AASA Conference Recap: Blended Learning²

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This post was written by guest blogger, Romain Bertrand. Romain is a  Math Multi Classroom Leader at Ranson Middle School in Charlotte, NC. 

When Compass Learning invited us to present with them at the AASA Conference in Nashville, my principal Alison Harris and I were absolutely thrilled. At Ranson IB, a Charlotte Mecklenburg middle school, part of the Project LIFT initiative, we have been trail blazing for the past 18 month ways to use Compass Learning Odyssey through blended learning rotation models. We felt ready to share at the National Conference on Education some crucial tips that could help other schools or districts embark on this journey. We were of course also excited to spend time in Music City and meet other school leaders interested by the prospect of transforming the way we teach with technology.

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The latter, unfortunately did not happen, as a snow storm of historic proportions kept us “trapped” in our Charlotte homes for 3 days. When we realized that we were not going to make it to Nashville, it took my principal a few minutes to come up with this brilliant idea: “We are supposed to present on the power of blending the learning. The Compass Learning team is already there in Nashville We obviously won’t make it but why don’t we jointly present using Google Hangouts? What can be a better way to make our point…to the power of 2?”

Why Blended Learning?

Let’s start by taking a quick 18 months flashback and share with you the vision that led us to implement blended learning at Ranson IB. Our school is a large Title 1 middle school of 1200 students, which for years has been working relentlessly toward improving student achievement. Among the multiple challenges we face year in and year out are:

  • The need to differentiate our instruction to meet the needs of all our students
  • The difficulty to do so in traditional whole group setting
  • The necessity to attract and retain the best teachers
  • The need to expand the impact of these great teachers beyond their classroom walls

Blended Learning rotation models presented us with a unique opportunity to offer our students different learning paths that could enable them to work at the pace and the level they needed at a given time. These paths could be there during their online learning time but also when students would work in smaller groups with their teachers. Another huge advantage we saw in Blended Learning was the ability to create new job models enabling teacher leaders to expand their impact through the Blended Learning process. Supported by Public Impact we started building the foundation of what we call an Opportunity Culture.

Why Compass Learning Odyssey?

In the summer of 2012, I had the luxury to be able to test run a few math online resources before deciding on a “go to site.” Quickly Odyssey became the obvious choice for us. 18 months later, we feel like we made the right decision and here is why:

  • The wealth of Common Core aligned activities is impressive
  • The activities are built like true classroom lesson plans: Short and engaging mini lesson, interactive guided practice and independent practice, exit ticket to gather essential data
  • The interface is extremely user-friendly, both for students and teachers
  • Problem based activities as well as writing tools enrich this already deep curriculum

One key aspect of Odyssey that gets sometimes overlooked is that, while it offers to pre-assess your students and design automatic learning paths for them, it still puts teachers in the driving seat of the evaluation and selection of activities. We love being able to use Odyssey as you would use an excellent curriculum: Evaluate, select what works best for your students, assign activities and analyze the data.

Sharing Lessons Learned via Google Hangouts

Back to Saturday, February 16th 2014, 8:45 am. Ms. Harris and I are both in our respective kitchens, getting ready to talk to an invisible crowd. On the other end of the call, Linda Kraft is trouble shooting every single technical issue and preparing for plan B, C and D, in case something stops working. We hear Principals and District Leaders coming in. 15 minutes later we are live, “blending” our two presentations.

After Linda’s introduction to Blended Learning and the different rotation models, Ms. Harris shares with the group our vision, its articulation with Opportunity Culture and the reality of these models in the everyday life of a buzzing middle school. As she speaks, I decide to start live tweeting her best comments (always a great idea when you present with your principal). Next thing you know, several people attending the presentation in Nashville start tweeting at us some feedback and questions, making the whole experience a lot more interactive and less intimidating. When it is my turn to share five key lessons learned through our first year of implementation, I almost forget that I am talking from my kitchen, with a homemade mocha in hand.

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The Q&A session following the presentation provides us with a great opportunity to tell some important truths about this journey: to keep it short and sweet, be prepared to learn a lot the hard way, through trial and error. One morning you might have half of your 800 scholars waiting for the school server to come back to life while the teachers try to continue teaching the rest of their students. Another time you might have assigned the same activities to the same group two days in a row, leading to a quasi-riot among the group learning online (after all, now they own their learning path!) The bottom line is that it takes a lot of planning, team work and coordination to make this ballet run every single day. The most important piece of the puzzle: Your teachers. They need to feel trained, supported and empowered throughout this experience. When they do, the most meaningful and modern learning experiences happen at the crossroad between face to face and online instruction. In a sense, it is also how this virtual conference felt: a real 21st century learning experience. The same we work hard to bring to our scholars every single day.

Follow Romain on Twitter @htdcompletely and check out his blog expandingthereach.wordpress.com!

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