2015 PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator

2015 PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Practicing What I Preach

“This is the time to experiment; this is the time to fail,” I tell my student teachers.  “Try something different.  Take a chance.  The worst thing that could happen is that you fail a lesson.  Then you will reflect on it and learn from it.”  Yeah.  This is stellar advice; it’s too bad that I have such a hard time following it myself.


When I previously thought about failure, I only thought about small increments of lessons, minutes of time where I felt that the students weren’t getting it or that I was off-focus.  I pride myself on being flexible during those lessons; I can change horses mid-stream, and you may not even realize it.  Don’t get me wrong; I take risks, lots of them.  I just never fail.  NEVER.


Until now. “Let’s do a wiki,” I said to my students.  “This will be a great way to collaborate and create a really useful finished project.  You’ll love this.”  God bless my Rhetoric and Composition students; they look at me with those trusting eyes, believing that I know what the hell I’m preaching.  Half of them were in my Sophomore Language Arts class, and they knew what they were getting when they chose me for their senior year.  They knew that I’d make it work, whatever “it” was, and then they convinced the other half of the class that this was so.


[caption id="attachment_39" align="alignnone" width="223"] Take a chance! What can possibly go wrong?[/caption]


Two weeks later, I took stock of our class wiki.  It was awful.  Disorganized.  Cluttered.  Ugly.  I looked at the rubric I had naively created two weeks before I had ever seen a wiki, and I realized that it had NOTHING to do with our wiki and that I had no way of measuring learning or growth.  Our wiki, MY wiki, was an epic fail.  Whose fault was it?  Mine.  When I confessed my sins to my class, the kinder souls pointed out some technical problems that were not in my control, but I knew better.  I wasn’t able to pull through on this one.  Now what?


I’m not going to lie; I have a huge ego.  Wait, are you laughing?  I’ve had many sleepless nights over this damned wiki.  I asked myself, “What will I do differently?  How can I make this meaningful next time?”  More importantly, I asked myself, “How can I pull a success out of this right now?”  It was with real relief that I graded my students’ video presentations (created from information gathered from the evil wiki), and I saw that the students really did learn.  They learned how to research and present in an organized manner; however, that presentation was not part of the wiki.  I failed, but my students didn’t fail.  I failed, and my students didn’t even care; they just went on with the lesson, which ultimately was very relevant to them.  I failed, and I need to get over it.

We all need one of these.



When my esteemed Blended Learning colleagues (Shannon and Christina) share their problems with me, I am the voice of reason.  I am the first to point out what the children have learned from this experience. I am the first to remind these young ones that they need to forgive themselves for the courageous risks they take.  I am the first to celebrate the silver lining.  I am the last to do this for myself.

Stephani Itibrout

English Teacher

Monday, December 17, 2012

When Blended Learning Becomes Calvinball

So, it took me a while to write this because I was waiting for the right words to come to me. I’ve had the topic for a while – it was just the vocabulary that was not coming. This past weekend, the authors of this blog were featured on the State of Tech podcast (you can download it from iTunes or online at thestateoftech.org) and it was listening to my colleagues that finally brought the words to me for this post. So with that, I begin with the end in mind.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

One of the biggest, unforeseen challenges that we have faced on our blended journey was teaching the students to learn in a blended space. How do I define a blended space?

  •  A classroom where students are accountable for their learning and time

  •  A place where students have to formulate questions then discover and evaluate answers in order to learn

  • An atmosphere where collaboration is essential to success

  • A setting where learning occurs in any space and any time

  • An environment where mastery is shown through authentic projects or presentations

Haven’t you, even for a moment, dreamed of a classroom like this? We all did, which is why we embarked on this blended learning journey. The problem is that we thought our students were dreaming of this classroom, too. We designed high quality classes and marketed them to high achieving, good students. And that’s when we hit our first bump in the road.

High achieving, good students were defined as high achieving and good based on an antiquated classroom model. They were high achieving and good students because they came to class Monday through Thursday, listened to the lectures, took copious notes, on average raised their hands twice a week, and on Friday were fully prepared to regurgitate everything that they had observed back to us on an exam. But this definition of the high achieving, good student does not fit with the blended learning spaces that we were designing. In fact, our high achieving, good students struggled (at first) to fit into their blended learning space. In fact, a few even longed for the face-to-face lectures and weekly quizzes because that is what years of schooling had taught them to expect. They were good at the game of school and then along came a few teachers who started playing Calvinball with the rules and the students simply were not ready.

