“There's no one silver bullet in what's going to work for our kids.”
Such are the words of Rebekah Kim, principal of Midway Elementary, a Title 1 blended learning school in the greater Seattle, WA area that has contracts with not two or three--but eight--literacy and math products.
Over 90% of Midway’s 630 K-6 students qualify for free and/or reduced lunch. This diverse student community includes 54% Latino/Hispanic students and 40-45% English language learners. For these students, having a differentiated instructional program can be key to success.
But what tools can teachers to use to meet varying student needs? Kim’s answer: there is no “right one.” That’s why Midway has eight different software programs for math and literacy alone.
“Different tools have different purposes,” she says, believing that when it comes to using technology, giving teachers options to pick a program that fits a student’s unique needs can make or break a blended classroom lesson.
Let’s take a look at Midway’s edtech toolbox and manual.
THE TOOLBOX: Searching for the right tools
Highline participates in a personalized learning initiative led by the Puget Sound Educational Service District and Pacific Lutheran University--and funded by the Gates Foundation--called BlendEd. Through this program, Midway Elementary and Cascade Middle School, another member of the Highline family, spent the 2013-2014 year researching blended learning, visiting other schools and deciding how to implement a station rotation model with devices.
Midway, which uses Netbooks, Chromebooks, and iPads in grades K-2 and 1:1 Chromebooks in grades 3-6, models its program after others around the country: Aspire Public Schools’ (CA) station rotation model, Mooresville Graded School District’s (NC) 1:1 transition, and Alliance’s (CA) blended literacy classes, to name a few.
As Kim and her team toured these schools and attended education technology conferences, she saw that variety and flexibility was critical when it came to getting teacher buy-in for blended learning efforts. “We wanted to give them a little freedom and flexibility to gain buy-in and avoid making a negative impact on the school culture,” Kim explains.
Midway already had access to ST Math, Think Through Math, Imagine Learning and myON as part of district-wide licenses. But throughout spring and summer of 2014, Midway began to add other math and literacy tools: Reflex Math, Raz-Kids, Achieve 3000 and Lexia Learning. With ingenious budgeting, the school was able to allocate funds from sources like Race to the Top and Title 1 to support these purchases. Kim adds that “we used our building-based budget when we knew it wasn't going to be district-brought.”
With this arsenal of tools, how does Midway decide which ones are appropriate for its students?
Kim has also asked that question herself: “You have to wonder--some charters schools have a ton of tools, but are they being used with real fidelity and effectiveness?”
In preparation for the 2014-15 school year, Kim and her “Blended Learning Team” (BLT)--a group of teachers, learning specialists, administrators and parents--assembled a differentiation plan for how each tool can best serve every student, based on the following questions:
- What is the tool’s instructional goal?
- Who would be the students that would benefit from this tool?
- What are the external measures that we'll use to assess if the program is effective?
These questions help teachers define whether a tool is best used for instruction, intervention or practice. Take, for example, math. “ST Math is an instructional program because it's adaptive, while Think Through Math is more based on problem-solving and algebra readiness,” Kim says. “Then, you have Reflex, which can be used as intervention or an enrichment, depending on what computational skills that grade level requires.
Oftentimes, instructional strategies are modeled after a RTI (Response to Intervention) diagram, which categorizes instructional practices based on a student’s performance--whether they’re performing at grade-level, or behind. The Highline Teaching and Learning Department decided to adapt the RTI model in 2014 into a “multi-tiered system of support,” organizing edtech and curriculum tools in a way that show teachers how to support student learning.
However, while this approach focuses on helping struggling students catch up, it doesn’t address how to help students who are ahead of the curve and ready for more challenging instruction.
So, Kim and her team personalized it for their students.
THE TOOL MANUAL: Providing a multi-tiered system of support
“What's so great about this new diagram is that it's not limited to just the students that are having challenges. It's really giving those kids above grade level the attention they need,” says third grade teacher and Blended Learning Team member, Kolleen Bourdage. “Teachers were concerned about that.”
Math teachers can consult the diagram above when attempting to reach students at different levels--from “intensive intervention” to “intensive extension”--and choosing different tools available for support: ST Math, Think Through Math, and Reflex Math, all aligned to the district’s Math in Focus curriculum.
“The tools are differentiated. We’re trying to be strategic about the use of different tools,” Kim explains, pointing out that the diagram also designates what grade level each tool is appropriate for.
For Bourdage, this is incredibly helpful for deciding what to use, especially when making the transition to blended learning. “At first, it's really overwhelming [to use these tools] because it’s changing the way you look at your classroom. It's different than creating lesson-planning worksheets,” Bourdage says. “But once you begin to understand the purpose of what each program is supposed to do, it's easier to wrap your brain around where to use it in the classroom.”
Here’s the framework for literacy tools:
For K-6 teachers, Raz-Kids provides basic vocabulary exercises and is useful for intervention, while Lexia is a core adaptive instructional program. But once students move up, book library myON and adaptive platform Achieve3000 become the tools that teachers can use—should they choose to.
Kim offers teachers flexibility to bring concerns to her about certain programs, and give input into the application of this framework. In fact, Kim explains that teachers are encouraged to share their questions or concerns through teacher leaders on the Blended Learning Team.
“With Achieve3000, it's a lot more advanced, with nonfiction text,” Bourdage shares. “I’ve had the freedom to say, ‘I think there's a lot of value in it, but I'm not sure if third graders are ready for it at the beginning of the year. How about integrating it little by little throughout the year?’”
THE GUIDES: Giving differentiated professional development
At Midway, differentiation comes into play as strongly with teacher learning as it does with differentiating instruction for students. “What we’re working on right now is a menu of options for teachers so that they can find the PD that’s most relevant to their needs,” Kim says.
Midway educators receive different trainings on tools depending on what they want, and when they want it. While company trainers from core programs like Achieve3000 have come in to show teachers how to use the products, Midway’s literacy and math specialists have held training sessions for ST Math, Reflex, and myON. Additionally, Bourdage and Jessica Ma, Midway’s literacy interventionist, hold weekly sessions where teachers get help with technology, on everything from these math and literacy tools to Google Docs.
Midway’s next task is figuring how to evaluate the success of its many-tools approach. Kim says the assessment will include a mix of Smarter Balanced scores, district benchmark assessments aligned to Common Core and data reports from the tool dashboards. But right now, Midway's biggest focus is on getting teachers and students comfortable with using the tools.
“The understanding that there's a big learning curve for teachers has been established,” Bourdage shares, adding, “Rebekah [Kim] understands that we're all at different places… She wants to provide training to reach people at different levels.”