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Insights from a blended learning teacher

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Dec 18, 2015

I’ve written in the past about how teachers can benefit from blended learning, but these benefits are much more compelling when they are described by teachers themselves. In this post, I share some insights from a recent interview with Amy Carlson, a blended-learning coach at Highline School District in Seattle. Prior to becoming a coach, Amy taught 7th- and 8th-grade English language arts and social studies for nine years and art for three years. She also taught AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) and photography throughout her time teaching. In the interview, Amy explains how blended learning revolutionized her approach to teaching and empowered her to engage more deeply with her students.

Thomas: Why did you start blending online learning into your instruction?

Amy: My first year teaching art was pretty hard; a lot harder than I expected it to be. I thought that teaching English language arts would make teaching art a breeze, but it was actually the opposite. In art, I realized that managing all the supplies and the mess takes extra thought and time. Somedays, I felt like all I was really doing was cleaning up the art room every day.

My second year teaching art, I wanted to incorporate more art analysis into my lessons. So we would start out as a whole group analyzing and deconstructing a piece of art, and then the students would engage in actually doing art. But by the third year, I still felt like I wasn’t able to manage everything I wanted to in the 55-minute period and still didn’t have the rich learning environment I envisioned.

At that same time, I was part of a blended-learning leadership team at my school that had started the year before. I had been inspired by our work and had been thinking about what blended learning could mean for my classroom and how I could use a different model to accomplish all of the things that I wanted to in my 55-minute period. So I just started to explore and experiment. I loved this idea that students could be engaged in a variety of different learning activities in one class period.

I first started to think about how I wanted my students to be engaged in art. I wanted students to be able to analyze a piece of artwork and think about how it connected to the world, to themselves, and to other pieces of artwork so that they could start to make meaning. I wanted them to work with each other—to collaborate and discuss in a Socratic seminar style. I wanted them to continue to do art for art’s sake and to engage in art that was meaningful to them.

Thomas: Can you describe the blended-learning model you used with your students?

Amy: As a blended learning team we spent time researching and being inspired by different blended learning models. There are so many great ideas out there, I just needed to figure out what worked for me and my instructional needs.  I started out with a two station model and then after a couple months went to four stations with students completing two stations per day. This broke my groups down significantly. Every day I wanted students to be engaged in the work independently and also collaboratively. So, they would always have an independent station and work with a group.  In my teacher-directed group, we had a small Socratic seminar in which we would study a piece of art and then have rich discussions about it. In another group, I had students guiding their own art lessons, either through videos that I made, students made, or students found on the web. And then we had a collaborative station where students would have a big project they were working on. Most of it was hands-on: they were creating something together. Then, I also had another independent station that was often around word study or about the artist’s life.

The beauty of the online instruction was that students could stop the videos, they could work at their own pace, and they could find techniques that were interesting to them. It was just more individualized and allowed students to work within their own path. Before, when I was at the front of the room trying to teach them, it was difficult because not all kids work at the same speed, and so it felt really overwhelming as a teacher to try and teach them these particular art techniques. So it was at an independent station where they could guide their own learning.

Thomas: What did you find to be the biggest benefits of blended learning?

Amy: I think what technology allowed me to do as a teacher was that it freed me up to really have the greater, deeper conversations with my students, which led them to think critically, make connections to themselves, and to the world. It also allowed students to be engaged in art for art’s sake, to learn about things that they were interested in, guide their own learning, and collaborate together.

Blended learning really changed how I viewed the classroom and my role in the classroom. At first it felt a little uncomfortable because it seemed strange that I could really just have my students watch a video of me, another student, or someone else on the Internet showing them a particular technique or letting them find information online on their own. As somebody who had been teaching for so long, it felt a little too easy—that I wasn’t somehow doing my job. But then I also realized that it allowed me to be a part of something richer, to be a part of their thinking and in pushing their thinking—it felt so much more rewarding when I had a small group versus when I was trying to teach them as a whole class.

When I was teaching art to the whole class in a seminar-style or workshop-style, I wasn’t getting to hear everybody’s thinking. You would engage the kids who would volunteer or the kids who you called on, but you wouldn’t really hear the thinking of the group. When you’re able to have discussions in a small group, you really get to know your students and you’re able to push them in a way that you can’t when you’re working with a whole class. That was really valuable for me as a teacher. It helped me to build relationships with my students because I just got to know them as people and as students—to know what they cared about, were interested in, and how they thought about the world—and that was really powerful.

Thomas: One comment I often hear from teachers is that switching to blended learning is hard, but that once you do it you never want to go back. Did you find that to be true?

Amy: I can see why it might feel a little overwhelming at first, but eventually the model just makes so much sense. After I blended my classroom, whenever I would try to go back to whole class instruction it felt really overwhelming. I would have a whole class lesson and I would get really frustrated because I would notice, “oh, this kid isn’t listening,” and I would have to stop my lesson to try and re-engage him. But with blended learning, it’s really easy to have the learning continue when you have to manage students because the other students don’t depend on you to be the holder of all the information. That was another thing I loved about the model.

Thomas: What have you learned from your experience as a coach about helping other teachers adopt blended learning?

Amy: At first when I started coaching I thought, “I’ll just give them all these strategies. We’ll start out doing one-way streets and four-step transitions, and it’s all going to run beautifully. We’ll have these perfect little station models all over school.” But that is not how it works. I can’t hand anyone a manual and say, “hey, this is what you need to do,” because the work is complex and it takes knowing and understanding your school, the teachers, and the students. I really had to think about and I continue to think about how I can personalize and inspire learning for the entire school.

One strategy I have tried is to create personalized pathways for teachers that directed them to the supports they needed during our whole school meetings. Then, it’s really been the one-to-one support that is the most valuable—really getting to be a part of the work with them and supporting them in that way. I would encourage all teachers to feel inspired by change and growth, to be comfortable with a little messiness, and to try on a model that resonates with you. Take it slowly, one step at a time and know that it is ok to be learning along with your students. I was so thankful I tried on something new.

Thomas: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience using blended learning?

Amy: I didn’t talk much about this, but the ability to differentiate more effectively is one of the reasons I was inspired to learn more about blended learning; because I couldn’t meet all of the needs of my students; and I tried, you know, 10, 11 years. When I started using blended learning it was the first time that I actually felt like I was starting to meet the needs of my students. I felt like I knew my students in a way that I hadn’t before. I was also inspired by creating a model that fostered student leaders and allowed for students to be holders of the information. This is the power of the work.

Thomas Arnett

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.