We had to take a few steps back and realize that we had to teach students to unlearn the game of school and really learn to think. I’m not trying to holistically denounce the game of school, because it got many of us to where we are today. It’s just that the world has changed around us, so it is time that we change the definition of what a high achieving, good student is. More importantly, we have to change what the high achieving, good student expects in the typical classroom. All students deserve to learn in a blended space (as defined above) but just like we taught them how to play school so many years ago, now we must reteach them how to excel in our classroom of the future.

So, that brings me to where I was inspired this weekend. I was asked on The State of Tech podcast, what innovation in education did I feel could make the greatest positive impact. I immediately knew the answer: “Teachers with open minds – ones willing to step outside what they are used to doing and make a difference for kids.” Our blended teachers are creating blended spaces for students to learn and everyday impact the lives of over 100 students. They are really making the difference. They are teaching students to stretch beyond what they thought was possible, to see learning in a new light, to contribute to their world and to challenge the status quo. In the words of Margaret Mead, our blended teachers are thoughtful, committed citizens who are not only changing the world; they are teaching their students to do the same.

By: Stacy Hawthorne

@Medina Tech on Twitter

Sunday, November 18, 2012

This Is Not Your Parents' Statistics Course!

How can we use math to determine whether or not a company wrongfully laid off its workers simply because they were older than others? Where does polling data come from, and can it be trusted? Do the students of MHS feel that there are cliques and are they part of one? What are the style preferences of MHS females? Do private lessons really give you an edge in competing for "chairs" in orchestra? Can people really tell the difference between a name brand coffee versus a store brand; does the name brand really taste better? What keeps MHS students up at night, and does the answer differ by age or gender? These are just a few of the questions my Advanced Quantitative Analysis and Mathematical Modeling (AQAM) students have been investigating this year.

Yes, this year I was one of the "chosen”, a never-give-up-self-punishing-perfectionist who was asked if I would be part of the blended learning pilot program for Medina High School. And I, never afraid of a challenge, said "ok, but I would like to create a course from scratch". As you can see from the title of this course, my mantra was go big or go home. And so here I am, at the end of the first grading period, in the middle of what you could call a perfect storm of mathematics educational technology delight...or dread. I took this unique opportunity to try, without real penalty, to teach a version of a course that I have been envisioning for the last decade of teaching. A course that ALL students would find something to take away for the future; a course that would not require (or allow) a mathematics cookbook in which to solve problems; a course that would be relevant for 21st century learning and a small step toward what I believe is what is meant by educational reform.

I have learned a great deal in a very short amount of time and since I have had zero time to really sit and put my thoughts down on paper, I realize that I could write more than any one person would stand to read in one sitting. Some of what I have to say will make you laugh, some will make you scream, some will make you take pity on myself and my fellow blended learning cohorts - but mostly I hope that some of what I have to say will inspire you and save you from making some of the mistakes I have made. For now, I will just introduce you to the course that I am creating and tell you about the basic structure and how it is different from the other courses I have taught.

Student Demographics:

Students are taking this course as a 5th year course after successfully completing Precalculus. They may choose to take this instead of OR in addition to a Calculus course. This year, the majority of my students are hoping to pursue careers in a health-related, business, or engineering field. When you read this, you might be thinking, “Wow, you have a dream job with dreamy students!”; don’t forget, while I do have fabulous and bright students, they have all been taught traditionally for 12 years and change is tough!


My initial plan for content was one semester of Elementary Statistics and one semester of selected Finite Math topics, all under the idea that we can use math to model a variety of situations in the world of healthcare, business, finance, and science. At this point, I will be happy to get through the Statistics portion. Fair enough, I am trying to teach for depth through problem solving and collaborative projects and that takes time; the inner math geek feels disappointed though.

Course Structure:

Each week, I post a lesson for students through Blackboard. This lesson contains readings and supplemental videos.  These videos are short, meant to supplement the reading; watching only the video would be tragic on the student’s part. Built within each lesson are concept checks through short multiple-choice quizzes, hotspot activities, matching, sorting, etc. These purely check for basic understanding of what they are reading; and to keep them honest. Students work through the lesson, at their preferred pace, for the week. In class, we problem solve and work with datasets using Minitab. I teach them how to do all computations by hand with small “irrelevant” datasets and then I show them how to ask Minitab to do the same thing with real data (our first dataset contained 1450 observations). Students are assigned something additional to practice each week: group discussion questions, group problems to solve, group/individual lab assignments, and always a end of week private journal entry.


