A Summer of Innovation, Part 5: It’s Never Too Late, Indeed!

During my time in the education profession, I’ve repeatedly encountered the misconception that blended and personalized learning is a type of teaching and learning reserved only for new or fresh-out-of-college educators. However, Yolanda Johnson, a 20-year DCPS educator teaching at Cleveland Elementary School, is disproving this misconception daily.

Yolanda Johnson, Cleveland Elementary Public School

Prior to observing her classroom pilot, I knew very little information about Yolanda—just that she was a veteran public school teacher and a current CityBridge Education Innovation Fellow. And as part of this Fellowship experience, I also knew she was piloting a new station rotation blended learning model. What I didn’t know then was how dynamically talented she is as a teacher.

During my first meeting with Yolanda, I couldn’t help noticing how anxious she was to start her pilot—and how nervous she was for things to “go well.” This type of reflective thinking is undoubtedly a byproduct of her experience and ability. After about a 30-minute discussion, we’d made a plan for me to visit again and see her class in action.

During this second visit, I was immediately impressed with Yolanda’s class. (In addition to their stellar work, her rising 4th graders are undoubtedly among DCPS’ most adorable students!) After Yolanda greeted each student at the door, they entered the classroom. Doing their best to ignore my presence (but with curious eyes and faint smiles), each student placed their book bag in the designated area, located and sat in their assigned seats, diligently pulled out their journals, and quietly began to work on the Problem of the Day.

While the students focused on solving this problem, Yolanda constantly circulated around the classroom to discuss misconceptions and ask questions. After about 20 minutes, she instructed the students to leave their assigned seats and reassemble on a rug in the front of the classroom to discuss the problem they’d been working on.

VIDEO: Yolanda circulates to help students with the Problem of the Day

As a student volunteer wrote her answer on the whiteboard, Yolanda posed higher-order questions to the other students. Then, once the student volunteer finished writing her response, she explained her choices to the class.

Yolanda reviews stations' schedule

Following this group session, Yolanda asked for everyone’s attention and explained the station rotation expectations and schedule. Once she confirmed her students’ understanding, she released them—and like clockwork, each student knew exactly where to go, what to bring, and how to begin.It was truly a thing of beauty; in fact, I couldn’t help but stay an extra 30 minutes beyond my scheduled time there. I cannot underscore Yolanda’s skill as a teacher enough.

VIDEO: Yolanda’s station rotation model at work

Similar to her colleagues in the Fellowship, Yolanda employs a station rotation learning model. Her students, depending on their data-informed pathway, move between two to three primary station options: 1) the teacher-led, small group station, 2) the computer station, where students work on different math-based educational sites, and 3) an option to work independently, while sitting with classmate.

Technology and educational websites are exciting, and they often dominate the dialogue about blended learning. How the best byproduct of blended models is that they enable the teacher—in this case, Yolanda—to maximize instruction, direct or guided, with a targeted small group. In fact, all of the CityBridge Education Innovation Fellows that I’ve observed during their summer piloting experience use a station rotation blended learning model. Moreover, they all incorporate a small-group, teacher-led station as well.

And this is precisely where I tip my hat to Yolanda. As a successful veteran teacher, she could easily have passed on the opportunity to apply for the Fellowship and try something new. Yes, Yolanda’s academic background includes a master’s degree in education technology, but, as she has admitted, she had only applied most of that knowledge sparingly. Now, her renewed interest and passion for teaching is on full display in her classroom.

I can genuinely say Yolanda’s class is one of the best classes I’ve ever had the privilege of experiencing. Her talent is clear; her testimony is nothing short of inspirational. She is proof positive that it’s never too late, indeed, to try something new.

