Creating a New Culture of Teaching and Learning

By Elizabeth Rich — October 11, 2010 8 min read
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In 2000, Chris Friberg left her tech support job at a large, financial services firm in the Boston area to get a master’s degree in teaching middle school math. Four years later, Friberg completed her student-teaching assignment at Alfred W. Coolidge Middle School, located in Reading, Mass., about 15 miles north of Boston. Friberg loved the energetic atmosphere of the school and the district. Coincidentally, just as she was wrapping up her student-teaching assignment, a teaching position opened up in the school’s math department for the fall. She leapt at the job. “The culture here and the leadership in this district and everything that I found out about it while I was student teaching was exciting and what I was looking for,” she says.

Friberg is not alone in her enthusiasm for the district’s culture of learning. Last fall, the Cambridge, Mass.-based Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, launched a study to determine the level of support for 21st-century learning among superintendents and principals in the state. In the process, researchers at Rennie, a non-partisan organization dedicated to education reform in the state of Massachusetts, isolated Reading for its “highly integrated approach to 21st-century skills”—a path that began with a visionary leader.

Superintendent John Doherty helps reading teacher Christen DelRossi in his "Expanding the Boundaries of Teaching and Learning" class in Reading, Mass.

In 2003, then-Superintendent Patrick Schenttini began an aggressive campaign to modernize the district’s curriculum, including initiating district-wide committees on technology, building-level committees for teachers to discuss new ways to deliver content, and even meeting with town officials. “He created a vision: We need to prepare students for 21st-century global learning,” current Superintendent John Doherty says of Schenttini.

Marcia Grant, who teaches computer electives at Coolidge, emphasizes Schenttini’s role in integrating technology into the district’s curriculum. “[Schenttini’s] focus was on 21st-century learning and providing information to teachers so that they could focus on it as well. Before that, we were getting the hardware, but were we really using it to enhance or change our curriculum?”

Sixteen years ago, when Grant arrived in the district, every middle school teacher received a computer. She recalls that over time teachers were e-mailing each other and drawing up lesson plans on their computers. Teachers were supposed to integrate technology into their curriculum, but, in many instances, they didn’t have the skill level, couldn’t see how it would benefit the curriculum, or were intimidated.

Grant also credits Schenttini with stressing globalization and its probable impact on students, their future jobs, and their careers to bring about the “big shift” in the district: “How do we educate our students to what their world is really going to look like? What kind of professional development would teachers need? We’re trying to prepare students for a whole different world than what we were prepared for, so what are the skills that they need to be successful in this global community?”

Today, 90 percent of the classrooms in the 4,400-student district are outfitted with SMART Boards, the student-to-computer ratio averages three-to-one, and 60 percent of the district’s schools are wireless—including Coolidge’s entire building. “We built up our infrastructure,” says Doherty, who was appointed superintendent for the district in January of this year, shortly after Schenttini passed away from cancer.

‘Expanding the Boundaries’

During a site visit to the Reading district, Rennie Center policy analyst Michael Bennett noted “a universal belief that focusing on content by standards is not enough for kids to be set for society.” He also noted the highly collaborative atmosphere among students, teachers, and administrators, which he understood had been shaped by Schenttini and by a six-credit, graduate-level course for district educators taught by Doherty. Offered to teachers and administrators for free, the course—“Expanding the Boundaries of Teaching and Learning”—is now in its third year. It provides a guidepost as the district pursues 21st-century skills instruction, and “a common understanding, a common language, and a shared network,” says Bennett.

School Leaders on 21st-Century Skills

Results from a Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy survey revealed that a majority of superintendents and principals in the state of Massachusetts believe that integrating 21st-century skills into teaching and learning is a priority.

To what extent is each of the following a priority for your district?

Note: Superintendents rated each statement on a scale of 1 to 5 where a 1 means “not a priority” and a 5 means “high priority.” Below are the percentages of superintendents who gave a 4 or 5 rating.

• Providing appropriate technology infrastructure and tools that support student acquisition of 21st-century skills: 86%

• Providing professional development that focuses on improving educator capacity to teach core academic content in ways that enhance 21st-century skills mastery: 86%

• All educators develop and teach lessons that are designed to enhance deep mastery of core subject knowledge and 21st-century skills: 85%

• All core academic content curricula explicitly integrate 21st-century skills: 81%

• A majority of student work is evaluated at the classroom level for mastery of 21st-century skills: 74%

155 superintendents, or 52 percent of those invited, participated in this survey.

98 percent of principals in Massachusetts surveyed indicated that their school mission or vision statement includes at least one of the 21st-century skills as defined by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning—of which Massachusetts is a member state.