The main form of assessment is team projects. Instead of a unit test, they design and carry out a project (with guidelines of what to demonstrate mastery with), they write a formal paper, and they give a brief presentation to the class. The majority of students have said that they enjoy the projects since they get to pick the topic/research question. Through these projects, they are learning the additional skills of collaboration (either face-to-face or via technology), public speaking, writing, professionalism, and how to use digital tools effectively. Team projects come with their own set of challenges; the biggie is equal division of labor. This part will be a work in progress for me, in the mean time I still give an end of quarter traditional exam. The exam has things like computations, reading computer output and writing interpretations in context, and case scenarios that they analyze or answer questions about.

In future posts I will write about the challenges that I have faced in implementing this model. I consider myself tech-savvy – but I have still had trouble in implementation. I have a solid record of students reaching high-achievement on high-stake assessments, but teaching in any online environment is very different from the face-to-face environment and so I struggle to feel confident that my students are achieving the same level of success I have come to expect. In a face-to-face math course, you typically deliver a lesson with whatever method you feel most effective and then you send students home for 30-45 minutes of drill-and-kill problems; but do they really learn? Do they develop conceptual understanding? Do they understand not only how to get the right answer, but how to get the best and most efficient answer? I say no, not always. My course focus is conceptual understanding and finding the best answers to real problems, and some students (and parents) want a textbook and drills, and points; if they understand it, well that is a bonus. All of our courses represent change, and as the previous post "Transition" by Shannon Conley discussed, transition and change take time.

(Christina Hamman can be followed on Twitter: @hammanmath)


Friday, November 2, 2012


Ok class here's what we are going to  do. Now go do it.Typical classroom behavior: go do this thing for the next 45 minutes and I will be here when the bell rings right? Familiar. Expected.  Easy. Appropriate. And appreciated. Students love knowing just what they have to do to get a grade, an affirmation or a point.

But what happens when it isn't 45 minutes, not for points and not even monitored? What happens when the the assignment the teacher sets up is designed to be introspective, to prove ability not to the teacher but to a greater audience; an assignment designed to have students experience something similar to real life and intuitively find their way to prove mastery.  Educational theorists are frothing at the mouth. I was too until I tried it for the first time and failed miserably.

I can tell you what happens when our best, most cutting-edge, most engaging, most idealistic theories are tested; it's not what you might expect. Nothing happens. That is correct, nothing has happened yet in my blended learning class.  NOTHING!  When a parent says to his/her student:  "What did you do in history today?" The students are being dead serious when they answer "Nothing." They didn't do anything meaningful - we had some great conversations about leadership and contextualized a historical  movie, we discussed the elements that makeup a good historical story, we watched good story telling, we researched, but when asked to recreate: to go do this task of telling a historical story - my students do nothing. Nothing different that is from any other face to face history class.


On the other hand, I think I am doing a lot - I think I am finding students resources that they can use for research projects. I am reading hours worth of student journal responses, discussion board posts, web based essays. On some evenings,  I am an email-answering machine. I theorize about what my students should be doing while I run in place on the treadmill, stopped waiting impatiently at the stop light, daydream in line for coffee. I feel consumed by this task as though I am literally running in place, stopped waiting, daydreaming.

I think what I'm experiencing is the result of a serious culture shift that we thought students were ready for but have proven not to be. I thought I was ready for this shift. I certainly prepared to chop down the traditional education model, but perhaps I'm not ready either. It is difficult to admit that.  At this point it doesn't matter. Thirty five kids show up in my classroom in ten hours.  So it's back to the drawing board I go.

Here I am at the drawing board: decompressing from the amazing possibilities I was exposed to at the Virtual Schools Symposium and returning to students who, like me, don't know what they don't know. But I am here and ready to focus on telling a historical story and deciding the best way to teach historical story telling. I don't think I have ever identified with my students more: I am not quite sure what to do. I am sitting at the computer in the middle of a hurricane overwhelmed by the silence of my audience, the weight of my own word choice, the absence of interruption, the sound of the keyboard's white noise suspending the notion that I need a solution.

All I know to do nine hours away from  the arrival of students is to provide an example. All I know to do comes from a little more than a decade of face to face teaching and a lifetime of traditional learning. I am a teacher, but right now I am exactly like my students: in transition.

The stark reality is that I do need a solution: the long term sort. I don't have time for transition. I'd like to deliver the solution Monday morning promptly at 7:30 to a class who stare back at me thinking maybe this is the week she pulls it together. But instead, I just continue to create this example that may or may not meet students at their personal crossroad between desire to do well and need for information.

Ok class here's what we are going to  do... Now go do it... Typical classroom behavior...go do this thing for the next 45 minutes and I will be here when the bell rings...right? Familiar .. Expected?  Easy? Appropriate.

Doesn't exactly cut it. Falls way short of expectation. But it's what I do. It's what I do with the time I have.

