Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Natural Evolution to Blended Learning


     As I sit here and type this I am both excited and scared at the same time. I have agreed to take my AP American Government class and not only extend it to a whole year, but to blend it as well. I will meet with my students (4 sections so far) alternate days of M-W and T-Thurs and every other Friday. I honestly do believe that if you do not push yourself as a teacher, you become stale and complacent, fearing the smallest change in the profession. Having said that, did I bite off more than I can chew? There is a part of me that thinks I have to do this. I have to push myself because I have the vision of this being really awesome. It is getting from this point right now to that vision. But, as I ponder further, I realize too that I have been evolving my teaching towards a blended model anyhow. So when I was approached to have this ready for the fall (August 2015), I decided to push myself to make it so. (Jean-Luc would be proud!) So here is the path of how I became ready to blend. (Or at least what I have told myself I am ready for......)

     I have always tried to incorporate appropriate projects into my teaching. Whether it was US History or AP American Government, I tried to make the students do something other than same old same old boring textbook work. (More on that in #3!) Even when I first started using projects in my class, I always had two goals in mind. First, I did not want students to simply slap images on a poster board or a PowerPoint (Man do I hate that program...should be PowerCutandPaste!). I wanted meaning. I wanted depth. I wanted analysis. Sometimes this was a tall order since I was teaching young adults. (You know, teens!) The second goal I had was to ensure that group work did not turn into "Billy does all the work and we just put our names on it to get points" project. (Man that is a long title, no?) So I had to get smarter than the students and figure out a way to make them responsible for their own work and to use the group as a resource and a feedback mechanism. I think I have made it to the point where students can work collaboratively and still be responsible for their own work.

     I have always tried to push to get my AP American Government class to be a full year. I have also tried to incorporate more project based learning into the class as well. I always felt that just because it is an AP class doesn't mean that students cannot do meaningful and deep content related projects. The key was figuring out how to do that. To my principal's credit (S/O to Mr Wade) he approached me knowing I would probably jump at the chance to make the class a full year, even if there was a bit of a crunch to make it work. My response to him was "Well, I am already halfway there in terms of blending, so why not?" This was and still is true. What this did for me is it allowed me to return to project ideas that due to the short time span, I would simply not have the time for in a shortened semester. (Snow days are great, but second semester they can be a killer!) Now I am stoked to try to use those ideas to make the AP Gov blend a deep rich experience that challenges the students, but is also fun.

  If you are at all familiar with my #20time blog, (It is here!) you know that this semester long project has evolved to something more than I had ever hope for in a project. The amount of depth and application to the actual world these students are going in to has been a great thing to witness and to encourage in students. Interview a FBI agent? Have a phone interview with the Public Relations officer of the Mayor of Cleveland? Plan to try to get a windmill for the district? Um....yes please!! As I began to think about how I can incorporate this into the blended model I began to wonder if there was a different way to use the project. Then a colleague of mine sent me this Edutopia link on how some schools, in partnership with the University of Washington and the George Lucas Educational Foundation (May the Force Be With You!), are using the project based learning model in an AP class. (My class!) I was curious. Then I did some research and discovered that not only were they successful in integrating the PBL model in an AP class, but they had preliminary data to back up that success. They were smart and got student feedback which allowed them to adjust it after the first year. While their approach is slightly different than a true #20time model, the "engagement then tell" model was a fascinating idea and blended (pun intended) and infused it into the learning. My mind began to spin and I realized that all of my time and effort in the traditional #20time paradigm would be of a great service to me during the PBL incorporation of the blended class.

     I think my disdain for pure textbook learning began in college. My undergrad professors used books, yes, but they used them as a resource and not simply the be all end all. We discussed. We debated. We argued. We used other source material. So when I started teaching, I began to model that and found that I was not the typical Social Studies teacher. Then a few years after being moved up to the high school, I saw James Loewen speak at a local university and I read his Lies My Teacher Taught Me. Then I really began to"ditch the textbook." His book really inspired me to help the students search for the truth both with and mainly without the textbook. While I may use the textbook a little more in my AP classes, I find it both unnatural and irresponsible as an AP teacher of a subject like American Government to simply rely on the textbook as a means of delivering the material. How easy is it to find something in the world that is related to and directly involved with our government? I think it's pretty easy. Now infuse technology and a massive grant that alters the nature of my room and BOOM! My teaching becomes more and more blended.

          Technology is everywhere. In our phones, our cars, our homes, and our jobs. So I find it curious that as a teacher, I would shun the use of technology in my classroom. I have always tried to use it as much as I could where appropriate. I discovered Google Drive by accident a year before the district gave accounts to the students and staff. I was mad at Microsoft (which happens a lot) because I could not find a simple template for a calendar to use for my classroom. I found one by searching and BAM! I discovered that through my Android phone, I could use Google Drive to make and share documents. I was in love. (For a while I had a tech crush on Google. Swoon!) Then when the district gave students accounts too, it truly changed the way I taught and interacted with the students. However, the inclusion of these Google accounts added a dilemma. I needed the students to have access to technology on a daily basis. Sure we had some computer labs and a few mobile units, but not nearly enough to have them every day. Then during a curriculum revision, we were lucky enough to have the curriculum department push for the school to go 1 to 1 instead of buying textbooks. So we were lucky to get 2 sets of Chrome Books that made the use of Google Drive that much easier. I really dove into the idea of students having access to my class 24/7, collaboration between students and having discussions outside of the school day with my students via social media and via Google.

     Perfect timing. Sometimes things just work out. This past spring and summer the district applied for and got a grant that simply made my evolution to the blended model. The grant included making the school 1:1 and the district chose MacBook Airs (which I love!) No longer will I have to worry about whether the Chrome cart is available or trying to find it! While I did have a few students who did not have access to a device, this is great news! Plus now we all have the same device and no longer have to worry about Mac to PC issues. The second thing which is also fits with my teaching style and change is the grant allowed the district to make room renovations that would allow us to have more of a blended model. I was already taking myself out of the front of the room and having the students work collaboratively, so the addition of movable furniture and two Apple TVs that students can broadcast to simply gave me so many more options in my teaching. All of which are good options!

     While some might fear, resist and get angry at change I like it. I don't typically keep doing the same thing in my classroom time and time again until I find that it works for most if all of my students. So this level of change, while it can be challenging, I don't mind. Actually I prefer it. So once again, when my principal asks to go to the blended model in the fall, it just seemed like a natural progression and evolution to what I was doing anyways. Again, I heard the voice of Joy Kirr who said to me several times: just do it! If it's messy, it's okay. Fix it and make it better. So this decision for me, while challenging, is only a truly natural progression and evolution to my teaching. While I may be in the last third of my career, I animately refuse to become stale and dig a rut. Why would I? I have seen so many amazing results from my students with the evolution of my teaching, the blended model only gives me more opportunities to expand on this.

     I am truly excited to work through this idea. I have so many things that I want to try and to do. I know it won't be perfect the first time, but then again, if it was perfect, there would be no challenge. This type of learning gives students more of a taste of what college and life will be like: some independence with supports and the ability to learn in a way that is truly more in tune with how students learn and think. There will be a new Blog entry entitled The Blend coming soon!! It will combine the Reflective Teaching and the 20 Time blogs into one. Thanks for reading, Constant Reader! Hoo ah!