When asked about the biggest benefit of introducing technology in the classroom, Aspire Titan principal Kim Benaraw said, “Our kids are reading more.”
“Reading online?” I asked.
“No, reading real books,” Benaraw explains. “We see more offline reading and writing in class.”
Pitting teachers against education technology makes for salacious headlines. But this false choice is designed to stir up negative emotions and distract from promising innovations. The real question is, can we create new learning environments where the “whole” of the student experience--offline, online and everything in between--is better than what existed before?
Aspire Titan is a K-5 public charter school in Huntington Park, CA serving 324 students (100% Hispanic / 96% free and reduced lunch). The school is in its second year of implementing a classroom model where, in its simplest form, students rotate among three centers during literacy and math: 1) teacher-led small group lessons, 2) independent reading and writing and 3) independent online work.
Small Group Lessons
Teachers dramatically shifted their instruction by increasing critical reading and text-based discussions from once-a-week, as required by the home office, to a daily offering — a five-fold increase. This shift has profound implications for students. Nationally-renowned reading expert Dr. Richard Allington found that the highest-performing classrooms spend the most time, sometimes as much as 70% of class time, reading and responding to what they read, leading many educators to monitor the ratio of authentic reading and writing to “other stuff.” (qtd. in Schmoker, Results Now. 98-99). Aspire used its new classroom model to aggressively improve its ratio of authentic reading to “stuff.”
The new classroom model also resulted in more frequent small group instruction. During the recession, Aspire Titan’s class sizes ballooned from 22 to 26 students in the early grades. The new model ensures that students receive face-to-face instruction in groups as small as four and never more than half the class at once.
Independent / Partner Reading
Students began to read more in the independent / partner reading area. Principal Benaraw explained that Aspire Titan, like many schools, used to have Drop Everything And Read (DEAR) time carved out each day. For many students, it felt more like a chore as opposed to a special time to enjoy the magic of reading.
The staff created more supports to help students (example shown below) and relaunched the effort to nurture more authentic reading. The result: kids are enjoying reading more. On average, the time spent reading increased from 30 to 50 minutes a day. With that extra 20 minutes, students are finding themselves more engaged in buddy reading or independent reading of books of their choice.
Aspire Titan implemented 24 routines and procedures so students clearly know what is expected of them during independent online learning. In this school, online learning replaces static worksheets and requires less planning from teachers, enabling them allocate more of their time to planning small group, face-to-face instruction on a group-by-group basis.
From the student perspective, they have the opportunity to engage in differentiated activities and receive feedback as they work.
The school is in the very preliminary stages of incorporating student achievement data from online learning programs during grade-level data talks.
So far, the overall focus on literacy appears to be working. The percent of students reading at grade level on winter benchmark assessments has increased 23 points over the last two years. Interestingly, the schools state test results fell slightly in the 2012-2013 school year, the first year of implementation, as teachers focused less on discrete, skills-based instruction. However, interim assessments surged back this year, reaching the school’s highest performance ever, giving the staff confidence that their efforts are making a difference for students.
When asked to put her finger on the role education technology is playing in the school’s success, Principal Benaraw noted:
“We are seeing better classroom culture and behavior [in the new model], especially in K-2. The shift in classroom environment helped with independent reading. We got kids loving to read. We also see a lot richer discourse between students and teachers. Technology helped create the conditions for better offline instruction. Now we are focused on making the online time even more effective. School culture and leadership made a big difference in ensuring the new model is done well. If we believe it will work, the kids will learn.”
There is no inherent magic in using technology for technology’s sake. People don’t buy products from Amazon because they want to use a computer when they shop or “blend” their shopping, so to speak. They buy from Amazon because it is a great place to shop.
Aspire Titan wants to be a great place to be a student, to be a reader, to be a learner. Whether the learning occurs online or offline is besides the point. Aspire leaders asked themselves, “How can we make the entire school experience better for our children?”
Postscript: Under the Hood
Aspire Titan currently uses three online programs: Dreambox Learning for math, MyOn and i-Ready for reading. Students access online curricula using a single sign-on via Education Elements Student LaunchPad. Classrooms are equipped with 13-15 Windows laptops each.
Students spend 30 minutes a day on Dreambox Learning and 30 minutes per day on i-Ready, which is the amount of time Aspire believes is necessary to bolster student learning. In addition, students spend an average of 20 minutes on MyOn, listening to and reading books of their choice.
Every month, teachers participate in a blended learning data talk with the Blended Learning Coordinator Jhonn Hernandez. In these data talks, teachers analyze successes and challenges of each program and together they make decisions on how to support students and increase success rates on the programs. Since the implementation of data talks at the beginning of the school year, teachers have seen an increase in both individual student and whole class performance.Editor's Note: Alex Hernandez works for the Charter School Growth Fund. Charter School Growth Fund is a philanthropic supporter of Aspire Public Schools, a non-profit operator of public charter schools in California and Tennessee.