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The Internet is a Language

I presented yesterday at the GooglePlex in Mountain View at the Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age conference. I was on a panel called “New Learning Designs: Scaling Innovation to Reverse the Dropout Crisis.”

My goal was to paint a picture of 339’s turnaround (so far) and the role technology has played. Keep in mind — I only had eight minutes for my remarks!

A theory I’m developing is the the modern Internet is a language. I’ll be writing more about that and further fleshing it out in the coming weeks…but for now here’s a transcript of my remarks. I’ll insert hyperlinks when I can.

In August of 2004, I became principal of IS 339, a large, public middle school in the Claremont section of the Bronx. Then we had 945 students, now we’re ‘down’ to about 820. 339 is roughly 70% Hispanic and 29% Black. About 25% of our students have IEPs and 28% are English language learners. The school building opened in 1974, and had twice been shut down and reopened by the state, in 1991 and 2000.

When I arrived 2004, 339 had learned to survive day to day by doing things like locking students down in one classroom only and sending them home if there was a problem. School safety agents routinely escalated conflicts with students, and many adults had adopted an aggressive, loud approach. It felt like a boiling pot was about to explode at any moment, and when it did, the melees were memorable. Ambulances and police cars fought school buses for parking in front.

I had pledged during my very first faculty conference to bring technology to 339. Every computer in the building was from 1999 or earlier, and there were no laptops. What few desktops we had were hoarded and rationed, in a few rooms or offices. Two people knew how to connect to the Internet. The school was off line, and it was out of line. Although there were staff members who cared deeply, they were drowned out by those who didn’t. The language of lockdowns, consequences and battle only perpetuated a prison mentality.

On staff, we were disjointed and suffering in silos. No one knew what was happening, or why. I thought I was a visionary when I installed a giant whiteboard in our main hallway for daily announcements. Problem solved! That is, until 11 AM, when someone would brush their jacket on the board, deleting half of our key information. At day’s end, our institutional memory got erased from the board. We were stagnant in too many ways.

At the end of my first year, in Spring of ’05, we received hopeful news. Chancellor Klein’s administration had tapped 339 as one of 22 middle schools for a 1-to-1 Macbook laptop program. The light at the end of the tunnel might be a laptop screen.

In year two, an influx of new and enthusiastic staff brought energy but not much stability to our school. We continued to struggle. Instruction suffered and student achievement plummeted. I’d read about Fullan’s implementation dip; I never thought we’d be sinking because of it. 9% of our students were now on grade level in math. The New York State Ed department once again designated the school as SURR (School Under Registrative Review). They sent a team of ten to conduct a grueling 3-day inspection. It was demoralizing at best. One official compared our staff to a band where no one was playing the same song. I asked her if she’d seen our whiteboard.

In June of 2006, the first wave of teacher laptops and one grade of student laptops finally arrived. In late June, after our 8th grade prom, I saw one boy scrolling through his digital camera, deciding which pictures to post to MySpace. He then started sending and receiving texts on his cell phone to multiple friends, who each had a different song playing when their messages arrived.

I realized that our students were hardwired for modern technology. Social networking spots like MySpace met a felt need for connecting, and sharing and collaborating. Yet our school ran as it had in the 90s, the 80s and the 70s. We’d rearranged some of the deck chairs, yet our 1.0 band was indeed playing many different tunes, and none that our students wanted to hear. Despite all of our fears, I was determined to get technology into the hands of staff and students. Students were fluent in the language of the 21st century Internet. We adults needed to quickly catch up.

Year three we created teacher teams who met daily for common planning. Adults received training. As Jim Collins predicted, technology became an accelerant for sharing best practices and building communication systems. Daily Notes were now posted online for staff. We migrated everyone away from the city’s email system and into Gmail. Teachers started Google groups to share lesson plans, post units of study and discuss ideas. Connecting and communicating, teacher teams started to quickly transform the work they did together and the work they did with students. We were finally sharing.

In year four we used the Internet to advance from communication to collaboration. Our faculty signed on to the Google Apps—in addition to Gmail, we integrated Google Docs and Spreadsheets into all aspects of adult work in the school. From the main office to the dean’s office to the administrative offices to the classrooms we created networked systems to share information, collaborate in real time on initiatives and to track progress. For those who haven’t had the chance to use Google Docs, they provide the ability for multiple people to co-edit documents and spreadsheets in real time on the Internet for free, so that other people who are shared in can view your changes. As teachers became comfortable with these tools, they introduced them to their classroom.

Last year—year five–we received the final laptops from the original pilot, and went fully 1-to-1 for the first time. We saw that our greatest untapped resource at 339 had been the creative imaginations of our staff and students. The lightning-quick speed of curiosity and innovation was now given voice through 21st century tools. Teachers emailed students assignments, and co-edited Google docs at the same time. Students found answers to questions within minutes, posted responses online and participated in our school’s robust Internet community. The Internet’s language was now being shared between staff and students.

While they’d once felt afraid, teachers now were proud that their practice had been modernized and streamlined. Students felt motivated, professional and respected. They were using tools to prepare them to compete in high school, access better jobs and use their talents. We were fully integrated across the board…you name it, and we migrated it to the Google Universe.

By the end of last year—our first full 1-to-1 year–we celebrated our best results yet. 62% of our students were now on grade level. Our NYC progress report grade had risen from a D to a C to a B to an A. We were removed from the state’s SURR list. And most importantly, the work we were doing in classrooms was giving students creative control over their learning.

In June, we hosted and presented a first-of-its kind Global Learning Reception called Dot-to-Dot. 100% of our teachers and students posted 21st century projects, including films and blogs, some streaming live. A student made a documentary about how to create a Times Square-like hub in the Bronx. One class Skyped with Nicholas Kristof about Darfur as part of their research about genocide. The theme for every project was “Connections.” Thousands of website hits from around the world became dots on our map, and we’d started to redefine what school could be in the 21st century. This year’s Dot-to-Dot theme is “Change”—and you’re all invited.

At 339, we don’t see laptops as toys, or even as tools. We see them as megaphones to give students and teachers global voices. The modern Internet isn’t an idea, or a place. It is a language that we need to speak at all corners of our school systems and in each one of our classrooms. It is a language that has rapidly improved our school, and can help transform struggling schools everywhere.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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