¡Hola, América!
Jessica Sullivan

In 2010, I packed up seven years of files accumulated from a career teaching high school biology at a public school in California and headed to Venezuela to teach at Escuela Campo Alegre, a small (600 students) Pre-K through 12th grade English language international school primarily serving the children of expatriate families working for diplomatic agencies and international corporations. The school is in Caracas, a beautiful and bustling city nestled below the majestic El Ávila mountain range. The past two years have given me a remarkable peek into the study of a different type of educational ecosystem: a small school where technology functions as a tool to support learning and where teachers continuously strive to integrate new technology to make learning more accessible and personal for the students. I hope to use these columns to share some lessons from both inside and outside the walls of ECA.

I arrived in Caracas in August 2010 and quickly adapted to the small class sizes, access to educational technology and year-round springtime temperatures. What I hadn’t quite expected was that school might shut down--temporarily--at a moment’s notice. It became a compelling reason for migrating studies to an online environment.

Classes had been in session for eight weeks when the school was abruptly closed for regional elections. Many schools are typically used as polling stations. Although ours is not, we follow mandates from the federal government regarding school closures. Then again, in November 2010, we were closed for almost three weeks by order of Venezuela’s Ministry of Education due to flooding that crippled much of the country and destabilized an already shaky infrastructure. And finally in 2011, heavy rains again mandated a two-day school closure during the week before final exams with no more than half a day’s warning.

Just weeks before that first (expected) closure, teachers had been introduced to wikispaces as our web hosting platform. Few teachers had fully made the transition. As instructed, I contacted my advisee students via telephone telling them to check their teachers’ wikis, and check email frequently! Next I rushed to update the homepage of my own class wiki, stating that information and details about school work and learning over the two-day school closure would be posted soon. (Our high school is on a two-day block schedule so this school closure was equivalent to one instructional day per class.) Teachers were able to communicate assignments via email and updates to the course wikis. This was just a glimpse into the almost three week closure six weeks later that caught us off guard and scrambling to shift our course into online learning mode.

In late November of 2010, the rains came relentlessly. In what seemed like overnight, streets were flooded and roads became impassable. Many of our support staff at school were stranded in their neighborhoods in Caracas because transportation in the city had come to a soggy halt. 

Just before lunch on Wednesday November 30, teachers received word that school would be closed for the following two days. Over the next few days we would receive news that some of our colleagues’ homes had been heavily damaged by landslides and that nearby roads were collapsing. We met as a faculty to plan how to keep our students on track as they lost one instructional day. The methods we used before would successfully carry us to the weekend and we anticipated that we’d be back in school on the following Monday.

The following Sunday we received word that the closure was indefinite and that teachers were to meet the following day at school to come up with a longer term plan for virtual learning. Now we were to be put to the test. How would the technology integration that we were so proud of carry us through a recently declared national state of emergency? Would we be able to effectively use in-class technologies from a distance and close out the semester for our students?

Teachers who had transitioned smoothly to using wikispaces a few months before were able to rely upon the infrastructure of existing class wikis to continue to keep pace with their courses. Wikis that were designed to be the “go to” place for students to access content and course information continued to carry out that role. My students knew where to go to find the day’s class work and home work because it was where they expected it to be when school was in session. I was grateful for the weekends of work I had put in over the previous months structuring and formatting the wiki so that my students could easily see where new content appeared. Wikis that were underdeveloped and lacked content did not serve students as well over the long-term school closure.

Wikis alone were not enough, though. Teachers also needed more personal ways to connect with students.

One English teacher arranged for real-time collaborative conferencing via chat for each student’s writing assignment using Google Docs. She later told me that though this was effective, it was extremely time consuming as she was essentially teaching 50 one-on-one classes. Google hangouts, in which you can have group video conferencing, might be a better option now.

A Spanish teacher used Skype for oral assessments. A social studies teacher coordinated Twitter chats for each class he taught. This worked for him because his students were accustomed to Twitter as a platform for class discussion. One English teacher created a Facebook group to facilitate discussion about course content--and to make sure his nagging reminders would show up in his students’ newsfeeds!