Off for now…

Angel Cintron Jr., Contributing Blogger and 2014 Education Innovation Fellow
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A Summer of Innovation: Part 4: A Talented DCPS Teacher Seeks to “Blend” Project-Based Learning

Alex Brown is a fifth grade math teacher at Randle Highlands Elementary School. Randle Highlands is a unique public elementary school because it one of few schools implementing a school-wide blended learning model. In fact, the expectation at Randle Highlands is that every teacher uses a station rotation learning model in his or her classroom. A typical class consists of the following:

  1. Each class begins with a warmup or “Do Now.”
  2. The teacher provides an “Introduction to New Materials,” or mini-lesson, within 15 minutes.
  3. Student learning occurs across three distinct, timed blended learning stations.

In Alex’s classroom, students rotate among three learning stations: a computer station, a collaborative or an independent work station, and a teacher-led or “guided practice” station. Although Randle Highlands already implements blended learning school-wide, Alex is seeking to raise the academic bar by merging project-based learning and the existing blended learning model.

Alex has a simple goal for the summer: He wants to learn as much about project-based learning as possible. That’s precisely why, during the summer weeks, he is actively researching project-based learning materials. Alex’s hope is that he can compile a rigorous list of project-based lesson plans and resources in order to introduce this new station in his classroom. He’s determined to find quality lesson materials because he wants this station to help students develop meaningful problem-solving skills.

Alex also wants to find ways to train teachers so they can use a similar project-based learning station in their classrooms. As a teacher, he understands the need to offer teachers ongoing and differentiated professional development, especially when it comes to to leveraging education technology. As a result, he plans to curate resources so he can create a teacher training—professional development—plan that he can carry out within his school. Rather than innovate in isolation, Alex wants to offer interested teachers a repository for project-based and blended learning resources.

Alex has designed this research to allow himself to iterate on a meaningful teacher training plan for current and future teachers. Above all, his greatest hope is that Randle Highlands becomes a leading project-based learning and blended learning model for the District of Columbia Public Schools.

If you’re interested in learning more about project-based learning or if want to share your best practices and resources with Alex, feel free to reach out to him on Twitter at @perspectivedc.

Off for now…

Angel Cintron Jr., Contributing Blogger and 2014 Education Innovation Fellow
Angel cropped

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Trust (in Project-Based Learning)

Baltimore bench

I was 13 minutes late to City Neighbors Charter School today. Not because I woke up late or traffic was bad, but because I wanted to experience Baltimore—take some pictures, talk with locals, walk some of the neighborhood blocks. Baltimore feels different than D.C. I don’t know exactly why, yet. But it is. Maybe it’s because of the row homes. Maybe it’s because it’s more expansive and not as compressed. Maybe it’s because it consists of 400 blocks and not eight regional wards. Maybe it’s because the people who sit on benches that read “Baltimore—The Greatest City in America” look like they live another motto.

When I finally arrived at the school, my students were on the way outside for a journaling activity to reflect on yesterday’s field trip to an organic berry farm 30 minutes west.

I asked the teacher that I was shadowing, “Should I lock up the classroom after I put my stuff down?”

“No,” she said, “everything will be fine.” I smiled in the moment—not because I was happy not to worry, but more because I was pondering the assumption that people deserve to be trusted.

I’ve never worked in a school where I didn’t have to think twice about my belongings if they weren’t in sight. My current school is a lot better than my first, but I’ve still had items stolen at both.

But how do you teach students who are used to being watched daily—by store owners, police, surveillance cameras, even teachers—how to trust? Here’s some advice from Mrs. Seidl, Mrs. Dash and Mr. Harris—three City Neighbors teachers and experts in project-based learning.

Start With A Conversation
Communicating trust early and often is key. Students and parents need to know why so much emphasis is placed on interpersonal relationships, not just core academic subjects. Explain and reinforce that trust will be consistently communicated in all actions—verbal and nonverbal. Express that we all share the same intent and that we have to be in partnership with everyone in the child’s life.

Students need to constantly engage in team-building activities—whether set aside from the typical day or woven into a collaborative learning project. This builds a dependence on the group and each other. It also teaches students how to converse and use proper vocabulary to build and diffuse conversations.

