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I Brought My Students to a Blended Learning Conference and Lived to Tell the Tale

April 21, 2016

Earlier this month as part of the 2016 Blended & Personalized Learning Conference, I partnered with Heidi Vazquez and her students from the Compass School to demo a station rotation model. Our goals were twofold: Emphasize the non-tech components of blended learning and showcase our piloted LMS, Agilix Buzz. Participants could see that so much of what they already do is "blended learning ready”. Our hope is that they left with a refreshed perspective and a willingness to give it a try.

The 21 eager students who joined us answered countless questions throughout the simulation. The large turnout was both unexpected and a bit overwhelming for the kids and myself. The looks on the their faces as they saw the long line of people waiting to get in was priceless! They took everything in stride and got down to work. As soon as it began, it seemed to be over. I assume that's the feeling you get when things run as they should.

Looking back on it, I couldn’t be more proud of the students’ effort and willingness to teach others. Their families also deserve so much of the credit. Saturdays are valuable and we appreciated that they took time out of their busy schedules to help make this event happen.

The conference as a whole represented a shift in approach compared to other EdTech conferences I’ve attended where sessions centered around tech tools and know-how. Instead, application and scalability became the theme which included embracing and refining the role of blended learning early adopters. As an early adopter myself, I appreciated the honest discussions with administrators from around the country. No one can deny that authentic blended learning is within reach when stakeholders are embracing the risks involved. It makes us better appreciate the rewards we are seeing in these classrooms.

2016 BPLC

The BL3: Get Into A Formative Rythym

February 21, 2016

Time for another round of reflection - My 3 Blended Learning Takeaways

1. Let it go

Transforming my classroom has been uncomfortable at times and only a bit labor intensive. Things I didn't initially anticipate as problems reared their ugly heads. I‘ve had to let many of these things roll off my back and not let them occupy the bulk of my time.

Case in point: Within Buzz, all of the assessments are password protected by default. In my class, I don't have a need for that layer of protection. I began to turn the password option off each assessment, but ran out of time to finish the rest. I had 5-6 kids ready to test and were locked out. I was in the midst of my small group lesson and wouldn't be able to turn off the balance of the passwords. The kids were worried that they wouldn't be able to earn that specific badge. I’ve preached (and modeled) flexibility since September. They have alternative choice activities as part of our playlists. Crisis averted.

I’ve made necessary changes throughout, whether it was to my routine, platform, content, assessment, whatever. In most cases, small problems were easily fixed. Stressing out and multitasking during class would quickly take me out of my element.

Most important to me was not disrupting the group in front of me. The 5 to 8 minutes it would have taken me to fix the problem is valuable time that would have been lost in my group. Depending on the lesson, it is hard to get that time back.

2. Question the Content

As I’ve mentioned before, subscription content is a large part of Buzz’s model. That’s not to say that free content isn’t available. Instead, I hoped to drastically reduce the time I was spending searching for activities. For the purpose of this pilot, I received a subscription to Responsive Education’s content for grades 3, 4 and 5.

Conventional wisdom has it that comprehensive, engaging and well organized content should come at a price. Responsive Ed’s lessons were initially well received by my students likely due to the newness of the experience. It’s become clear though that they need more chances to interact with the lessons instead of reading a narrative and answering 20 multiple choice questions. For my struggling readers and special education students, it was too challenging. Their interest in the topic wavered at they struggled to comprehend the text.

I will continue to use bits and pieces of these lessons as a supplement. In the meantime, I have had good luck with a free product, Zearn. Rooted in the philosophy of EngageNY, there is a learning curve as students grapple with their approach. For years now, I have have integrated many elements of ENY into my teaching and that has helped to bridge most gaps.

My goal will continue to be getting the most out of Buzz. Its use as a home base for all playlists is great. Zearn, daily fluency challenges, videos and interactives will make up the bulk of the content. It’s been a bit of step backwards from a planning standpoint. On the other hand, the kids are happy and they're learning.

3. Get into a formative rhythm.

Formatively asses your kids everyday. One student may be a high flyer one day and need a bit of reteaching the next. You don't want to miss the opportunity to correct misunderstandings.

My groupings are fluid and change almost daily. Depending on the context, I'll switch between homogenous and heterogenous groupings. Using Google Draw, I can click and drag students between groups. In order to track student movement, I'll write myself a quick comment off to the side. Click here for a template.

There are loads of digital tools available to make formative assessment easier for you and the class. Depending on your access to devices, some are more practical than others.

Above all, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Need a quick exit ticket? You'll never go wrong with a classic piece of scrap paper.

Quick Exit Tickets with Explain Everything - 1:1 Not Necessary!

Student Feedback - What My Students Really Think Of Blended Learning With Buzz

February 6, 2016

We all know the power that a simple Google Form possesses. It can gather pretty much anything.

My kiddos continue their blended learning experience with the help of Buzz. The testbed team and I count on their feedback. This form and response sheet is intended to be a working document that the students can access at any point.

