By Danielle Lansing, SIPI Early Childhood Faculty and Vibeka Mitchell, SIPI Early Childhood Learning Center Preschool Teacher

For SIPI’s Early Childhood Education (ECE) students earning an associate degree, the curriculum provides practicum experience for students in both infant and toddler classrooms. SIPI’s Early Childhood Learning Center (ECLC) serves as both the lab school for the program and the site for student practicums.

ECLC teachers serve as cooperating teachers who host SIPI students in their classrooms.  Best practices are shared with students and the next generation of Native teachers are developed in these classrooms, so strengthening classroom practices at the lab school is an important aspect of SIPI’s ECE program.

Monica Stewart, SIPI student and preschool teacher, contemplates using materials to solve a design challenge during a teacher workshop.To that end, SIPI and the ECLC have partnered to strengthen teacher training and pathways for new Native teachers through the For the Wisdom of the Children: Strengthening the Teacher of Color Pipeline project. Throughout this two-year initiative, SIPI’s ECE faculty have and will continue to provide training to lab schoolteachers to implement culturally relevant Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) experiences in the classroom.

For teachers practicing in preschool and K-3 classrooms, it is often difficult to carve out time for professional development. Unless teachers establish a professional development calendar, little time is devoted to consistent professional development. SIPI partnered with the ECLC to develop a professional development calendar to provide in-person workshops in order to maintain continuity of their training efforts. In Year One of the program, teachers were exposed to STEM strategies with a two hour workshop every other month. These workshops provided the time and opportunity to develop a learning community with teachers and to ensure the implementation of best practices.

Although in-person meetings were effective, SIPI faculty found the need to maintain an ongoing professional discourse. With limited release time for teachers, SIPI began to think about innovative ways to support professional dialogue in between scheduled workshops. SIPI then enlisted the support of the Distance Education Coordinator, who helped develop an online module for teachers utilizing the Brightspace platform, a student management system used with SIPI students. Through this tool SIPI students submit assignments, participate in online discussions, and receive course resources and feedback. Because Brightspace proved to be effective for students, SIPI faculty decided to extend the resource to ECLC project partners to support implementation of best practices.

SIPI’s ECE faculty developed an online STEM Teacher Leader Module, which serves as a space for professional discourse regarding the implementation of project activities. Teachers can document their work and share reflections online. ECLC teachers enjoy the title of “STEM teacher leader” and receive a stipend for submitting assignments and contributing to a discussion board.  For example, in Year One, teachers participated in a book study while learning about the National Association of the Education of Young Children’s Making and Tinkering in STEM design prompts. Teachers were assigned chapters to read, in class observations, follow up activities, and completion of a discussion board prompt. Teachers received content area training and also had the opportunity to participate in an online discussion board to share their reflections and insight.

The online discussion board provided a space for teachers to read online threads and share ideas, facilitating an online learning community that for some teachers serves as a platform to share ideas and solidify their professional learning.

Brightspace also served as an effective evaluation tool for SIPI’s Project Director, Dr. Danielle Lansing. She said, “The online professional development community has been a positive addition to our project. Through the platform, we can learn more about the effectiveness of our training modules. We can hear the voices of teachers, how much they have learned, and their thoughts on implementation. This helps us better understand how teachers are receiving and using STEM best practices. It’s important to know how well we are supporting their professional learning. Sometimes that’s not always possible during in-person workshops.”  SIPI will continue to utilize Brightspace in Year Two of their project.

As SIPI developed an online learning community, they realized some teachers hadn’t ever utilized an online discussion board or platform. This made for an interesting aspect for implementation. Some teachers who were SIPI alumni were able to readily utilize the platform due to their prior experience. Teachers found themselves supporting one another in successfully utilizing Brightspace. This was an additional positive outcome for teachers as they built their personal capacity to utilize technology.

Many teachers utilized their STEM skills to navigate the platform. Preschool teacher Vibeka Mitchell said, “I have been using Brightspace with the STEM Teacher project here at SIPI. Using this technology has been an easier way to keep submitted assignments and the discussion boards have been helpful to see other classrooms’ challenges and successes. We have been able to build a support network of teachers so we can get more ideas on how to implement lessons within the classrooms. It did take time to navigate how Brightspace worked and this made me realize I myself was “tinkering” with the program. Overall this has been a learning experience for me that has challenged me to learn new technology.” Throughout the project, SIPI faculty have continually learned how to better support adult learners via distance learning technology.

Developing an online learning community has helped SIPI ensure continuity of practices while realizing the possibilities for teacher training.  It has allowed the TCU to expand time for training and create an opportunity for immediate discourse and reflection. Through support from the College Fund, SIPI has increased their ability to strengthen the Native teacher pipeline as they have developed innovative STEM teacher training opportunities. These experiences have built SIPI’s capacity to provide innovative practices that may help them train teachers at a distance. SIPI hopes to provide more online learning opportunities to teachers in tribal communities in the future.