When the crises were over and we all returned to the classroom, we kept the wikis going. The biggest lesson we--the teachers--learned was that infrequent shut downs are unfortunately part of our lives. Rather than think about how to cope with once-in-a-blue-moon crises, we’ve started to think systematically about how a traditional “brick and mortar” school can transition into a virtual learning environment.

Several weeks ago, fresh from summer vacations around the world, our boisterous and energetic high-school faculty met to discuss what had worked and what hadn’t worked over the past several years during school closures. After we had scarfed down the treats provided (it gets everyone there on time!) and were sufficiently caffeinated, we reflected on our experiences with online learning. This is hardly an academic exercise: we’re preparing ourselves for two scheduled virtual learning days that will precede the weekend of the contentious presidential election on October 7.

The twenty-five member faculty were seated in student desks in a circle; one teacher took notes on a white board. We started with a “what worked” list. Least surprising to us: the elements of good teaching are the same, whether a class happens on the school grounds or online. Our “what worked” list looked like list of “foundations of solid educational practice”: including clear expectations, strong communication between students and teachers, and opportunities for formative assessment feedback.

What didn’t work? During the emergency closures teachers didn’t have time to coordinate with one another. Some students ended up with unreasonable amounts of work to finish within a given time. The floods also disrupted power and Internet service for some students. We realized that every student needed an “internet buddy,” someone who ideally lives close by but could be contacted via text messaging or land line phone.

We also had a hefty list of the tools that we needed to keep virtual school open during closures including Skype, Wikispaces, Facebook, Google Docs, Blackberry Messenger and Twitter.

And we saw a recurring theme: the more accustomed the students were to using technologies in class on a day-to-day basis, the more smoothly they transitioned to working in even a temporary online environment. It would have been difficult to get students on board and trained with Google Docs as an emergency measure if they hadn’t already been using Google Docs regularly in English class. Ditto for Twitter.

What’s surprised us most, however, is that creating this virtual connection to students isn’t just a great backup when the lights go off. Developing an off-campus and online class conversation (through Twitter, blogging and on Edmodo) continues the development of class culture and community. It also supports how we get the most compelling content and carry on meaningful conversations about learning, both on and off campus.

In preparation for our virtual learning days on October 4th and 5th, our high school teachers have worked together to develop a meaningful, creative, cross-curricular project for each grade level. For instance, the science department plans to use the time as a part of a collaborative group work project. Students will assess our school’s energy use, research how facilities other parts of the world tackle the same problem and recommend changes for ECA. We are expecting students to use a variety of technologies to communicate with each other and teachers to support this “think global, act local” project.

My experiences at ECA the past two years have completely changed the way I think about teaching and learning. Instead of policing student use of personal electronics and technology, I am embracing these tools and new ways of doing things so as to engage my students with access to content that’s immediate, relevant and extends beyond the walls of the classroom.

And the content isn’t just fresh for them--but for me, too.

I was a student in my own class today as the high school technology integration specialist (Ben Feigert @benteachlearn) taught us how to create tours using Google Earth with embedded narration, photos and content that literally can take us around the world. I left the session inspired by the idea of turning around a unit on ecology that I have taught for years into a case study on the Galapagos Islands--a place I had a chance to visit last year with ECA students.

At ECA, we’ve been pushed faster into using technology by our local events--and we have the good fortune to have strong technical and administrative support to back us up. Looking back on our path, I'd say there are two elements essential to our success: a flexible and innovative faculty that believes wholeheartedly that we can provide meaningful and authentic education during school closure and our technical resources and support.

I welcome hearing from other teachers who have questions about what we're doing--or suggestions for technologies that we should consider exploring!

Jessica Sullivan (@sullyteachbio and #rocktheIB, jessicas@ecak12.com) teaches high school Biology and serves as Science Department Head at The American International School of Caracas, Escuela Campo Alegre, in Venezuela (www.ecak12.com). Escuela Campo Alegre is a small (600 students) Pre-K through 12th grade English language international school primarily serving the children of expatriate families working for diplomatic agencies and international corporations. The students at Escuela Campo Alegre (ECA) come from 40 different countries and the teaching faculty represents 12 different nationalities. ECA is a one-to-one laptop school for grades 6-12, employs three full time curriculum technology integration specialists, and provides ongoing support and training in technology for the faculty.  

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