Saturday, September 14, 2013

One-to-one With Our Freshman Class

My school crossed over what I think is going to be seen as an important dividing line this year - we went one-to-one with our freshman class. This is something we've talked about since 1999, so it certainly wasn't an overnight decision, and there's still a lot to do, but I think it's a step toward "what's next." I thought it might be valuable for other folks to hear a bit about the process we went through.

Last year we started a pilot we called "Connected Learners." Four sections (one each in Algebra, US History 9, English 9 and Biology) required laptops, with students either bringing their own or us providing them one if they chose not to. We felt like the pilot went well, with both students and teachers reporting back that they felt it made a difference in their learning (formal surveys twice during the year, and many meetings among the teachers for more anecdotal stuff). So as we looked at this school year we wanted to expand the program.

We surveyed teachers in the building to see who was interested in participating and got back a huge response, which was good. We initially decided to expand to nine sections, which would contain a little more than 200 of our freshmen (hard to tell exactly how many in advance because some kids would be in multiple sections). As we started to work through the logistics, I kept coming back to the same realization - going from nine sections to the entire freshman class really wasn't that big of a leap. (And, full disclosure, that's what I wanted to do in the first place and, well, I'm not terribly patient.)

So I went back to my administration and made the pitch. After some discussion - and with some very good and thoughtful questions asked by said administrators - we decided we wanted to move forward. For something this big, we needed district support, so we wrote up a proposal and submitted it. After further discussion, the district was on-board as well (and not just support for the idea, which was crucial, but also some monetary support if we needed it - which we might).

The only problem with all this discussion and changing our minds and going from nine sections to the entire freshman class was that by the time this decision was official, it was already the end of May (which is when school gets out for us). That's not an ideal time to try to get all the logistics worked out for an August start date, not to mention to get parents of incoming freshmen informed. (Ideally we would've let them know back in the fall during our Freshman Showcase, and then again as they went through the registration process this spring. That's what we'll do this year, which should help a lot.)

So we spent a very busy summer doing all the work necessary to get this up and running on our end, including developing material to share with the parents, and developed an online form (Google, naturally) for them to complete. We then sent this information out via email to all the parents (and phone calls when we didn't have an email) and started collecting the information on whether they would be bringing their own laptop or would like to use one of ours. (This was a key worry for us because we could only pull this off if a significant percentage of students brought their own, like they had during the pilot. So we included some verbiage indicating that we might have to back off of doing the entire freshman class if enough folks couldn't bring their own.) We also tried our best to answer questions from parents who - legitimately - were a little surprised to just be hearing about this now. (Again, that part should be much better this year.)

On our end we had to prepare an unknown number of laptops (netbooks running ubermix, although as a district we are headed toward chromebooks in the future), figure out a bunch of processes (distribution, trouble shooting, what happens when things break, etc.), and make a plan for supporting teachers. We've had on-going professional development for teachers in the use of technology in their classrooms, but clearly this was taking things to the next level, so we wanted to provide support. So, with the help of our district technology support personnel, we devised a very flexible professional development plan for this year.

We didn't want this to be a "one-size fits all" plan, yet we are constrained by the realities of people's schedules. So we wanted to create an opportunity that met teams or individuals where they were at, and try to take them where they wanted to go. This might look very different for a teacher of History versus a teacher of Algebra. So we presented to our Department Chairs and then had them share some basic information with their departments (including, but not limited to, this). We then requested that any team of teachers (or individual teachers if they wanted) contact us and set up an initial meeting so we could plan what this would look like for them. This is optional (after all, teachers are also going through a new evaluation process as well as new standards), but we were hopeful to get a decent response. So far we have teams from US History 9, Algebra, and Integrated Science (the "typical" social studies, math and science classes for our freshmen), as well as a team of Art teachers. We hope to get one or two more teams on-board later this fall.

We're almost a month into the school year and, all things considered, it has gone very smoothly. Over 370 of our freshmen are bringing their own devices (about 65% of our freshman class), and we are providing laptops to 185 of our freshmen. These numbers fluctuate some as students who we've given a laptop to decide to bring their own, or students who had been bringing their own have a problem with their laptop and decide to use of of ours. We anticipate that as the school year progresses the total number deciding to bring their own will increase slightly, but we'll see. We will be evaluating throughout the school year but, if things go well, our hope is to continue with this year's freshmen next year as sophomores, and add in next year's freshman class, and continue with that process until the entire school is one-to-one.

I started this post off saying I think this will be seen as crossing an important dividing line because I think this is a very necessary step to get to "what's next." I can't clearly define what "what's next" is going to look like, and I think it will look different in different schools, but in every vision of our school in the future I can (positively) imagine, having ubiquitous access to laptops and the Internet is a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for appropriate learning. The very fact that every student will have a device, and that teachers can begin to design learning opportunities knowing that is the case, is going to have some profound impacts on what we do and how we do it. The agency these devices give students, in turn, has the potential to transform school - and their learning - in equally important ways. I can't wait to see what happens "next".

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