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TAMIAMI, Fla. – As the end of the class period nears, students in an algebra class silently solve problems on a four-minute quiz.

Later that day, two math teachers review every answer on these quizzes. They aren’t grading the papers. They are detectives. They’re combing through each pencil stroke, searching for clues. For each incorrect answer, they retrace the student’s steps to figure out what went wrong. Then they use this information to devise a plan so that every student gets exactly what he or she needs in the next class.

“It does entail a lot of planning,” said Grisel Mesa, a teacher at W.R. Thomas Middle School, a public school in a neighborhood about 10 miles east of the Everglades just outside Miami, Fla. “When it is done correctly it is amazing. As you can see, every student is at their pace. When we give a quiz, we can separate those students who did not do well and spend more time with them.”

Blended learning classroom
Students in a blended learning class in W.R. Thomas Middle School, in the Miami-Dade County Public School system, work on a math problem. Credit: Nichole Dobo

The algebra classes here use a mix of technology and in-person instruction to give students more personal attention. To make that possible, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools district gives teachers in these special math classes extra time daily to plan together for the next day’s lessons. And these teachers get another layer of support, too – a district employee provides embedded training for the entire school year.

All 49 traditional middle schools in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools system use blended learning math classes.

“To master and to really maximize the asset of digital content, there has to be sufficient professional-development time – and this is commonly ignored,” said Alberto M. Carvalho, the Miami-Dade superintendent. “And there has to be sufficient common planning time for the teachers to collaborate on the use of the environment, on the use of the technology, on the use of the content.”

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The math teachers get two 50-minute class periods every day to assess student progress and plan for the next day. They track similar missteps; if warranted, they gather students in a small group to work on the problem. Other students in the same class work independently on computers. All students use pencils, paper and computer-based programs, in class and at home.

There are about 60 students and three math teachers in each class period. Teachers are responsible for four class periods and the two planning periods. They co-teach in a specially designed classroom with brightly painted walls, soft carpeting, desks on wheels, black faux-leather couches and tall coffee-shop-style stools.

“It does entail a lot of planning. When it is done correctly it is amazing. As you can see every student is at their pace.”

Last week, Mesa, a veteran teacher, was working with a dozen students. At one point, they had to review a basic skill together. They weren’t struggling with algebra, Mesa said: “The students knew what they were doing, but they didn’t know how to line up the decimal.” Elsewhere in the room, another teacher worked with a small group another concept.

While they did this, about 35 other students worked independently on computers in the middle of the large classroom. These were students who had scored high enough to demonstrate that they were ready to move on to new material. A third math teacher – they call her a “roaming conductor” – worked with them. She is a certified teacher, not a teaching aide, but works part-time. She does not participate in the planning periods with the other two teachers.

Related: After 20 years, a teacher reinvents her classroom using technology

To some extent, just about every middle school in the Miami-Dade County system uses technology to assist with math lessons. But what it looks like in each school – and on each day – differs. Principals have the flexibility to pick which math class will use which approach, said Lisette Alves, the district’s Race to the Top director.

“They know which courses are most appropriate for their school, for their populations, for their teachers’ strengths,” Alves said. “So each school kind of personalizes it.”

Blended learning classroom
Teacher Grisel Mesa works with a small group of students in a blended learning classroom at W.R. Thomas Middle School. Credit: Nichole Dobo

Money from the district’s federal Race to the Top grant paid to bring the blended learning math program into the district’s 49 traditional middle schools, Alves said. The money pays for the third teacher in the room, for instance. The district’s human resources staff found them by creating a list of math teachers interested in part-time work.

“It is important to have strong teachers in this program with very strong content knowledge, because students work at their own pace,” Alves said. “And because students work at their own pace, students are encountering different materials at different times, so the teachers really need to be strong in the content.”

Related: Summits to help schools make smart technology choices

The district’s middle school math program, called iPrep, expands on blended learning efforts that began elsewhere in the Miami-Dade County district. A magnet school, iPreparatory Academy, opened four years ago inside a renovated building that had been a department store in another life. (The district superintendent, Carvalho, served as the principal of this new school when it opened.) In this high school, blended learning is part of every course – not just math class. The school offers online and in-person lessons, including many Advanced Placement courses. Everyone takes gym class online; they can run on elliptical machines in school while working on other lessons.

Blended learning classroom
Students at iPreparatory Academy in the Miami-Dade County Public School system, learn in a blended learning style. Credit: Nichole Dobo

For Mesa, a teacher for 13 years, the middle school math program was her first experience in blended learning.

“At first I was so nervous to be in this environment, but actually I am looking forward to doing this again next year,” she said. “I feel like I have it all. I was there with my small-group instruction, so I feel like I can reach more students.”

But it isn’t perfect, Mesa said. She believes students should be in math class longer than 50 minutes, and she found a way to get extra time for some, at least. Math class is now offered each morning at 8 a.m. — an hour of optional time before the school day begins.

“Fifty minutes of class is not enough,” she said. “I put myself in their shoes. Maybe they are sitting there, being nervous because they do not have enough information, and they might not have enough time to ask in class.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter to get a weekly update on blended learning.

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