Here in “Little Rhody,” the general rule is that if it takes longer than 20 minutes to get anywhere, then your destination is “Too fah.” So, the state’s diminutive size isn’t that much of an advantage when trying to spread blended learning. Fortunately, I discovered the Fuse RI initiative, a two-year fellowship for RI educators, in which Fuse RI Fellows (as they are called) will assist Local Education Agencies to embrace technology and blended learning. And given the Rhode Island Department of Education’s (RIDE) recent partnership with The Learning Accelerator, this fellowship comes at a perfect time.
Launched by the Highlander Institute and funded by The Learning Accelerator, Fuse RI strives to share, implement, evaluate, and scale blended learning by working with educators and districts across the state. The Highlander Institute has assembled a "dream team" of 29 Fuse RI Fellows--educators and administrators from schools around Rhode Island--each of whom will partner with another district (separate from the one they work in) and collaborate with that district to assess readiness, analyze data, and help disseminate best blended learning practices based on each district’s specific needs.
This summer, the Fuse RI Fellows attended a “boot-camp” in which they engaged in a fully “blended learning” professional development workshop. The educators were given a playlist of objectives that could be executed at their own pace; included in those playlists were videos that shared important information, online quizzes to check for understanding, collaborative research assignments, written reflections, live interview simulations, “office hours” during which staff members were available to discuss the material, discussion groups, and opportunities to play and bond with like minded colleagues.
Among the group of Fellows were Tony Kulla, a high school mathematics teacher at Blackstone Academy Charter School, and myself, Carrie Sorensen, a first grade teacher at Highlander Charter School. Having recently completed the first summer phase of the Fuse Fellow training and now returning to own own classrooms, Tony and I each have some new ideas on what technology in the classroom can do for their students. Curious to hear what we learned? Check out our recent conversation reflecting on the Fuse RI experience and big takeaways that we’re implementing this year.
Tony: Even after only two days of “bootcamp” training, I’m feeling inspired. I haven’t been assigned a district yet, but I’ve decided to try to break down walls at my own school now that my year has started at Blackstone Academy Charter School.
Carrie: Really? What are you doing?
Tony: We have a silent sustained reading program called “Read On” where everyone in the school reads for pleasure during the advisory period on Tuesdays and Thursdays. During summer PD, the ELA department asked for our help in energizing the program, which has become a bit routine. So I came up with the idea of creating a Goodreads.com group for the school. I’ve been recruiting the teachers to sign up!
Carrie: That sounds fantastic. How’s it going?
Tony: So far so good, but I’ve had to be a bit of a bulldog (our school mascot) to get my colleagues signed up with a profile photo and a “currently reading” book. We have a great staff, but we’re all so busy, so I understand. But it’s helped me see how much tenacity is required to move people from their comfort zone. I’m sure it will be easier with the students! How has the “bootcamp” affected your start to the school year?
Carrie: For me, that Fuse training felt a bit like summer camp. Friendships were formed quickly, and those two days flew by. It was pretty thrilling to be in a room with such a diverse group of educators, all of whom had expertise and were willing to share and collaborate. I think that the mastery-based, self-paced model of the workshop really allowed everyone to work to their full potential. I want to bring those ideas of cooperative and non-traditional learning opportunities to my classroom.
Tony: I have a few ideas about what that could look like with high school students, but what does that mean for first graders?
Carrie: We are looking to expand our audience. When students complete a paper and pencil math assignment and I’m the only one that looks at it, the payoff is limited. But if we change the format and have students working collaboratively to create a video (I often use Educreations for this kind of thing), we up the ante. The video features not only the outcome, but also the process. Then, we can share that video on our class blog or via Twitter, giving the students opportunities for feedback from a global audience. We also have an Instagram account and will be creating digital portfolios.
Tony: It seems that despite the age gap of our students, we have some things in common. We’re using technology to help students communicate.
Carrie: It’s true. So often when people think of technology in classrooms, they imagine a line of kids hooked up to headphones staring at a screen, but that really doesn’t have to be the case. Your Goodreads.com program helps students connect with and learn more about one another and their teachers. In my class, student engagement and the depth of learning are increased exponentially when students use their devices to create and share, rather than just consume.
So, now that the initial training has been completed, and the Fuse RI program has an inspired cohort of tech savvy educators on board, what comes next? The Fuse RI Fellows will kick off the school year with a new playlist of objectives. On the plate will be the exploration of partnering districts and agencies, opportunities for in-school observations, and of course, the all-important building of relationships.