Monday Lunches, Hesitant Optimism and the Power of Numbers
Last July I arrived in San Jose with half of my belongings still en route from the east coast, a bit disoriented, and dove straight into professional development at the still studentless site of Alpha: Blanca Alvarado. The first week was filled with exciting discussions of the school’s vision and the promise of blended learning. Though I’d arrived with a fairly substantial knowledge of education and charter schools, blended learning and the subtle and substantial ways it was to affect my life and classroom were still unclear to me. Our first weeks featured a slew of presentations from our various content providers, which left me feeling, admittedly, a bit lost as to how these programs might impact my daily life and instruction. There was so much to learn about settings, assessments, learning paths, and data reports, I felt as though I was never going to get it all straight.
As we moved headfirst into summer school and a preliminary usage of some of Alpha’s new tools and technology, I was still a little uncertain as to the daily implementation of the various programs. Summer school was a time of many firsts: the first time my students logged in to our HLMS, the first time I would explain the power of blended learning in helping them “grow their brains,” and the first time I would attempt to make heads or tails of their progress. Although I was still uncertain of the extent to which my students were learning, one thing about blended learning was immediately certain: it allowed for my class of 38 students to suddenly feel much, much smaller. With one half the class working through personalized learning paths online, I was able to target my instruction better towards the other students, supporting their needs and focusing on higher skill activities. As time progressed, I grew more comfortable with the various content providers and better able to explain their intricacies and, as a result, increase student understanding and investment. I was able to show students their progress and how, in fact, I did know what they were up to even if I didn’t appear to be monitoring every button clicked or mouse moved. Still, I continued to question the extent to which the time online was impacting student achievement.
The fall brought a deepened knowledge of providers and greater belief in their capacities. Students spent nearly half of every day online. With all that time spent, my ears were filled to the brim with opinions from students of the different content, ranging from: “I think computers are great!” to “This is boring….” to “Why can’t I go on ST Math now?” It was informative and nice to see that certain students seemed to take to certain programs while others were adamant supporters of the alternatives. Six weeks into the school year my students and I set individual S.M.A.R.T. goals for them. The process forced them to take greater accountability for their time spent on computers and to commit to a more focused future. Though these goals were written down and students appeared to have a greater knowledge of their progress and skill acquisition, their and my understanding of how to hold ourselves to the predetermined goals was still a bit, well, nebulous.
All students grew more engaged when they understood what concepts they struggled with and had some ownership in choosing among content that met their needs.
Fast forward to the present moment, my students and I have become real and true data nerds. Our classroom is covered in tracking devices rooted in data provided by our online content providers. Students excitedly request (with perhaps a bit too much frequency) when we can next update them. My kids easily list off how many Accelerated Reader points they have accrued, their percent mastery on S.T. Math and how many articles they have read on Achieve 3000. Each week in my classroom, we focus on a different program and honor the students who have made the most progress within it. The celebration of these students has resulted in “special” Monday lunches, unique only in that students get to eat lunch in a small group with me as opposed to the bustling cafeteria. And yet the lunches have come to have a surprising amount of value to some students and serve as daily inspiration to focus and learn more. I’m excited about my students’ familiarity with their data and investment in their own progress, and with each passing week my faith in each provider’s ability to buttress and further student learning increases. My belief in the direct impact of the online content on students’ growth is solidified each time a student references an article read or a skill practiced. However, I’m still learning how to better leverage the tools our providers offer and analytically and comprehensively determine the programs’ short and long term effects.
I’m excited about a full semester in which students will be able to self-monitor, take pride in their progress, and to many, many Monday lunches to come. I’m excited to try new approaches, to struggle, to fail, and to learn. I’m excited to innovate. In the months and years ahead, my students and I will continue learning together and answering the questions that blended learning raises and whose answers are still to be determined: How can I be certain which online content is most effective, and to what degree? How can I help students take an even greater ownership over their own educations? What data should we focus on and how can I best work with these data (and ask students to do the same) when there isn’t a perfect tool to integrate and deliver this information? And what does all of this mean for my role as a teacher?
Maggie Brenner is a founding 6th grade teacher and Teach For America corps member at Alpha: Blanca Alvarado where she teaches all subjects in a self-contained classroom. She comes from New York City where she previously worked in operations for a network of charter schools and before that for the New York City Department of Education.