While I’m not a huge fan of the heat that summer brings with it, I do love using the extra time to relax, spend time with family, and continue growing and learning as a teacher. Summer Break is the time I refine units, reorganize my classroom, read lots of books, create new units, and learn as many new teaching tricks as possible. Although this summer has been so very different from past summers due to the pandemic, I’m still making use of the free time to tweak my teaching and find new ways to engage and challenge students in or out of the classroom. If I want my students to be sponges, learning as much as possible, then I, as their teacher, need to be a role model for them. Learning is an enjoyable and never-ending journey, much like the epic 1980s film The Never Ending Story. I just wish I had a luck dragon like Falcor to fly me to school every day. How cool would that be?
As one of my summer professional development goals was to complete The Modern Classrooms Project online training program, I made sure to devote time to this task. Although it did take several hours to complete the training, I found it incredibly useful. I’ve been wanting to create blended learning units for years now, but just didn’t really know how to go about doing so. The training modules take teachers through the process of creating individualized, differentiated, and blended learning units. It explains the rationale, pedagogy, and research behind why and how this method of instruction works best for all students.
Direct instruction only works for a small percentage of the students in any given class, as some students don’t learn best that way, while others may have already learned the material. What happens in a lecture-based or direct instruction classroom is silent pandemonium. Some students are bored, while other students are lost, and only a tiny handful of students are engaged in the process of learning.
The Modern Classrooms approach is all about creating self-directed learning modules or units for the students. The students will watch a teacher-created video using a Guided Notes Worksheet created by the teacher. The students watch the video at their pace. They can pause, rewind, or fast forward depending on their learning style. Once they have completed the Guided Notes Worksheet and video, they complete a Practice Worksheet to apply the knowledge they just learned. The students may use their Guided Notes Worksheet to complete the Practice Worksheet. As they are completing this process, the teacher is meandering through the classroom, observing students, checking in with students, and answering any questions that arise. Once the students have shown that they understand the new material or learning objective, they complete a Mastery Check, which is a quiz of sorts. They cannot use any notes or other resources to complete the assessment. If they demonstrate mastery of the specific skill covered in that lesson, they move onto the next lesson or activity. The students work through the unit at their own pace, seeking help from the teacher when needed. Those students who work quickly, can move swiftly through the unit, while those students who need more time to work or process learning, can move at a pace that works for them. Each unit contains assignments that every student must do, tasks that students should do if they have time, and challenge tasks for those in need of a push.
This method of teaching makes a ton of sense to me. It provides genuine differentiation of learning for the students, while also creating agency within the students. They learn at their pace, as each unit is self-directed. The ownership of the learning is then taken over by the students, creating more engagement within them. The students become the driver in the classroom when teachers utilize this style of teaching. This blended learning method challenges the students who need to be challenged, while also allowing opportunities for teachers to support and help those students who may need it.
As I completed the training, I began creating my own blended learning unit. I decided to tackle my introductory Language Arts unit and transform that into a Modern Classrooms unit. As this unit serves as a review for some and is new for others, it made sense to me to try changing this unit first. I began by planning out the objectives I want the unit to cover, the activities I want the students to complete, and the final assessment. Then, I created a Learning Map that guides the students through the unit. As in-person school is going to look and feel very different for my micro school this year, I tried to keep that in mind when planning out this unit. Although the students will be able to challenge themselves with the three writing activities I’ve chosen, I did not include any extra extension assignments or group tasks for this first unit. I want to see how it goes. If I feel like I need more challenging tasks for those students who work quickly or can incorporate more group work because a COVID-19 vaccine has been created and administered to the families in my community, then I will definitely incorporate those into future blended learning units. This being my first foray into the Modern Classrooms approach, I wanted to start small.
The green text boxes represent the video lessons the students will complete. The blue text details challenge tasks or writing assignments the students can tackle. While they will need to complete at least one of them during the unit, they don’t have to do all of them. Those students who love to write or like a good challenge, will be probably choose to do all three, while those students who take more time to process the learning covered in the video lessons, will not have time to do all three writing assignments. The red text boxes are the should do tasks. While I would like to see every student read their writing piece aloud after they complete it, it is not a requirement. This is one of those differentiated pieces. While I will gently nudge those students who I feel need to read their writing aloud to themselves or have the time, to do so, it is not a mandate. The final two red text boxes are required for all students. Should I have put them in a different color? Perhaps? I wrestled with that for a while. I will be sure to explain all of this to the students when introducing this new unit.
Once I had the learning map for the unit set, I began creating my video lessons, Guided Notes Worksheets, Practice Worksheets, and Mastery Check quizzes for each of the nine learning objectives. This was time consuming, as I needed to create a Google Slides presentation detailing what I wanted to mention in each video lesson before I could record the video. It was indeed necessary and helpful to do this, as it allowed me time to process my thoughts and think about how I wanted to deliver the lesson in the video. Once the videos were recorded, I posted them to my Google Classroom page so that they will be all ready to go for the students come September. Using the videos as my map, I created the Guided Notes Worksheets and Practice Worksheets. I made sure to use similar wording on the worksheets so that it lined up with what the students heard and saw in the videos. As I know that my school, as of right now, is set to open in-person in September, I printed and copied all of the worksheets and quizzes.
The final pieces of the unit puzzle were the assignments. I created and posted to our Google Classroom page the three challenge writing assignments, the proofreading tasks, and the final two required assignments. While I’m not big on grading rubrics because I feel that they steal thinking from the students and turn them into work machines, I outlined the requirements and graded objectives for the tasks, but did not list every bit of minutia for the assignments. I want to empower the students to think for themselves and ask questions if need be. If I force-feed them everything they need to know about a task, when do they begin to think for themselves? How do they learn to ask questions? So, no, I’m not a rubrics kind of educator.
I felt super pumped about completing my first blended learning unit. I am excited to implement it with my new class of fifth graders. I can’t wait to see how it goes. I’m sure that there will be bumps along the unit journey, but what’s life without a little adventure and craziness? Wait a minute, don’t answer that question during this pandemic. If this unit goes well, I will create more units modeled after the Modern Classrooms approach. While I do teach all of the subjects in fifth grade, I didn’t want to jump into the deep end without my bathing suit on; and so, I decided to start by creating one blended learning lesson. Who knows? By the end of the year I could be using this same style of unit for Math, Science, Social Studies, and Language Arts.
I want to give a shout out to the Modern Classrooms Project for making this training free for teachers. THANK YOU! You rock! If you are a teacher or know a teacher who has not delved into this approach to teaching, please look into it or spread the word. I can’t wait to see how much more engaged and focused my students will be during this unit. I’m hopeful and grateful. I also want to give a BIG THANKS to Bitmoji for creating such a cool app. I truly believe that my students will really love seeing the animated version of me in each of their video lessons. They are so lucky!