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Over the past three or four years, educators in two Illinois schools sat through traditional presentations on technology tools during professional development time.
“It was a challenge to try to encourage educators to use the technology that was available," said James Gubbins, technology coordinator for Maine Township High School District 207 in Park Ridge.
The small size of the Youth Campus and the Alternative Resource Center made the two campuses an ideal place to try something besides large group presentations. Starting in September, 15 educators and staff members worked together in four groups on technology integration projects.
On February 10, the 6-month project wrapped up after each team turned in a video or Web-based presentation about what they learned. By applying project-based learning to professional development, these schools allow educators to explore different ways of integrating Web-based tools into their curriculum.
The school district oversees the Youth Campus, which serves wards of the state in a residential environment. And the district’s three high schools send students who have behavior problems to the Alternative Resource Center.
At these schools, the project-based professional development was mandatory. But many teachers chose to submit it as part of their Professional Development Plan to the district.
Those teachers could apply the time they spent in their groups outside of regular hours to Professional Growth Units. Gubbins hopes that the technology skills and project-based learning methods teachers learn will make their way into the curriculum so that students can benefit from them.
Through this project, teacher Gioia Lauro-Geruso at the Youth Campus changed her perspective on smartphones at school. Before, she didn't want students to use phones — even though the district allowed them — because she thought her students wouldn't pay attention when she was teaching.
"Phones in the classroom as a teacher scared the heck out of me," Lauro-Geruso said.
But as she learned more, she realized that students could stay on task if they received a focused assignment. And students became more engaged in learning when she guided them through lessons instead of constantly lecturing to them. Ironically, Lauro-Geruso’s team of teachers filmed its video with a smartphone.
For teacher Carrie Lombardi at the Youth Campus, working with a group allowed educators to share different things they learned. Lombardi's team created a Google Site, and she can envision her students setting up such a site for research projects they're working on. With another tool called GoAnimate, students could create animated videos where they share an opinion about something they learned or journal about a topic.
"It was a really great experience,” Lombardi said, “and I feel that I learned a lot, and I know that I'll be able to use this now and later in my classroom."
The groups worked through the curriculum and milestones that Gubbins, Alternative Resource Center Department Chair Ron Dernick and Youth Campus lead teacher Juli Amidei created from scratch last summer.
At the beginning of each project phase, Gubbins spent no more than 15 or 20 minutes introducing a topic, sharing why it was important and suggesting a few online tools for the teams to start exploring.
Each team worked together whenever their schedules allowed. When they needed help, Gubbins made himself available to respond to Google chat or text messages.
Not all of the educators embraced the project at first. When they heard about the assignment to create a project on something they teach, they clamored for boundaries and specific directions, Lauro-Geruso said. And many felt like they were out of their comfort zone with smart technology.
This initial 90-minute meeting was like trying to get an auto shop class that read books on cars to actually start working on the cars, Dernick said. Once they got over that hump, the project started to blossom.
Because the Youth Campus didn't have as many students this year, educators had more time to spend on these projects. Amidei is still tracking down how much time and how frequently each group worked together. In a regular school, a longer period of time would be essential for this type of project to succeed.
"It's going to be tough to pull off in a regular school, but it's possible," Dernick said.
Since this project finished, these educators will consider turning it into a summer workshop. And based on an education panel's review of their projects, one team will share what they learned at the Illinois Computing Educators Conference this month.
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