A Tale of Blended Learning as an Itinerant Teacher: My Pass and Fails…

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Did you note the plural on “fail” in the title… Yup, that was on purpose. As a classroom teacher, I really enjoyed using a blended learning approach with my students. I used a flipped classrooms for a science unit, I allowed students to use their own creativity to demonstrate knowledge of an outcome anyway they felt they could- most created a video or used PowerPoint while some wrote and essay or did a live presentation. But my teaching assignment has changed and I find that incorporating blended learning as an itinerant teacher has become much more difficult.

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The first big challenge is the lack of time I get with my classrooms. I see one group of Grade 4 students for 45 minutes a week – and well, let’s face it, it takes them about 20 minutes to log on to a device, find the right website or LMS I am using and then, after the plethora or questions that tend to dominate the small group working on the device, I still have the other students seeking help – and now their classroom teacher is at the door ready to receive her students back. “Okay mes amis, we will pick up from where we were next week!” And so I start all over, again.

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The next big challenge is finding the support in the classroom. If I am working with a teacher who does not use technology in any way in the classroom (for various, but usually obvious reasons), the students are not able to function with the technology because they don’t necessarily have the “know how”.  And once I finally get it going, my time with that particular class is up. See you all next week…

I won’t say this is the last challenge, because we all know their are many more new and exciting challenges ahead in our careers, but my final challenge for this blog is delivery. Every teacher uses technology differently. Some use LMS platforms, other simply use one function online (Google Docs or web searches) and others are fully integrated. My favourite thing to hear is “Well, our teacher doesn’t want us to use Google Translate.” or “We don’t use Google Classroom because our teacher thinks it’s too complicated.” As an itinerant teacher, I try very hard to keep things as “normal” in the classroom as their teacher. I follow the same expectations or rules that the regular classroom teacher sets up, I make sure the same routines are followed and I try to make my entrance to the class as seamless as possible. But sometimes I can’t quite seem to get past the “Well, our teacher…”. I want to scream “DO I LOOK LIKE YOUR TEACHER?”  Of course I don’t scream it, my internal monologue is screaming, but I feel like, as an itinerant teacher, what I want to do and what I’m limited to doing infringe on who I am capable of being.

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Okay – philosophical rant is over! Let me get to the point of this blog. Yup – I deliberately started with the fails of blended learning as an itinerant teacher, but let me share with you a pass that I had this month! It’s Grade 5/6 social studies. Can’t teach the same unit to all the students because, well – those two curriculum are about as different as salt and oil. So, I did a lot of blended learning where I would work with one grade while the other accessed lessons and activities through our Google classroom page. We’d flip flop so that each grade got more individualized and traditional teachings from me, while the other group worked on honing skills. I decided that, for this particular unit, the students would write a test at the end to demonstrate their knowledge. Because I only see them twice a week, I decided to give them 7-8 different websites, YouTube videos or interactive games in order to do additional studying at home to compliment the studying we were doing together. Everything was laid out on Google Classroom. It was perfect!!!

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Then came time for the tests! I decided – let’s use Socrative and make the test online! Their new feature allows kids to go back and review and revise their answers! On the plus side – Socrative would correct the test for me so long as I clicked on the right answer or provided it. It was glorious! Most of the students thought it was great! They felt that taking a test online was “cool”. I was happy to get instant results, I could see where each student was at on the test and I could see if a student was struggling with a particular question. At the end, all I had to do was click on “Finish Test” and “Download Results”.

Wait – only “most of the students thought is was great”, what about the ones who didn’t think it was great. Well, they didn’t NOT think it was great, blended learning is all good and all, but it isn’t the answer for the perpetual lazy student. The morning of the test, I was doing 8:37am supervision. A couple of students who were writing the Grade 6 test came up to me and asked “Madame, is their a re-write for this test today?” My inner monologue started up “A re-write? You haven’t even written the test yet? What about all the practicing, learning, Google Classroom sites I provided? Did you not study for this test?” Oh wait, that was my outer-monologue. “Sorry Madame, I didn’t bother with it. So, is there a re-write?” Right- that’s when my inner-monologue started, and I can’t type what I was thinking.

As much as I have plenty of love for blended learning, technology in general and the desire to make sure my students get every learning opportunity available, I find that, as an itinerant teacher, my hands are sometimes tied. I do try my best in the short bursts that I have with my students. And, slowly, more and more teachers are exploring new ways to incorporate technology into their learning styles, but as long as I am the teacher that only comes in once or twice a week, I need to make sure that I don’t overwhelm them with so much. In order for me to deliver what it is that I need to teach in the time I am given, I have to make some concessions and compromises. And that is how I continue to learn and grow as a teacher as well.