As I tweak the management and content, I will ask them to stop and jot their immediate thoughts. How their feedback trends as the year goes on is of particular interest to me.

In order to encourage honest feedback, this form is anonymous and they can come back to it as soon as a thought comes to them. Already seeing so many quickly filling it out while in the middle of a session continues to confirm the ownership I knew they would have in this model.

Buzz Student Feedback

The BL3: Three Things I Quickly Learned About My Blended Classroom

November 10, 2015

Just like you I've watched (and watched) my fair share of blended learning how-to videos. Students effortlessly move about the classroom self-directing their own learning. The teacher demonstrates every best practice imaginable. Accountable talk is everywhere.

I've always wondered why these videos have never included the incessant requests to use the bathroom or to see the nurse for the fourth time. Let's not forget the 27 times a day that classroom telephone rings.

All kidding aside, these teachers are good, really good. These model classrooms are what we strive to emulate. On Friday I was able see it work in my classroom with someone else modeling these best practices. It was an experience unto itself.

One of my math classes played host to Shawn Rubin and Maeve Murray from The Highlander Institute. Their plan was to demo a best-practice-laced math lesson and station rotation. Also joining us was Jay Brochu, a sixth grade math teacher at Burrillville Middle School and co-pilot in this Buzz experience.I was able to step back and just watch my students in action. By simply watching, I quickly bridged gaps in my understanding of how to successfully blend a classroom. On one hand, my vision of blended learning in my classroom wasn't as off base as I thought. On the other, I observed many things that need to improve. It just went to show that I have more to learn. That's not a bad thing.

I've had some time to digest all that I saw. Below are my 3 biggest takeaways from the experience - my BL3.

1. Make routines the priority. Start early and reteach often.

A station rotation model means new norms for your students. After Maeve had my kids break into stations, I sprang into action! I wanted to jump, clarify or redirect, but had to be reminded to just watch. I'm glad I was because I loved what I saw: Responsible transitions between stations and respectful interactions in small group. These were taught early and often beginning in September.

All technology aside, my students demonstrated what appropriate behavior looked like at each station. I do. We do. You do. It's not going away.

2. Be honest about how much time you waste.

Going into this, a big goal of mine was to see how I could rotate the whole class through all 3 stations during my 70 min block. It worked! My directions and discussions need to become more focused. The meat of the content will shift to my small groups.

We all have experienced the discussion "sidetracks" that come with teaching to a whole class. Only after, you realize how much time these discussions take-up. This will be difficult but necessary for yours truly, someone who is never short on words.

Constantly reminding your students of the activity at each station can indicate a lack of planning. Instead, plan the activities carefully and purposely. You can thank your EDU 101 professor for that advice. Once the kids transition, allow them to figure things out. A little trust in them goes a long way.

3. Rethink how you utilize classroom space, but it doesn't have to be drastic.

During our station rotation, my kids knew where to go and how to move within my current classroom design. But once they got to work, was each station area ideal? Did the environment sustain their engagement and help eliminate distractions?

The short answer is almost. Mine is less than ideal. It is amazing what a small table holding a projector does to divide your groups' attention. This is a small but critical area for change. My collaboration station works in the area with the blue tile pictured below. Unfortunately, materials they need are not always easily accessible. In fact, they are at the other end of the room.

A bright spot is my device setup. It allows for me to see every screen while I am with my group. It's reassuring to keep a wandering eye on these kids during their new found independence.

Piloting Effective Blended Learning Solutions

November 10, 2015

Educators always look for the edge - that something that will push our teaching and students' learning to where we know it can go. Blended learning is my edge.

As a long time fourth grade teacher and implementing a flipped model, I’ve had the blended learning bug for some time now. I loved the experience and so did my students. Developing my own content was an enjoyable but time consuming process. My three young daughters run around my house at all hours of the day (and night). Time at the computer is a luxury that sometimes happens at nap time - that is, when they nap.

What I’ve lacPiloting Effective Blended Learning Solutionsked is a comprehensive content and assessment platform. As luck would have it I became involved in Rhode Island’s first software test bed through a partnership between the Highlander Institute and EdTechRI. This venture pairs educators with edtech companies looking to distinguish themselves in an already saturated marketplace. My job is to implement the tool into my classroom. Classroom observations and detailed feedback help to determine its viability.

Keep in mind that online content is just another tool being added to my blended learning repertoire. Good teaching and being confident in your style of classroom management is the first hurdle before jumping in with both feet. With that in place, I’ve made the most of the limited technology I have in my room. Additionally, my work as a blended learning fellow with FuseRI build background focused on best practices.

The Tool and the Learners

My 4th grade students are ready. I teach two leveled sections of math in an inclusion setting. We've practiced the station rotation model ad nauseum since Day 1. The whole concept of blended learning is new to them. My role as the teacher and their approach to learning will shift considerably.

