Summer Workshops Make the Difference

As a busy educator, it isn't easy to find meaningful high-quality professional development. I'm a K-5 Resource Room teacher for the Nassau-Spackenkill School in Poughkeepsie, New York who always wondered what it would be like to have enough time to collaborate with my colleagues and learn new skills. For the past three summers I've been fortunate to have such an opportunity.

I was part of the Palm Education Pioneers (PEP) grant program. The PEP program brought together approximately 100 different individual projects for ongoing collaboration and research into using handheld computers in the classrooms. My project, entitled The Birdhouse Network, used handhelds for data collection along our birdhouse trail. We sent the collected data to the Cornell Laboratory as part of a citizen science project that assists scientists in their study of cavity nesting birds.

Taking part in the PEP program brought me to the EdVentures in Technology summer program* that made a real difference for me and ultimately for my students. Handheld computers are an exciting technology tool with new applications and many possibilities. To stay on the cutting edge, each participant at the workshop received a handheld computer and training in the newest applications and peripherals. Throughout the week there was lively and stimulating discussion about using these new technologies to enhance the learning environment. As a special educator, these discussions were particularly thought provoking. I became more aware of the critical need to assist my students to master the basic skills outlined in our state standards and help them to be confident users of technology. The jobs that they will be preparing for will require both basic skills and the ability to use various forms of technology.

Throughout the weeklong program each summer, there were varied opportunities to experiment with new technology applications and learn other skills without the typical school day interruptions. One of the most valuable benefits of this experience was the ability to collaborate and reflect with colleagues from different geographic locations and educational settings. Sharing ideas has led me to new project ideas for my own school and classroom.

The first time that I attended the program, I was there to investigate the possibility of using handheld computers in my classroom. We all were pioneers beginning to understand the effectiveness of handheld computers. There was much excitement in the room as we took our handhelds out for the first time and started to use them. All of us had specific projects in mind. As we learned the different functions of the handheld, we started to think about the management issues we would have in the classroom. I think many of our projects turned out more successful than anticipated because we were able to anticipate our needs and brainstorm together to address them. This was possible because we had the time to experiment with the handhelds and share our experiences, both good and bad, in a very open, non-threatening environment. We were also very fortunate to have a staff that was experienced in using handhelds to guide and support us in our learning adventure.

I thought using handhelds to collect data along our birdhouse trail would be useful for my third-to fifth-graders. I work with learning-disabled students and it is often difficult for them to organize information and report it accurately. It was my hope that the handhelds and their portability would help. What I needed was a program that the students could use on their handhelds to achieve this. Throughout the week, I was able to try different mobile databases and talk to other educators who would need to collect data as part of their projects. Through this experimentation and discussion I was able to find a program that seemed promising for my students.

We collected data using probes that have interfaces to handhelds, something that I hadn't even known was possible. We went out in teams to search for different areas on the ranch in which to collect data. My group went to the stream to collect water temperature and turbidity data because some of us wanted our own students study local streams. In discussing the process, I thought of an idea I could use with my class. My students and I had wondered how it was possible that bird eggs hatched in our birdhouses when the mother doesn't sit on them all day to keep them warm. Using the temperature probe demonstrated to us that the inside of the nest box stays warm even when the mother isn't there. The success of this project was directly related to having the opportunity to experiment and share with colleagues.

The weeklong experience was so fulfilling to me on so many different levels that I returned for a second summer to attend another week devoted to integrating technology into my teaching while expanding my own technology skills. During this week, we worked in small groups to complete a project. We used traditional and technology-rich resources to develop a presentation describing what was unique about our setting at a ranch in northern California. I learned a lot about learning.

As educators, we have a vision of what we want to accomplish, the standards and objectives we want to reach and how we want projects to be completed in our classrooms. When the tables are turned and a group of educators work in small groups, we gain a deeper understanding of the learning process that goes on amongst their students. Through failures and successes in addressing our assignment I learned new ways to incorporate technology to assist my students in achieving our state learning standards and ways that are much longer lasting and more meaningful for them than before.

We brainstormed the topics that our group wanted to cover in our presentation, and then we selected topics incorporating the new technology skill we were learning. During the week, I learned how to use iMovie for digital storytelling. With the assistance of a patient and knowledgeable staff member, I was able to produce a video that captured the birds and other wildlife observed on the ranch. When I returned to my classroom in the fall, I shared this with my students and we planned to produce a movie on the lifecycle of cavity nesting birds. Ultimately, the sense of accomplishment that my students experienced was the same that we educators experienced when we made our small group presentations at the end of the week.

There were additional opportunities during the week to learn and expand skills in mobile and handheld technologies plus digital imaging techniques and presentation software. We had the opportunity to exchange ideas on how we were integrating technology in our own classrooms. It was during one of these exchanges that I learned a simple method to help my students in entering text into their handhelds after we had struggled throughout the year to find a solution.

Returning for a third summer, I joined fellow educators who also wanted to expand their technology skills and reflect on key issues facing schools in integrating technology into teaching, learning and administrative tasks. During this week, I chose to learn how to use a file management program that would help my students to analyze the data they were collecting along our birdhouse trail. This was definitely a mind expanding and positive learning experience. An unforeseen benefit was learning that persistence and perseverance are keys to success for all learners.

The skills I have learned over the course of three summers have helped me to be a more confident technology user. More important, I learned how handhelds can be integrated to improve the teaching and learning in my classroom. The staff's personal attention to our needs and the collaboration among colleagues not only during the week but throughout the school year all contribute to making it a high quality successful professional development experience. My confidence in using these newly acquired skills has helped me to share them among my colleagues within my building, district and region. The insights I developed into using technology to increase the level of teaching and learning within my classroom will have lifelong positive affects for my students. Will I be returning for another summer experience? You bet! And I'm looking forward to forging new collaborations with educators from many locations.

Class websites:

* EdVentures in Technology summer weeklong program:

Email: Karen Vitek