Special Report
Classroom Technology

Case Study: When Personalized Learning Requires a More Human Touch

A charter school takes the unusual approach of delaying the introduction of new technologies to focus on social skills
By Sarah D. Sparks — November 06, 2018 2 min read
Third grader Steven Pena, 8, does his schoolwork alongside classmates at Chicago International Charter School West Belden. The school has a 1-to-1 computing program, but is trying to create a better balance between the use of technology and the development of interpersonal skills.
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The Chicago International Charter School West Belden, needed to slow students down to speed up its personalized learning approach.

The charter school won a Next Generation Learning Challenges grant in 2014 to redesign the 950-student campus. The group dove in with some of the most visible markers of blended learning: flexible classrooms, 1-to-1 computing with laptops and tablets, and individualized learning plans for students. Some classrooms boasted 60 to 80 students from multiple grades in “learning labs” with co-teachers.

Although the students quickly learned to use the programs, the relationships between teachers and students didn’t always gel, said Scott Frauenheim, the founder of Distinctive Schools, which runs West Belden.

“Early in our one-to-one model, we found our students were jumping into the technology too fast, without building the classroom relationships that needed to exist,” Frauenheim said.

With nearly all the school’s students living in poverty and more than half English-learners, the staff found “the kids needed to know how to work with each other in the classroom a little bit more, to know how to ask for help, how to communicate what’s not necessarily working,” said Jean Fischer, the school’s technology coordinator.

So the school took an unusual approach for a blended-learning school: It took a step back from technology. For the past two years, West Belden has delayed introducing individual technology until mid-October and built in more programs to connect students with each other.

In addition to teaching the students how to use content platforms like Lexia or Summit, the school spends the first six weeks of the year teaching students how to work with classroom partners; how to ask for help in person and in the platforms; and how to stay focused during independent study, among other topics.

Moreover, each student is assigned a teacher-mentor to meet with weekly, as well as a homeroom class. “The idea was that in kindergarten, you’d be put into a pack, and you’re with the same kids every year until you graduate 8th grade, with [homeroom] teachers also staying with the same packs,” said Christine Shannon, a 2nd grade teacher. “I’ve had the same kids for three years, which has been really great.”

This year, Shannon also launched a peer-mentoring club, Bulldogs Belong, in which middle school students devise and teach social-emotional lessons to elementary classes and become mentors for younger students.

“We 7th and 8th graders are pack leaders,” said Ricardo Astorga, an 8th grader who came to the school in the middle of 6th grade. “We buddy up with the younger kids and we help to educate them on how to help other students and how to develop friendships.”

Astorga said the peer and adult mentoring makes him feel more connected to the school than the experiences in his previous traditional school did, and it has helped him learn to organize his various projects and lessons on the Summit platform.

“The way teachers talk to you boosts your confidence,” he said. “The mentor helps you understand what to focus on for Summit.”

In Chicago’s latest school climate survey, West Belden rated higher than the district average in both the overall supportive environment at the school and student-teacher trust in particular.

A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Taking a Step Back From the Digital Tools

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