Peer Mentorship
When paired well, mentor students rise to the occasion to be a reflection of school values, and they communicate and reinforce those values in their mentees. Students constantly express their sense of accomplishment when helping another student.

Let Them Talk
There’s been a lot of emphasis lately on teachers changing their roles to become facilitators of learning. However, students are the true facilitators. Let them talk. Let them teach each other. Once one or a few students acquire the knowledge, they will naturally share their learning.

Time and Space
Give students opportunities to melt down without critique from you or their peers. Adjustment takes time, and it naturally takes some students more time than others. Students benefit from having the understanding and trust that comes from having the space to be themselves and accepted at all times. Teach kids how to react—or how not to react—when in the midst of a meltdown.

Discipline and Stewardship
When students commit an infraction, have them engage in work that benefits the building. For example, have them paint a wall, clean the cafeteria, be responsible for materials collection and replacement. The idea is that students have to work to regain the trust of the community. Discipline must be immediate and consistent to work. If not, both students and parents will lose trust in the process.

Further, stewardship should not only be used as a means of discipline. Build a love for community, belongings, and the classroom by having students consistently maintain their space. This shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be the job of the teacher or janitorial staff.

There’s a lot to be said about trust. We all know the satisfaction that comes from being trusted. But we also know how hard trust is to regain once it’s lost. I plan to implement the advice given by Mrs. Seidl, Mrs. Dash, and Mr. Harris this school year and let you know what I discover. Hopefully, the lessons my students learn about trust this year will permeate their lives for years to come.

Alex Brown, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Randle Highlands Elementary School
Twitter: @PerspectiveDC


Spotlight on the Student

In my summer pilot program at Orr Elementary School, I have the opportunity to work with a group of students with whom I have spent a lot of time across the past two years. For many, I have been their after-school teacher, their Girls on the Run coach, their RTI reading teacher, etc. Going into the summer, I felt like I knew most of them already.

However, I have gotten to know my students more deeply already this summer. With only about 15 students in our summer pilot group, we have been able to create more intimate learning experiences in small groups that number no more than four. This allows us to truly reach each student.

I’ve seen one student in particular grow immensely as a response to this more personalized setting. This student, whom I call J-Boogie, is very smart—but in much of my experience with her, she has not applied herself as a student. She has been able to hide in the crowd, and while she is by no means quiet, when it is her turn to speak in group discussions or to answer questions, she tends to give an “I don’t know” shrug or just not respond. 

I noticed this in previous experiences with her, and I noticed it on the first day of our pilot. So I decided that I would make it my mission to always shine a light on her. My goal was to never give her the opportunity to hide. Now, because I already have a rapport with J-Boogie, I knew that she wouldn’t feel attacked. She would, however, feel uncomfortable. 

When I pulled my small groups, I was sure that she sat close to me. When I asked questions, I made sure that she answered one of them. I made sure I never accepted an “I don’t know” from her. I gave her wait time and sentence starters if she needed them, but she was never allowed to not answer. I celebrated her success, as I did with all of the other students in my groups. When I dismissed my group, I spent 30 seconds telling her how much I enjoyed her input and answers.

As a result, J-Boogie is participating more in group discussions, taking risks by expressing her opinion about her answers, and seems to be actually engaged in the work we are doing. 

I love working with students who come to school engaged and ready to learn, but what thrills me is helping the unengaged and chronically unsuccessful students to change the way they view themselves as learners. I thrive on helping them work toward being the best they can be. This is what makes teaching awesome. 

My experience with J-Boogie is nothing profound, nothing extremely enlightening, nothing mind-blowing. However, it is what drives me as a teacher. My professional mission is this: I will let every student know that they are important, that I see them, and that I want the very best for them.  

Kelley Jones, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Orr Elementary School


City Neighbors School Visit

Being an Education Innovation Fellow has afforded me the opportunity to visit many innovative schools across the country. But I have to admit that after visiting schools in California, I left feeling like there was still something missing: Yes, those schools stated that they were making an impact on student achievement through the effective use of blended learning, but most of the classrooms looked similar to ours in D.C., and I anticipated seeing something more. But when we traveled to Chicago a few months later, I was really impressed by use of space, time, and talent at CICS West Belden and Cesar Chavez Multicultural Academic Center, and I immediately began to make changes in my classroom.

