Redefining Learning in Maine Township, Illinois

Ellen Ullman

Teacher-led professional development, a student “genius desk,” a 1:1 initiative featuring Dell Chromebooks, and oodles of collaboration all characterize High School District 207’s transformative approach.

When Superintendent Ken Wallace came to Maine Township High School District 207 in Park Ridge, Illinois, in 2005 as assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, he was disturbed by how little was being done to support innovation through technology. “I came from Indiana and had worked in some progressive districts,” says the former high school English and middle school computer science teacher. “I was surprised that such a highly regarded district was not on the cutting edge of technology and still used lots of pencil and paper.”

Wallace immediately began putting computers and LCD projectors into classrooms. In 2007, he hired Dr. Henry Thiele as chief technology officer, and the pair started working on a long-term plan that included buying laptops for teachers, launching 1:1 pilots and, eventually, becoming Google’s first K-12 partner for Google Apps.

Today all 9th through 11th grade students have Chromebooks and, when next year’s freshmen get their Chromebooks, the district will be entirely 1:1.  Wallace and Thiele make presentations all over the country and are courted by major publishers to help them figure out their digital curriculum strategy. With the one-to-one basics already in place, this district is witnessing authentic collaboration between students and teachers, helping teachers differentiate instruction, and watching a second generation of teacher leaders emerge.

From Pilots to the Present

In 2008, district leaders were trying to address the needs of students whose test scores declined instead of improving in their four years. They redesigned the curriculum for that group of students to be more thematic and blended across different subjects, and the teachers and students received Windows laptops to use in school. They used Google Apps so that students could collaborate with each other and their students, and the teachers quickly realized they needed to collaborate outside of class, so the laptops went home.

The district tried other small 1:1 pilots at the same time. “Various courses or programs were trying to meet specific needs, and teachers were gathering information about how the devices were helping or interfering,” says Thiele.

By 2011, Maine Township had one device for every three students, but access was challenging and teachers were frustrated that they could not always get the equipment they needed for multiple-day projects. “Finally,” Thiele explains, “a group of teachers, teacher leaders, and department chairs decided that, to continue to move forward, we needed to count on every kid having a device every single day. That’s when we started looking at 1:1 in a realistic way.”

Because District 207 families have always paid for textbooks, the district was hesitant to ask for more money, especially since nearly half of the students receive free/reduced-price lunch. So Thiele came up with a plan to eliminate or replace enough print materials and resources to offset the cost of the device. The math, science, and social science departments began finding free or low-cost, open-source materials or textbook replacements, and in the past two years, 89 percent of new “textbooks” are lower cost or free digital resources. “We are not only offsetting the cost of the device; we are actually saving families hundreds of dollars each year over what they paid before 1:1,” says Thiele.

Google Apps + Chromebooks = A Strong Marriage

District 207 teachers have used Google Apps for Education for seven years to manage their devices and classrooms and their curricula. They chose Chromebooks because they are designed for working with Internet-based resources, are fast, and are easy to carry around. Other reasons include the low price tag, relatively stress-free maintenance, and long battery life.

A key benefit is that the Chromebooks connect with Google’s suite of applications, which are used by every student and staff member in Maine 207. The technology department can manage the device and monitor student use at school through an enterprise management console and use the console to put the device into a test mode to comply with online-based assessment tools or online state standardized tests. Last but not least, all of the work done on a Chromebook backs up to the cloud, so students rarely lose their work. And if their device stops working, they can use any other Chromebook to continue their assignments.

The district started with Samsung Chromebooks but switched to Intel-based Dell Chromebooks last year, since you get “a more powerful machine at the same price,” says Thiele, adding that “the Dell models are built more durably, with students and education in mind.”

Thiele continues, “Dell has worked with schools for a long time. They understand the supply chain and the support we need. They have been in schools for a long time so they get it.” He’s a fan of the screen and the updated hinge, as well as the longer battery life due to the Intel Haswell chip. “Other devices made it through the day but these make it through the school day and then some!”

Doing PD Right

According to Superintendent Wallace, “I always believed technology is a tool. You can roll it out but that’s not enough. A lot of people spend money on devices, infrastructure, curriculum, etc., but not on professional development. We’ve put such an emphasis on that. We develop and promote expertise within our own teaching in a variety of areas, and technology is at the forefront of that.”

The teachers first received their Windows laptops in 2008—well before the students got their Chromebooks so the teachers could get comfortable using the technology. At the same time, each teacher was given a list of what he or she was expected to learn how to do: marking up documents, sharing files, and so on. They learned about strategies for classroom management in a 1:1 environment during 10 hours of PD at school and were offered a variety of extra learning opportunities, such as weeklong academies on Google Tools, conferences, and personalized help. The district still offers “Lunch & Learns” and other professional learning sessions involving the introduction of new tools or sharing cool things teachers are doing that others should know about.

Each building has four instructional coaches, and every teacher has a required coaching plan. The instructional coaches, a cadre of teachers who are trained to use technology at a high level, emphasize getting their fellow teachers to that same level. “When you’re trying a new app, sometimes it doesn’t go the way you expected it to,” says Wallace, “and you need to work through it with an expert—someone who not only understands how the tool works but how it should work in a smart classroom that promotes student inquiry.”

