A visit to Mena

Posted by Michael Simkins on January 22, 2018

Mena Station today
Mena Station today

The first train arrived in Mena, Arkansas in August 1896 with the goal of connecting Kansas City, Missouri to Port Arthur, Texas. I arrived in January 2018 with the goal of visiting the Mena Public Schools and, in particular, seeing how students and teachers were using technology.

Mena is a rural town of 5,700 people in the southwest of Arkansas, quite near the Oklahoma border. Originally a railroad town, the economy is now diverse   Health care and social assistance, retail trade, construction, educational services, and manufacturing are the top five occupational groups, in that order, and account for 72% of jobs. The median household income is $27,491.

Mena Schools Bearcat logoMena public schools enroll 1,750 students in grades K-12. The average class size is 15 and the district spends $9,200 per pupil. 92% of students are white, 68% are low income, and just 1% are limited English proficient.

My guide for the morning was TICAL cadre member Clifton Sherrer. I could not have been in better, more knowledgeable hands. Raised in Mena, Clifton attended all the schools we would visit and, after leaving for college, returned to coach and teach science for 15 years. Following that he was assistant principal at Mena Middle School a number of years before moving into the principal’s office two years ago. Clifton knows Mena.

My tour began at Louise Durham Elementary, a building currently undergoing major renovation. As we walked down one hall, we were passed by a class of kindergarten students, following the “red line” in single file fashion, each holding an index card with his or her username and password. No doubt on the way to the computer lab, we concluded, and I decided I’d like to see what they’d be up to when they got there.

The goal was for the students to play some games that teach early literacy skills, but first they had to get logged into their individual accounts. That was quite a process. At least four adults were going from student to student, helping with the chore, trying to get everyone to the same place so instructions could begin. Due to my tight schedule, we had to leave before that was accomplished. My hunch is this process was new to the kids and with a little practice, logging in will happen quickly.

Holly Harshman, a grades three to five school, was the next stop. Recently, every classroom got a set of Chromebooks, and the school also has Google Classroom. I spent most of my time talking with two teachers during their planning period.  Hollie, a fifth grade teacher, was clearly excited, if yet a bit nervous, about finally having the technology available to support the projects her class would be doing. Jill—an “early adopter” I suspect—was giving Hollie pointers and reassurance. It was a pleasure to see their enthusiasm.

Next on the itinerary was Mena High. Opened in 2011, it’s a striking building with great features that include open spaces, a huge library, playing fields, and a beautiful auditorium and performance space.

As we walked down one of the wide, bright halls, my attention was caught by the furniture in one classroom, so we ducked in to take a closer look. Instead of the typical “chair desk,” this room had a mix of flexible, movable furniture. I learned from the teacher that is was very new and she was experimenting with it.  So far, she likes it, despite the fact some of it arrived mismatched—stools intended for higher tables. In true educator-innovator fashion, she solved that problem with bed risers!

Alternative education is one program at the school that makes extensive use of technology. This program used to be housed elsewhere but when the new school was designed, the decision was made to dedicate space for it in the main building. Use of tutorial and other online educational resources make it possible to tailor both content and schedule to the individual needs of these students. However, my favorite part of this stop on the tour was meeting—and petting—Ellie, the therapy dog.

Photo of Ellie the therapy dog
Ellie, the therapy dog

I intentionally asked to save Clifton’s own school, Mena Middle, for last. Walking down the main hall, we passed a display of student art with a banner proclaiming, “MMS can Be the Good.” I asked Clifton about it. “It’s something started by one of our 6th grade teachers where students make positive comments about their peers each month and nominate them for being good. I asked her to put this display up before we presented the project to the school board.”

As for technology, the middle school now has a set of Chromebooks in each core classroom, which enables a 1-to-1 setting for those key subjects. The school chose this approach rather than issuing the devices to individual students for several reasons. It keeps the Chromebooks secure, onsite, and ready to use. Students store their work in the cloud, so they can access their files regardless of which Chromebook they are using, plus many students do not have Internet access at home. Also, having the Chromebooks available in each classroom frees the school’s computer labs for other uses.

