A More Blended "Space"

Having been nominated and selected as part of the 2014-2015 NAIS Teacher of the future cohort, I am currently looking at my classroom in new and exciting ways. As you may recall from my earlier post this summer, the topics that this year's cohort will examine are Blended learning, student health and well being, assessment and accreditation.  

I had the pleasure of working with a small group , from within the cohort, to lead our discussion on blended learning during the first 6 weeks of the school year and it was quite an experience.  Here is my journey and my review.

Blended learning.  What does this term mean?

  • Is it an online course?
  • Is it a flipped classroom?
  • Does it work K-12?
  • Does it work for kids that need more support?
  • Is it better for the kids who need less direct instruction?
  • How will it make my classroom a better space for learning?
  • How much screen time is too much?
  • How will online learning increase my teacher to student interaction time?

I had questions, many of them.  In fact, too many to list.

Living in a glass-walled, garage classroom, what I do in my classroom is transparent to the everyone walking by.  From goofy games, to white board work, online practice to group problem solving activities, assessment days to group huddles, what is happening is generally pretty clear. So when challenged to try out this concept of Blended Learning during the first few weeks of the school year, I found myself compelled to be transparent to all.  While I do not know that blended learning is the solution to education and or the classroom fix for all, I did know that I was going to give it an honest try and I wanted to make sure the stakeholders were aware.  

Knowing that I wanted to create a space that was easy to store lessons, worksheets, ideas and gather feedback from my students, I followed the advice from this summer's meeting (Michael Nachbar suggested 3 tech tools-don't spread yourself thin) and decided that I could likely accomplish most of my technology goals by combining educreations, socrative, and IXL under the portal blendspace.com.  Challenged by the "who" this would work best for, my Core level 5th graders or my Core + 6th graders, I struggled at first with whom to take the initial plunge.  I went with my gut and tried it with the 6th graders first.  I hoped to discover the benefits, and then manipulate and change it based on the age and needs of the 5th grade class. 

Blended learning wasn't entirely new to me. I had used flipped instruction in my classroom in the past, and I was quite familiar with the technology tools that would allow me to accomplish what I had hoped.  I was already a believer and do'er in terms of student centered learning with vast experience in PBL.  But I was trying to make my class differentiated in a slightly different, more permanent way.  I didn't want this experience to be a "one off" differentiated challenge by choice day. I wanted to engage in this head on and right away.  I wanted to set the tone for the year.   

Two weeks into the school year, and the day the ipads arrived in the 6th graders hands, we were off and running.  Using Blendspace, I created a portal of videos, IXL links, deeper level problem solving worksheets and learning goals itinerary for the unit.  The boys knew up front what they needed to accomplish and by when, but they were given choice and voice on how to accomplish this.  They began to understand and acknowledge which tasks were easier to accomplish at home without the support of their teacher/coach and their fellow classmates, and most importantly which of the tasks would be completed more successfully with support. They were in the driver's seat. Many students love projects and while Unit 1 wasn't really designed as a project, the boys offered feedback that because they were making choices and driving their learning they felt like it was one big project.  The level of engagement was higher than I remember from past years. 

The major take-aways from the unit as told by the boys: 

  • The videos helped me understand the concepts and I can watch them over and over again if I need to.
  • When you come to our small tables to check in I feel more comfortable asking questions. I feel supported in the group of 3 and I don't like asking questions in front of the whole class. 
  • It was great that when the teacher was out sick, she could continue to track our progress, and we could continue our goals.  It was as if we didn't miss a beat.  

As the 6th grade boys moved into their second unit, designed mainly as a PBL, I decided to engage the 5th graders in blended learning for unit 2.  Knowing that the 5th graders would need more structure I knew that I needed to set things up differently.  