For additional professional learning, District 207 teachers are in subject-based professional learning teams (PLTs) in which they share materials, assessments, and lesson designs. Their latest direction is working toward sharing video snippets of their lessons so they can learn by working with a peer instead of an advisor/evaluator. “We believe in teachers leading teachers and promote a teacher-leadership culture,” says Dr. Barbara Dill-Varga, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “If someone is doing a cool thing we find ways to cross-pollinate and spread it. We put teachers and teams of teachers in front of others to see what’s possible and get inspired.” At a recent institute day, for example, three PLTs discussed how they changed instruction and shared their results.

Keeping 1:1 Affordable through Student Help Desks

Neil K. Charlet is the technology manager at Maine West High School. He’s required to support all staff and students, so in 2010 he launched a Tech Genius desk in three spots around the school and recruited approximately 30 students who were interested in technology and willing to help their peers. For all nine periods throughout the day, each station was staffed by a student to answer questions from students and faculty. Charlet created a Google Form for teachers to fill out if they needed tech assistance in class, and a student from the genius team would go to the class, escorted by Charlet or another full-time technology staff member, to assist with software, video creation, or whatever the teacher needed.

As the Chromebook 1:1 initiative took off and more classes received their devices, the Tech Genius desk morphed into the Chrome Depot. There’s an actual office now, and everyone goes there for support, questions, and repairs. The original geniuses are still on board, but now there are two or three available every period, as well as a full-time staff member to supervise and handle scheduling.

Charlet has created a two-week curriculum for the geniuses, too, since they need some training to support the questions they get. “Once they’ve seen it done a couple of times, they can take a Chrome apart in five minutes and repair it,” he says. The geniuses earn half of a service learning credit; although it doesn’t count toward graduation, it does show up on their transcripts and is looked at favorably by some colleges. “The students sacrifice a free period but get real-world experience. They love supporting their peers who come in.”

As Nick M., a high school junior, puts it, “Working in the Chrome Depot has been a very fun and memorable experience for me. I have been working with the Maine West tech staff for over a year now and I have learned a lot about technology. I know how to fix screens of the broken Chromebooks and I find myself troubleshooting Chromebooks for problems that have not been encountered yet. Overall, I think that the Tech Genius program is going to be the part of Maine West that I will miss the most.”

A Teaching & Learning Culture Shift

In a district where teachers grow stronger and more confident at integrating technology, something wonderful happens, according to Allison Gest, geology teacher, instructional coach, and Google Education Trainer at Maine South High School. “People recognize that it’s not about ‘me and what I’m doing in my class’ but, instead, about ‘this is working in my classes; would it work in yours?’” She says teachers continually focus on how students are learning and if that can be improved. “I think the use of apps and web tools allows students to transfer needed skills once they leave Maine South. The work they are doing will be very valuable after the graduate. ”

Gest remembers the days of laptop carts and a handful of computers in the classroom in the science department, but prefers 1:1 for obvious reasons.

As one of the Chromebook pilot teachers, she did a month-long paperless unit and says it was fantastic. “The students helped each other while I figured stuff out, and we looked up information in the class instead of going to the library. Back then, we looked for apps; now the kids show me apps and I find them from colleagues and in the Chrome store or on twitter.” Gest adds that the Chromebooks allow her to let students do authentic learning activities such as building concept maps to prove their learning. “I get to let them reach their full potential in the way they need to reach it.”

Throughout the district, teachers are orchestrating and guiding the learning, while allowing their students to reach learning targets, track their progress, and show their mastery of skills through a variety of formative assessments.

Many classrooms have gone from a teacher delivering information, with help from traditional textbooks, to learning environments in which students are using technology and real-time information to teach each other.

“One of the coolest things about 1:1,” explains Wallace, “is that it changes the paradigm of school in the classroom. Last year, on a couple of days that school was canceled, a number of teachers did Google Hangouts with their students.” He thinks this is a scalable concept, in which work gets connected in real time in a powerful way. He offers another example: A teacher makes comments on essays on a Saturday; the students look at the feedback on Sunday and come in on Monday having made some edits. “One-to-one increases the feedback loop in ways that don’t require you to work harder—just smarter; it keeps everyone plugged in.”

According to Dill-Varga, who was recruited to District 207 when Wallace became superintendent in 2009, a significant evolution is taking place that starts with questioning the definition of classroom. “It’s no longer four walls or a 50-minute period,” she says. “Time and geography are no longer barriers to connecting around the world. We have to rethink the rules.”

She elaborates: “In an AP bio class the other day, the curriculum asked for a genetics experiment. The class decided the textbook wasn’t teaching in the best way, so the teacher allowed a couple of students to teach the others how to set up an experiment using spreadsheet formulas. The students taught in a way that was much easier to understand than the textbook had. We have this technology that has opened up the universe. It has redefined what learning is.”

At A Glance: 

Maine Township High School District 207 is a diverse, high-performing district in the greater Chicago area.

There are 6,500 students and three high schools, one of which has 40% low income students and 56 different languages.

All three schools have been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education in the National Secondary School Recognition Program. Among the leaders in Advanced Placement testing, District 207 students also earn recognition in the National Merit and Illinois State scholar competitions.

Infrastructure: 

All 600 teachers have Windows-based Dell Vostro laptops

All 4,800 9th-11th grade students currently have either a Samsung or a Dell Chromebook 11 (the newest purchases have all been Dell Chromebook 11 models) and by 2015-2016 all 6,500 students will have Chromebooks.

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