Special Report
School & District Management

Teacher Tech Leaders: Rafranz Davis

By Anthony Rebora — June 06, 2016 3 min read
Rafranz Davis, the Lufkin Independent School District’s executive director of professional and digital learning, takes a look at the way Dunbar Primary School students Alana Booker, left, 8, and Kyla Flemon, 8, interact with the computer.

As a technologically savvy educator of color based in rural eastern Texas, Rafranz Davis has devoted herself to bridging all manner of digital divides.

Davis got her start back in 2005, as a middle school math teacher in the Ennis Independent school district, some 35 miles south of Dallas. Already alert to the possibilities of technology in the classroom, she quickly discovered that having her English-language learners use her interactive whiteboard to produce videos of their work helped deepen their understanding of math concepts and improve their grasp of key terminology.

That led to further classroom experiments with video tools and interactive platforms. “When iPads came to our school, it was the greatest day on earth,” she recalled.

As she gained experience as a teacher and instructional leader, Davis became a fierce advocate—to the apparent befuddlement of some administrators—of giving students greater access to digital devices and programs as a means of “creating to learn.” She felt technology could spark students’ intellectual curiosity and “give them a window” to resources and skills beyond the classroom. To demonstrate that potential, she embarked on her own “rogue project” of learning to code.

In time, Davis also became a prominent voice in the edu-tech blogosphere—and later a sought-after speaker for industry conferences. “Blogging made me more reflective about my practice and gave me an authentic audience for my ideas,” she said—something that has also informed her interest in giving students more opportunities to “publish” their own work.

Among the major themes of her writing and speaking: addressing inequities in digital access and boosting inclusion of “voiceless” school community members—including teachers, students, and people of color— in conversations around education technology. She argues that the ed-tech world is beset by rigid hierarchies that are too dismissive of the viewpoints of the uninitiated, leading to a counterproductive “cycle of silencing.”

Asked why the progress of digitally driven instructional change has been slow in many schools, for example, Davis says it’s because teachers, and even curriculum directors, are often left out of school technology plans. “If we put tech into classrooms without teachers having some type of input, it won’t be used,” she said. The same can be true, she said, with respect to low-income and minority students and families.

Davis now has a prime opportunity to put some of her principles into broader practice. Last summer, she took a position as the executive director of professional and digital learning in the Lufkin Independent school district, a low-income rural district that was looking for someone to “create momentum around innovation in the classroom” and help “connect [its] students to the global community,” said director of communications Sheila Adams.

Rafranz Davis, the executive director of professional and digital learning for the Lufkin Independent School District in Texas, joins Dunbar Primary School students Aden Ligon, left, and Justice Trevino, while they learn coding skills and practice math.

Davis quickly ramped up the district’s digital profile by introducing new coding and Minecraft initiatives in schools, including targeted professional development for elementary teachers. (With the help of some connections in the tech field, she’s also planning a couple of $10 coding camps for students this summer.)

True to her word, meanwhile, she has sought to be aggressively inclusive in working on the district’s three-year plan for rethinking its technology infrastructure and learning objectives. She has put together a corps of teacher ambassadors from across the district to give her feedback on instructional-technology ideas, and she has worked closely with students to get a sense of their foundational digital skills and access to technology, both in school and at home.

“This is what changes schools,” she wrote in a recent blog post. “It’s about creating a culture of openness that embraces our differences, realities, passion, and curiosities. It’s a community of learners with voices, not defined by job titles but by the common desire to help students create the world through their own curiosities.”

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