Instead of the 5th graders approaching an entire unit with multiple goals to accomplish alongside their peers and with support of the teacher, I used Blendspace and my tech tools to create daily lessons based on specific learning goals.  I taught the 5th graders how to use the videos that were assigned as homework and/or classwork.  It was important to point out to them that while these videos might not lead to mastery of the material in one viewing that with some time and careful review they should be able to gain an introductory level of understanding at the very least.  To verify this, I used multiple forms as entry tickets. Sometimes the boys entered the classroom with a ticket from the evening before and other times they engaged in a quick formative assessment that allowed me to group them for the day in terms of their level of understanding on the concepts from either the day or evening before.  

An example of this was a lesson on adding and subtracting decimals.  The boys watched a video at home the night before class that reminded them of how to add and subtract decimals. It included multiple examples that emphasized lining up decimals, borrowing/regrouping to subtract and what to do when it's a whole number minus a decimal. The boys entered class and I informed them of our leaning goal, "To be able to add and subtract decimals with regrouping".  Using socrative.com I soon discovered what each boy had retained during their viewing of the video the night before.  Using the computer generated data, I was quickly able to place the boys into groups.  

Group A)  Teacher instruction with practice problems similar to the problems completed in the video

Group B)  Partner work that included problems that required a little bit extra thinking.  45.2 - ? = 12.8

Group C) Boys participated in an activity on completing and creating Magic Squares.  

You can find these in the blendspace here.  Check it out #'s 1-8.

As a debrief at the end of class I asked the boys to reflect on their learning goal.  The feedback was amazing. The boys felt more in control, had opportunity to differentiate their learning and felt supported every step of the way. Feedback was: 

  • The boys all know how to do the concept now and no one was bored during class.
  • Boys were asking if they could do some of the other level work outside of class.  Boys that needed a little direct instruction were now feeling that they could work through Group C work and were excited to try it out on their own.
  • While grading assessments both formative and summative, the boys enjoyed having direct blendspace #'s of which they could return to for review and practice of the concept they missed. 

Here it from them here! 

It felt like I jumped into the deep end at first, not sure if I knew how to swim.  However, it was exciting to see the boys think differently, work through concepts together and develop skills that will likely enable them to be independent, life long learners.  And after the first summative assessment, I was quite positive that we all handled that deep end just fine.  I am so excited to have tried it.  

3 Major Take-Aways

  • Be transparent with students, parents, administration and colleagues alike.  Students enjoyed being able to see the different levels of the learning goals and it motivated them to work harder.  Parents enjoyed learning how to support their child and no longer wondered why their boys weren't doing more "drill and kill" assignments at home and how the video complimented instruction not replaced it. Administrators and colleagues are supportive and available to bounce ideas off of with better understanding of what is happening.  
  • I was able to understand the learning styles of my students faster this year because I was working closely with them daily. I didn't have to wait as long for students to feel comfortable coming to extra help or asking questions during full class instructions and discussions.  I was visiting with them in small groups and seeing what made them tick academically and personally.  By using blended learning methods I had more time, and sooner. 
  • My role as a teacher has changed. I consider myself more of a facilitator of instruction, allowing the boys to teach one another with my support.  The boys gain greater understanding through this instruction and are able to better communicate their mathematical reasoning and knowledge.  I feel more like I am part of the class.  As I sit with small groups to sweat through problems our relationship develops.  I am able to work with them on skills in ways that I wasn't before too.  Communication and collaboration instruction and feedback is part of our daily routine.  The boys are discovering more about themselves as learners too.  

3 Major Challenges

  • If  a student doesn't do the homework it can be very hard from them to fully participate in the class. In a traditional class this is also true. But in a traditional class the student generally sits through another period of direct instruction on the next concept and was sent off to do independent practice.  In this model the students are jumping right into class, sharing with classmates, and are expected to have some baseline knowledge from the homework.  It can be difficult for the student to participate in succeed in this model without having done either the video or baseline practice the night before.
  • When the tech doesn't work, the class doesn't work. Nothing more frustrating then having the boys get a message on their ipads that blendspace is down.  
  • Content creation is time consuming. 

As I move forward with the cohort in the months to come, I am excited to take more risks, try new things and continue to reflect on Blended Learning in my classroom.  I recently led a google hangout, which you can find here.