Our visit to the cafeteria was an eye-opener for me. In 2016-17, the district outsourced food services.  The result is far more choice for students. There are different entree choices each day.  There’s a salad bar. There’s always pizza! No more lunch counts or teachers collecting lunch money to keep it safe till lunchtime. Technology is enabling personalization in the cafeteria, not just the classroom.

Besides the things I’ve described specific to each school I visited, I came away with some general observations and impressions as well.

  • Everywhere, I saw happy, well-behaved kids and friendly, dedicated adults.
  • From sayings on the wall to pictures of students in the hallways, the feeling tone in every school was uniformly positive.
  • Technology was being implemented thoughtfully, with attention to both its potential and practicality—no rush to adopt any technology for technology’s sake.

My half-day visit afforded only a glimpse, of course, but it was time well spent!

Quotation on the wall at Mena Middle School: "Every child is a story yet to be told."
On the wall at Mena Middle School. The picture says it all!

Future Ready Assessment: A head start towards personalized learning

Posted by Gabe Soumakian on July 19, 2016

The 7 gears of Future Ready Schools
The 7 gears of Future Ready schools

Often, we hear administrators tout their success with technology innovation by pointing to the number of 1-to-1 devices deployed in their schools.  At the same time, we hear it is “not about the technology” but rather it is changes in the teaching and learning process that transform our students as 21st century learners. Although there is a major shift toward digital transformation and innovation in our schools, administrators need to understand how to connect the dots and develop a comprehensive implementation plan that impacts student learning.

A good place to begin the process—or to validate that the district is headed in the right direction—is to have the leadership team collectively take the Future Ready (FR) assessment tool. The report from this tool will identify critical gaps as well as help guide you in the development of an effective implementation plan to fill those gaps.

This collaborative process of taking the FR assessment provides a professional learning opportunity to build the leadership capacity within your team. Your leadership team will benefit from this process and understand the major implementation shifts and design elements for appropriate technology solutions.  Through the assessment dashboard, your team will discover where your district is on the continuum for digital conversion, identify gaps, access strategies, and review your progress toward the development of a robust technical and human infrastructure.

What innovative leaders will learn from this process is the need to move beyond 21st century learning skills toward a personalized learning environment that prepares students for college, career, and life readiness.  Linking learning in the classroom to a real world setting makes the learning relevant and brings life to the curriculum so that students are engaged and feel connected to their future career paths.

Begin the process at www.FutureReady.org!  First, the district superintendent must take the Future Ready pledge.  Then, take the FR assessment.  Review the report as a team, then move your efforts to the next level by taking advantage of the resources available at the Future Ready Hub, especially the regional workshops.  Using this model will bring administrators in your region together to examine the data and connect your district with other leadership teams who can collectively move forward on the personalized learning continuum.


Being Future Ready

Posted by Gabe Soumakian on August 23, 2015

Future Ready Schools logoPresident Obama announced at the White House on November 19, 2014 that the Alliance for Excellent Education, would be leading 12 regional Future Ready Summits around the nation. Now almost 2,000 district superintendents have taken the Future Ready District Pledge. So much interest was generated that a 13th Future Ready Summit was added in Orange County, California, where 45 Districts and over 200 school administrators attended the two day dive into leadership, culture, systemic transformation and how to collaborate and redesign the learning experiences for all students.

The Challenge

The real challenge today is to prepare students to be college, career, and life ready as employers are experiencing a huge Skills Gap.  There are millions of jobs employers cannot fill because students and adults, even those who graduate from college, do not have the appropriate skills for STEM jobs. So how do we address this major global economic dilemma?

The Simon Sinek Ted Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” has over 23 million views to date. Sinek explains that great leaders start with the Why, then the How, and then the What to define the purpose for their existence and a possible solution to address the Skills Gap crisis. The Golden Circle, as Sinek describes in his message, is designed to work from the inside out, starting with the Why we support our students to be Future Ready.


