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Posted - 10/21/2010 08:36am
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Creating a New Culture of Teaching and Learning
For a Massachusetts district, integration of 21st-century skills starts with teacher professional development. By Elizabeth Rich
In 2000, Chris Friberg left her tech support job at a large, financial services firm in the Boston area to get a master’s degree in teaching middle school math. Four years later, Friberg completed her student-teaching assignment at Alfred W. Coolidge Middle School, located in Reading, Mass., about 15 miles north of Boston. Friberg loved the energetic atmosphere of the school and the district. Coincidentally, just as she was wrapping up her student-teaching assignment, a teaching position opened up in the school’s math department for the fall. She leapt at the job. “The culture here and the leadership in this district and everything that I found out about it while I was student teaching was exciting and what I was looking for,” she says.

Friberg is not alone in her enthusiasm for the district’s culture of learning. Last fall, the Cambridge, Mass.-based Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, launched a study to determine the level of support for 21st-century learning among superintendents and principals in the state. In the process, researchers at Rennie, a non-partisan organization dedicated to education reform in the state of Massachusetts, isolated Reading for its “highly integrated approach to 21st-century skills”—a path that began with a visionary leader. 

Superintendent John Doherty helps reading teacher Christen DelRossi in his "Expanding the Boundaries of Teaching and Learning" class in Reading, Mass.—Erik Jacobs

In 2003, then-Superintendent Patrick Schenttini began an aggressive campaign to modernize the district’s curriculum, including initiating district-wide committees on technology, building-level committees for teachers to discuss new ways to deliver content, and even meeting with town officials. “He created a vision: We need to prepare students for 21st-century global learning,” current Superintendent John Doherty says of Schenttini.

Marcia Grant, who teaches computer electives at Coolidge, emphasizes Schenttini’s role in integrating technology into the district’s curriculum. “[Schenttini’s] focus was on 21st-century learning and providing information to teachers so that they could focus on it as well. Before that, we were getting the hardware, but were we really using it to enhance or change our curriculum?”

Sixteen years ago, when Grant arrived in the district, every middle school teacher received a computer. She recalls that over time teachers were e-mailing each other and drawing up lesson plans on their computers. Teachers were supposed to integrate technology into their curriculum, but, in many instances, they didn’t have the skill level, couldn’t see how it would benefit the curriculum, or were intimidated.

Grant also credits Schenttini with stressing globalization and its probable impact on students, their future jobs, and their careers to bring about the “big shift” in the district: “How do we educate our students to what their world is really going to look like? What kind of professional development would teachers need? We’re trying to prepare students for a whole different world than what we were prepared for, so what are the skills that they need to be successful in this global community?”

Today, 90 percent of the classrooms in the 4,400-student district are outfitted with SMART Boards, the student-to-computer ratio averages three-to-one, and 60 percent of the district’s schools are wireless—including Coolidge’s entire building. “We built up our infrastructure,” says Doherty, who was appointed superintendent for the district in January of this year, shortly after Schenttini passed away from cancer.

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