Scoring Zero


3819401743_cfd6f23a60_mEarlier this month on Digital Learning Day, our Speak Up Survey data was released and I finally had time last week to sit down and analyze the results. At Natomas Charter we look closely at this data because it is a powerful tool for listening to our students, staff, and families.

As I sat down with the teacher data I was elated to see that we scored ZERO! And not just once, but multiple times. Yes, you read that right ZERO. Take a look at the question below and you’ll understand why.

Question: Besides not having enough time in your school day, what are the major obstacles you face when using technology in your classroom?

    • District policies limit the technology I can use – 0%
    • I cannot use my own mobile device – 0%
    • Lack of reliable technology support – 0%
    • Lack of support from administrators – 0%
    • School filters or firewalls block websites I need – 0%
    • Technology that is available to me is outdated – 0%
    • There are policies that restrict my access to social media tools – 0%

For every single response the national average ranged from 20-40% and just a few years ago our numbers would have been very similar. When I first started at Natomas Charter School everything was blocked. I…mean…everything. My first day on the job I tried to order a book from Amazon. Blocked. Watch a YouTube video? Blocked. Twitter? Blocked. It was painful. Teachers still tell the new staff stories of how they kept multiple YouTube downloading services bookmarked at home so that they could download videos for use in class the next day.

Three years ago as an educational community we set out on a journey to re-imagine teaching and learning with four strategic areas. One of these areas was the construction of a 21st century digital learning platform. We wanted tools where students could communicate, collaborate, and create digital media. We wanted a learning environment where we could weave together classroom and at-home learning into a cohesive mesh through the use of digital tools. We wanted teachers empowered through the use of technology, connecting their students with the world and providing rich, meaningful learning experiences. Fortunately, unlike many schools we had a solid infrastructure in place. This allowed us to focus our time, attention, and resources on providing tools, expanding hardware, and changing polices.

There is still much work to be done and large pieces of our digital learning platform are under construction. However, as I read through the Speak Up survey statistics I couldn’t help but smile and take pride in what we have accomplished. Through thoughtful questioning, open dialog, and trust we have been able to move forward rapidly. As I share our results with friends on Twitter and Facebook I’m regularly aksed how we could score zero in so many categories and I think it has really come down these four areas.

Focus on Instruction 

Nearly every technology decision we have made over the past three years has focused on instruction. How will this tool support learning? If we unblock that website will it support classroom instruction or create classroom management problems? How can we maximize our financial resources for greater student access in the classroom? Additionally, the IT staff never made decisions alone. We consulted teachers and administrators asking for their input along the way and always remembered that it the network is there to serve the needs of teachers, students, and staff.

Behavior, Not Tools

Like many schools we used to have policies in place where students would lose technology access if they made a poor decision. These types of consequences can no longer exist in the Common Core era. Students cannot be banned from technology for the rest of the year and master the standards. Similarly, if a student wrote an inappropriate note on a piece of paper we wouldn’t limit their access to paper and pencils for the rest of the year. Instead we would issue consequences related to the behavior. As we update our technology policies we constantly ask ourselves about the underlying behaviors and look for policies that address those. When families call with concerns their child may be making poor decisions regarding technology we work with them to identify tools, resources, and strategies to help students become better digital citizens. We recognize that kids will make mistakes, but we would rather they be made at school where we can support these students in making better choices for the future.

Culture of Trust

Over the past three years we have been diligent about creating a culture of trust regarding technology. We have found that at the heart of trust is open and honest communication and professional development. Teachers have administrative rights on their computers and know the password to the staff guest wireless network. However, they also understand the consequences that can come from installing the wrong piece of software and that at any moment their hard drive might fail so they must always back up their documents. Do mistakes happen? Of course they do, but we have put systems in place to protect shared resources and our teachers take full responsibility when errors occur.

Innovate, Innovate, Innovate

Throughout this post I have mentioned very few tools…on purpose. Three years ago when we started this journey we realized there were key pieces we needed to put in place. One of those was Google Apps for Education and it has been a phenomenal resource which has underpinned most our success. However, there have been many other tools which have come and gone over the past three years. Our teachers and students our encouraged and even expected to constantly try out new tools and find the ones that will work for their projects. Through this culture of constant innovation I have witnessed staff shift from PowerPoint to Google Presentation to Prezi. I have seen teachers take essays turn them into programming units and now ask how they could incorporate Minecraft. We have elementary students who ask to make screencasts for their friends because they have found the ones created by their teachers (and posted to YouTube) extremely valuable. We realize there definitely are key features which make tools successful in our environment (platform-agnostic, open-source), but the conversation has shifted from “which tool am I required to use” to “which tool is going to help me accomplish the task the best?”

Is our system perfect? Absolutely not. However with a focus on students, instruction, and innovation we have made amazing progress in a very short amount of time. We certainly have had our hiccups and learning experiences, but this journey has made all of us stronger educators and helped create a school that really is preparing students for the 21st Century.


Photo: Cricket Scoreboard by Leo Reynolds on Flickr

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