated by what they had to share on the topics of writing, individualized reading, motivating underachievers, and the advantages of multiage classrooms. It was these kinds of exchanges with teachers from many fields that helped me make richer and deeper connections between my area of expertise and the rest of the instructional world. Learning more about what they knew made me a better teacher and a more useful member of my school learning community. I made a mental note to participate in at least one general education conference each year.

My perspective was further broadened when I volunteered to act as substitute teacher in a number of general education elementary classrooms (a crash course in reality that I highly recommend for every specialist, administrator, and legislator in Americaon earth do these teachers manage to address seven subjects to 22 students on 40 different levels during the course of an extremely short and constantly interrupted school day?). The bottom line of this epiphany: Without doubt, education needs, and benefits from, the expertise of specialized teachers. But single-minded focus on one aspect of education can, over the long view, lend a sort of tunnel vision that obstructs our view of the big picture and diminishes our impact. We have to shake loose of ourselves every once in a while and walk a mile in our fellow teachers’ Keds. It’s a whole new take on “teach cred”—but how can we hope to encourage educators to embed technology into their learning landscapes when we don’t have a grasp of the lay of the land?

Connecting Beyond Your Academic Borders

If you don’t have opportunities to try to make tangential connections during the regular school calendar, you need not despair. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH; offers teachers from every walk of life the rare opportunity to connect beyond their academic borders through its Summer Scholar program. Each year, NEH’s division of education programs offer a wide array of summer studies in the area of humanities. Seminars, institutes, and landmark studies range from poetry classes at Harvard University to cultural studies of the Anasazi in Crow Canyon ( Colo.) to historical inquiries about Winston Churchill on the Cambridge University campus. Teachers in both private and public schools are eligible to apply for participation, as well as home school instructors and graduate students training for careers in education. The grant awards include a stipend to cover costs associated with the seminars, making these valuable learning experiences accessible to everyone.

Over the summer, I participated in a 3-week seminar, jointly hosted by the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse (UWL) and the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center. The topic, Exploring the Past: Archaeology in the Upper Mississippi, attracted 25 teachers from 19 states. Within our group, elementary, middle, and high school levels were represented. Discipline-specific specialties included biology, chemistry, earth science, American history, ancient history, humanities, art, English, world literature, media, and technology. Various members of our group taught in inner-city schools, suburban and rural schools, religious private schools, private progressive schools, on Native American reservations, and in alternative education settings. Some public school teachers routinely managed classes exceeding 50 students; others dealt in multiage classes of less than 15. We would all be working together, examining and discussing the history of the region, and the story of man, through the lens of our particular areas of interest and expertise. Clearly, we were going to learn about more than archaeology during our 3 weeks together.

Led by James Theler, Ph.D., Katherine Stevenson, Ph.D., and Bonnie Jancik, we dug into 21 challenging classroom sessions that were spiced up with plenty of hands-on learning. We participated in an archaeological dig then spent time analyzing and cataloging our artifacts in the lab. We used flint tools to deflesh a deer leg, and we learned how to throw an atlatl. We watched flint knappers at work, examined a range of artifacts, and observed and discussed various cultures. Field trips and dialogue with scientists, farmers, and conservators offered a fresh take on the vital and ongoing connection between man and the environment. We read quite a few books and even more articles. We heard from many experts and spent a good deal of time processing the information and experiences in small- and whole-group conversations. Outside of class, we spent plenty of time together, experiencing dorm life in UWL’s rather cushy Reuter Hall, sharing communal meals, walking, biking, and talking about (what else?) our schools, our classes, our students, and the state of education at large. It provided fascinating insight in the current state of America’s schools; it offered me a bird’s-eye view of the role and impact of technology in education.

Culminating Projects, Shared Learning

Nowhere was the rich diversity of levels and disciplines more clearly illustrated than in our final presentations. As part of the institute, each participant was required to develop and share a culminating project. The overarching objective was to use content from the institute in a form applicable to each teacher’s particular classroom needs. As Jancik described the perimeters of the project assignment, she explained that there were no limitations on the format. She cited examples from the 2007 Institute: scrapbooks, photo collages, and instructional units. “One student even made a PowerPoint,” she added.

As the 2010 projects began to take form, it became apparent that we each had our own interpretation of our shared learning experience. Project topics ranged from a comparison of ancient cultures ( to ethnobotany to an investigation of the physics of the atlatl ( It also quickly became clear that things had blossomed considerably in the technology department over that last 3 years.

