The Magic Ingredient in Milpitas' Blend: Teacher-Driven Design

The Magic Ingredient in Milpitas' Blend: Teacher-Driven Design

“Whoa.”  Several visitors simultaneously whispered the same assessment upon entering Burnett Elementary’s Room 303 in Milpitas, CA.

The teacher, Ms. Alison Elizondo, greeted our tour group. Behind her, 33 4th graders were sprawled in groups across the room. Two huddled around a Chromebook listening to a third explain some point of a paused Khan Academy video. Another pair used an iPad to record their own math lesson. Half a dozen typed away independently, writing, as we soon learned, narratives of how to solve sample word problems they themselves had developed. A large bulletin board displayed each student’s personal math objectives for the year.  Elizondo herself was coaching one single student when we entered, with her back to the class. She prefers sitting that way to show trust.

As we milled about the room, visitors began exchanging furtive glances like prospectors discovering the Mother Lode.  A purposeful buzz permeated the tech-heavy class as 8- and 9-years olds taught each other the finer points of arithmetic.

Burnett Elementary is a Title I public school with 50% immigrant population in the Milpitas school district, whose bottom-up approach to going blended we profiled earlier this week. That approach, which gives teachers a big say in what tech to use and how, seems to be yielding positive results in Room 303. Eighty percent of Elizondo’s students were proficient by the end of last year, and the 4th grade as a whole had the highest math proficiency rates in the school.

The district let Elizondo take the lead on creating her blended rotational model, even allowing her to dictate hardware requirements. She ended up with a rather fine-tuned setup: 18 Chromebooks and 2 iPads, with access to Khan Academy and EduCreations. Elizondo developed the model with a single goal in mind: free the teacher up for more one-on-one coaching time. Along the way, she's training her students to teach themselves, focusing on skills like goal-setting, progress tracking and checking for mastery.

To keep students meaningfully occupied as she coaches, Elizondo crafted 4 stations, with students spending 20 minutes at each in a continuous cycle. The nature and number of stations evolved last year as a result of Elizondo's intuition. “Kids would get bored just doing Khan for 80 minutes,” she says.  In one station, students pair up, identify the most advanced math concept they've both mastered on Khan Academy, and create a tutorial for that concept together on Educreations. In another, they use Khan Academy to push forward their mastery, racking up "Energy Points" and badges, which Elizondo celebrates with gusto. In a third, students create rigorous math problems reflecting the concepts they've recently grasped. A fourth has them working on advanced performance tasks in groups, to practice transferance. 

Elizondo speaks a lot about intrinsic motivation, goals, feedback and metacognition, both with her students and with visitors (she’s been getting a lot recently).  At the end of each 80-minute block, her class debriefs together to discuss what went well (“Matthew was great at helping me understand how to round decimals,” is one example Elizondo cites), where to improve (“we were too loud in transitions”), and what they need from Elizondo (“coach more kids for fewer minutes each”).

That spirit of reflection could serve other districts well, especially after an autumn that brought news of abortive 1-to1 tablet implementations around the country. One survey indicates most LAUSD teachers would prefer to discontinue their district's huge iPad program, where the devices seem a colossal source of distraction. The productive buzz in Room 303 suggests districts might do well to let teachers design their own blended classrooms before sending in those technology purchases orders.

Read more about Elizondo's class here and here, and check out her blog posts here.

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