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Wow! This inquiry-based, technology-rich school has no tech staff

An innovative principal empowers her teachers and students to take ownership of tech-infused teaching and learning.

When I first became principal, I was compelled to explore all aspects of what it meant to be a 21st-century learner in an international baccalaureate context: as a global citizen, as a collaborative co-creator of knowledge, as a caring human being. We must equip every child to manage and thrive in this complex and fragile world in which we live, and to do so with tolerance and respect for others. Being a caring and competent user of technology is core to being a productive, proactive citizen…and we accomplish this with no tech staff. Let me explain:

Wildwood IB World Magnet School is a top performing K-8 public magnet school. We are a diverse urban learning community, where our families speak 23 different languages. Wildwood has students with a wide range of physical and cognitive abilities, as well as students with medical and physical fragilities. We are economically diverse as well, with students from poverty through affluence. We run an open lottery, and our 488 students come from around the city.

IB is fundamentally and foremost about the student, not about a program. It aligns to my mantra of student ownership of learning. At Wildwood, we have been holding K-8 student-led report card conferences for parents for six years. We have been doing individualized student data folders for as long. Students design and run all kinds of schoolwide projects and clubs. They plan and deliver many school assemblies like Pi Day, and they engage in all sorts of action and service, both inside the formal IB units of inquiry and outside of it.

Tools to Support Inquiry-Driven Learning

In my second year, in an effort to get technology into the hands of the students, foster authentic inquiry, and break the “test-prep” mentality which has come to dominate many a school landscape, I launched Inquiry Fair. I had only two expectations for the projects: they had to be student-driven inquiry, and there had to be some kind of technology use.

Inquiry Fair has bloomed into multiple inquiry showcases throughout the year, and has expanded to personal projects and service-learning projects. Students decide what they want to learn and/or do. With the support of a teacher or parent as facilitator, students research, design, plan, implement, and reflect on their learning. With the various platforms to house and share digital work, technology is an integral part of this learning process, especially for grades 4-8.

To give students anytime, anywhere access to literature and text at their level and cycle them through a learning process, we use ThinkCERCA. It allows us to reach students with high-level thinking and reasoning, regardless of their reading level. I love the way the CERCA Framework (which stands for Claim, Evidence, Reasoning, Counterargument, Audience) builds students’ critical thinking and argumentative writing skills.

Another inquiry-based initiative we are always working on is our Next Generation Curriculum model. Upper-grade students do deep research into one literary, one science, and one social science topic of interest to them, and are challenged to come up with a connecting theme and evidence for the connection from each of the domains.

Students also have to select and unpack several Common Core standards to assess the quality with which they defend and showcase their theme. This allows students to use technology to create knowledge that is brand new and unique to the student, and to publish their work as part of their digital footprint.

A pilot project for our Next Generation Curriculum was a student who researched feminist critique, medical ethics, and border wars. She ended up doing an art installation and website on the theme “Rightfully Ours.” It gives you goosebumps, doesn’t it?

(Next page: Accomplishing goals with no tech staff)

Collaborating with Teachers

Nobody can be an innovative principal without at least a few highly innovative teacher leaders. I have two incredible trailblazers and several early adopters.

One of my key teacher leaders is my art teacher who was doing makerspaces (we called ours a Tinker Tank) and mini-robotics long before these were trends. We were so early to the 3D printer craze that many of our students consider that old hat. My IB coordinator is a former tech coordinator who is always willing to help so that learning using tech can happen. Without these two, and the several teachers who are willing to support the work and try anything with their students, the pace and quality of educational innovation would diminish.

I often say to teachers regarding tech resources, “Design, don’t just assign.” This means building mini-lessons and small group work into the rotations, so students are not just plowing through online tasks but are articulating the strategies they are employing and making their thinking and interactions visible. It isn’t a perfect science, but we have suites of tools for reading and math across each grade cluster (K–2, 3–5, 6–8).

We are seeing growth in the ways the tools measure usage, and standards mastery, and will look to triangulate these kinds of scores with standardized measures and classroom-based assessments in order to distinguish which instructional technologies are really helping kids, which kids they are helping most, and how we might better leverage the adaptability of tools to meet more students’ learning and growth needs more of the time.

When it comes to tech-related PD, I have found one-on-one sessions with teachers invaluable, but most important is cultivating a sense of ownership for instructional tech among teachers. I support teacher leaders for each tool, who in turn support their teams using it. I also model being a learner, looking at what’s what, going to conferences, sending teachers to conferences, participating in blogs, and spending a couple hours on the weekend looking at the latest.

This results in Tweets and email forwards to teachers, and since there is so much to digest, I have set up a structure I call “unemail,” a shared document where I archive what I am finding interesting but not urgent or compelling. Teachers are free to contribute to the unemail document anytime.

Creative Staffing and Funding

Because our local poverty rate has been in the twenties since I became principal, we don’t qualify for any Title I or significant state funding. Every penny I get from the district goes to staff salaries and benefits. We cannot afford a technology coordinator or tech teacher, librarian, or media specialist. That means that, for innovation to keep moving forward:

1. Classroom teachers and my leadership team take on the responsibility for all the infrastructure, technical, and instructional supports to put devices and online resources into the hands of the students. They also help plan and lead the professional learning for implementation. I write grants to compensate them, but in many cases, they are doing this on their own time while carrying a full-time teaching load.

2. We are always hunting for more funding, whether from DonorsChoose, grants, or fundraising campaigns. I have an incredibly supportive and responsive parent community who allow me to direct fundraising efforts toward technology, but I still spend a lot of time and energy finding and going after money to do what we want to do.

To me, innovation has to do with collaborative and creative problem-solving regarding chronic problems of practice resulting from archaic educational systems, limited resources, and the reality that every human being is unique as a learner. It means always being on the look-out for the next edge of growth for students, teachers, and the school as a learning organization. This often involves things that plug into the digital universe, but it could also encompass ancient discourse strategies that are new to teachers and students. The time we have with children is short, and we must not squander it. As a principal, I am always looking to the next best practice, tool, or opportunity to put in front of my teachers, with the hope that it will help children.

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