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Digital Resources in the Volunteer State

The Tennessee Digital Resources Library offers free access to all state districts

Kathleen Vail​

Missy Yarbrough’s second-graders were studying waves. They sat on the carpet in their classroom at Carroll-Oakland Elementary School in Lebanon, Tennessee, watching Yarbrough at the SMART board in front. Minutes later, they popped up and separated into three groups. One group of students plopped down at desks with laptops and headphones. Another settled in at a table with worksheets.

The third group headed to the back of the room, where an intriguing set up of empty plastic bottles, cooking oil, and water pitchers awaited them. Yarbrough helped the students measure out the correct proportion of water and oil into the bottles.

Shaking the bottles, the students watched as the oil separated from the water and rolled back and forth, showing in miniature how waves are formed.

Yarbrough’s experiments and the lessons did not come from a textbook.

“The waves lesson that we did today, all of the resources came from the Tennessee Digital Library,” Yarbrough says. “They hit the standard perfectly. The students were engaged. It gave me a great opener to hook the students in. It gave me a lesson to do for the experimental group so that they can actually experiment and understand that ‘I can’ statement better.”

The Tennessee Digital Resources Library (TDLR) is a curation of free, high-quality digital materials that teachers can use in their classrooms and students can use to do homework and is aligned with state standards.  

The Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA) was instrumental in creating the TDLR, which earned it the Leading Edge Award from the National School Boards Association.

 “Our board’s focus is on ways to assist our school boards in the state,” says Tammy Grissom, the executive director of TSBA. “No one in the state was doing anything regarding digital resources and providing those free to our school districts. And we hear so much about teachers not using the textbooks because they’re out of date.”

In its inaugural year, the Leading Edge Award acknowledges state school boards associations for the innovative design and implementation of integrated projects that promote and advance public education within their state. TSBA was presented with the award at NSBA’s Summer Leadership Seminar in Chicago, Illinois.

“Preparing our nation’s young people on their path to a successful education and beyond requires that school leaders and educators continually develop their knowledge and skills,” says Thomas J. Gentzel, NSBA’s executive director and CEO. “We are pleased to recognize TSBA for its innovative leverage of technology in the creation of the Tennessee Digital Resources Library and strong overarching commitment to advance teaching and learning.”

TDLR origins

The idea for the digital library came to Grissom after she attended a briefing session with Apple at its headquarters in Cupertino. There she heard another state was curating digital resources. “I thought, well, if they can do it, so can we in Tennessee.”

Grissom and her board reached out to their state education partners: the Tennessee Education Technology Association (TETA), the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS), and the Tennessee Association of Supervision Curriculum and Development (TASCD).

“We came together and decided what we wanted to do,” says Grissom. “We thought the best thing would be to use our teachers to curate the materials that are aligned to Tennessee standards. We asked all of our superintendents to recommend teachers that were involved heavily in their district with technology and were using digital resources in the classroom.”

TSBA hosted 58 teachers from across the state at its office in Nashville for a two-day Apple-led workshop to learn how to find high-quality digital resources. That cadre of teachers then spent weeks finding digital resources. High school came first, and the teachers who specialized in those courses helped curate the resources for those topics.

“Most teachers already use digital resources as they're teaching their classes,” says Grissom. “This is just a good resource that teachers can go to get high-quality digital resources that they can use to supplement their lesson plans.”

Other partners offered support, as well. American Public Education Foundation, headed by former NSBA and TSBA President David Pickler, provided stipends and an iPad each teacher. 

“When Dr. Grissom contacted me with this amazing idea about the Tennessee digital resources library, I immediately saw the tremendous potential that her vision had,” says Pickler. “This was an opportunity to really make the students of Tennessee future ready and make sure that we could really bring the benefits of technology in the 21st century into the classroom all across Tennessee, rid classrooms of obsolete textbooks, available and have the resources of the internet and all the amazing curricula and content that's out there, but do it in a manner that really allows teachers to be able to access vetted, quality curriculum that’s aligned with the standards of the state of Tennessee. 

Former Tennessee state senator Jim Tracy sponsored a senate joint resolution in support of the TDLR.

“I think people realized how important it is to move towards the digital,” says Tracy. “Everything's moving digital anyway in the business world, and we need to move digital in the education world also.”

The Tennessee Book Company became involved when the original plan of uploading the resources to iTunes became unwieldy. The TDLR is now housed on the company’s platform Thrivist.

“I met with Tammy about what they were doing for their Tennessee Digital Library initiative. From our first conversation, I knew that we could be helpful,” says Todd Svec, vice president of K12 solutions the Tennessee Book Company. “Because of our position within the state and how we were looking to forward our business into more digital distribution, I knew that it would be a perfect fit for us to get involved in the project.”

“I think the association is the perfect entity to be the convener for our digital resources library. We represent all of the school boards in the state and it's the job of the local school board to provide the vision for the school district,” says Grissom. “To me, technology is an integral part of the classroom each day for the students.”

Vetted by teachers

It was important to everyone involved in curation that they were vetted by state teachers and they align with state standards. The Tennessee Department of Education was consulted, as well.

The TDLR allows teachers to find content that matches the standards they are teaching on any given day. They can also find resources for their students, according to Joan Gray, the executive director of TETA.

“Teachers get very frustrated if it takes them too long to be able to find the content because they have other work they have to do,” says Gray. “The ease of use and the user-friendliness of the program is very important. That's true of the Tennessee Digital Library.”

Warren County Schools Superintendent Bobby Cox, who was involved from the beginning of the project, says his district had tried on its own to pull together open-source materials. The TDLR gained the respect of his teachers because they were curated by other teachers in the state. And the fact that TSBA convened the group was crucial. “It was important for us that TSBA is known for quality.”

Wilson County Schools, a fast-growing district east of Nashville, developed with its teachers a curriculum called Wilson Core, which is aligned with state standards and includes digital resources that aligned as well. The district makes its resources accessible through the TDLR.

It’s important that the district – one of the wealthiest in the state – can share resources across the state, says Superintendent Donna Wright. “It’s something that’s become a mission and a passion of ours” that the district’s digital content is available to other districts that don’t have the same resources.

“I use the library in many ways,” says Yarbrough, who was part of the district team of teachers who developed Wilson Core. “One of the ways is that I can just look up experiments or things that go along with the science standard. Many times, I just plug the science standard in and it pulls up a wealth of things that we can use. I try to find something that can be engaging for the students so that when the lesson begins, it can really hook them in and get them excited about learning.”


Kathleen Vail (kvail@nsba.org) is editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal.

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