Innovative educator Lisa Nielsen has been working toward the ideal school day of the future for a while now. In her inspirational blog, she pushes the boundaries of traditional ideas about progress, thinking ten steps ahead while being firmly grounded in today’s realities. When I asked her about her ideas the future school day, she sent along an article she wrote last year that addresses the topic directly. Here’s her take.
SETTING THE SCENE
Sam is an eleventh grader who has struggled with English Language Arts courses in secondary school. He is accustomed to the cycle of failure after years of low and barely passing grades in elementary school and repeating eighth grade before being allowed to continue on to high school. Although eager to learn and eventually finish high school, Sam has already failed two quarters of English. He is frustrated by the continuing cycle. He often finds himself bored and unmotivated in school, which he thinks might have something to do with his less than stellar performance and motivation. He has friends that feel the same way and they notice there are other students in their classes that seem to have stronger educational drive and performance. He’s just not one of them.
An alert English teacher took notice of Sam and recommended that he participate in a unique class of students with similar academic needs. He was given a chance to participate in an online credit recovery program to make up the credits lost by failing the two quarters of English. The Credit Recovery Program is an Internet-based curriculum for high school students. Students work individually and at their own pace using laptops. Each course is organized into units based on each of the seven standards. Each unit has lessons composed of several different activities. The units and lessons are structured to address varying learning styles and include audio, video, animations, interactive segments as well as traditional text.
Participating students have a teacher/mentor who has been specifically trained in online instruction and can focus on individualizing instruction for each student. Students receive timely feedback on assessments. Sam knows that he must complete all activities and receive a grade of 70 or better in order to move on to the next lesson or unit.
In New York City, there are seven English Language Arts performance standards that high school students must meet. They are: E1) Reading E2) Writing E3) Listening, Speaking, Viewing E4) Conventions, Grammar, and Usage of the English Language E5) Literature E6) Public documents E7) Functional Documents. In our online learning credit recovery model students must demonstrate achieving mastery in each area. One area that Sam failed in ninth grade English Language Arts was Standard E1b: Read and comprehend at least four books on the same subject, or by the same author, or in the same genre. In this case study we will take a look at how Sam was able to demonstrate mastery in the 21st century classroom.
Sam reports to school at the beginning of the school day and picks up his laptop from the OLC (Online Learning Cafe). Although all 25 students taking a variety of classes report there, they can use their laptops in any of the school’s various study spaces connecting to the Internet through high speed wireless connectivity.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
Sam logs on to his laptop where he has his online bookshelf filled with a variety of texts including contemporary literature (both fiction and nonfiction), magazines, newspapers, textbooks, and more. These books were part of the previous unit he completed that addressed Standard E1A. As Sam logs on, he thinks, “Wow, if reading was like this before, I probably wouldn’t be taking this class.” Sam’s bookshelf is made possible through a variety of partnerships with entities such as the Public Library, NetTrekker, Book Glutton, LuLu, Blurb, Blogger, and Google Books. Here Sam has a collection of every book he has read since entering the school and all those he plans to read.
Sam is actually excited about demonstrating mastery in this area because as he clicked on the standard in this module, his animated teaching assistant explained that this standard is intended to encourage students to invest themselves thoroughly in an area that interests them. He learned that such an investment will generate reading from an array of resources, giving him more experience of reading as well as increased understanding of a subject.
“Huh,” he thought to himself. “I had no idea that this is what we were supposed to be doing when I failed this in ninth grade. The teacher just showed us bins of raggedy old books and magazines and told us to pick one we liked. I didn’t like any of ’em and was left with a bunch of books about Ronald Reagan.”
Sam was excited to dive into this work and have a chance to read about things that interest him, but what would he choose? Sam clicked on the interest survey which he was excited to take. The system has his profile for reading level, grade, gender, and first language, and produced a series of questions. Based on the interest survey, he decided he wanted to do deep reading about curling. He came to this conclusion because his interest profile suggested he select something in the area of sports…perhaps something in which he participates or watches. Following the Winter Olympics he and his dad had become fascinated with the topic and in fact even signed up for a curling league. He thought this would be a great way to find some reading that maybe he and his dad could do together.
When he entered the virtual reading room and typed the topic into the system he instantly got hits based on his profile: reading level, native language, grade, and gender, from all the partner sites along with options of how mastery could be demonstrated. Of the various choices Sam would have to pick four different readings in which to demonstrate such mastery to meet the standard.
Sam selected the following:
- Sweep Magazine – (Available digitally)
- Skip Cottage Curling Blog
- The Curling for dummies book (Available from his local branch of the public library)
- Curling (from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
- How to Get on a Curling Team (Available via Book Glutton)
Sam realized that he only needed to select four sources, but that didn’t matter. He was really interested in reading all five. Maybe more. He wasn’t sure if this was okay though, so he looked to see which of the ELA facilitators was online. He saw Ms. Michelle was online and sent her an IM asking if he could choose five rather than four selections. “Sure!” Ms. Michelle replied with a smile emoticon. You can always choose a bit more and then just select your top four picks to be assessed. That is a smart strategy.”
