Qwest Case Study 2009
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Education Technology

Martha Thornburgh, Digital Literacy Coach

Mount Vernon School District, Mount Vernon, Washington

Mount Vernon High School

A high school teacher shows up first, pops open his laptop, cruises through a couple of interesting sites for K-12 teachers and then taps the browser to open up his own Web site. It’s link rich and studded with commentary, study resources, assignments and graphics. He assures us it is a work-in-progress but his excitement with this mainline connection to his students is barely containable. Digital literacy coach, Martha Thornburgh, picks up the conversation, and the two of them step off into a short tangent on the relative merits of different site builders and blogging applications. He’s keen to reach kids where they hang out — online.

Teachers trickle in and take up their places in the old, high-ceilinged school room outfitted with a bank of laptops and an interactive whiteboard where Martha leads a weekly Digital Literacy Workshop. She is the leading light of tech integration in this district and, in the position, an unwavering source of support — one part instruction, one part technical. She is open and present; her understated confidence with teaching and technology takes the edge out of a subject fraught with the complexity of hi-tech gadgetry and the deadweight of the one-more-thing syndrome. Teachers are at ease here, they open up about their practice and problem-solve as a group.

She works from the whiteboard — a bingo card visual where every square links to an online instructional resource. She pulls up sites and applications, walks through their mechanics and calls out potentials and the watch-fors bound to come up on the first run-through in class. This workshop is a kind of meet ‘n greet, where teachers connect with digital technologies that can become instructional partners in the classroom — exploring, extending, enriching the learning activity.

Practical and imaginative, Martha lets the discussion wander. She takes notes and makes bookmarks when teachers lead her to a new resource or a novel way to integrate an application. This is a two-way moderated conversation about instruction and tech integration that feels like fun.

Time goes too quickly in this session. Plenty of fast, quiet note-taking, question bubble-up, and at the front, two teachers who work together, dive into a series of intense whispering huddles as Martha unpacks resources they know they can use. Their whispers are animated and excitable, they seem like travelers tuned to newness and possibility — this time and space is their point of departure.

Twenty-two years of teaching have led this dynamic educator from Texas across three continents — Ecuador, Kenya, Indonesia — and into the Navajo Nation crossing Utah, Arizona and Colorado. She has taught every grade level from pre-K to grade 6, and in 2010, marks her third year as digital literacy coach for the Mount Vernon School District. She works directly with teachers and students during learning projects, and fills out her role as coach and trainer with workshops, online tutorials and modeling effective technology integration in the classroom. Martha holds a Masters Degree in Education with endorsements for English as a Second Language and Social Studies. She is a fine photographer. Take a look at some her work — Martha’s 365 Day Photo Challenge and her DailyShoot.

Martha characterizes herself as a lifelong learner and “technogeek” who loves to try out new techniques for technology integration. She is a passionate traveler, having globe-trotted her way around six continents — North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. Teaching in remote areas and internationally has brought out the many strengths of this fine educator. “I try to make connections and use resources beyond the classroom — in many place, I couldn’t just run down to the teacher store to pick up supplies. So, I learned to connect and communicate with a world community. And too, I was often the only teacher at a particular grade level, so teaming up with another teacher was not an option. Resourceful self-reliance became my most important personality trait!”

Most of Martha’s students were ex-patriots, living away from their home country. “So finding new communication channels for these students to connect and share with friends and family back home was very important. And I think my passion for connecting, collecting, communicating and creating online was born in these early experiences. I think of myself as a teacher without borders because learning and discovery can take place far beyond the walls of a classroom.”

Another great advantage to teaching internationally — Martha has worked closely with teachers who have been trained differently. “These experiences have really added to my toolbox of teaching strategies.”

Actively engaged and often in a leadership role, Martha is an active member of the National Leadership Council for the Discovery Educator Network and the proud holder of a teacher certification from the Google Teachers Academy. Another worldwide connection: Martha serves as a volunteer regional educator for Heifer International. Heifer takes teachers to developing countries where they can see and experience firsthand a development project in operation. On her Educator Study Tour with Heifer, Martha went to Honduras with a group of teachers. They worked as a team on ways to bring students into an action-oriented awareness of development issues — sustainability, fair trade and the environment. Today, she acts as a resource for schools in her area whose teachers are interested in what Heifer International does in the field or who would like to work with the organization in some capacity. Back at home, Martha is on the team creating the new state assessments for educational technology(October 2010).

Martha hails from a family of educators. She models the enriching habits of a life-long learner and says, “Most family dinners included at least one trip to the World Book Encyclopedia to check a fact or find out more about the subject of our dinner conversation. Family vacations were filled with teachable moments. One year, we decided to save money and stay near home, so we took field trips to the zoo, the bakery, the GM Plant and so on.” The legacy has a digital reincarnation in Martha’s house. She and her husband stop meals to look up information on the computer or Blackberry. “And, our cross country-road trips are filled with side trips to pick up cultural and geographical information — easy to get on the phone while we travel.”

   Updated 12/5/2011

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