This is the message I saw displayed on the screen as I walked into Ms. Popa’s sixth-grade classroom at Clear Fork Middle School. I made a brief visit to Clear Fork last year and heard that they were just beginning to do blended learning in their middle school grades, but had not been back yet to see how it was going. Ms. Popa graciously allowed me to visit her classroom last week to see blended learning in action.
June Popa is a 20-year veteran teacher. From watching her interaction with the students that day, I suspect that she has always been a top-of-the-line teacher. Her enthusiasm for teaching shines vividly in both the rapport she has with her students and the way she talks about teaching. For 19 years, she very successfully taught her students without the aid of computers. That all started to change about a year ago when Clear Fork got a grant to do blended learning in grades six through eight.
Ms. Popa will readily admit that she was not thrilled with the idea of changing her teaching methods. She claims that she did not even know how to turn on an iPad a year ago when she was informed that all her students would be receiving iPads, and she would be expected to use them in her instruction.
With some training to help her understand how this particular technology functions and the possibilities for enhancing both teaching and learning she now wholeheartedly embraces blended learning. In fact, if someone were to tell her that the iPads were going away and that she could no longer do blended learning, she would strongly protest.
The class was amazing to watch. On the board were both the learning objectives and the outline of activities for the period. During my visit the class finished a unit on world religions. The objective, as written on the board, was,” I can describe cultural practices and characteristics of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.” The students first did a self-assessment activity. Then they moved on to some review work to help them prepare for a test the following day.
The review was filled with graphics and links to information that kept the students engaged. Instead of writing down factual information to answer questions, students were expected to look for visual clues to distinguish which religion was being represented by a picture. Students were also expected to be able to give reasons or evidence for their answers. Embedded in this review were skills that extended beyond the content knowledge. For example, students downloaded and saved information to an app so that they would be able to access information from home even without Internet access. They were able to flip between visuals and questions which will be a needed test taking skill once all state assessments go online. They were taught study skills such as highlighting answers they were unsure of so they would know which information to review for the test. They were taught self-sufficiency by being directed to use online resources for checking how to spell or define words instead of just expecting the teacher to give them the information.
What was really cool though was when two students showed Ms. Popa a review test that they had designed and developed on their own. Just for fun. Without being assigned to do it. Their test was designed much like a game with hyperlinks connected to each multiple choice answer to indicate if the answers were right or wrong. The computer skills involved in doing this were not ones that Ms. Popa had taught, but she quickly gave the responsibility to those two students to teach the rest of the class how to create such a fun self-assessment.
While the students were doing their review, Ms. Popa quickly reviewed the scores on the self-assessment. Since the online quiz site she uses grades the assessment, she is able to quickly compare this day’s scores to their scores earlier in the week to see how prepared the students are for the test. All but one student had improved from earlier tests, demonstrating that the students had gained knowledge throughout the course of the week and were ready for the final test. Ms. Popa was then able to focus her attention on that one student to target his needs and give the extra support that was needed before the final test.
I asked Ms. Popa how teaching had changed for her since switching to blended learning. Though she mentioned numerous ways, I will highlight four.
- She spends much more time planning because she loves how the new technology supports her planning time. Ms. Popa loves her online page to be filled with rich content from the Internet. She constantly scours the Internet, even throughout the evening at home, to find video clips or age appropriate websites that will engage her students in the content. She has even been known to preview video clips while washing dishes. She loves this method of planning because she can see the results instantly in the way the content comes alive for students.
- Instead of being a deliverer of content, Ms. Popa now spends more time being a facilitator of learning. She still provides the content through all the planning that she does, but instead of delivering it lecture style, she helps the students navigate through the information and teaches them critical skills such as evaluating sources, paraphrasing for understanding, analyzing content, communicating through presentations, synthesizing information, and a host of other skills in addition to all the study skills and technology skills mentioned previously. The computer is a great tool for finding information and engaging the students, but it takes a skilled teacher to help the students interact with that information in meaningful ways.
- She can much more quickly assess student readiness for a test. Though she uses many other forms of formative assessment, the online quizzing site with scoring allows her to quickly see who is still struggling and with which areas. She can pull these students aside for additional instruction, targeting their specific needs.
- Students are much more engaged in the work. Not only are they more engaged while in the classroom, but when given a homework assignment on the computer, they are much more likely to complete it electronically than when they were given a standard paper and pencil assignment.
The important takeaway from her answer is that a computer is simply a tool, and a tool alone cannot fully teach a child. That tool in the hands of a skilled teacher though can open exciting new pathways to learning and enrich the teaching and learning experience.
This shift in teaching and learning has been a great success. It was a big step on Ms. Popa’s part to learn about the opportunities that would benefit her students and make every change necessary for success. This was a big leap of faith for Ms. Popa and a step toward reclaiming the promise of public education. She stepped up and outside of the norm to embrace something that has created a cultural shift in the students’ learning and appreciation for school and their own education.
Ms. Popa, her students and parents have seen what an investment in education can do. But since the investment was provided by a grant, Ms. Popa’s greatest fear is that once the grant money runs dry the blended learning will end. This is something we cannot allow to happen. In Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education, we work to ensure that our students have access to a rich full curriculum that engages them in learning. We must, at all levels – local, state and national – push for equitable funding that will both give our students access to technology and our teachers access to quality professional development. We have to continue to fight for the resources it takes to fulfill the promise of public education.