Sam wondered if perhaps he could interest any of the other ELA students around the country to study this topic too. He posted the question on the system message board and hoped someone else might be interested in this topic too as it would be fun to collaborate. He also jumped over to his Twitter account and sent out a tweet: If you’re interested in curling, DM me. I have some great materials to read. Sam instantly got five responses to his tweet. He was excited to start building a personal learning network around curling.
Sam was excited to start by taking a look at Sweep Magazine. The digital format was fantastic. Sam immediately thought his dad, who’s in the over-40 crowd, would love that he could zoom in on any text or photos in the magazine. Sam also appreciated being able to select the “Listen” option not only because it was helpful for certain difficult-to-read sections of the magazine, but also because he thought it would be interesting to learn about curling as he was getting ready in the morning for school. Even though he couldn’t take the laptop home, he realized he could still listen to it because the magazine had an accompanying podcast he could listen to on his personal iPod. Sam DMed those who tweeted him with a link to the magazine.
All materials have “suggested proof of mastery” which include a student activity as well as a reflection which is what his online teachers reviews and assesses him on using the unit rubric. Students can submit alternate activities for approval and any of the class facilitators in that content area may approve. For Sweep Magazine Sam decided to engage in selecting three articles to share with some friends who might enjoy by posting a link on with an accompanying status update on Facebook. Sam was excited because he knew this would help build his curling-focused personal learning network even more. The post had to indicate something about the article and why he thought those tagged would find it of interest.
Sam also had to make at least three comments in response to his friends in each update. These conversations were pasted into Sam’s reflection, which is shared with the teacher and make up a part of the reflection assessment. The online facilitators read each reflection with the authentic writing samples and provide feedback as well as a grade to students. In many cases this might include tips, tutorials, or one-on-one sessions with the online facilitator to strengthen a particular skill. Students that do not pass are required to engage in the scaffolding activities and resubmit their work. Students that do pass also have the option of engaging in the scaffolding activities and resubmitting their work for a higher grade but this is optional.
Note: As part of the high school curriculum all students learn how to create a responsible digital footprint and Twitter and Facebook are a part of this. In some cases students have set up both a separate personal and student profile. In other cases students have chosen to have one profile only. Sam fell in the later category.
Before the end of the class someone responded to Sam’s message on the system bulletin board. Another student said he was interested in reading about curling too. Sam messaged him back with a note expressing his excitement and a link to his bookshelf. Next, Sam shared his bookshelf and assignment selections with his adviser who he was looking forward to connecting with tomorrow during their weekly online Elluminate webinar session.
Here are the other activities Sam engaged in during the semester.
- Subscribed to the Skip Cottage Curling Blog: Sam selected to comment on at least three entries as part of his activity. He challenged his dad to do the same. They ended up in a virtual debate through their comments on the ethics of one of the players. The online conversations bleed into some interesting dinnertime chats and an interesting reflection for his teacher.
- Borrowed The Curling for dummies book from the public library. His assessment option choice for this book was to write a review that would be submitted on Amazon.com as well as select at least three reviews from others on which he would rate and comment. Of course, this wasn’t as easy as it sounded because Sam kept finding that his Dad had taken the book to work. Eventually they both read the book and commented on one another’s work.
- Started his dive into learning about curling with a Curling article from Wikipedia. His activity for this reading was to use something he found or learned from his curling study to add to the article. Sam started with the resource section and added in the blog he was reading. Sam also wrote about the ethics controversy of the player he had read about in the blog.
The final reading that Sam did on the topic was How to Get on a Curling Team from Book Glutton. Sam was excited to learn that this book had actually been published on Book Glutton from another student who had taken the course across the country. He wrote the book as part of the E2 Writing standard. In the back of Sam’s mind he was thinking about a book he might publish that could be interesting for other students to read. The activity selected for this book was that Sam had to make at least three comments in the book and reach out to another reader to set up a time to read a passage that he particularly liked together with that reader and discuss it on Book Glutton. Sam loved this activity. He contacted the author and his own father and the three of them had a Book Glutton online discussion on several different passages. Sam was online from school, his dad during his lunch break at the office, and the author from her gym which had wireless internet.
Sam’s goal was to finish two activities per quarter and figured the first four would be the ones for which he submitted his reflection assessment. Sam ended up finishing all five activities in the two quarters and submitted them all. He appreciated the feedback and insight from his online facilitator and hoped she didn’t mind the extra work he was giving her. He IMed her in the chat box to see if it was okay. She said, “Sam, I’ve been really impressed with your work and would love to read an additional submission.”
At the completion of the unit Sam was thrilled. He had developed a terrific community of friends with who he could read, write, and converse about curling. He had started on his curling team and got many of his actual friends involved too. “Hmmm”…he thought. “I wonder when the summer Olympics will begin. I’ve always been interested in beach volleyball and now I know some smart ideas to get started.”