When I emailed ACE legend Alec Torigian to ask if I could feature him in a blog post, this was his response:
“I am so not a model of successful or smooth blending of learning at this point, but if you want the vantage point of a dude who randomly tried because he knew his kids deserved it and plans to get much better, then I'm in.”
And that is exactly the perspective I share with you today: one of a teacher who happened upon this model on his own and is committed to its success because of the impact he witnesses it having on his students.
Alec’s ACE journey began when he taught at Most Pure Heart of Mary School in Mobile, Alabama, as a member of ACE Teaching Fellows for two years and continued as he served on the ACE Teaching Fellows pastoral team for three years. In 2016, though, Alec discerned that he was being called back to the classroom–and specifically, to the middle school math and science classroom at Academy of St. Benedict the African in Chicago.
Alec knew almost immediately that St. Benedict was the right school for him because the job was not easy. “Being at St. Benedict and seeing all that needed to be done, but at the same time all the potential to do good, inspired me to use the resources we do have to their absolute maximum capacity in service of student learning.”
One of those resources is a set a of Chromebooks Alec’s class received at the end of the 2016-17 school year. With this unexpected influx of technology, Alec knew it was time for a change. “I was in my fifth year of teaching, and after seeing so many classrooms and being exposed to so many ideas in my years with ACE, I knew I could do better. I felt like this was the impetus I needed to change.”
After experimenting over the summer, Alec jumped in and blended his middle school math classes at the start of this school year. In his classes of roughly 30 students, Alec divides his students into four performance-based groups. The groups rotate through four stations each day. Every day looks a little different, and he is still experimenting to find exactly what works, but his students usually spend about half of the class period working on IXL or another online program. A quarter of the class engages in direct instruction with Alec, and another quarter of the class works on a project, plays a review game, or works independently.
Alec made this change for the benefit of his students, but it has not always been easy. Perhaps the most difficult part has been for him to give up his beloved role as sage on the stage. “It’s hard to feel less confident and less animated,” he says. “I used to plan these dynamic 45-minute lessons that made me seem really fun and made me feel really good, but the truth is my students weren’t engaged like they are now. I’m experiencing growing pains that make me uncomfortable, but I’m really committing to do something that’s harder for me for the sake of my students that I love so much.”
One factor contributing to increased engagement is that the blended model shrinks some really important things, namely time spent on a specific task and group size. “Student engagement has skyrocketed this year,” Alec explained, “simply because the students aren’t forced to spend such a long time in the same position or working on the same task.” Both students and teachers often tell me that time flies by with this new dynamic model, and Alec and his students are no exception. In fact, at the end of one jam-packed class, an eighth-grade student enthusiastically asked Alec, “Why didn’t we do this last year?”
And if that story isn’t enough to motivate him when the going gets tough, Alec always reminds himself of his favorite statistic: no tears. “Many of my students have math phobia, and last year one particular student would cry almost every single day because the material felt intimidating or overwhelming. But this year we have not had a single tear. For the first time in a long time, I think these particular students who have struggled so much feel a sense of success and are actually able to engage with the material they’re learning. They love that the online learning is at their level and that they are in a smaller group when they’re with me, so they feel more comfortable asking questions and making mistakes.”
Alec acknowledges that this year has been far from perfect but his overall outlook is simple. “It’s worth the risks and worth the mistakes,” he says. Alec has already seen this model increase student engagement and student learning, and he is eager to try new online programs and tweak his model to continue to make blended learning an even greater success in his classroom.
We are beyond impressed with outstanding teachers like Alec who are constantly innovating and jump into blended learning on their own! Do you know a teacher who fits this description? Let us know in the comments!