Not the Algebra They Were Expecting: An Exploration of the Blended Algebra Workshop
Thirty-two dejected, would-be 10th graders amble into the first day of summer school algebra. The joviality of a few troublemakers almost masks the general malaise behind all of their eyes. Summer school sucks. Each knows it, yet each is nonetheless caught in limbo between 9th and 10th grade – subject now to 5 weeks of mandatory summer school algebra.
For two hours every day for five weeks, they must complete practice problems, take quizzes and exams and do homework for a course they’ve just recently failed. Success is their ticket to 10th grade. Fail summer school and it means another lap around 9th grade.
For many of these students, major gaps and deficiencies in elementary and pre-algebra math skills are persistent roadblocks preventing them from grasping algebraic concepts. These are skills they have either never learned or those they’ve never had the adequate resources to master.
Yet others find themselves on the summer school roster because of a lack of grit and persistence that has defined their math careers. These students may have passed entire quarters of the course throughout the school year, maybe even passed the exit exam. But when it came time to check homework, classwork or turn in a project they had nothing.
The conflicting and diverse needs of these algebra-deficient, hopeful 10th graders demands an approach beyond the “drill and kill” teaching method and lecture-heavy math classes they’ve likely struggled through. Instead what they need is a Blended Algebra Workshop.
As day one is underway, what each student experiences is not the traditional Algebra classroom of one teacher and 30 students. Instead they see two teachers sharing two classrooms, rotating groups of 10 students between three dynamic, 30-minute stations.
In one room Mr. Webster delivers the students’ first small-group lecture. Rather than 30 students in one room, there is a 5-8 minute lecture with guided notes followed by student-led and teacher-coached practice problems on the whiteboard. A half hour into class, the timer sounds and students switch to the next station.
In the second room, I oversee Station 3, Khan Academy, and am the coach and tutor for Station 2, the small-group collaborative station. At Station 2, each student chooses one problem from the pre-algebra diagnostic test that they are struggling with. Then in groups of 3-4 students, they work through the problems together, using whiteboard space and scratch paper, coaching one another.
At Station 3 students create their own Khan Academy account, watch the first pre-algebra skills video, and then begin practicing problems on fractions, decimals and percentages. They work independently and at their own pace.
Day one of the Blended Algebra Workshop is both exhausting and exhilarating. Though this workshop model will not be the overnight silver bullet for math proficiency it has undoubtedly opened students’ minds to a different flow and feeling about math class. Moreover, the individualized pace in pursuit of mastery has the potential to empower students to explore new ways of learning and equip them to pass this summer school algebra course and instill in them something I believe no other math class ever has: confidence.
I am left with this nagging question: how can this blended workshop model be implemented successfully during the regular school year when math teachers no longer have the freedom of two instructors and two classrooms per 30 students? What other arrangements or allocations of resources could still make this station rotation blended workshop model feasible?