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In Calif. District, Blended-Learning Approach Turns Teachers Into Facilitators

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Over the past few years, teachers throughout the Milpitas, Calif., school district have been transitioning to a blended-learning model. Though the practice is generally trumpeted as a way to integrate technology into the classroom and individualize instruction, many of the district’s educators say it has also given them opportunities to take on new roles and change the ways they manage their work.

Blended learning combines traditional classroom instruction with digital learning. In Milpitas, students might use iPads to do online exercises in class or conduct research on Chromebooks. Several schools also have a learning lab where students from multiple classes can work on computer-based projects either individually or in groups.

“We’ve always been told that we’re supposed to be more of the facilitator than on the stage,” said Deanna Sainten, a 6th grade teacher at Pomeroy Elementary. “It’s much easier to fill that facilitator role now.”

Many teachers use the blended-learning environment to find more opportunities to work with smaller groups of students. Krista Davis, a science specialist at Randall Elementary, said that she and her colleagues will “rotate the kids out,” sending part of the class to the learning lab while others stay in the classroom. A smaller, quieter classroom makes it easier to focus on tailoring lessons to the needs of the group and individual students, she says.

Carri Schneider, director of policy and research at Getting Smart, a nonprofit group that advocates for digital initiatives in education, said that finding more time for close instruction is a common outcome of blended-learning models. “[Blended learning] often frees up more class time for teachers to work individually and in small groups with students on skills that are directly aligned with their greatest needs,” she said.

One trade-off, however, is that small-group lessons often require more planning time. “It requires more lesson planning in a way because now I’m designing four different lessons, four different ways to teach that standard,” said Sainten.

On the other hand, teachers in Milpitas also say that they are spending less time on classroom management. Juhi Sharma, who teaches 5th and 6th grade at Weller Elementary, noted that before the transition to blended learning, her school had 40 to 50 suspensions every year. Last year, they didn’t have any, an improvement that Sharma credits in large part to students being more actively engaged in class.

While not all Milpitas schools have seen quite as drastic a change, the other teachers said that they, too, have found that they spend less time addressing behavioral issues.

Changes in Routine

The way teachers’ allocate their class time has shifted as well. Dawn Hartman, who teaches 8th grade math at Russell Middle School, has given more writing assignments this year as a result of Common Core State Standards, but she says the blended-learning model has made her overall grading load easier to handle. Self-grading programs help her students work through simple problems, so she has time to read their more complex work, like writing.

Sainten and Davis have taken a different approach. They’ve found that the blended-learning model—by giving students more access to resources and making it easier to arrange independent- or collaborative-learning time—lends itself well to project-based learning. That has led them to shift from using shorter, easy-to-grade assignments like nightly worksheets to larger projects and longer pieces of writing.

“It’s more fun to read and it’s more comprehensive of what they’re learning,” said Sainten. “[But] I’m finding that it’s much more work right now.”

As their schools developed blended-learning programs, teachers and administrators discovered a need for dedicated collaboration time to discuss changes and ideas. Davis said that at the start of the program, she and her colleagues were able to find that time while their students were in the learning lab.

Pomeroy Elementary, on the other hand, ultimately settled on a “buddy system”: Sainten’s 6th graders are paired with a group of 3rd grade students, and once a week the 3rd grade teachers take both grades while the 6th grade teachers meet with each other. The next week, they switch. Though it took the school time to find a collaboration model that worked for everyone, Sainten said, “Now we have a system where we can actually talk about the students’ needs.”

The transition has been made easier thanks to support from the district. “We told all of our principals that this can’t be a top-down thing, because it wouldn’t work,” said Milpitas Deputy Superintendent Cheryl Jordan. Teachers were given the autonomy to recognize where the system was and wasn’t working.

Not for Everyone

Getting Smart’s Schneider said that support is a crucial part of the blended-learning process, as is a having clear sense of purpose.

“The biggest challenge is when technology is brought into a school or classroom and the technology itself is the driving force,” she said. “Teachers and leaders should first determine what problem they are trying to solve … and then build a blended learning initiative that’s designed to meet those goals.”

Bringing in technology without clear goals, said Schneider, can leave teachers feeling “overwhelmed and unsupported.” She also recognized that not all teachers are necessarily ready for blended learning. “It’s OK if not every teacher in a school or district is ready to dive in.”

Even with support and enthusiastic teachers, blended learning doesn’t always work as planned. Sharma characterized the first day of blended learning at Weller as chaotic: “You have no idea what you’re doing. The kids are like, ‘I’m ready to cry,’ and the teachers are like, ‘You know what? We’re right there with you.’”

Still, Sharma said she now finds the changes exciting. Under the more traditional model, she was losing her enthusiasm for teaching. “I felt like I was stuck, [like] there was nothing new happening. Blended learning is hard, it’s having to come up with a million plans, but it’s engaging.”

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