When push comes to shove, even I am a skeptic about full implementation of blended learning to scale in a public school. I have a set of assumptions that challenge my work and sometimes cloud my vision. I value these as it keeps my view of educational reform honest. It is important, however, to recognize schools and districts who start to make real progress in this arena. I had this opportunity last week when I joined colleagues from across the country (and Canada) for a small professional conference, Carolina Blends.
The group of educators spent time together visiting Horry County Schools in South Carolina. We also visited both before and after our school visits, reflecting on blended and personalized learning. The most impactful time was spent in the schools, talking to teachers and students and viewing “real” blended learning. I hopped on a school bus with other eager educators to head to our first school visit, The Academy for Arts, Science and Technology (AAST).
AAST: A Blended STEM High School
AAST is a school focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Students apply for this 9-12 school and they take traditional core courses but pick their electives based on “majors.” The students develop a strong foundational core education with a focused attention toward a particular STEM area, like Entertainment Technology, Pre-Engineering and Pre-Medicine. The Advanced Art major is also impressive.
Blended Learning at AAST looks different in every classroom due to their own developed “Dynamic Rotation Models.” Every teacher is encouraged to pick the in-class rotation model that best fits their own instructional goals and the needs of their students. The digital content used is a mix of purchased content with teacher-developed materials. Teachers are at various levels of implementation with content integration. For example, the Spanish teacher uses Google Classroom to curate her content while some use Edmodo. One History teacher prefers for his students to turn in their work via email. These teachers are deep in year one of implementation, so I expected to see these variations. The consistencies, however, were striking.
Every classroom had a “SMART” list written on the front board. The teachers listed for their students the standard, text, agenda, rotation model and “to do” for each day. It was the rotation model that intrigued me the most. Each teacher had a laminated diagram for how the class would rotate that day.
The model was posted for all students to see. The ownership the teachers had over their rotational decisions was strong. Students were on task and engaged and teachers were using both the digital content and the face-to-face experiences meaningfully. In an ELA classroom, I saw a small group discussion in a fishbowl setting while other students all worked (and were on task!) on a digital task. When students are asked what their class size is, many will say 4:1 or 8:1, and I can understand why. These students have a closer relationship with their instructor.
At AAST, there were two very impressive takeaways, the power of STEM majors in high school and the power of their “dynamic rotation models.” The challenge for AAST and for Horry County as a whole, is that this school admits students by application. The other “base” high schools are working to implement similar models. Edi Cox (@EdiCox), the Executive Director of Online Learning for Horry County Schools, said that they are a work in progress and are continually working to make all experiences better for all students throughout the county. Which brings us to Whittemore Park Middle School, so we hopped back on the school bus to travel to the other side of the county.
Whittemore Park Middle School
Whittemore Park is in their third year of blended implementation. This middle school has a few more challenges than AAST. They do not have a new building - Whittemore Park still has the old school bell that rang in the 1950s and is set up for traditional factory-based model of schooling. They have brick and cinder block walls that proved to be a challenge for a WiFi signal. They have 870 middle school students and 90% of these students qualify for free and reduced lunch. These factors motivated change throughout Horry County and in Whittemore Park.
The shift to personalized learning at Whittemore Park began with the sixth grade but all teachers participated in professional development at the same time. Instructional leaders and coaches within the school stress the need for their teachers to start small, focusing on basic rotational model before they started integrating the technology and tools. Professional development for Whittemore Park teachers became customized for the teachers and community outreach is continual. The teaching and learning mindset shift, for both teachers and community, took time and is a continual focus area.
Like AAST had their “SMART” list on the front board, Whittemore Park had “iCAN,” which stands for; individualizing learning for every child, college and career readiness, aspirations and network of support. Teachers integrated digital content through many resources including, Alecks, Compass Learning, iReady and Achieve 3000.
Comparing AAST to Whittemore Park does not seem like a fair comparison. Students did not apply to attend Whittemore Park, they are in grade 6-8 rather than the 9-12 at AAST. Whittemore students also are all in the same rotational model in every class, compared to the “dynamic rotational model” at AAST. The truth is, this was a true public middle school where the students and the teachers began to change the game of schooling in a very traditional school. Change takes time and Whittemore Park is working hard to continually improve.
During my classroom visits, I saw various levels of blended implementation and understanding on the student and the teacher level. Some classrooms were effectively working with digital content and face-to-face rotations. Others seemed to struggle. It is important to note that I saw a two-minute glimpse into what the teachers were doing before I moved on to another class. And, the students had groups of strangers filter in and out of their class. As you can imagine, classroom management in middle school does not need any additional factors, and we were adding just that.
So, has the shift toward personalized learning at Whittemore Park effectively impacted student achievement? In their small staff collaboration room, there are two whiteboards indicating the gains in student achievement on the state test (the MAP). Across the tested areas (ELA and Math), Whittemore Park notes gains from 2.4 to 5.4. (I believe these are average student scores not percent proficient, but this is my assumption.) So things are looking up. Change is happening.
In my opinion, Whittemore Park is on the right track. I hope all of Horry County Schools is as well. I do believe that the core of good blended learning is good teaching. If it is difficult for a teacher to manage a traditional classroom, adding iPads and small group work will most likely make the situation worse. Whittemore Park faces challenges ahead as they roll blended learning out to more classrooms, but they have allies on their side. Administrators, instructional coaches and teachers all seem to be on the same side, fighting for good teaching and learning. It is with this attitude and combined vision that Whittemore Park will continue to see progress for their students.
All Students, Everyday
After the school visits, we had time to reflect and debrief with Horry County teachers and administrators. The change for the entire group of students begins with a shared vision. Holly, one of the instructional coaches, said they work for “all students, everyday.” The teachers work to make things better for the students and they take risks in a safe environment. If they fail, then at least they “fail forward.”
How is blended implementation going in your school or district? I am interested in hearing stories like these in our state. Share below in the comment section or connect with us!