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Putting My Left Arm in First: Takeaways from My First Year in a Blended Learning Classroom

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blended learning

As a right-handed person, I have always put my right arm in first to my jackets. However this past school year, it has felt more like I have been trying to put my left arm in first to my jackets. If you have never tried this "simple" task, I suggest you try it. It feels awkward, cumbersome, confusing, and you might just look at little foolish, when at first you thought it would be a fun challenge that you would quickly master. I would like to say after a few attempts, it becomes easier and natural, but that is not the case. It takes many repeated attempts for it become easier (not easy) and for it to feel somewhat natural.

For me, this is how I felt when after 13 years of teaching, I decided to try something completely different to me, teaching a blended learning classroom. While I was getting effective results from my students year after year, I knew how I was teaching them was out of date with the demands of today's world. I wanted to put them, not me, at the center of their learning. I wanted to give them choices. I wanted to give them the opportunity to collaborate, communicate, think critically, and be creative on a daily basis, not just for a few times a year on a project. So I decided to put my left arm in first to my jacket and try blended learning. 

At first, in the middle, and even towards the end of this year it has felt awkward, cumbersome, confusing, and I know I have definitely looked foolish more times than not. However, I am so glad I tried it, and got out of my comfort zone. I look at the rate of change outside education, and I can't help but feel education needs to be changing too. Is blended learning the answer? Maybe. Maybe not. But it was worth all the trials and errors this past year, because I feel that my students and I learned more this year than any other year that I have taught. 

So here are my three, big takeaways from my first year of teaching a blended learning classroom to help me be more successful in my efforts for next year.

Classroom setup:

Set up classroom with the following three stations in mind: direct instruction, collaboration, and independent learning.

For the direct instruction station, I will arrange my tables in a U-shape or in a large rectangle in the front, center of my room. This way my students and I have easy access to the smartboard, and I can sit with my students to better foster student-teacher relationships, which is something that cannot be overstated. Also, I can easily see all of the other stations from this standpoint. 

For the collaboration station, I will have three to four tables on opposite sides of my direct instruction station where students can work in groups of two or three. By having the tables on opposite sides of my collaboration station, it will help spread out the welcomed noise of the students collaborating. 

For the indepenedent learning station, I will have 10 individual desks directly behind the direct instruction station. The desks will be facing the back wall, that way I can see the students' screens and monitor what work the students doing. 

Weekly Agenda:

In the beginning of the year, I tried running all three stations in one, 70 minute class period. On paper, it looked good, but for 6th graders, I quickly found that that was not enough quality time at each station (not to mention watching 6th graders take their piles of books, notebooks, pencil boxes, etc. from station to station). So I listened to my students, learned from my mistakes, and connected with other educators who had been running a blended learning classroom longer than I had. I broke my time with them down into a three day rotation, where students go through two stations a day. I created a weekly agenda in Google Sheets that I put on Google Classroom for easy access for them and me. I fully intend to start with this weekly agenda next year, as it was invaluable. 

Non-negotiables:

I will say I did at least this right from the beginning, but I improved upon these as the year went on. At the beginning of the year, my students and I created the non-negotiables for each station and the consequences for going against them. They were laminated on pretty, yellow cardstock that students accidently gathered up in their belongings as they went from station to station. Things were clear at every station, including what to do if they needed tech support. But as the novelty of blended learning started to wear off, students were starting to become off-task. That is when I introduced Classcraft. Classcraft is a free, online role-playing game that teachers and students play in class. It is easily customizable, so I easily integrated our class non-negotiables into it. This has been so effective, that I intend to start with it next year.

So can I put my left arm in first to my jacket as easily as I can my right arm? No, not yet. But I have thoroughly enjoyed the challenge, and I have learned so much from just trying. That is really what school is about for students and educators, learning. And you don't know unless you try.  

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William Madden holds a B.S. in Elementary Education and a Master's in Educational Leadership. His professional backgrounds includes over 14 years in education as an intermediate school teacher. In addition, his experience includes online course design, technology integration, ELA and mathematics curriculum mapping, being on his school's technology and building improvment committees, and conducting professional development. He blogs to reflect on his practice, share with others, and to continue to grow and learn as an educator to meet the needs of today's students. 

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Guest Wednesday, 07 December 2016