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Cyber Scout

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At 24, Conner does not have the résumé of a technology wizard. Growing up in the village of New Hope, not far from Tupelo, she followed her mother, a 3rd grade teacher, into education. At Mississippi State University, she worked several jobs to pay her own way as she earned her education degree. While working as a professor's assistant, she taught herself to use a computer; her teacher training courses, she notes with some disgust, included nothing on educational technology.

But when Conner was hired at Rankin in 1992 to substitute for a teacher on leave, she proved a quick study in technological tools. She impressed Warriner by creating a multimedia project with her 4th graders. Hired to a permanent position the next fall, Conner grew to become one of the school's most technologically innovative teachers, testing equipment and approaches and then eagerly sharing her results with others. Her biggest experiment? She and another teacher had the wall between their rooms knocked down to create a multiage class. "She's not afraid to fall on her face," Warriner says.

Over time, Conner became a believer in technology's potential to boost learning. It has limits, she says: Teachers must be discerning about the educational software they rely on, and the technology must be woven into daily activities so that it is almost transparent.

Still, Conner believes technology has the power to level the academic playing field for low-achieving and disadvantaged students. During her teacher practicum at a rural elementary school just a few miles from Mississippi State, she got a quick lesson in educational inequity when a child came to school one day with seven crayons in a plastic baggy. His mother had nine children, the boy told her, and had to divide a box of crayons among them.

Tupelo is not a poor district, but there is an achievement gap between schools that Conner thinks technology could close. "That's why we say technology is the great equalizer," she says.

Last spring, as Conner was planning to go on leave to get her master's degree, David Meadows asked her to join the committee writing the district technology plan. Given a leading role, Conner took only four days off all summer. Then, in the fall, Meadows offered her the job as technology projects coordinator. "Kameron had internalized strategies to use technology for something besides a toy or an electronic baby sitter," he explains. "She also has those interpersonal qualities that are very valuable and the patience of a much more experienced person."

Moving Conner to the central office broadened the district's efforts to make its technology revolution go smoothly. While another central-office administrator works on debugging the new computer networks and trouble-shooting the ailments of the district's older computers, Conner focuses on the human side, working with the teachers and administrators who decide to use the new machines in the classroom. She organizes training for teachers and schools and conducts some of the workshops herself. "I'm not a techie," Conner explains. "My main role is serving as a former teacher and helper.''

Conner admits she's not yet comfortable in her new role. "It's been pretty weird not being a teacher this year," she says. "Weird but good."

Still, she has already impressed those around her with her drive and sensitivity to teachers who are struggling to go high-tech. Advising teachers often twice her age and with much more classroom experience requires a delicate touch. Conner's former colleagues praise her as a communicator, team player, and unrepentant early-childhood educator.

"What I do is very 2nd grade,'' she warns a group of teachers as she unpacks colorful poster-board displays at the start of a training session for two dozen teachers in the media center at Lawhorn Elementary School. She is joined by two Rankin teachers, Sue Shepherd and Linda Frank. In addition to the poster board, the trainers have wired a computer to a large television.

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. Some principals let teachers vote on school policies; others consult teachers but make the final decision 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 yet still give teachers options, the training program runs like a city bus: It follows a prescribed route and lets teachers and schools get on and off almost at will. Such a system preserves individual autonomy by allowing people to progress at their own speed.

The district has reversed the typical pattern of focusing training on the novice teachers. Instead, it concentrates first on the more experienced and coaxes them to help train the rest.

On a survey conducted by the district last summer, teachers rated their technological abilities on a scale: novice, practitioner, integrator, or extender. A "novice" has scarcely used technology. 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 an "extender" conveys skills to other teachers.

Forty percent considered themselves novices, 40 percent practitioners, and 17 percent integrators. A mere 3 percent said they are extenders.

Conner begins the session at Lawhorn by outlining the district's plans for linking schools to the Internet. She knows the Internet is a mystery to many, and she describes the wealth of resources available on World Wide Web sites that are ready-made for teachers. "A Web site is like a magazine article,'' she says to reassure her neophyte on-line surfers. At one point in her talk, she hands out pill bottles full of jelly beans. "They're meant to illustrate that technology is contagious," she explains.

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 to give a vision for improving their classrooms, they could only think to ask for more construction paper. But visits to schools that use technology extensively gave them fresh ideas about how to structure learning around group projects. Ever since, they've employed a computer-based multimedia tool that lets children mix text, graphics, animation, and sound. "This has gotten children excited about doing research on their own,'' Frank says.

She clicks on the computer to show a series of student projects on the television. 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 page of bibliographical sources, but, when students in one group couldn't squeeze all their sources onto one page, they added a recorded snippet of their voices reading the last citation. "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 technology plan may hinge on sessions like this one. Money, equipment, and a committed leadership will only take the district so far. To make the plan work, Conner, Frank, Shepherd, and other techno-missionaries will have to win over the skeptics and the computer phobics. Technology may play a big role in Tupelo schools in the 21st century, but it will have to be brought to the system one classroom at a time.

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