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Plugging In

A digital literacy initiative in Indianapolis provided more than technology training. It created a community of learning for the district’s teachers.

By Tim Walker

Across the Lawrence Township school district in Indianapolis, a collective groan greeted the prospect of another professional development initiative. For teachers in this 16,000-student district, past experiences have elicited all too familiar complaints: a “one size fits all” approach, a hit-or-miss topic they may never actually find the time to address in the classroom, or the visiting expert who is gone at the end of the day and never seen again.

“Quite frankly,” says Betsy Wheatley, a teacher at Fall Creek Valley Middle School, “professional development is not something an average teacher looks forward to. But we knew soon after this new program started in 2002 that this was going to be different.”

The new program was Lawrence Township’s Digital Age Literacy Initiative, funded by a $5.9 million Lilly Endowment grant to promote “21st Century skills,” primarily the integration of traditional reading and writing proficiency with technological literacy among students who are “growing up digital.” 

Digital literacy coach Sondra Shelton (left) and teacher Elizabeth Terando prepare a lesson plan.

District officials understood that these skills couldn’t be embedded in the classroom unless teachers were properly trained, so they turned to educators to train their peers.

“We believed coaching to be one of the most effective methods of professional development,” recalls Leona Jamison, the district’s director of professional development, “so we set out to train a group of classroom teachers to become full-time coaches.” In the process, they transformed Lawrence Township’s 1,200 teachers into a learning community they expect to live on once the grant money dries up at the end of the school year.

Sondra Shelton, a digital literacy coach at Sunnyside Elementary, was one of many intrigued by the opportunity. “I had been reading articles about the coaching model,” she says, “so I jumped at the chance.”

Using the grant money, the district trained Shelton and more than 30 other coaches to work with teachers across all grade levels, emphasizing basic technological, visual, and informational literacy.

As the coaches entered their peers’ classrooms, initial skepticism quickly turned to practical learning. They formed book clubs, study groups, and workshops as venues to collaborate and discuss new research and teaching strategies. A new Web network provided an easy way for educators to meet, talk, and take courses online. Just one month after the site launched in late 2004, more than 250 teachers had signed up for different online classes.

In addition to being exposed to new resources, teachers also learned how to collect, share, and analyze data to evaluate the impact of these new strategies. Writing workshops, for instance, were implemented at several different schools, and teachers played a direct role in assessing their effects on literacy skills.

Stephania Smith, a teacher at Harrison Hill Elementary, says the coaches’ accessibility was the key in turning abstract training into concrete teaching skills. “[They] have been in the classroom, working directly with you to implement the strategies we learned in the workshops, study groups, and book clubs. I’m not looking forward to the end of the grant.”

Smith isn’t alone in being apprehensive. At the end of this school year, the coaches will return to their own classrooms. To keep the program going, some will keep their doors open to any teacher who wants to come in, observe, and learn. Teachers who’ve been trained by the coaches add that the book clubs, study groups, and online forums created over the past few years will continue to offer venues in which to share lesson plans, research, and strategies. Shelton believes this signals a sea change in how teachers view professional development.
“Teachers now recognize that [it] is part of their responsibility,” she says. “We as professionals need to keep growing and challenging ourselves and not be afraid to try new things.”

Photo: Tom Strickland

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