As the Program Director of Instructional Technology in the Aldine Independent School District in Texas, Akilah Willery sees herself as a listener, a facilitator and a uniter. A former high school teacher and technology specialist — as well one of the first recipients of a Master’s degree in instructional technology from the University of Houston — Akilah brings a special perspective to her work and emphasizes collaboration, innovation and creativity as top priorities. With a team of 74 technology specialists working in schools throughout her district, she’s always on the lookout for ways to support teachers’ and students’ innovative ideas with the right tools and resources.
When we spoke with Akilah, she shared her vision for her district and her efforts to bring creativity and eLearning tools to all Aldine schools.
Q: What inspired you to start a district-wide Adobe & ConnectED program?
A: In Texas, we’ve always had a big focus on accountability. Now we’re emerging from an era where everything was about numbers, and we’re redefining accountability to include a more holistic view of the child and what he or she needs to experience and attain. Our goal is to create a more collaborative and creative environment that allows both teachers and students to have a voice in defining the learning journey.
Adobe & ConnectED came along at the perfect time. It gives us an opportunity to offer great tools to kids and teachers so they can explore what they want to create. Instead of telling teachers what to do, I can give them a tool and they can tell me how they can use it as part of their curriculum. I also hope our kids will feel empowered to use these tools to create whatever they want, even without guidance directly from a teacher.
Q: What recommendations might you give to other district leaders considering Adobe & ConnectED?
A: Don’t pigeonhole the possibilities by only offering the software to the “creative” disciplines. Make it available to all and gather feedback from teachers to get a sense of what their content areas are demanding, and how you can help them use the new tools to fill in any gaps. Also, take advantage of the free training resources on the Adobe Education Exchange. Free software is great — but the training resources are what will help teachers understand how the software can fit their needs.
Q: What are other ways you’re promoting creativity and innovation in your district?
A: We’re in the process of trying many new things. For example, we’ve partnered with Code.org to integrate computer science tools into traditional curriculum at our K–6 campuses. Teachers are coming up with different ways to use the tools and they’re saying the program is a great way to promote problem-solving and critical thinking. We’ve also been doing some cross-curricular professional development by teaming up our visual arts and science teachers. Together, they’re developing ways visual arts can demonstrate principles of chemistry.
We’re also getting creative about teacher professional development. We offer face-to-face workshops and online webcasts on a variety of topics so teachers can tune in and discuss new instructional strategies. We also support teachers as they explore their own professional learning networks through social media. We give professional development hours for both participating in and hosting Twitter chats with other educators.
I think it’s important to note that teachers and iTechs throughout my district initiated all of these projects. Folks come to me with great ideas and I do my part to connect the dots to make them happen, and then support ongoing experimentation and iteration.
Q: What’s your greatest challenge in your role? How do you work to overcome that?
A: My biggest challenge is maintaining the shared vision. Aldine is a really big district with a large and varied team. Reshaping our district vision means we need to change our teaching practices, and that makes people both nervous and excited. And, as much as we’re asking teachers to step out the box, we’re expecting the same of our kids. We’re creating a culture that makes room for mistakes. We want kids to try and fail and try again until you they get the outcome they desire.
This is an open and ongoing conversation in our district. Previously, decisions were made from the top down. Now we’re reversing it and asking for feedback from our teachers and students. It’s a richer discussion when everyone has a voice. In five years, I think things are going to look really different.
Find out more about the Aldine Independent School District and the Technology and Curriculum Conference (TCCA) in Aldine — the largest free technology conference in Texas.
As part of President Obama’s ConnectED Initiative, Adobe is donating over $300 million in software and professional development services to schools across the United States.