The Oxnard Union High School District (OUHSD) has designed a Linked Learning framework that prepares students for college, career, and life readiness. Starting with “Why?” we believe in preparing students for their future with the mindset of taking ownership for their learning, much like an entrepreneur. Recognizing that not every student will start a business, nevertheless, students do need to think and act like  entrepreneurs. The Partnership for 21st Century skills recently introduced a roadmap that addresses these hard and soft skills. In addition, we partnered with our local Oxnard Chamber of Commerce last year for the inaugural Young Entrepreneur Academy, which is an initiative led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

College and career diagram

Bill Daggett from the International Center for Leadership in Education designed the Rigor and Relevance Framework 25 years ago to emphasize that students must be able to apply their knowledge in both real-world predictable and unpredictable settings. This framework aligns with the Smarter Balance Assessment which is designed to ensure students master deeper learning while they demonstrate application within the Knowledge Taxonomy and not simply know the right answer. Be mindful that entrepreneurs think differently, and do not see the world with just one right answer as most of us have been taught.


For students to demonstrate mastery of the new State Standards, they must be fully engaged with 21st Century learning strategies and technology tools.  The challenge for teachers is to develop their skill set to learn “How” to design the pedagogy with the 21st Century digital learning environment that keeps students connected and engaged in their learning. This is where our Learning Design Coaches step in to help support our teachers in using the appropriate technology tools with job-embedded professional learning.


Backward mapping this process, the State Standards are the “What” students need to know and be able to do. As schools move away from traditional textbooks and migrate toward the process of creating and curating digital content, students are able to access the content from our Learning Management System. This repository learning environment is a game changer that will assist to personalize learning.

As we advance with data and learning analytics, educators and administrators will continue to evolve the way instruction is delivered and align it with how students learn.  We recognize that personalized learning is in a state of flux and is not an exact science. This huge instructional shift will provide students with options by redesigning their personalized learning experience. Technology is one component that will enhance collaboration and allow teachers to learn from, and work with, each other during this transitional period.

One educational option to engage students and produce deeper learning is through the Linked Learning Academy model supported by the National Academy Foundation (NAF). This Foundation provides rigorous and relevant real-world learning experiences. OUHSD has expanded from 12 to 22 academies in 2015-2016 aligned with business sectors. A Business Intermediary Model with over 400 businesses partnerships provides work-based learning opportunities such as job shadowing and internships. We are excited about the new NAF Branding “Be Future Ready” that addresses the STEM Skills Gap employers are demanding, while also promoting an entrepreneurial spirit.

For more information about the Linked Learning Academy Model download the brochure and visit the Academy website.





One Size Does Not Fit All

The case for hybrid BYOD initiatives

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on May 31, 2015

Collection of apples and orangesRemember when computer labs were the solution to making technology available to all students? When most teachers had limited personal experience using desktop computers, this approach seemed to make sense. But it didn’t take long for educators to discover that limited access to computers housed outside the classroom was often more a disruption than meaningful learning experience.

Enter 1:1

The development of laptop computers meant that schools that could afford them suddenly had more options for where students and teachers could access technology for learning activities, giving rise to the concept of 1:1 programs.

In addition to equitable access to hardware, 1:1 initiatives addressed concerns related to equipment maintenance and upkeep, software licensing and updates, and monitoring how equipment was used because the laptops usually represented a single platform and belonged to the school or district. However, some of the positive elements also become the source of complications. One-to-one programs are expensive to implement and sustain thanks to on-going costs ranging from infrastructure to staffing and professional development. Furthermore, unreliable funding sources can make 1:1 a dicey proposition.

Enter BYOD

The notion of bring your own device (BYOD) programs started gaining traction in the business world in 2009. Concerns related to theft and network security (among others) made educators reluctant to embrace this strategy. In 2011 more than one-half of schools responding to Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up survey prohibited any form of BYOD. Then tough economic times and the realization that students were bringing devices to school with or without permission tipped the scales and just one year later, only 37% of participants in the same survey reported prohibiting BYOD (2013 Congressional Briefing). Does this imply a happy ending? Hardly!