Then the invitation came to visit City Neighbors in Baltimore, Maryland, and that visit inspired me even more. The overall feel of the building, even on the last days of school, was “just right”: From the moment we walked into the lobby and saw comfortable furniture and 8×10 photos of the current freshman class, I felt the warmth and the student-centered atmosphere of the school.

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Our tour began with a meet-and-greet with Executive Director Bobbi MacDonald and Academic Director Mike Chalupa, where Bobbi and Mike shared City Neighbors’ humble beginnings and its overall mission and vision. What I remember most is their desire for students to be “known, loved, and inspired.” It’s clear that beyond the big, bold mural in the hallway, this mission is what drives everything that they do at City Neighbors.

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The culture at City Neighbors fosters collaboration through project-based learning and an awareness of self and others through strong relationships with families and the community. When freshmen arrive, they are not left to figure out the City Neighbors way of life on their own; instead, students are grouped into “pods” (groups of 15 students) and stay together, with the same teacher (pod advisor), throughout their time at City Neighbors. This creates a family-like feel. Freshmen are also supported by upperclassmen, who take on the role of building community and setting expectations as they navigate the waters of their first year.

The student-centered space is what captured my attention the most at City Neighbors. Bobbi told us that students helped design the cafeteria (lounge), and it was like nothing I had ever seen—it had sectional sofas, restaurant-style seating with booths, high tables, and even a piano!

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The classrooms are very spacious, and all of them have comfortable seating options like sofas and plush chairs. In the high school classrooms, students work in cubicle-like settings with office desks; there are also refrigerators for student use. The hallways are an extension of the classrooms, with additional seating and workspaces if students need. There is also a fantastic “maker space,” complete with a 3-D printer, computer lab, duck pin bowling alley, and construction tools for projects.

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City Neighbors represents perhaps the greatest use of space that I’ve seen in all of our school visits. At the conclusion of our tour, we reconvened in the conference room, and someone asked, “How do you measure the impact of space design?” Bobbi explained that it’s hard to measure space design in terms of academic achievement, but City Neighbors’ attendance rates are higher than all of the Baltimore City Schools combined.

As I left City Neighbors, I couldn’t help but snap a photo of a street sign that sat in the office where we met that read, “Inspiration Lane.” My visit to City Neighbors was truly an inspirational experience that has me challenging my thinking in so many ways: What are my driving core beliefs about kids and parents? What would my dream classroom or school look and feel like? Are my classroom and school designed to make students and teachers effective, or are they set up for compliance? How do we make our thinking visible?

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I plan to answer these questions for myself this summer as I transform my classroom into a learning space where my students, too, feel “known, loved, and inspired.”

Yolanda Johnson, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Cleveland Elementary School
Twitter: @yoyoteach2


A Summer of Innovation, Part 3: Center City Brightwood

Center City Public Charter Schools, the first Catholic-to-charter school conversion in the United States, empowers students for lifelong success by “building strong character, promoting academic excellence, and generating public service throughout Washington D.C.” Currently, Center City PCS operates six campuses across the District of Columbia. During the traditional school year, CityBridge Education Innovation Fellows Samantha Ellerbeck, Alison Gillmeister, and Desiree Smith teach at separate Center City Public Charter School campuses. Across the summer weeks, however, these three Fellows are piloting their models at the Center City Brightwood campus.

During the second week of summer school, I visited each classroom and recorded a brief panoramic view of their blended learning “pilot-at-work.” Below, you’ll find three brief videos and summaries of their pilot progress.

Samantha Ellerbeck (@saellerbeck)

Samantha is piloting a station rotation-based blended learning model. In this video, you’ll notice three distinct learning stations spread across the classroom. Samantha is leading a small-group critical reading station, while the other two other groups are completing a task via laptops.

