Not Just Buzzwords: How Teachers Bring Big Ideas, Innovative Practices...

column | PK-12 School Models

Not Just Buzzwords: How Teachers Bring Big Ideas, Innovative Practices to Life

By Michael B. Horn (Columnist)     Jul 10, 2017

Not Just Buzzwords: How Teachers Bring Big Ideas, Innovative Practices to Life

As edtech buzzwords new and old swirl, it is easy for educators to get lost among the fads du jour, much less apply the principles behind lofty ideas to make meaningful progress for students.

In my visits to elementary, middle, and high schools around the country this past academic year, here are five tips I took away for how educators can get beyond the buzz to implementation.

1. Start where there is nothing

Picking a place to implement new ideas and models can paralyze a school. Why? Because trying unfamiliar tools and strategies where children are involved and the odds are uncertain can feel risky and unwise.

During visits to two schools in Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS), I was struck by how innovating where the alternative for students is nothing at all is still relevant, years after we wrote about the idea in “Disrupting Class” in 2008. Starting something in these areas means that, by definition, there is typically more upside than downside because the alternative is that students will have no other options.

Blended learning in credit-recovery courses and alternative schools—areas where students would often have no brick-and-mortar options—has gotten a bad rap because of questions about the rigor of the online learning experience. But the Office of Educational Options at BCPS works hard with its teachers to keep standards high so that students are not merely recovering credits to graduate, but also learning.

Teachers in BCPS’s schools are beginning to mix in projects that extend past the online curriculum that helps instill a solid—and critical—knowledge foundation. For example, in one English project, teacher ask students to choose a contemporary problem of interest to them. The students then research, collect and synthesize information from several sources, including a face-to-face interview with one of their primary sources. Finally, they develop a proposal to solve the problem and make a presentation on their proposal to the relevant audience.

In the Crossroads Center alternative school that I visited, the staff goes to extraordinary lengths to find students who have not come to school in a while (for any number of reasons) and support them both with their academics and broader challenges in their personal lives. The educators maintain a strong culture of high expectations even as they offer flexible scheduling and other class options to accommodate the varied lives of the students.

At some schools, educators don’t take what they learn in alternative settings to improve mainstream classes. That’s not the case at BCPS, however, which has established what it calls “SPARC” courses— School Programs for the Acceleration and Recovery of Credits—throughout its high schools. All students in those high schools have the opportunity to take SPARC courses for recovery or advancement—and over 50 percent of the Class of 2016 graduates did.

From this base, Chesapeake High School, for example, is experimenting with blended learning throughout the school and allowing teachers more freedom to innovate. The “lighthouse” school—a BCPS term for a school on a two-year plan to reinvent itself—has already seen striking results. Eight percent of entering students are on grade level, but by graduation, an estimated 80-plus percent are. The school’s graduating class this summer had an 89.8 percent graduation rate—an impressive feat given that 70 percent of students are on free-and-reduced lunch and anywhere from 12 to 15 percent are in special education.

2. Go further and deeper

One of the debates within the emerging practice of competency-based learning is when students master a concept, should they move further ahead in the curriculum or, if they are ahead of the class, go deeper into that concept instead. For example, after mastering the the basics of states of matter in science, should a student progress to the next unit or conduct a series of experiments to deepen her understanding? At Achievement First’s Greenfield School in New Haven, educators cut cleverly through the debate by allowing students to do both.

The school maintains a minimum pace at which students must move. Struggling students receive more attention and support. But when students complete and master required standards, they have a choice. They can move ahead in the curriculum or, if a particular area has caught their fancy, dive deeper and learn more. The curriculum, built on Cortex, a learning management and student information system tool developed by InnovateEDU, offers specific—but limited—resources, activities, and objectives to allow students to explore a set of concepts more deeply before they move forward.

3. Sweat the school culture

Culture matters more than technology. But a frequent refrain from some district blended-learning leaders is that they cannot replicate charter school models with coherent cultures throughout all classrooms because in a district school, each teacher has significant autonomy to create his or her own classroom environment. Regulations and work rules, leaders say, inhibit the ability to create a school with one strong culture as opposed to, say, 24 distinct ones in each classroom.

My visit to Maple Hill Elementary School in the Enlarged City School District of Middletown, NY blew that notion to shreds. From classroom to classroom the models were the same and the culture was strong, tight and consistent. Routines were crisp. Students understood expectations and, at all ages, could articulate not just what they were working on, but often why. I could never tell whether I was in a classroom with struggling or accelerated students. Each had a plan personalized to his or her needs with teachers who were working hard in small-group settings.

The principal, Amy Creeden, is often found in the classrooms supporting her teachers. Also of note was how the district developed a comprehensive, whole-district rollout plan for blended learning with considerable professional development and co-design sessions with teachers. Involving all stakeholders in the planning from the get-go was key, I bet, to creating a consistent culture that laid the foundation for the strong results the district has seen with students in blended-learning classrooms.

4. Don’t let technology mishaps scare you

Increased reliance on technology, some rightly fear, can result in computer crashes and outages that lead to difficult (and embarrassing) situations. Ryan Connole, dean of students at Providence’s DelSesto Middle School, offered a contrary perspective. Connole, a member of the leadership team implementing Summit Learning at the school, said that one of the benefits of moving to blended learning is no longer having to wait in a long line at the photocopy machine while someone fixes yet another paper jam. Technological mishaps, in other words, aren’t the exclusive domain of computers, and it’s possible to create work-arounds in both environments so learning won’t stop when the technology does. Perhaps this lack of fear helped educators at this school and others in the New England area using the Summit Learning platform make the extraordinary work of personalizing for all students look ordinary.

5. Give teachers control of their time

Marshall Simonds Middle School in the Burlington Public Schools district in Massachusetts is a 1-to-1 device school just starting to think about personalizing learning. While software tools are emerging to help school leaders re-configure schedules to personalize for each students’ distinct needs, school leaders at Marshall Simonds have taken a different tact.

To cut through the challenges of creating the ideal schedule for each student, they simply empowered the teachers to figure it out. The school sets clear times for certain elective classes—like P.E. and band—and then gives a team of teachers across a range of disciplines (English, math, science, social studies) a block of time in which they can figure out how students should best move through different learning experiences. This helps reduce scheduling done by the school administrators that is too rigid for teachers and students and, at the same time, reduces complexity for the school administrators. Teachers know their students best, so they can help them get what they need when they need it.

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