Proponents of BYOD argue that students prefer to use their own devices and a majority of parents are willing to purchase devices for school use. They also say that reduced costs for hardware purchases and maintenance enable schools to reallocate funds to improve the infrastructure and increase IT staffing. On the other hand, successful BYOD requires access to a robust network—often far beyond what the school currently has in place. In addition, BYOD relies on students bringing devices that are capable of handling the demands of serious academic work and teachers must understand how to plan and implement cross-platform learning activities designed to reduce distractions and support equal access. Another concern is outdated procedures and policies for managing BYOD on campus. None of these potential barriers are deal-breakers but do require immediate action.

Then there is a heretofore unanticipated outcome of both 1:1 and BYOD programs. These days, access to just one type of device—regardless of who owns it—is probably not enough. A recent report based on 2013 Speak Up survey results states, “Just as we do not assume that students will only access one book for all classes, the idea of using only one mobile tool to meet all assignment needs may be unrealistic.” (From Chalkboards to Tablets: The Emergence of the K – 12 Digital Learner). My own experience working in schools with 1:1 or BYOD supports this statement. Mobile devices are fine for some tasks such as shooting photos and video, reading eBooks, or simple web browsing, but most students find it difficult or impossible to use tablets or smartphones to edit multimedia projects, write more than a couple of paragraphs of text, or for serious research. If instructional need drives classroom use of technology, students need access to more than one kind of device when completing various learning activities. This is where another alternative—hybrid BYOD programs—come into play.

Hybrid BYOD

In hybrid BYOD settings, students are encouraged to bring personal digital devices that meet basic minimum specifications to school. They understand that they are responsible for care and maintenance of these devices and are permitted to use them during class for learning activities. But the program doesn’t stop there. In addition to personal technology, teachers and students have access to school-owned devices such as tablets and laptops which may be available for check out from a central location or permanently placed in classrooms in small numbers. The driving philosophy behind hybrid BYOD programs isn’t to create 1:1 access to one specific technology, but to make it possible for teachers and students to select the appropriate tool for a given task from several readily accessible options. Some hybrid BYOD programs also include devices that students whose parents cannot afford to purchase something may check out either as needed or for the entire school year.

Why is this preferable to thinking of 1:1 and BYOD as either/or propositions? Although more expensive than BYOD only initiatives, hybrid BYOD programs are less expensive to implement and maintain than 1:1 initiatives, and insure that teachers and students have access to different kinds of devices as needed. When 1:1 is not the expectation, teachers feel freer to design paired and small team activities in which students learn skills such as communication and collaboration in addition to academic content. And, those students who wish to augment an activity using personal devices are able to do so. I’ve also learned that teachers new to classroom use of mobile technologies appreciate being able to learn how to use the types of devices provided by the school first and then gradually incorporate more formal use of students’ personal devices. This approach also provides the assurance that student teams will be able to use a common platform for group activities in the assurance that specific apps or programs required for the lesson will be available on school-owned equipment.

Simply adopting a hybrid BYOD program does not guarantee success—this strategy is more complex than going down one road or the other. This means that educators must be willing and able to devote the time required for intensive planning prior to implementation and ongoing monitoring to make adjustments as needed. However, given the benefits of hybrid BYOD, it is a strategy worth considering.


SAMR and Teacher Confidence: A confluence of models

Posted by Will Kimbley on February 20, 2015

As someone who works to assist educators with the integration of technology into instruction, I work with a wide variety of experience levels and skill sets. At times it is a challenge to meet all their needs. Nevertheless, just as in any K-12 classroom, you accept people where you find them and seek to help them move forward. But how can we best do that?

Research has given us a couple of models that can serve as a lens to examine this and assist us in formulating strategies. The first, and probably wider known is the SAMR model from Dr. Ruben Puentedura.