The small-group station is a major component in Samantha’s blended learning approach and model. Samantha says that during the small group reading and critical discussion station, “everyone is held accountable for understanding the gist of the novel study.”  In fact, students are not only adjusting well to this station, they’re also exceeding expectations and “doing the heavy lifting” themselves. Although Samantha wanted to use whole-group “read alouds,” she has pivoted slightly, since her students prefer to complete their task using computers.

Alison Gillmeister

Alison decided to pilot a blended learning model because it “encourages self-paced, self-managed, and self-motivated learning.” In her classroom video, you’ll see her students independently working on their assignments via laptops or what is often called a “one-to-one” learning model. It’s important to note that before Alison releases her students to work independently, she allows each student to choose a place within the classroom where they can work effectively. As a result, you’ll see that a few students sitting in the back because they decided that was the most effective place to focus on their work.

So far, Alison has noticed some encouraging signs. For example, she says her students are “writing longer, better-developed answers to the online writing prompts.” This is a great sign, since she wants her student to “take a significant amount of time to analyze the question so they can put it in our own words.” Her students, too, are noticing the benefits of this model. In fact, one of her students, who struggles with reading and writing, has twice mentioned his appreciation for “having more control over his (learning) pace.”

Desiree Smith (@msSmith_desiree)

Similar to her colleagues, Desiree also employs a station rotation-based blended learning model. As a math teacher, Desiree leverages educational technology (edtech) tools such as Edmodo and TenMarks. In this video, you’ll notice Desiree providing targeted instruction to a small group while her other students work independently on their assignments via scratch paper and laptops.

Although Samantha, Alison, and Desiree’s pilots are still relatively new, bright spots are already emerging. During my visit, I couldn’t help but notice how all three Fellows maximized instruction by relying on the power of small-group instruction and one-on-one conferences. I also noticed that 99% of the students were engaged in their learning, 99% of the time. As a former public middle school teacher, I truly appreciated witnessing such positive and productive learning environments. I genuinely look forward to following this talented trio from Center City PCS. I hope you do too!

Off for now…

Angel Cintron Jr., Contributing Blogger and 2014 Education Innovation Fellow
Angel cropped

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“What’s Your Motivation?”: How I Got Students to Buy Into Innovation

The structure of my pilot at Orr Elementary School this summer is very similar to what I tried in my class after my first trip to California with the Education Innovation Fellowship in January. I was so excited about being in the Fellowship and trying things I was learning, so I started implementing changes right away. My class was also eager to follow my lead, which made it easy to try out new ideas and adjust them as I went.

By the end of the year, I was confident that I had a great structure in place, and I planned to use the exact same strategy with my summer school students. Well, I learned quickly that with each new year and each new set of students, my structure will definitely have to adjust.

On the first day of my summer pilot program (along with my colleague, Kelley Jones), I came in and shared my expectations with my students, talked to them about goal-setting and small groups, and—standing on my soapbox—preached about how important it was to know your data and speak to it! And when I was done and looked out at the blank faces staring back at me, I realized very quickly that my approach with this group was definitely going to have to be different.

Instead of just pointing out how important it was for students to set goals, I realized that this group needed to be engaged and to understand the importance of the math I was asking them to do. So Ms. Jones and I decided to create a culminating project that students would work on together and that would relate directly to their lives. My group from last year was motivated by just being successful in school; this group needed to see why it mattered.

The culminating project that students will complete is about money: Students use money every day and will continue to throughout their lives, so it was an intensely relatable subject. Since our last day together will be a trip to a staking rink, we’ve assigned students to figure out how much the trip will cost and what activities and snacks we will be able to afford on our budget—all the while using decimals (our Unit 1 activity) to do it.

Now that I have students’ minds turning and making connections through this culminating project, I feel their motivation to be successful in our summer pilot increasing. After a week and a half, they are eager to participate in the centers. I can’t wait to see how they do on their first quiz!

Diane Johnson, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Orr Elementary School