Lessons from a Digital Curriculum: Does One Size Fit All?
I once had a brilliant professor who explained the intricacies of building a solid, robust curriculum that included clear objectives, multiple assessments, and research-based instructional strategies with consideration to engagement, differentiation, and, oh, the students you were actually teaching. This class, of course, was beyond what we learn in a teacher preparation program, and I knew that building a curriculum, an effective one, took years of practice, expertise, and hard work.
In September of 2012, I was one of the founding staff members of USC Hybrid High School. The goal was to incorporate a blended learning curriculum primarily driven by Apex Learning, a curriculum that we often referred to as “the digital textbook of the future.” Apex uses multimedia to introduce concepts such as engaging videos, text to speech capabilities, hyperlinked vocabulary, and various assessments such as multiple choice exams, essays, short answer, journal responses, and discussion boards. At first glance, Apex appears to be a teacher’s dream. It includes all the components of what we might consider an effective curriculum. That is, until you put it in front of students.
As someone who studied curriculum at USC, I knew even before the students began the first day that I needed to make major modifications. There was something unnatural about clicking through lessons, listening to videos, and responding to discussion boards. It was lacking something, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Once the students arrived, I was tasked with teaching two groups. One class consisted of students with special needs. The IEPs described students with emotional disturbance, traumatic brain injuries, and specific learning disabilities. The second class addressed long term English Language Learners, or students who had lived in the country for several years but had yet to redesignate as English proficient and had struggled with the academic language necessary to be successful in the classroom. With two completely different groups of students and one digital curriculum, I was flooded with questions. Namely, how could one curriculum meet everyone’s needs?
The answer: it can’t. Any teacher who has been assigned a textbook understands that curriculum from a box is not a one size fits all solution. Even with all the bells and whistles of a digital curriculum, I was met with serious challenges, and visions of my professor danced in my head. I began the grueling task of teacher and curriculum modifier and what follows are my lessons learned.
I will tell you that after careful consideration, I decided that Apex was not going to work for my students with special needs, many of whom were reading at a second to fourth grade reading level in the 9th grade. To directly address their reading deficiencies, I implemented the Reading Apprenticeship approach and culturally relevant pedagogy. We read rich literature that my students identified with, while I modeled what effective readers do with varied reading strategies. We had lively discussions, and I integrated numerous web-based applications such as Evernote, Edublogs, Edmodo, Glogster, and the Google suite of apps along with other fabulous ed tech applications to enhance learning in the classroom. I won’t romanticize this. It was hard work, but once I determined the course of action that would make a difference in my students’ social, emotional, and academic performance while adhering to a “blended” learning model, I felt a sense of pride in taking ownership of the curriculum rather than relying on Apex to do all the work. My other class, however, was a different story.
After examining the suite of Apex courses, I chose the Introduction to Literature and Composition, the Literacy Advantage version, which addressed the same standards and assessments as the general course, but provided additional scaffolded instruction more suited to ELLs. The lessons were chunked into manageable pieces and broken up with interactive games and activities. The primary concern was that my students couldn’t connect to it and I complained endlessly that it lacked any cultural relevance that would appeal to my mostly Latino and African American students. In addition, while I commend Apex for its scaffolded instruction, the study sheets that accompany the lessons were, in a word, horrible. They were fill-in-the-blank worksheets that often confused my students. I quickly went to work modifying the lessons so my students would stay focused and engaged.
The science and history teacher noticed similar problems with the study sheets and we worked tirelessly to apply our pedagogical content knowledge to a digital framework. I incorporated vocabulary and reading graphic organizers, concept maps, and stops for direct instruction and group collaboration. I would allow Apex to deliver the concepts, but assigning literature outside of Apex proved difficult when assessments would not line up with the content, so I began creating my own teacher created assessments. Again, it was a difficult road where students often asked, if this is a school designed to work at your own pace, why are you stopping us? It was a question we struggled with as well, but the bottom line was, as educators, we did what we thought was best.
In short, blending means going beyond giving students a digital curriculum in a regular classroom. Blending is taking the best of digital programs and incorporating traditional pedagogical strategies. As educators, we cannot dismiss what we know and rely completely on the software to do all the work.
I’m not sure if my professor would be proud of me and the work that I did, and it will still take years of practice and expertise to get blended learning right. USC Hybrid High School version 2.0 is underway, and building an effective blended curriculum is an ever-evolving challenge. Even though there is still much to learn, I do know that I will continue to take the best of both worlds, digital and traditional, and find the sweet spot that will ultimately help students achieve success.