 

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My Evolution of Media, Technology and Pedagogy in Education

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Growing up, I was fortunate enough to be attending one of the “newest” elementary schools in Regina. It had 2 gymnasiums, an art and science lab and a computer lab (although, that came closer to me being in Grade 6). Teachers would use different sorts of mediums to deliver their lessons. Most of the time, it was simply text, but every once in a while, they would wheel in the slideshow projector with cassette tape or movie reel.  Once the computer lab came, we would go to play some science games or typing activities.

In High School, we had the old Mac computers to do some sort of programming, the typewriter class where we created cartoon characters and the TV that got rolled in to the cafeteria so we could watch the Flintstones at lunch.

Personally, I don’t feel that those types of mediums made any major impact on my education and learning. I don’t necessarily remember any “mind-blowing” movie, or slide, or computer game that greatly impacted what I learned and, as “primitive” as technology seemed to be at the time, it wasn’t the way “things were taught”.

But let’s fast forward to 15 years ago. That is when I began my career in teaching. I had a Grade 5 classroom, no computer in that classroom, but our school had a computer lab. I had a slot once a week to take my students in to use the computers. But really, all we did was play educational software games. That is also the time I had to have my first Digital Citizenship lesson (even though I had no idea what that was at the time). My students were learning about web addresses. So one of my students thought she would try her name. She typed in http://www.kelsey.com and, well, even 15 years ago, porn was already prevalent on the internet. The screaming in the computer lab was quite horrific and I was certain I was about to lose my job. Needless to say, that was when I taught my first digital citizenship lesson.

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A couple of years later, I’m teaching Grade 3 and we have the colourful Mac computers in the classroom. I used a great teaching tool (one that I still use today) called Kidspiration to introduce new concepts to the class and to have them work on creating basic computing skills (using a mouse, clicking, saving, etc). A couple of years later, those computers are replaced with the more streamlined Macs that also have a built in webcam. In Grade 3, at that time, I had no use for that Webcam, but a caretaker sure did. I would come into my room in the morning to find a post-it note covering the camera. It turns out, certain online dating sites allowed the computer to access the camera so you could meet your future spouse face-to-face virtually. Another lesson in Digital Citizenship for everyone at that time.

Skipping to the present, computers are virtually obsolete. Laptops and Chromebooks have replaced to the old hard drive and monitors of the past. Hand held devices (that I remember thinking back to in Star Trek the Next Generation were totally cool – and that I would never see them in my lifetime) are now almost considered a necessity in all grade levels. And cell phones – certainly a love-hate relationships with them in classroom settings. But how has pedagogy adapted to the ever changing incorporation of new mediums of media in society? What is the role teachers need or are expected to have when it comes to using them? Is there room for the “good-ole ways” of teaching?

Bates states that there are:

three core elements that need to be considered when deciding what media to use:

  • content;
  • content structure;
  • skills.

Regardless of if you are using a textbook, YouTube video or Educational Technology – there needs to be a reason for using it in the classroom. Either the content is relevant to what is being taught in class, the content structure is suitable for the given grade and the skills the students acquire will allow them to develop knowledge. So based on Bates’ views of the different medias offered in education, how am I using them in relation to his three core elements?

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  1. Text

I’m a librarian. Text is my job. I am one who love to curl up with a good book and flip the clean, crisp pages to immerse myself into a new world. And working in an elementary library, my books have to be new because I know where some of those books have been.

For the past 3 years, our school has also developed an eBook library. Personally, I am not fond of eBooks as it is very hard on my eyes. But my students absolutely love have access to books online. Even my own children will grab their iPads and use EPIC to read a book before bed. eBooks have offered my students a new way to interact with literature and immerse themselves into books that they may have not grabbed off of a shelve for various reasons. Length and cover art are generally the big ones. Even now, almost all of Regina Public Schools textbooks come in eBook format which keeps our costs of replacement textbooks much lower.

I fully agree with Bates‘ assertion that,

We have seen historically that new media often do not entirely replace an older medium, but the old medium finds a new ‘niche’

We see that with the explosion of the popularity of eBooks and online textbooks, reading has found itself its new “niche”.

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2. Audio

…recorded audio, which I will argue is a very powerful educational medium when used well.