SAMR model diagram
SAMR model. Click photo for explanation by Dr. Puentedura.

At its base level, technology is used as a Substitute. If you put a worksheet on an iPad, you have a very expensive worksheet. My own ed tech journey included a time when I was really proud that I had figured out how to scan student worksheets and turn them into fill-able PDFs that they could fill out on their laptops. Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to figure out that was a waste of good technology, not to mention bad pedagogy.

Writing a paper with a word processor can be seen as Augmentation. Students can change font sizes, use spell check, and even email their work. Modification comes in when online collaborative word processors such as Google Docs or Microsoft OneDrive are utilized. Students can communicate and collaborate in the same document in real time on separate devices transforming the task significantly. If you consider adding in something like Skype or Google Hangout, students can connect with classrooms literally around the world to collaborate on a document. Add in Google Translate and even the language barrier is not insurmountable and you can start talking about true Redefinition—a task that would be impossible without the technology.

Moving classroom technology use up through the levels of this model is an important task for technology leaders. Not every task needs to be at the top of the model, but why does so much technology use tend to be mere Substitution or, at best, Augmentation? For example, two of the most common tools I see are interactive whiteboards and document cameras. Schools spend quite a bit of money on document cameras that are used to show a teacher filling out a worksheet or solving a math problem on paper. Interactive whiteboards costing thousands of dollars are often used no differently than a regular whiteboard, and never touched by students. Why are many teachers stuck in substitution mode?

Teacher confidence comes into play

I believe much of the reason has to do with a teacher’s confidence in using technology. Mark Anderson  developed a flowchart examining teacher confidence based on the work of Dr. Ellen Mandinach and Dr. Hugh Cline.

Anderson model of teacher confidence

You can see that at the base level, teachers are in Survival mode, often afraid of breaking technology. As someone who was around when personal home computers were first introduced. I quite understand this fear. I remember when putting in your floppy disks in the wrong order could mess you up for hours. Part of my job is to give them some training and practice and let them see that today’s Web 2.0 technologies are not as fragile thus instilling confidence and moving up into the next stage of Mastery.

Where teachers begin to have Impact is when students also are using technology. To quote Alan November, “The person doing the work is doing the learning.” When technology is teacher-centric, students are left out of the experience. It is also worth mentioning that the Impact stage says “using tech effectively.” How effective is it to only use an iPad to practice math facts, or a laptop only to take a reading quiz? Innovation comes into play when technology becomes second nature. Its no longer a question of how to fit technology into a unit. Effective technology use is a matter of course in everyday lesson design.

What I noticed when looking at these two models is a confluence where one helps explain the other. In many cases, especially early on in technology integration, technology is used as a substitute because teachers are in Survival mode and seek the comfort of a familiar environment. It is after they have received some training and feel a sense of Mastery that they can begin to move into Augmentation and beyond.

Building confidence

Our role as leaders is to help build teacher confidence with the use of technology so that they can move beyond mere Substitution. We can do this in a number of ways.

  • Provide them with working, effective tools.
  • Provide enough tech support; teachers don’t have time to troubleshoot on their own.
  • Provide sufficient devices so students can use them reasonably. You don’t need to have 1:1, but one iPad in a classroom is not technology integration.
  • Ensure that there is adequate infrastructure for reliable and readily available internet access. If teachers know the tools, infrastructure, and support are reliable, it builds their confidence. When it is not, quite the opposite is true.
  • Bring in quality professional development—hands-on, ongoing, not just sit and get.
  • Offer release time to observe exemplary classrooms and to collaborate with one another.

Lastly, give them permission to try, and permission to fail. Technology integration can be messy and fraught with failure. Just like learning to walk, falls and missteps should be expected. Support your teachers, build their confidence, so they can effectively use these essential tools for teaching and learning. Keep in mind they are teaching students who grew up with, and will go into, a world full of technology. Don’t let the classroom be a technology free zone.

See follow-up resources from the TICAL database.