Since these kids are nine and ten years old, adapting to change is the easy part. Having them remain patient through the inevitable bumps in the road is a virtue that will be taught and reinforced. Come to think of it, that applies to me as much as it does to them.

Buzz is their tool. It is a learning management system incorporating third party content and assessment. This type of pilot is new for all involved. Buzz has been implemented on a large scale in various districts around the country. The content within Buzz provided by ResponsiveEd will be tailored to our already established curriculum.

What are we working to accomplish?

I need a platform that both the kids and I enjoy using. The learning happens when students (and teachers) are engaged and want more. Will Buzz sustain their enthusiasm and be simple to manage? Will it allow me to be more proactive with student data rather than spending valuable time being reactive to the problems?

Well-built edtech products make us more efficient teachers. This tool will not replace me in the classroom, but it sure as heck has the potential to make me even more effective.

Reflections on a Year as a Fuse Fellow

October 21, 2015

So, exactly what is it that you’re doing?”

As Fuse Fellows, this is something we’re asked all the time, whether we’re talking to colleagues, family, or our better halves. Offering up the details explaining our work can mean a hefty response.

Do I just jump right into a description and confuse you immediately?

Or, is it best to first provide a description of blended learning, and connect that to what we do in Fuse? Of course, if I go on too long I run the risk that you might begin staring at the back of your eyelids. Here goes nothing…

The Mission

The mission of the FuseRI project is to promote and support the expansion of blended learning in classrooms across the state. We are educators looking for applicable solutions in our own classrooms and schools, as well as in our partner Fuse districts. What we believe and are so excited by is that every teacher has the capacity to learn and try this way of teaching and learning. We are proving this to early adopters and naysayers alike by breaking the mold of traditional PD; it doesn’t have to be a necessary evil anymore. And though we are a small group in a small state, this project is growing and gaining national attention.

The Fellows

The inaugural group of 26 Fuse Fellows have an enthusiasm that is tough to match. We eat, sleep, and breathe educational technology–at times perhaps more than we should. The diversity of our professional backgrounds only further fuels our enthusiasm and desire to question the traditional educational models in Rhode Island’s schools.

Before beginning the Fellowship, I considered myself great at integrating technology into my classroom. I quickly found out my new colleagues were some of the best. The first lesson I learned was that integrating technology is not blended learning. This is a gap that needs to be bridged.

The Work

Teams of Fellows partner with Rhode Island districts large and small, including some of the state’s most promising charter schools. Every district operates in a way that ensures they live within their means and move at a pace that is appropriate for them, while adapting to a changing edtech landscape.

No matter the circumstance we find ourselves in our district work, the message is the same: Blended learning will work here. But, you have to want it to work.

In order to create a ripe environment for blended learning, the nation’s blended learning leaders talk to us about the importance of transforming school culture, leadership, and routines. But let’s be honest: change at every level in education is hard and risky. The lore is that Rhode Islanders tend not to be fans of change.

Our support is customized to meet each district’s need at their current level of technology integration. Some are well into 1:1 deployments. In these districts, fellows are working to shift the focus beyond the use of devices for online research and word processing to a tool where students use academic content to control the pace and path of their own learning. In other districts, fellows are working tirelessly to build a solid foundation of network infrastructure, devices, platforms, and policies.

Alongside my fellow fellow, Alicia Sullivan, I’ve been working with Blackstone Academy Charter School in Pawtucket. Our work there includes supporting the rollout of Google Apps for Education. It’s been an excellent experience being part of conversations and decision-making traditionally reserved for IT directors. We’re thrilled to have established solid relationships with the administrative team and staff, which has made our job easier and more productive. No matter how technical and involved districts’ needs may be, mutual trust in each other and the process is what will move this work forward.

The Professional Development

Professional Development is a mixed bag. As any educator can tell you, PD days are won and lost in the delivery. For too long, so little choice existed in current district level PD. Sessions didn’t fit what we needed, enjoyed, or needed help with. It became a necessary evil that we dreaded rather than learned from.

Fuse teachers seek to challenge that reality by promoting blended PD. As a cohort, we spend considerable time engaged in a type of professional development that is beneficial for all teachers: playlists with digital content are self paced and focused small group sessions that are adaptive to our backgrounds and gaps in understanding. In this type of PD, when we come across a topic or skill we have already mastered, we simply demonstrate that mastery and move on.

The Takeaway

Doesn’t this sound like a process that would also bring out the best in our students? We cannot ignore the irony. If educators haven’t experienced blended learning as learners, it is difficult for them to create blended learning opportunities in their schools and classrooms. All learners–students and teachers alike–need context and relevance in the content they’re taught.

The Fuse program may be the largest group of technology nerds per capita in the State of Rhode Island, but we are educators who want to learn, grow and share what we know. As Year 1 of the fellowship draws to a close, I am energized by what I have learned and looking forward to what lies ahead–for myself and for the state.