Inside Cannon Schools
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By BARBARA PARKER


There’s an old adage that affirms, “Two minds are greater than one.”

That saying rings especially true for an ambitious collaborative endeavor that combines teaching and learning with innovative technology.

Dubbed Project Engage by a team comprised of three Middle Tennessee State University professors and five teacher candidates who joined forces to launch the initiative, the project uses iPads loaded with specific pedagogical applications that foster educational growth in an elementary setting.

Dr. Beck Alexander, a MTSU elementary education assistant professor who helped get the project off the ground, said the endeavor began in a meeting at Woodbury Grammar School in Woodbury in the fall of 2011.

Alexander joined five of her students, Hallie Shafer, Heather Martin, Miguel Eguia, Raven Booth, and Tyler Mingle to observe a first-grade class taught by Holly Harwood, who is one of Alexander’s former protégés.

The group discussed ways in which to improve the educational experience for the first graders, including the creation of literacy workstations, common core standards, iPad integration, and the establishment of a class blog.

The team’s efforts were rewarded last summer when it received a technology innovation grant that provided the ability to purchase iPads loaded with specific pedagogical applications that support collaborative blogs between the teacher candidates and the first-grade students, and shared book reading using Google Hangouts.

“It’s been beneficial for the teacher candidates because it gives them an opportunity to plan and implement integrated lessons and gives them exposure to the Common Core Standards in action. This is the essence of Ready2Teach, a Tennessee Board of Regents initiative that has redesigned the teacher education program placing, a focus on getting teacher candidates into public schools early and often,” explained Dr. Charlene True, an associate professor of Womack Family Educational Leadership who collaborated on the project.

The Common Core State Standards are a set of state-mandated educational guidelines for math and English language arts that were developed to ensure every student graduates high school prepared for college or the workforce. The standards should reflect clear expectations of what students should know in each grade and subject.

One of the most effective benefits of Project Engage is the cross-departmental collaboration it generated. The project allows educators from different walks of life to team up for the good of the community.

“The project has gotten us all working together,” said Dr. Charles Milligan, another MTSU Womack Family Educational Leadership assistant professor who also assisted with the initiative. “Due to the nature of what they do, academic departments are conclaves of autonomy. This project allos us to set an example of collaboration for the schools. It also allows us to approach things from different perspectives.

“The school’s principal (Bonnie Patterson) has been an integral part of Woodbury and Cannon County for her whole life. She has such passion for her students that it’s hard not to want to assist her with this project. It’s been good for us, it’s been good for the school, and it’s been good for the students and community as well. We hope to see some tremendous gains in school achievement.”

The teachers in-training who worked on the project had expressed a desire to conduct research and to publish, Alexander noted. Project Engage provides fertile ground for numerous research opportunities.

“This is something the teacher candidates were really excited about,” Alexander said. “They were learning the way and knew what they wanted. Everything that we did with Project Engage was a collaborative effort, not only among us but with Ms. Harwood and the principal. The schools wanted us to collaborate with them to make sure that we fulfilled the needs of the students. There was always constant communication.”

Project Engage reaps numerous benefits including fostering a productive working relationship among MTSU teacher candidates, faculty, and elementary school personnel; providing burgeoning teachers with the opportunity to work with a diverse population of students, exposing elementary school students to higher education; and providing teacher candidates with an opportunity to use innovative technologies in a pedagogical setting.

In addition, the project supports and compliments literacy, technology, diverse learners, and standards and assessment.

Although technology is one of the driving forces fueling the project, Alexander believes it is not as crucial as the learning process itself.

“Technology is still secondary to how children learn,” she said. “We need to be aware of all the differences in how children come to learn instead of just showing them technology for technology’s sake. It’s more about the child and learning about what his or her needs are and how we can provide those needs.”

“Technology is not going to go away,” Milligan said. “We have to embrace it and find out how to use it to everyone’s benefit.”

Project Engage helped teacher candidate Miguel Eguia realize the importance of technology in a modern classroom setting.

“Through the use of many educational apps, teachers can deliver a personalized lesson to their students,” he said. “Also, the simple mobility of the iPad allows the instructor to deliver the best hands-on experience possible. Using this technology not only teaches and keeps the children current with the technology of everyday life, but it also allows them to use it just as they might in the workplace. From using apps to solving issues they were presented with, to consultation and voting on decisions they needed to make, the apps gave them an engaging means and experience of real-world problem solving through parity and collaboration.”

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