Blended Learning


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I’ve done a lot of writing in this space about blended learning: a blend of traditional and virtual learning to give students learning opportunities/experiences they did not have before. In my own practice, this means using the School of One program. School of One is a web-based interface and assessment system with a grouping algorithm behind it. School of One assesses student learning  and assigns students new groupings and lessons based on that assessment every day. Like the students, I also get a new teaching assignment every day, so I have to stay as sharp as they do.

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BetterLesson’s Blended Master Teacher Program is now making blended resources available to any teacher for free. Click on this picture to go directly to the site.

School of One’s technology allows me to work smarter and target my skills so that I have the most impact on students. Instead of teaching one skill to a class of 30 students who are all learning at different paces, School of One will assign me to teach a lesson to a group of 10 students who all need a lesson in that particular skill while my colleagues (there are 5 of them) teach other targeted lessons.

School of One can assign me and the students one of seven possible lesson modalities (five of which are built around teacher-student interaction). It creates different student groupings every day to meet students where they are on their own individualized learning path. Its system allows students to progress at their own pace and truly learn for mastery.

It makes a lot of sense, and because of it, student engagement is through the roof. Students who have gaps in their learning from previous years catch up faster than I ever thought they would. My data show that the lowest performing students are actually making the biggest gains. Students who were behind in past years apparently just needed some extra time on these skills for whatever reason, and a blended model like School of One provides these individualized opportunities to my 300 students every day.

School of One is a great blended model, but it is not the only one out there. I know lots of teachers who are experimenting with different models, many created on their own using Google Classroom and whatever available tech they have. There is no shortage of tech, but with these new tools and trying to navigate a new teaching landscape comes a lot of questions:

How do I setup my own blended classroom?

Which technological tools are effective and which are not?

Do I have to set up the entire system myself or can I use a platform like School of One?

What will the culture in my blended classroom be like?

What is my role as the teacher in a blended classroom?

How do I maintain a strong bond with students in a more tech-focused environment?

These are hard questions. But from my own experience, missteps, and work with other colleagues who are also blending their classroom, I have found some strategies that work. My blended classroom is set up differently from my traditional one yet some of the basics of any classroom – strong culture and strong instruction – are still at the core. But it wasn’t without a lot of experimentation and miscues along the way. This year, I’ve tried to tackle more of these questions with colleagues through a fellowship at BetterLesson. In case you don’t know BetterLesson, it has, for the last 5 years, recruited “Master Teachers” from around the country to share best practices in every area and grade level of teaching in a well-curated format. This year, BetterLesson recruited 11 of us blended teachers from around the country to showcase some best practices in blended learning because, well, it doesn’t exist anywhere else! If you want to start blending your classroom and are looking for some good strategies and tips, check out all of the great resources from teachers of all subjects and age groups at A description is also below. Enjoy.

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I didn’t really know what I was getting into coming to EduCon2015 in Philly. Every conference has a different vibe that is a function of variables like people, setting, location, and x-factors (Sal Khan was at iNACOL 2015 and although he is a person, he’s also an x-factor that makes my geek meter go off the chart and the conference ultra-memorable.).


Educon has a very student-teacher-school-based feel, as it’s hosted by the Science and Leadership Academy, a unique public partnership high school between the Philadelphia DOE and the Franklin Institute. This partnership set the stage for a conference based around innovation and lots of progressive thinking. And since it’s hosted in an actual school, it felt like I belonged there even thought it’s not my school. Sitting in classrooms and having discussions with other educators and stakeholders just feels natural.

EduCon doesn’t have sessions like a regular conference does. It has conversations. I initially thought this sounded gimmicky, but it was appropriate. Basically, it was less lecture and more discussion and sharing amongst educators. Exactly what I was hoping for. The conversations ranged all over from technological to philosophical to anthropological and beyond.

Below are some highlights, thoughts, ideas, and resources I picked up in the conversations along the way…

General Tidbits to Start With

I’m amazed at how much awesome technology exists and is being developed for teachers. The market is bursting. Zaption is a cool one that embeds prompts and questions into videos that you make (presumably on Educreations or something like it). I recently started using Padlet, an online bulletin/posting board, to have class challenges. Then I use them for discussion. My colleague and I also just collaborated on a Weebly that hosts all of the resources we are using for a 7th grade Ratio and Proportions Unit we are doing this week. I know some might say that students are doing no more learning with these technologies than they were 30 years ago, and that may be true. I don’t think it is, but let’s say it is. Even if it is true, these new learning tools and formats make learning so much cooler, and I think they prepare students for the world in which they live.

