Sitting side by side at a table tucked against a wall of their classroom, two eighth-graders at Chandler’s Willis Junior High School eye the computer screens in front of them, discuss the numbers, then transfer what they’ve learned to graph paper using the pencils in their hands.
Around the same classroom, similar pairs of students are working out their own equations for the same word problem on more than a dozen HP Mini netbooks.
The students are part of Willis’ Innovation Academy, a “blended learning” model of education where technology is used alongside teacher instruction. It’s the first of its kind, a school-within-a-school in the Chandler Unified School District.
But many more may be coming to the East Valley in the near future.
Education reformers around the country are talking about blended learning and what it can do to individualize teaching today. Through computer-based activities, students can move ahead when they’ve mastered a concept taught by the teacher, or they can work on topic they’re struggling with while others around them go ahead.
The key is the teacher involvement, proponents say. Teachers still present the information, and then they monitor students’ understanding through online projects, activities or testing.
Willis started the program this year with 105 students, said principal Jeff Delp. He’s hoping to expand on that next year, with the eventual goal of bringing blended learning to every student at Willis Junior High School.
“We’re piloting this for the district. They’re going to see where it goes,” Delp said. “Let’s be honest. Education is changing.”
At Willis, honors students were randomly selected to be involved in Innovation Academy. Four teachers provide “core” instruction in science, math, social studies and language arts during the first four periods of the day. The students then join their peers for electives such as music and art.
“I’ve had many requests to come into the program,” Delp said. “I’ve had no requests to come out.”
The district purchased a set of computers that are shared among the four teachers. This is not a “virtual” education program, Delp pointed out: It’s truly blended learning.
“You’ve got the technology that is a draw, but the teachers are effective and collaborating,” he said. “This has increased, in my opinion, the amount of collaboration going on in the classroom.”
The teachers also use programs students are familiar with, like Twitter or Edmodo, which looks just like Facebook, to post questions or spur discussions.
“It’s available in class and at home. You start to look at, ‘How can we make education available to kids 24/7 if they want access?’ ”
As part of the blended learning program, social studies teacher Darren O’Hara also adopted a new trend in education: the “flipped classroom.” It’s called that because the lecture is watched online at home and the homework is done at school.
What that means for O’Hara’s students is that after they view his lectures or presentations online, they discuss the subject or work on projects in class. But that doesn’t mean everything is computer-based. For this week’s assignment, the students must demonstrate what they’ve learned about the Civil War. They have technology options, like making a poster online or their own computer-based presentation. But they can also use traditional methods. On Monday, two students in O’Hara’s class were using pencil and paper to write up diaries for fictional Civil War soldiers.
“There’s times when you don’t want to use technology. You don’t want to force technology,” O’Hara said.
But when the technology is used purposefully, “just the retention of the information seems a lot higher. There’s energy. They love it,” he said.
Students in the Innovation Academy classrooms said they prefer this way of learning versus classroom.
“I would choose this way. It’s much easier to me,” said seventh-grader Jenny Melchor, 13.
“It’s fun to have the netbooks. We do our research in class. We can do our homework on it instead of doing papers and losing it,” said seventh-grader Katana Misseldine, 12.
Last month, Sen. Rich Crandall, chairman of Senate education committee, brought together a group of Arizona educators to learn more about the blended learning concept. Participants included many district superintendents, as well as university officials.
Chandler is the first district in the East Valley to adopt it on a large scale. Mesa Unified School District is also considering it as an option in the future.
Teachers not only offer academic instruction, they provide advice about how students should conduct themselves online, Delp said.
“We talk about their ‘digital footprint.’ We want them to use that stuff responsibly,” pointing out that anything posted online may be found, even if it’s deleted from the site it was originally posted on.
“They’re learning a skill set: how to collaborate, how to filter information, what opinion versus fact is, and how to use their creativity. One big part of engaging them is to allow them to be creative in how they demonstrate knowledge of a topic.”
Willis Junior High School is holding a showcase 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 15. Parents can learn about all the learning programs at the school, including the Innovation Academy. The public is welcome.
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Michelle Reese, East Valley Tribune