Teacher Perspective: Harnessing blended learning in the classroom

July 22, 2012

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Charter schools are using innovation to drive instruction all across California. Oakland Unity High School is using blended learning through Khan Academies to allow students to drive their own instruction. Teacher Kallie Berg says this 21st century approach isn't just great for her students - it's great for her.

Berg tutored in the after-school program at Oakland Unity High School for four years before transitioning into teaching the school's blended math class for ninth graders. Unity, along with 24 other schools in the U.S., is a part of a pilot program that uses Khan Academy full-time in the classroom. What began as an after-school supplemental tool, is now being used to offer differentiation and data for better math scores. Unity uses the program to help drill students during the summer at their high school preparedness classes, and has now transitioned to using the program full-time in their math classes.

What is Khan Academy and what has it brought to your school?

It's a website that offers math instruction. Students sign on with a Gmail account and we the teachers are assigned as coaches. All of their actions are tracked and it gives us a lot of individualized data. We see what they're working on, how long they've been working in minutes and how many times they've messed up on a specific problem set. And the benefit of that is that there's a lot of accountability.

It's great because students choose the topics they want to learn about that day - from a pre-selected set of topics - and in order to move on to a different set of practice problems they must correctly complete their current set. It's very differentiated; students who already know the material move on quickly and students who don't can get help at each level. If students are struggling, within the practice screen, students can take hints and also get step-by-step assistance for specific problems. There are individualized progress reports and students move at their own pace. Differentiation is important because in math, one day a student can be at the top of the class and the next day you get to a topic that he's not as comfortable with and he can be at the bottom. This program gives students a lot of responsibility and also a lot of freedom to choose how they want to learn.

What is it like to teach in a blended learning classroom?

It's actually really exciting and way more effective than traditional teaching. This past year I taught three sections of learning lab - which is the online class with all the freshmen - and one section of Algebra readiness, which is more of a traditional classroom. In the learning lab there was so much more learning taking place. It was like night and day. I didn't necessarily have access to the computers in my traditional math class and I taught in a traditional manner and many of my students weren't ready for what I was teaching, or were far advanced. Many of these students would just check out. When it came to learning lab, students weren't checking out as much because they had more control of what they were learning and when. They were more engaged. And whenever I did need to teach small groups or even to half the class, it was something that they all really needed and I would have their full attention. And actually because of that, this next year, all of our math classes will have computers in the classroom 100% of the time to support student learning.

What do you think are the benefits of teaching in a charter school?

Many public schools are constrained by the system and all the teachers have to work within that system and can't really branch out and do new things. Charters can identify students' needs and they also have the liberty to do whatever they need to do to meet those needs. For instance, we brought in Khan Academy because we recognized the huge gaps in math knowledge from our incoming students and we saw Khan as a solution to that. And our principal, since he doesn't have to answer to a big school board, was able to say, "Let's try it." And I don't think you get that in traditional public schools; they aren't able to problem solve in the same way and say, "Let's try something new because what we're doing isn't working."

What are you most proud of this year, whether personally or for your whole school?

I'm most proud of working at Unity. The reason I wanted to work here is that every single teacher cares about the students and is willing to do whatever it takes to help the students succeed. And I don't think that exists at every school; we don't have teachers flying out of the school parking lot at 3 p.m. If teachers need to stay late, they do. And, it's not just a couple of teachers, it's as a community; we're all figuring out what we can do to help every individual succeed.

What you think the charter movement has accomplished in CA, and also where do you feel it might have faltered?

I can't speak to this with statistical surety but I feel like California has really been supportive of charter expansion in some ways. I feel like we have more charters here than in the surrounding states because of that support.

I feel like it's faltered in that charter leaders have some great ideas but they don't necessarily have the people on staff with the know-how to make those ideas happen. They're not being backed by any big organizations, it's just someone that says, "I have a great idea and I'm going to open a charter school," but they don't always have the knowledge to put those ideas into practice. So then they end up failing to do what they said they were going to do in their charter.

From your perspective what needs to happen to improve public education in California?

Schools need to have higher standards for both their staff and their students. Here at Unity, we say we are creating young professionals. I don't think that mentality exists everywhere, but that's really what every school is doing. They are creating the next members of society and they need to recognize that and have high standards for their students and for the staff to make sure that students are going to be contributing members of society.

I also think that there needs to be more support for teachers in terms of collaboration, ideas and curriculum development so that every student is receiving the best education possible.

Is there anything else that you're really passionate about and want to mention?

One thing that I'm confronted with every day in this summer program that we're doing right now is that our students are coming to us having taken Algebra in eighth grade, but they don't have any knowledge of Algebra - and most of them are weak on their arithmetic skills. I wish that as a whole, all school systems would reevaluate when concepts should be taught and first figure out how best to help students be successful. Right now, schools are pushing for Algebra in eighth grade so that students can take calculus as seniors but really our students are coming without that knowledge. The emphasis needs to be less on how high we can take them in terms of high level classes and more on how deeply we can go into each subject matter and how well-rounded we can make our students. I wish that were the emphasis for all subjects.

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