My students and I both know we need to figure out this blended model. We both know we must approach this task differently, but at the very center of this storm, we also know that assigning a name to this truth is the most unnerving task we will face.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Blended Learning and Icebreakers: What I've Learned.

In my panicked research the month before school, I read that the icebreaker is more important in a blended learning (or completely online) class than in a face-to-face class.  This was problematic in that I rarely use icebreakers in my face-to-face classes.  I hate them in my college courses: a wasted period of listening to people you don't want to know introducing themselves and explaining why they took the course.  Who cares?  I don't want to listen to you; I want to listen to the professor!  Argh!  In my Advanced Placement Literature and Composition classes, the students already know each other through ten-plus years of tracking.  In my Sophomore Language Arts class, the students immediately bond  in fear of me.  I'm kidding.  Partly.  Anyway, I needed a way to make my class feel like a family, and I needed it toute de suite.  Thanks to two colleagues and a session at Blackboard World, I discovered Voicethread.

Voicethread is a free Web 2.0 tool that allows the user to post documents, pictures, or videos to a specific group (or the general public, if the user wishes) and collects the comments from that group.  Users can comment by phone (calling in or texting) or computer (text or video).  I started by uploading three threads: one from my son, explaining a silly picture of his tricked-out hair; another from my daughter, explaining a picture of her day at the fair; and the final of my explanation of the importance of my running shoes.  Here is my post:

Voicethreads from the Teacher's Family

In the first stage of my icebreaker, I asked the students to respond to each of the three voicethreads.  I figured that students would find it less threatening to respond to my children's posts than to post their own at the start.  The second stage was for the students to post their own voicethreads.  I told them to upload a picture or video that meant something to them and to explain its importance.  I then made positive comments on each voicethread, in which I compared the students' experiences to similar ones I've had.  In stage three, the students had to respond to each voicethread using the the technique I demonstrated.  When I surveyed students later about this experience, they said that this activity helped them to see that most of them shared similar feelings and experiences, which made them feel more secure with each other.

At this point, I could have stopped the icebreaker because it probably accomplished what I wanted: a feeling of security and a bond among classmates; however, I realized that Voicethread could help me even more.  My first learning module was the Reflective Narrative Essay.  This is where the student uses narrative technique to write about a personal experience and share its importance, and it is generally the focus of the first semester of college composition.  My students had already used reflective technique when sharing their voicethreads, and they also used this technique when commenting on other posts.  What if I took the next step?  Why not?

Stage four:  Write a narrative about your voicethread post.  Show me the importance of your post.  Normally asking students to write a story elicits groans and lots of whining.  This time, however, there was no whining because the students already had a topic, their previous posts.  Now, all they had to do was turn the picture into a narrative using techniques they had previously studied in three-plus years of high school language arts classes.  This time when I commented on their posts, I was able to be a bit more critical, telling them where they could add more detail or improve their narrative technique.  Taking their cues from my comments, students were able to give constructive feedback at this stage; peer editing was much simpler than it usually is because the students were already comfortable with the previous posts.  This was a pleasant side effect that I had not anticipated when I assigned the Voicethread activity.

My end-of-unit survey showed that my icebreaker gave me much more than I expected: students felt comfortable with me, with each other, and with comments on their writing.  In fact, the survey revealed that because of this activity, students would welcome more constructive criticism in their writing because they trusted their peers (and me).    In addition, students jumpstarted an essay without even realizing it.  I learned through this activity that the icebreaker can be so much more than an introduction; it can be a way to model the structure and expectations of the class.


Welcome to our Blended Learning Journey

In May of 2012, Medina High School was awarded an eTech Blended Learning Grant to implement a blended learning program. For our program we have chosen to use a rotational style of blended learning. At the start of the 2012-2013 school year we are offering 3 blended learning classes: Local & American History, Rhetoric & Composition, and Advanced Quantitative Analysis & Mathematical Modeling. These three classes were designed from the ground up from an amazing team of three teachers who are dedicated to making the best learning experience for their students. This blog is designed to chronicle our experience as we grow and learn from our blended learning journey. Each week, the blog author will change and you will have the opportunity to hear a variety of perspectives, joys, and frustrations.

Meet your blog authors:

Shannon Conley - Social Studies Teacher

Christina Hamman - Mathematics Teacher

Stacy Hawthorne - Technology Integration Coordinator

Stephani Itibrout - Language Arts Teacher

We encourage you to respond to our blog and share your perspective and constructive ideas. Please feel free to share our blog with others so that we can all grow from this unique experience. We hope that one day soon that blended learning will be the norm and this blog will be viewed with a nostalgic grin.