Does your school’s vision or mission statement include the following 21st-century skill as part of the overall vision for student learning?

Learning and Innovation: 79%

Life and Career: 71%

Civic: 62%

Global Awareness: 50%

Technology: 49%

Information: 47%

Health: 34%

Media: 21%

Financial/Economic/Business/Entrepreneurial: 10%

375 principals, or 21 percent of those invited, participated in the survey.

SOURCE: Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, 2010

For Doherty, the course, which starts at the end of August and ends in April, is an opportunity to put technology in the hands of teachers. According to Doherty, 90 educators have taken the course in the 360-teacher district. He believes it is helping teachers and administrators to integrate 21st-century skills into content areas. Doherty describes the course, which meets online as well as face-to-face, as “intense and rigorous.” Teachers who take it receive a laptop, a projector for their classrooms, and wireless Internet access, if their school isn’t already completely hooked up—necessary tools, Doherty believes, to establish Web literacy in the classroom.

Doherty’s syllabus includes Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Will Richardson’s Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, and two selections by edu-tech authority Alan November, including Web Literacy for Educators. Participants must create a (frequently updated) blog, a Wikipedia entry, and a podcast, and throughout the course, they must collaborate with each other and deconstruct what a 21st-century classroom should look like. Once teachers complete the course, they are encouraged to go back to their schools and share their knowledge with their colleagues. “We’re using these people to do professional development training. Now we have the capacity,” says Doherty. His goal is to shift the focus in the classroom from the teachers to the students, where the students are the “knowledge generators” and the teachers are the “knowledge facilitators.”

Last year, 25 percent of the teachers at Reading Memorial High School took Doherty’s course. Ellie Freedman, who is principal of the district’s only high school, came to Reading at the start of the last school year, because—like Chris Friberg—she was “intrigued and energized by what they were doing.” In her brief tenure, she has noticed that the atmosphere among her staff is much more collaborative and that they are generally willing to embrace a more evolved curriculum, which she believes has a lot to do with the superintendent’s course and the district’s focus on project- and inquiry-based learning. As a result, teachers are working cross-disciplinarily to create better curricula for students, and she says, “We’ve been having deeper conversations about how [skills such as critical thinking, communication, and problem solving] are manifested in teaching and how students are engaging in learning. That’s an essential conversation to have no matter what the century.”

Boosting Student Engagement

When discussing 21st-century learning, Craig Martin, who succeeded John Doherty as principal of Coolidge, echoes a familiar refrain across the district: Computers are a means, not an end, to student learning.

In Doherty's class, math teacher Lisa Emma and her colleagues learn how to use a cellphone polling tool called

“One of the things that’s been important to me is that I don’t want people to think of 21st-century learning as [being only about] technology. We see it as a tool. With the [Web literacy] skills that we’re talking about, kids are able to produce work where the audience is not just the teacher or a classmate. It engages them at a different level,” says Martin.

“Absolutely. The kids love technology,” says Erica LeBow, a 7th and 8th grade language arts teacher at Coolidge who, like Friberg and Grant, is an alumna of Doherty’s course. “Give them a blog, give them a wiki, and they’ll produce far more work of higher quality.”

In addition to being more engaged, students appear less anxious about sharing their work. With more tools at their disposal and a slightly more anonymous venue in which to express themselves, Martin believes students feel freer to open up. “When I compare it to many years ago when I was an English teacher, I felt I had more kids who were reluctant to communicate,” he says.

Another graduate of Doherty’s course, Laura Warren, finds that the students in her 7th and 8th grade language-arts classrooms at Coolidge participate more intensely online than they do inside the four walls of her classroom for another reason: time. “We have a 50-minute period, so kids might be able to say one thing. If you have a book discussion online, everyone participates—and they can process and bounce ideas off each other. The experience lends itself to critical thinking.”

Chris Friberg believes that by ceding some control to her students, they are more likely to engage with each other. In her math classroom, which is a hybrid of online learning and face time, students are using YouTube videos to find a different take on a problem; online video lessons from universities like Massachusetts Institute of Technology; touchpad calculators; and Moodle, a classroom-management system that allows them to work at their own pace.

“One of the things that sticks out the most,” she explains, “is their confidence level in a [discussion] forum. By being able to respond in a forum, in a private setting, students come out of their shells.” Recently, Friberg says, a student posted a problem he couldn’t solve and a classmate stepped forward online and responded with a suggestion. “That gives me the chills,” she says.

“These students are learning collaboration, communication, and presentation skills that are going to be necessary, in addition to knowledge about the curriculum. The day is gone when they just need to know formulas—they can look those up,” she adds. “They need to know how to solve problems and work together.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2010 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Creating a New Culture of Teaching


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