It Takes a Village (that reads)…

One of the biggest challenges for teachers is finding tools that help differentiate content for students, particularly non-fiction in the science and math fields. This can be even harder to do with online or blended students. Without seeing your kiddos face to face, it can be more challenging to understand which texts they are really understanding and which are just written at a level that is too high for them (which is almost every high school science text).

In addition, Common Core has upped the text complexity necessary for college and career readiness. Enter the Lexile level. I have always been a fan of Lexile assessments that help determine the appropriate grade level on which a student reads. I used it in my class, indexed my classroom library with it, and had 20 minutes of silent, sustained reading everyday where students could read any book that was at or slightly above their reading level. This strategy worked well for my learners, most of whom were 5th or 6th grade level readers in a 9th grade course. All students improved their reading level over the course of the year by at least one grade, sometimes up to three. I was proud of my kiddos for their improvement and pretty proud of myself for helping them see that growth. Now I worry. Was that good enough? Would that be good enough today? There are hundreds of thousands of students reading below grade level. With the new Common Core Lexile levels, how are students who are entering high school reading at a 5th grade level supposed to leave prepared for college and career?

Image from Common Core State Standards p. 8
Image from Common Core State Standards p. 8

I have no clear, definitive answer, but to me, this is definitely an example of, “It takes a village to raise a child”. Specifically, a village that reads…and reads…and reads some more in the context of the content in which they are learning. And increases text complexity as they do. Not a small job by any means.

Here is my favorite tool to help with that. Newsela. A-maz-ing. Pick a category that best aligns to what subject you are teaching. Find an article that supports your content. Newsela will give you variations of the same article written at different Lexile levels. I love this because it would allow my kiddos to get the content, which they need for multiple reasons, but at a level that is accessible to them. And no other student would have to know which version another student was reading. By creating your class in Newsela, you can assign students to the level that is appropriate for them. This would allow for all students to participate in discourse about a topic, differentiate for your special needs students, low level readers, and English language learners, and support non-fiction reading in all content areas. If we are going to get all kids prepared for college and career, we need, as a village, to read more in all content areas and blending this tool with your class is one way to do that.

“Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!”

Or maybe we do?

Yesterday I successfully completed my first MOOC. Of the 12 or so that I have begun, the Mozilla Badges: New Currency for Professional Credentials MOOC is the only one that I have finished. I am pretty excited about that for two reasons. 1) That means that I am (finally) in the 7% of learners that actually complete a MOOC and 2) I am starting to fill up my own Mozilla Backpack.

Snapshot of a few badges in my Mozilla Backpack
Snapshot of a few badges in my Mozilla Backpack

As someone who learns well in online environments, having done both my master’s degree in Instructional Technology and an eLearning certificate in online programs, I thought this MOOC thing would be right up my alley. But I was very wrong. Life seemed to constantly get in the way of my learning attempts with MOOCs. Given that I have abandoned, if ever even started 11 other courses, why was I driven to complete this particular one?

Was it my interest in the material? Well, yes. But I was also interested in the other MOOCs I registered for; otherwise I wouldn’t have signed up for them. So it can’t just be that. How about the format of the course? Probably not. This particular one had both synchronous and asynchronous activities, which I like, but the synchronous sessions really weren’t that engaging to me. Maybe it was the content of the challenge assignments? This was definitely the highlight of the course for me. A real person gave feedback on my assignments, which is something that I had not really experienced in other MOOCs. They graded on a rubric that I had in advance, which makes me happy coming from a project based learning world where we love rubrics. The challenge assignments were actually relevant in figuring out what a badge system would look like. That felt very real-world and PBL-ish to me, too.

But here’s the kicker, I have completed the assignments, but still haven’t earned all of the badges. There are two left to be reviewed, which is totally fine because I just submitted the work yesterday. But there is one that I need to revise. Yep. To get the badge, you need to score at least 10 out of 15. And I got a 7. Of the other badges I have earned, I have not yet missed a point. Cumulatively, if I add it up, I still have what most people consider a passing grade of 70%. There were moments in grad school when time was tight and I knew that a 70% was good enough to pass, so I accepted that, did maybe not my best work, and moved on. And I was ok with that.

But not this time around. I want the badgesAll of them. I want them in my backpack to say to anyone who asks, “Yes. I understand the ecosystem of badges because Mozilla, the gurus of open badges, says I do.” My motivation is rooted in demonstrating knowledge and skills to an expert and publicly displaying my mastery for others to see. If that is the impact this MOOC had on my professional learning, the desire to achieve mastery and revise to proficiency,  I wonder how the quality of teaching  would change if more adult professional development was centered around badging systems?

Turn on the Blender

Blended learning. That’s what I do – design blended learning opportunities for adults and sometimes kiddos. Call it eLearning. Call it online learning. Call it professional development. Call it instructional design. Call it virtual coaching…heck, call it whatever you want, because just like my job, it appears as though the world of “blended learning” is pretty mixed up and jumbled. People cannot seem to land on a common definition, though there are some standard jumping off points that are embraced by the community, centering around the four models nicely displayed by the Christensen Institute. Wonders started popping up when I started listening, really listening, to what others in this world were talking about.

  • Is a flipped classroom blended?
  • Is a classroom where my students are using some supplemental online skills program, like StudyIsland or ALEKS, blended?
  • My students are already using a LMS to organize their learning and create next steps by researching on the computer. Is that blended?
  • Some of my kids have online classes that they take during school. Some of them have online classes they take at home. Their education is blended, right?
  • I use technology as a tool in my classroom already. But that’s not blended, is it?

Here’s what I say…yes, yes, yes, yes, YES! Why is it so confusing for educators to wrap their minds around the term “blended”? And more startling, why do most of the conversations center around tools and software programs to make education blended as opposed to why this approach is a better way for kids and adults to learn? Shouldn’t it just be the way people do education? By utilizing multiple learning modalities to reach all kids? Isn’t that the approach to how we should be differentiating and instructing anyway? By providing multiple pathways to get to the learning, not just one standardized way? That’s the real reason for me to work in this field: to help people learn more deeply about something that will enhance their life by accessing materials that meet their learning styles and needs. And to me, that doesn’t necessarily fit into a specific blended learning model. So, in this space, I will post thoughts, tools, resources, and wonders about the world of blended education, both for kids and for adults. And I make no apologies if that doesn’t fit a specific definition.

For now, my current work takes the shape of supporting facilitators through designing, developing, and implementing New Tech Network’s project-based learning approach.  So, to all of you New Tech teachers out there who may be wondering, “If I teach in a New Tech school, aren’t I already blended?” I say, “Yes, you are. And New Tech has been since its beginning. So keep doing what you are doing. Your blender is already on.”

To those of you who may just be thinking about blending your classroom or own learning, go ahead and flip the switch. It’s fun to mix it up and more engaging for your kiddos.