I couldn’t agree more with Bates on this matter. I, too, feel that audio is a powerful tool that is often forgotten about. Here is my reason why: My son is dyslexic. He has a very hard time with text in general, never mind some of the heavily worded text forms that often accompany typical Grade 8 reading lists. This year, he read The Giver and luckily for him, he was also given the audiobook to read along with. Having the audio with the book caused less frustration and more comprehension of the story. But my experience with audio, isn’t limited to my son, I make sure I have copies of audiobooks of favourites in the library to help my students that need some of those extra supports. And, as Kelly points out, there are so many ways that technology can help those with special needs.

Google Read&Write is another option to help with texts that normally wouldn’t have audio to go with it. Google Read&Write gives students an option to “listen” to text being read back to them in any sort of digital format.

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3. Video

Where would my husband be without YouTube? He has learned to do so much based on videos uploaded to the mega-movie giant! I must admit, it has been a go to for me as well when it comes to teaching, especially in the core element of “content”. When I taught Grade 8 Science, hydraulic and pneumatic pressure dumbfounded me. After extensive searching and vetting of YouTube videos, I found a number of them that provided various explanations of how they worked to ensure my students learning was supported because of my lack of knowledge. As Bates suggests,

One factor that makes video powerful for learning is its ability to show the relationship between concrete examples and abstract principles, with usually the sound track relating the abstract principles to concrete events shown in the video

However, video, and mainly access to the wide varieties of videos, can, in itself, be overwhelming. Even in this class, I have sometimes spent more time looking for the “perfect” video and have spent hours for one 10 minute clip. Online videos have replaced television in my household. My children don’t spend hours watching the “boob-tube“, but instead, they are tucked away in a corner of their room watching YouTube videos. And I’m not always privy to what it is they are watching exactly.

Another concern with video is that the editing makes the videos more flashy and exciting. So when I share a cool video explaining a particular concept that is full of fun music, high energy hosts and a variety of graphics, how can I compete with that level of engagement?

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4. Computing

I was confused at first with the idea of “computing” as a teaching medium. I originally assumed it was the teaching of coding. But Bates cleared it up for me by saying,

  • it is a very powerful teaching medium in terms of its unique pedagogical characteristics, in that it can combine the pedagogical characteristics of text, audio, video and computing in an integrated manner;

However, he does outline a disadvantage that I am currently working on with my collegues:

  • many teachers and instructors often have no training in or awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of computing as a teaching medium;

All to often, teachers are thrown technology and said “It’s a great way to teach!” however, they are never shown how it is a great way to teach and nor do teachers have time to explore all the options with technology. I would venture a guess that most teachers in my school still use laptops and iPads as merely substitutions for paper and pencils. When the Chromebooks were introduced without the capability of printing, teachers couldn’t understand their use, if it wasn’t to simply type and then print. This small feature has forced the hand of many teachers to examine how they are using technology in the classroom and are embracing more computing skills into their own lessons.

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5. Social Media

The main feature of social media is that they empower the end user to access, create, disseminate and share information easily in a user-friendly, open environment.

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There are great debates between many teachers about Social Media in schools. Some have embraced the fact that it is here and our students are using it, so why not make it into a learning tool? Other view it as the downfall of our civilization and just another way for students to either bully each other or cheat on tests.

I have been on the positive end of social media. I have had classrooms throw entire lesson plans for the day out the window because an author has connected with them via Twitter and wants to know about sheep in Saskatchewan. The class then created a report and request for a sequel where the sheep do end up in Saskatchewan. (Those Magnificent Sheep In Their Flying Machine, Peter Bentley).

I’ve used Twitter-like sites where my Grade 8s connected with another Grade 8 class across town on a similar novel study. They used Twiducate to communicate and discuss aspects of the novel with each other.

My library utilizes it’s own Instagram account where students can post book reviews to share with others who follow us on Instagram. It has been a great way to connect and communicate with others.

Bates discusses many advantages of social media and also provides some disadvantages of it as well. However, I think he missed a major disadvantage – most students (and adults) do not grasp an understanding of the digital citizenship piece surrounding using social media. Social media can be a powerful tool when used appropriately, but adults are still trying to figure all of this out. Yet our children are already using it daily (okay, hourly) and we still don’t all have a firm grasp of it’s power and influence. The latest trend is “Fake News” that has plagues social media sites and created false understandings of actual current events. It is imperative that lessons on social media go hand in hand with lessons on digital citizenship and the power they each possess.