Future of Learning

Rhode Island teachers trying out blended learning — but without high stakes pressure

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Spaghetti sauce simmered on a hot plate, salami sat in the refrigerator and a student in a pink tutu danced to a video of a singing snake projected on the wall.

Earlier in the day, these kindergarten students had helped their 7-foot-tall teacher reset an interactive table-top computer that he had attempted, and failed, to use during a lesson.

It’s okay to try, even if success is not guaranteed, the teacher, Mike Willard, said. The students learn from his example when he does not let a glitch get him down.

“There is a lot of power in letting kids see you make mistakes,” Willard said.

Carrie Sorensen, a teacher at Highlander Charter and a fellow with Fuse RI, works with students using a tablet computer. They are using an app to make a book cover. (Photo: Nichole Dobo)

Carrie Sorensen, a teacher at Highlander Charter and a fellow with Fuse RI, works with students using a tablet computer. They are using an app to make a book cover. (Photo: Nichole Dobo)

At Highlander Charter School here, in the nation’s smallest state, several teachers said they are encouraged to think outside the box. They try new ways to incorporate technology, and try to find new efficiencies in familiar routines. They combine in-person instruction with computer-assisted lessons, something that is called blended learning.

The school, the first independent charter in Rhode Island, started in 2000, and adopted this high-tech model of instruction early on. This fall, the state announced plans to bring the method into all of its schools.

Related: Q & A with Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist: Our goal is to be the first state to fully blend technology into all schools

At Highlander Charter — where more than three-quarters of the children at qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch, and many students are learning to speak English – teachers use laptops, tablets and smartphones to make teaching and learning more effective and efficient, weaving them in alongside more traditional lessons.

“We have a lot of fun,” said Carrie Sorensen, a first-grade teacher at Highlander Charter’s lower school.

Carrie Sorensen, a teacher at Highlander Charter and a fellow with Fuse RI, works with students using a tablet computer. They are using an app to make a book cover. (Photo: Nichole Dobo)

Carrie Sorensen, a teacher at Highlander Charter and a fellow with Fuse RI, works with students using a tablet computer. They are using an app to make a book cover. (Photo: Nichole Dobo)

For instance, in one room, children are using new educational software that is still in beta testing. In another, teachers use QR codes to speed up the process of logging students in to various programs on tablet computers. The teacher can scan a piece of paper printed with a code that tells the computer what program to load, the way a bar code allows for swifter checkouts in the grocery store. This scanner brings up specific for videos for children to watch.

Along with adding technology, Rhode Island has developed efforts to train teachers in using it, and to inspire them to craft solutions. A new fellows program, Fuse RI, which began this year, brings educators – teachers and administrators – together to learn, innovate and assist other educators. They don’t take themselves too seriously; they do not profess to be experts. They’re learning together.

“No one has any answers or solutions,” said Shawn Rubin, the director of blended learning at the Highlander Institute, a nonprofit educational consulting, research and development organization affiliated with the charter school that shares its name. “A lot of things we have done in the past, we know they work; now they are going to be more powerful.”

Rubin was a kindergarten teacher at Highlander Charter School when he had the ah-ha moment that set him on a path to inventing Metryx, a program that allows teachers to record student observations in real time and in one place. Rubin left the school in 2011, and co-founded the company that makes Metryx, where he is now CEO. But through his work with the Highlander Institute he remains a familiar face in the school. Other schools have learned from Highland Charter, which now serves as a hub of innovation, where ideas can be tested and then shared.

Among the schools that have downloaded ideas from the school is Pleasant View Elementary, also in Providence.

Qiuping Xia, a math teacher at Pleasant View, uses a new software program that allows students to work at their own pace – and to contact him online anytime they need help with a problem. The program isn’t perfect, he said, but he spends less time grading papers by hand. This gives him more bandwidth for other problems, he said, such as challenging his students or assisting those who lag behind their peers.

Related: Classroom technology can make learning more dangerous, and that’s a good thing

Several teachers at Highlander Charter said they don’t feel pressured to adhere to an everything-is-perfect mantra. Everyone agrees on big-picture goals; after that, creativity in the classroom is encouraged.

“It’s OK to not do the sure thing,” Sorensen said.

Carrie Sorensen, a teacher at Highlander Charter and a fellow with Fuse RI, works with students using a tablet computer. They are using an app to make a book cover. (Photo: Nichole Dobo)

Carrie Sorensen, a teacher at Highlander Charter and a fellow with Fuse RI, works with students using a tablet computer. They are using an app to make a book cover. (Photo: Nichole Dobo)

On a recent day, the second-grade students in Tiffany Solomon’s classroom worked in several groups as classical music played softly. Some children joined her in the front of the room, where they played a learning game together on a big screen. Others sat at desks together, coloring on paper.

A third group worked independently on laptops to move through an English lesson, each at his or her own pace. They were testing a new software program, Zeal, developed by a company started by the former CEO of Rocketship, a charter school network. A large computer screen in the corner near the laptops provided a real-time “leader board” for these students, where they could see themselves advance and see how they ranked compared to their peers.

Several years earlier, Solomon said she was not as enthusiastic about adding more technology into her classroom.

“I was a little scared,” she said.

After she learned more about it, she said, that fear ended.

“The kids, they like this,” she said.

But technology hasn’t replaced everything. Students in another classroom at Highlander Charter played with wooden blocks. They work to build a tower out of the various shapes, which helps them to learn teamwork and fine motor skills.

“And they are working together,” teacher Marlene Medeiros said.

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Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo is the senior engagement editor and a writer. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic's online edition, Mind/Shift,… See Archive

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