Digital Portfolios for Student Work

As students do more work online, there are more and more ways for students to create digital portfolios. And they definitely should. I still have analog portfolios in my classroom filled with old homeworks and projects, which is fine. I still believe there is something to a paper assignment, but what happens to that assignment at the end of the year? Will the students be diligent and save them forever? Probably not. But if they took pictures of their work, it could be saved forever. Google Classroom and Wikispaces are good places to house this work. Safety and privacy are concerns, especially in the larger scope of students having an online presence. But one huge takeaway that I thought was so cool was students using avatars as pseudonyms to protect their identity. So cool.

Beyond just storage, these digital portfolios are being used for so much more. They are becoming interactive portfolios. A big topic of discussion was whether digital portfolios should be a display for products or a documentation process and encouragement of student process and reflection. On the latter, students are annotating their work with screencasts, podcasts, and videos as part of a reflection and growth process. This use of digital portfolios feels like it’s bursting at the seams, and there are so many things teachers can do. Time to start experimenting.

Can We and Should We Assess Character (non-cognitive skills)?

Jonathan E. Martin facilitated a very productive conversation on a topic I feel strongly about. Yes, we should assess character, which means we should be teaching and developing character. A lot of research out there supports this intention with findings that show certain character values correlate to “success” in any field or aspect of life. For clarification, “success” means generally feeling like your life has meaning and purpose no matter what you choose to do with it. One of my favorite books that I’ve read in the last few years is How Children Succeedwhich details these character traits very well. And what these traits are may surprise you. Definitely worth the read.

There was a lot more opposition in this group than I expected. The dissenters would say who are we to say which character traits are important? What if they clash with other cultural values? How do we actually assess it? Although he didn’t work for the company, Mr. Martin was advocating for a product called Mission Skills Assessment, which is a system that helps assess and track character, like a gradebook. But more questions and concerns came up. If we are assessing student character, do we give students a character grade? And if so, can we give an entire class or school a character grade? Can we then compare one school’s character to another? It was a strange road to travel down for everyone involved in the conversation, but I still say 100% yes. All the rest are details to be worked out.

Teaching for Mastery and Grading for Mastery

A fellow NYC teacher at NYC iSchool and Math for America Master Teacher, Sarah Prendergast led a fantastic conversation on mastery teaching and grading. Sarah teaches high school algebra and prepares students for the New York State Regents Exam. And just like my teaching in School of One, Sarah uses a mastery model to teach. This is mastery teaching from her blurb:

Mastery-Based Learning means breaking down a class into smaller, trackable topics and then tracking student progress on each topic. It’s about seeing mastery as the most important goal, and providing students with ample opportunities to show what they know.”

Not only does she teach for mastery, but she and her school grade for mastery, something I admit I don’t do very well at all. 60-80% of students’ grade is based on mastery. 10-30% productivity. 10% contributing factors, whatever those may be and it varies from teacher to teacher. I really struggle with mastery grading because my students work on different grade levels depending on their individualized learning path. My colleagues and I struggle with what to put on a report card for the 7th grade student who is doing very well in his work but is working on 5th grade skills. And what about another 7th grade student who is working on 8th grade skills? My report cards are not really equipped for this.

What I found fascinating and amazing is that by using a mastery tracking system and giving kids ample opportunities to master skills (instead of just moving on), Sarah can predict with almost perfect accuracy all of her students’ regents exam scores. When I heard that, I thought to myself, “Isn’t it amazing how well she knows her students?” Whether the student passes or doesn’t pass any exam is never the most important thing to me, but the fact that she knows the students well enough to be able to predict it is outstanding. And she doesn’t have any super fancy software. Just a really well-thought-out spreadsheet that has evolved into her own excellent tracking tool.

On a side note, she’s also doing lots of other great stuff with Maker Education. Those of us who saw her present at MT^2, a TED style event put on by Math for America, were impressed. Check it out below.

If you are someone who is worried about the state of education or that teachers aren’t that good or yada yada yada, go to EduCon next year and see what’s happening. You’ll feel much better. I owe a huge thanks to my principal, Ailene Mitchell and AP Peter Russo for sending me, my amazing colleague Emily Reisman for being a great learning partner there and in the classroom, and the folks at iZone NYC – Alana Laudone and Cynthia Warner for making it all possible for me.