This blog tells the stories of many teachers who have taught in traditional classrooms for years (as many as 36!) before transitioning to the blended-learning model. This transition is often fraught with concerns and challenges that were not part of the classrooms of the past: how can all of my students be working on different things? Can first graders really learn on their own? And what will happen to my role as the teacher?
But today I share with you the story of Meaghan Crowley Sullivan, a graduate of ACE Teaching Fellows and seventh-year teacher who has not experienced the traditional model of schooling since she was a student. I met Meaghan this summer when she came to campus as a member of the Remick Leadership Program (yes, she is on her way to being a TRIPLE Domer!) and discovered that she is a teacher and the instructional technology lead at a blended-learning school. If you know me at all, it will not surprise you that I immediately latched onto Meaghan and quizzed her on her own story and experience with blended learning. I have learned so much from Meaghan in the few months I have known her, and I am thrilled to be able to share some of her wisdom with you today.
Like many of us, Meaghan attended traditional Catholic schools from prekindergarten through college. But unlike most of us, Meaghan learned the value of personalized learning as a student when she was diagnosed with dyslexia. “When my mom finally realized that I was dyslexic and had me tested, my whole educational experience changed,” Meaghan told me. “Little accommodations like increasing the space between the questions on tests made the difference between failing and excelling for me. I realized that I could do the work but I just needed a slightly different way of doing it, and I believe that is true for far more students today than we think.”
Given Meaghan’s passion for alternative learning styles and personalized learning, the ACE Teaching Fellows team thought Meaghan would be the perfect fit for a school in its first year of Expeditionary Learning—a radical, whole-school approach to project-based learning. And though she admits it was challenging to be a first-year teacher in such an unfamiliar classroom setting, Meaghan’s experience with expeditionary learning had an immeasurable impact on her beliefs about teaching and learning and altered her career as a teacher forever.
“When I finished my second year of ACE, I wanted to move closer to home and to keep teaching but I knew I didn’t want to go to a strictly traditional school where my passion for personalized learning might not flourish,” she says. Fortunately (or should we say providentially?) Meaghan found a school that celebrates her passion for personalization: Holy Spirit School in San Jose, California. Meaghan’s first year at Holy Spirit was also the school’s first year implementing a blended-learning model as part of the Drexel Schools, a network of eight blended-learning schools in the Diocese. Though Meaghan had never taught in a blended classroom, she was excited to apply some of the principles of expeditionary learning to this new, technology-enhanced setting.
At first glance, Meaghan’s classroom looks a lot like other blended classrooms we have profiled on the Higher-Powered Learning blog. Meaghan uses a station-rotation model for both math and English language arts in her third-grade classroom. Throughout each period, students rotate between guided learning with the teacher, learning with adaptive software programs on iPads, and working offline, either independently or collaboratively (or perhaps both!). But Meaghan has also incorporated certain aspects of expeditionary learning into her classroom to create her own model of project-based learning/blended learning, or P(BL)2.
“I see technology as the defining feature of blended learning,” Meaghan explained. “Adaptive software makes true differentiation possible, which is amazing. But we can’t stop with the adaptive software. Expeditionary learning taught me that students have to engage in their own learning process rather than letting the teacher or technology do everything for them. So now I try to combine the best of these two models by using technology as a way to make content more engaging and relevant to students. Technology is a tool for both differentiation and creation in my classroom.”
As much as Meaghan loves the general blended-learning model, she identifies a single defining characteristic of her classroom carried over from her expeditionary learning experience: purpose-driven learning. “Students have to have a goal in mind for their learning. They have to know the learning target for today and for the month and for the year. Students have to be able to connect the work they are doing with the goal they are trying to achieve, or they will not be engaged in their learning.”
Meaghan uses many different techniques to cultivate purpose-driven learning in her classroom, including posting and regularly referencing daily objectives and long-term guiding questions, but she also takes it a step further by ensuring that her students can articulate how short-term objectives connect to long-term learning goals and how personalized learning objectives connect to the class’ long-term learning goals as well. “If you ask my students what they’re learning on their iPads, they can explain it to you. They can also explain that whatever they’re learning is the right thing for them right now, that learning that specific concept is helping them reach their long-term learning goal even if their neighbor is doing something different.”
So to sum up the magic of Meaghan’s P(BL)2 model: students understand where they are going and what they need to do to get there. This student ownership is possible without technology, but the blended-learning model allows teachers to ensure that every student is truly getting what he or she needs on his/her personalized path towards accomplishing long-term learning goals.