What began three years ago as an effort to revive a small teaching partnership between same-course instructors has swelled into a personalized learning collaboration involving seven teachers, two grade levels of students, and a wing of classrooms at Jefferson high school. How’d they do it? Simply by asking, “What if?” and “How?”
- What if a lesson finishes early?
- What if you need three more minutes to finish an assignment?
- How do we get to know students better?
- How can students connect their work with the real world?
Answering those questions was the springboard for the Jefferson BlendED Academy, a program devoted to the personalized learning of students through the use of interdisciplinary, competency-based learning, project- and technology-based innovation with the ability to accelerate through coursework.
This fall, 244 students are enrolled in the Academy – 149 freshmen and 95 sophomores. Participating students were randomly selected based on their Math, Science, and Language Arts registrations; the BlendED schedule needed to fit with their electives.
During each morning and afternoon three-period block, teachers have flexibility in how they divide their time and arrange students. For example, creating four class periods and using one as a work room, project, or intervention period; or creating two class periods and spending more time on a topic; or creating three class periods and using one as a flipped lesson. The flexibility of sharing students, work time, and combining classes provides for dozens of different schedules based on students' needs.
“Teaching in BlendED allows for so many advantages for both the students and myself, as the teacher,” noted Kristin Staude, teacher. “Every day the students are put at the center of their learning and are completely in the driver’s seat.”
Staude went on to explain how the model allows students to realize that the teacher is not the only avenue of information. “There are many resources available for students to use while I am there to help guide and facilitate them in their learning,” she noted. “No class of students are ever at the exact same place in their learning or understanding. Students work at their own pace and choose the way they learn best. They are able to move ahead rather than waiting for others to get to the same point in their learning, or take the extra time to understand material that is more difficult or challenging to them.”
Other teachers on the team agree.
“Teaching in BlendED allows me to interact with students over the course of three periods a day instead of just one,” said Andrew Boone, teacher. “This provides an opportunity to really know students and their individual strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles. It also builds a rapport and relationship that isn’t possible when I only have a student for one class period a day.”
“What I like most about the BlendEd Academy is working with other teachers,” added Kevin Darrow, teacher. “We may not necessarily teach the same subject, but we have the same goals. The flexible schedule is extremely beneficial as my lesson plans change frequently based off of student need.”
Also, by identifying several skills taught in multiple subjects, teachers can develop a single lesson. As an example, science class students are required to learn how to take notes. This is a skill that is not isolated to science class. The language arts teacher taught the lesson using science curriculum, saving instructional time for both teachers. This was also done in math and science, where similar math skills are required in both classes.
Proficiency on standards is the first priority. Students can accelerate through standards as soon as they reach proficiency. With targeted interventions, students in the program outperformed the school NPR and NSS percentages on the Iowa Assessments.
“The best part of the BlendED Academy, for me, is the ability to differentiate the instruction and curriculum, thus ensuring that all students can and will meet the standards,” noted Charlie Goetzinger, teacher. “This accountability of demonstrating proficiency is something that sets us apart from many other classes. We are able to build this into our schedule, as opposed to finding time to hopefully make this happen.”
Once a student meets proficiency, they continue the learning by choosing a project that interests them and collaborating with someone in the community to move it forward. BlendED community projects include:
- Doggy Dash - A 5k dog walk to benefit the Cedar Valley Humane Society
- The Jefferson Apparel Store - Students met with various apparel companies, compiled bids, and implemented a year-round apparel store for Jefferson High School
- Blue Zones Designation - Students worked to make Jefferson a Blue Zones school, implemented a healthy snack cart, arranged to have fresh lettuce served in the cafeteria from a local farm, and served on a District health panel.
- Community Gun Violence Panel - Upon completion of Non-Violent Protest Unit, students organized and generated questions for a community Gun Violence Panel including the Cedar Rapids Police Chief, Linn County Sheriff, U.S. District Attorney, Assistant U.S. Attorney, Linn County Attorney, FBI Special Agent, and CEO of Horizons: A Family Service Alliance.
- Jefferson Gardens - Students designed, planned and planted two school gardens and were awarded a $1,000 garden grant. Students also designed, redesigned, built, and operated a hydroponics lettuce system in the high school’s greenhouse. Additionally, students compost food waste at Jefferson and are researching the composting process in order to compost horse manure at an area stable.
- BlendED Academy Marketing - Students worked with a marketing company to design and develop the program’s logo. They are developing a social media component and website.
“The BlendED Academy allows us to structure classroom communities where students can work productively and organize productive work around meaningful curriculum, all while teaching moral development and citizenship,” explained Eric Gjerde, teacher. “The BlendED Academy is changing instruction to meet the needs of our students, rather than forcing our students to fit the mold of our instruction.”