Current surveys indicate that about half of America’s teachers include technology in instruction. That was reflected in the selected project delivery of our class; about 60% of our group incorporated some form of technology in their final presentations. Windows applications were represented in full force, with PowerPoint in the lead, augmented by Word and Movie Maker; but we also saw a presentation designed for SMART Board, along with a number of projects created with free and open source software that included Prezi, VoiceThread, Animoto, Glogster, Wordle, and Weebly. During the course of the institute, there was ongoing exchange among the teachers regarding technology programs and processes. Several teachers purchased Flip video cameras after observing the ease and speed with which their classmates used them to film and edit video. “You can catch any moment that pops up,” enthused one new user.

The Tech Effect

Other participants adopted new forms of software by virtue of shared learning with peers. “I began to create my project with PowerPoint,” explained Jill, a fifth grade teacher from Massachusetts. “But when I saw Samantha [a teacher from Colorado] using Prezi, I changed my mind. I asked her to teach me how to use it, and I loved the way it added excitement and interest to my project. Now I have something new in my toolbox that I can share with my students so that they have more choices about how they can show what they know.”

At some point during the course, class members decided to upload their photos to a shared site on Snapfish, with mutual agreement that everyone in the group was welcome to use any of the photos posted. “That alone was powerful,” said one participant. “Before, I was able to share my perspective with my students. Now I have a whole bank of images that reflects everyone’s perspective.”

As with every group of teachers, there was a wide range of interest and ability level in technology infusion. Susan, a media specialist from Oklahoma, was very up-to-date on technology processes and applications. She used VoiceThread ( to create a responsive presentation on the notion of culture. Judy, a third grade teacher from Decatur Classical School ( Chicago), was just beginning to become more involved with technology. She was excited about building her first blog ( Judy initially relied on the coaching of her colleagues to get started, but she quickly grasped the processes involved, including every possible add-in, and made the blog her own. She was thrilled with her outcome and the residual learning she acquired. She reports that she’s looking forward to putting her newfound skills to work in a weblog for her class.

“There was a noticeable difference in technology usage between the 2007 and 2010 institutes,” noted Jancik, education coordinator for the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center. “On the whole, the 2010 group seemed more comfortable using technology. I observed them using it daily, to research, communicate, and share information. During the course of the institute, I saw participants sharing more new technologies, like Snapfish and Prezi, with each other. They also seemed to have more access to technology in their classrooms than the 2007 class, including SMART Boards and laptops, and to incorporate them regularly into their classrooms. It’s difficult for me to say whether this is a trend or simply particular to this group of teachers. I do know that there is just so much more available now than there was 3 years ago.”


There is, in fact, a great deal more available, thanks in no small part to the blossoming of free and open source software. Is it encouraging more teachers to explore technology? Kim Cavanaugh thinks so. As instructional webmaster for one of our nation’s largest school districts, it’s his job to scout and evaluate new online services and content for classroom use.

“Free and open source software—FOSS—has two distinct advantages: low commitment and the possibility of high return,” he notes. Most of these software titles and services require little time and no money to jump in and give something new a try. In most cases, FOSS means that no big program or initiative has been launched, no yearlong workshops have been scheduled, and no heavy-duty administrative presence needs to come between the teacher and his or her exploration of a new tool. If teachers find that it doesn’t meet their teaching objectives, no worries! They’ve invested a few hours learning and thinking about how they might use a tool and, perhaps, a class period or two, turning their students loose with Glogster, Prezi, Audacity, or VoiceThread. If it doesn’t impact instruction as anticipated, they move on, knowing that they learned something that might come in handy at a later date. Maybe next year!

On the other hand, Cavanaugh says, if it is successful and students are making dozens of Glogster posters or posting like mad on the classroom’s WordPress blog, guess what? It was still free, but now you have a new tool to craft lessons and the learning environment of the classroom. I call those win/wins. The low, or no, cost combined with the probability that these kind of media-rich, social, and modern technologies will motivate students make FOSS a great choice for teachers in academic and other classes across the curriculum.

For NEH participant Linda Wohlman, the practice of learning with and from colleagues mirrors what’s happening in today’s classrooms. “Kids today are the first generation to be in control of their own information because they can Google or YouTube, or whatever, and get any information they want [and] learn how to do whatever they’re interested knowing more about. The gatekeepers are gone,” she says. “That’s taken away the teacher’s power to be an expert.

“I see my job as a teacher to provide content, processes, and skills that spark my students’ interest enough for them to pursue learning on their own. They have their own perspectives, their own ways of sharing information, and that’s good. That’s the real world. There are times when I’m learning along with them, or even from them. I’m comfortable with that, as long as we are all moving forward.”

You can check out a selection of culminating projects, including one developed by yours truly. Just log onto and scroll down to “National Endowment for the Humanities, Summer 2010.


Contact Johanna at

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