When driving into Riverside, Calif. for the Southern California Tech for Schools Summit, we were first struck by snow-capped mountains bordered by palm trees. We were similarly awed to get a firsthand look at the work of educators from more than 10 districts—from Los Angeles to San Diego and up to the Inland Empire—who are devising smart ways to deploy new tools and practices in their schools.
They say Southern California is a massive sprawl, and yes, the distance between places may feel far. But the innovative work happening in each district is very closely aligned. Many leaders spoke about the importance of collaborating across districts for a variety of initiatives—from planning a technology implementation to creating buy-in from teachers and providing professional development opportunities.
1. Planning for a Big Initiative Takes Intentionality
Taking a pledge is great, but how does a district turn that into action? Many districts have signed the Future Ready Pledge, but what comes next? Corona-Norco Unified School District struggled with this exact question, but April Moore, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, helped create a five-year plan with achievable and measurable SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound) goals. To help with staff and community buy-in, they created a two-page infographic that spelled out the major goals in the plan. Over in Lynwood Unified, Patrick Gittisriboongul, Chief Technology Officer, adopted a similar strategy, working alongside educators to create a 5-Step “Playbook” for rethinking the use of technology in schools.
2. First Comes Plans, Then Comes (Effective) PD
Stephanie Avera, secondary TOSA, and John Morgan, Director of EdTech, of Capistrano Unified School District decided it was time to rethink technology PD. They invited four core curriculum teachers from each school to an on-site PD day at their own school. The first session focused on one tool—Google Slides—and ways to use it creatively to enhance a lesson. Avera would teach them the tools in the morning, then take over one of the teacher’s classrooms in the afternoon to demonstrate the lesson.
Not every teacher was initially onboard. But that changed when student surveys conducted after each lesson suggested that they were more engaged with the lesson. The next semester those four teachers repeated the same PD process and present their sample lessons to the other core content teachers in their school. Middle-school teachers in the pilot became so excited that the middle school produced twice the number of lessons using Google Slides than the high school. Next year they will focus on a new tool.
3. Align your Technology Goals use with your Mission
Valerie Braimah, Executive Director of City Charter School in Los Angeles and Matthew Cordes, Associate Director of Schools at Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, both strongly believe in building up and empowering their staff to meet a greater mission. If new technologies or practices can help support a teacher’s goals towards accomplishing their school’s mission, then they wholeheartedly support their efforts. Due to that, each school has been able to explore their own products but still stay in alignment with the greater mission of their respective organizations.
4. Celebrate & Share Great Work
A common theme was bringing together staff to share best practices that are happening. Robert Jewett, Technology Training Specialist at Chino Valley Unified School District, shared that the Department of Instructional Technology organized ChEt Day (Chino Edtech) which featured teachers from across the district running their own sessions on best practices. The EdTech team at Valverde Unified School District put on a student STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) showcase. Each grade across the district was given a table and invited to present whatever they wanted. The day resulted in opportunities for cross-collaboration between staff and students who didn’t previously know each other. In Romoland School District, Tech Coach Greg Moon focuses on highlighting teachers who are not only doing great things with technology, but can use data to prove results.
5. Using Tech to Increase School Community
Yvette Ventura-Rincon, Principal in El Rancho Unified School District, saw directly how using email with her students increased their comfort with administration and staff. Yvette sends weekly newsletters, reminders and personalized emails to check in with her students. This has not only helped students to learn how to use their email appropriately but empowered them to reach out when they have issues.
6. Balance Novelty with Academics
Riverside Unified School District has tried a lot when it comes to technology, from personalized delivery systems to coding initiatives and, more recently, virtual reality. At first the VR program was all about novelty, which Steven Dunlap, Director, Innovation and Learner Engagement, says is natural and to be expected. Teachers need to have some time to be excited, but quickly that novelty must also be tied to academics. That means asking teachers to design lesson plans around VR experiences. This holds educators to be more accountable when trying new technologies while also creating a bank of lesson plans specifically focused on VR. Thanks to this expectation, the district is building a bank of lesson plans around VR, meaning that students in Riverside have the opportunity to go on virtual field trips, college tours, and for some, “see” snow for the first time.
7. Start with the Standards, then get Creative
When Edna Tristan became principal of the brand new STEAM Academy in El Rancho Unified School District, her mission was to tie STEAM into the regular classroom through cross-curricular, project-based activities. To do this, she created planning time for teacher to work with colleagues in different subject areas. For each session they start with the academic standards, then get creative with devising projects that can bring the lessons to life. One example of this is the recent eighth-grade unit on urban planning that asked students for ways to improve their city. They researched in language arts, discussed social impact in humanities, investigated the impact on the earth in science and then used electives such as video game design to create their final project.
8. Let Empathy Drive the Curriculum
Sam Patterson is the Makerspace Coordinator for Echo Horizon School, an independent school in Culver City designed to educate deaf and hard of hearing children in community with their hearing peers. As the makerspace coordinator, Patterson always starts with helping his students to learn about someone else’s problem and design something for them. His entire curriculum is centered around empathy. His advice to educators: “Empower your students to make important choices in your class. Create an environment that connects and responds with kids in a way you couldn’t anticipate.”
9. Re-Think Space
Elias Vargas, Principal in El Rancho Unified School District, has thought a lot about how space affects learning. In his previous role as principal at a different school they started phasing out traditional desks over a three-to-four year period. What resulted were flexible classrooms that moved with the needs of the class that day. When he became principal of a brand new high school this year, he put the furniture choices in the hands of the teachers. Not a single classroom has a traditional model of desks in rows. In math and social studies many of the teachers chose mobile, triangular mini desks that can be moved according to the class’s needs. In English the teachers purchased long skinny conference tables ideal for socratic seminars. According to Vargas, humans by nature are creative and collaborative you don’t want furniture to work against our basic nature.
10. Ready to be inspired? Get Connected.
In a previous role, Ari Flewelling, currently a Staff Development Specialist for Riverside Unified School District, felt really isolated as one of the few techie teachers in her building. She turned to Twitter and soon began to expand her relationships and networks. These connections outside her building made her feel less alone and gave her new ideas to try in her classroom. In addition to her day job, Flewelling has been working to connect educators in a mentor-mentee relationship through her project MyEduLink, a site that virtually connects people who are looking to be mentored in a specific area of EdTech with those who are willing to share their best practices.