Published Online: January 15, 1997

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The Comfort Zone

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Her Rankin colleagues credit Conner as being an innovative teacher who was always willing to share her time and classroom strategies with other teachers. They also speak of her willingness to take risks. For her biggest experiment, Conner and another teacher knocked down the wall between their classrooms, hooked up their computers with a local area network, and merged their two classes into one class for 2nd and 3rd graders. "She's not afraid to fall on her face," says Warriner, who encouraged the multiage venture.

Conner had planned to take a leave of absence to pursue her master's degree when Meadows asked her to join the technology planning committee last spring. Taking on a leading role, Conner squeezed in only four days of vacation all summer. In the fall, Meadows offered her the administrative post.

Tupelo's training program runs like a city bus: It follows a prescribed route but lets teachers get on and off almost at will.

"Kameron had internalized strategies to use technology for something besides a toy or an electronic baby sitter," Meadows says. "She also has those interpersonal qualities that are very valuable and the patience of a much more experienced person."

Hopping daily from school to school, Conner adjusts her training to fit each staff's needs. Some schools specialize in multiage classrooms; one focuses on the arts; Rankin Elementary is known as the district's technology school. Some principals let teachers vote on school policies, as Warriner did at Rankin; others consult teachers but make the final decisions themselves.

Such diversity makes districtwide training a challenge. Tupelo officials hope to equip teachers with a common set of skills in technology. To accomplish this goal but still give teachers options, the training program runs like a city bus: It follows a prescribed route but lets schools and teachers get on and off almost at will. Such a system preserves autonomy by allowing people to progress at their own speed.

To ensure a degree of consistency, school officials are adopting a basic stock of software programs to use across the district; one such program is used to create pages on the World Wide Web; another supports elementary reading. But schools and teachers can add other software of their choosing.

As outlined in the technology plan, teachers rate their technological abilities on a scale: novice, practitioner, integrater, or extender. The district uses these self-assessments to plan formal training, conducted during the summer and throughout the year on scheduled staff-development days or after school.

A "novice" has scarcely used technology. Conner recalls one such teacher who placed the computer mouse up to the screen when Conner asked her to click on the red dog in a software program. "I said, 'Wait a minute here, let's step back a bit,' " Conner recalls.

A "practitioner" knows enough to help students use technology as a supplement to regular classwork. An "integrator" uses technology purposefully with a range of activities to achieve curricular goals and can also handle such classroom issues as giving students equal access to equipment. And an "extender" can effectively convey these technology skills to other teachers.

According to last summer's survey, 40 percent of Tupelo's teachers consider themselves novices, 40 percent practitioners, and 17 percent integrators. A mere 3 percent said they were extenders.

Tupelo has reversed the typical pattern of focusing training on novice teachers. Instead, it concentrates first on the more experienced and coaxes them to help train the rest. And expertise is often found in unexpected places; in February, the high school band director will be teaching colleagues across the district how to create their own Web pages.

Not surprisingly, many of the most effective trainers come from Rankin Elementary. One Thursday afternoon, two Rankin teachers, Sue Shepherd and Linda Frank, join Conner at an after-school session for two dozen teachers in the media center of Lawhorn Elementary. To one side, the trainers have wired a computer to a large television. But they've also propped up poster-board displays plastered with student projects.

Conner begins the session by outlining the district's plans for linking schools to the Internet. She knows the information highway is a mystery to many, so she describes the wealth of resources available on World Wide Web sites ready-made for teachers. "A Web site is like a magazine article," she begins, to reassure her neophyte on-line surfers. As an icebreaker, she even hands out pill bottles full of jellybeans, warning her audience that technology can be contagious.

"I have learned more from kids' mistakes than I ever learned by myself."

Linda Frank,
Teacher

Shepherd and Frank next talk in detail about how they've used technology in their multiage class of 3rd and 4th graders. A few years ago, Frank says, when asked about their vision for improving their classroom, the two teachers could only think to ask for more construction paper. But visits to schools taking advantage of technology gave them fresh ideas about how to structure learning around group projects. Ever since, they've used a computer-based multimedia tool that lets children combine text, graphics, animations, and sound into their own presentations. "This has gotten children excited about doing research on their own," Frank says.

Frank clicks on the computer to show a series of student projects on the TV screen. During an animated sequence on the human body, a green pea travels through the human digestive system. Another presentation features dancing bones from a human skeleton. The projects were to include a one-page bibliography, but, when students in one group couldn't fit all their sources on a page, they added a recorded snippet of their voices reading the last citation aloud. "I have learned more from kids' mistakes than I ever learned by myself," Frank tells the group.

As the session winds down, Shepherd gives the teachers a final pep talk: "You just have to get in there and do it," she urges them.

The ultimate success of Tupelo's technological transformation may hinge on sessions like this one. A plan, money, equipment, and committed leaders will only take the district so far. To reach their goals, the district's administrators will have to win over the skeptics and the computerphobes. Technology may play a big role in the Tupelo schools in the 21st century, but it will have to be brought to the system one teacher at a time.

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