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Surf's Up: First Year Blended Learning Mistakes and Ways to Correct Them

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As the 2016-2017 school year quickly approaches like the annual tidal wave it is, I think about how last year I started running my first blended learning classroom, with what felt like, without a surfboard. For the longest time I felt like I was getting tossed around in the waves, not knowing which way was up. I made mistakes last year in my 6th grade math and science blended learning classes, but this year will be different because I have a whole year of mistakes to reflect back on. So here are my mistakes, and how I intend to correct them for this year, in no particular order.

Mistake #1: Putting the cart before the horse

When I found out I got the go-ahead to run a blended learning classroom, the first in my district, I was thrilled. However, I immediately started putting the cart before the horse. I started envisioning this perfect blended learning classroom running smoothly with three stations: independent, collaborative, and direct instruction. I thought of having engaged students falling in love with this new way of learning, and I thought, while I would still face some bumps along the way, overall it would be easy. Yes, I had the station-rotation model all planned out, my room setup for the stations, and I did prepare my students for about two weeks prior to going all in with the blended learning classroom. Yet, I still didn't plan enough.

Correction #1: Plan, plan, and plan...and then plan some more

Plan everything, and I mean everything. Starting with my room setup, so I can see the screen of the devices at any point in the room and so I have an effective working flow from station to station. Think about how and where students will put all of their belongings as they transition from station to station. Plan how students will troubleshoot at the independednt and collaborative learning stations. Plan how students will know where they are supposed to start each day and how they will find out what their tasks are. Use Google Classroom to communicate all pertinent class information to them and their families. Plan my station time and plan the frequency of the stations. Plan my lessons and formative assessments carefully, and be ready to make changes based on the needs of my students. Finally, keep planning and don't stop. Keep digging and reading for anything and everything on blended learning.   

Mistake #2: Not getting to know the devices soon enough

While I thought the devices, Chromebooks, were really cool and would fit perfectly into my classroom (and I still do), I did not spend enough time getting to know them. I had a good idea of how they worked, and I could troubleshoot some common problems. However, I found myself searching for answers to questions my students had with them during class time too much. In a way, I thought the students would quickly become the experts with them, since they were going to be using them, and would be able to answer all of the questions they had.  

Correction #2: Take time to become as close to an expert as possible with the devices, before starting a blended learning classroom

Before school starts, I am going to take a weekend to just play and explore a Chromebook. I intend to try things out that I anticipate my students doing during the year, and see what I find. Refresh my memory of what all the buttons do, and get to know some more keyboard shortcuts. My favorite keyboard shortcut last year was "Control H."   

Mistake #3: Focusing too much on pre-designed programs

Just like the devices, I thought the pre-designed programs that I intended to use would be enough to drive the learning and keep the students interested. What I failed to do was to make the content in the programs relevant to my students. Had I done so, the content would have been much more meaningful to my students. 

Correction #3: Create my own work for my students

Using Google Classroom as my LMS, I will be able to customize the learning for my students. Instead of using the pre-designed textbook questions, I intend to personalize their work by giving students choices as to what questions they want to work on. While the problems will be similar, the content of them will be different. I will have categories from "Sports" to "Entertainment" for students to choose from and solve problems about. By creating my own work for my students, I will be able to make their learning more meaningful and relevant, as I will be able to incorporate parts of their lives into their learning.  

Mistake #4: Expecting my blended learning classroom to run exactly like I imagined it

Before the start of the 2015-2016 school year, I did have a vision for my blended learning classroom. That was not a mistake. My mistake was expecting it to look exactly like I had imagined it. When in life does that ever happen? I should have expected and have been ready for the problems, gliches, and just every day things to interfer with picture-perfect classroom. 

Correction #4: Be realistic but keep my vision

While I want my students to use the 4C's as they learn, unlearn, and relearn, I still have to be realistic about the process. I cannot expect perfection from them or my blended learning classroom, as I have yet to be perfect myself (just ask my wife). Expect things to go wrong. Expect myself and my students to get frustrated at times. Expect disruptions to the day. But keep my vision. 

Mistake #5: Not taking a step back and re-evaluating enough

While I am glad I stuck to blended learning the entire year, I should have paused and re-evaluated my thinking and how things were going more often. While I did do weekly blog posts reflections on my experiences, I should not have been bull-headed in thinking I must make it work the way I thought it had to. I do believe that would have given me the clarity to make the adjustments needed to get to where I was in April and May but only much sooner. 

Correction #5: Reflect early and often

Every day, I need to re-evaluate my blended learning classroom. I need to think about my thinking, and make the necessary adjustments. This summer has given me a lot of time to relfect, and I already to plan to start my blended learning classroom differently than I ended the year. Rather than the station-rotation model, I am going to implement the "Teacher Designed Blend," as discussed by Catlin R. Tucker in her 2012 book, Blended Learning in Grades 4-12, with a 360 degree classroom. This will allow me work directly with my 6th grade students seeing all of their work at once, but also use online components, like Google Classroom and GAfE, to build an online learning community. 

With all of my mistakes I made last year in running a blended learning classroom, I still do not consider it a failure. It would only be a failure if I did not reflect and take the time to learn from my mistakes. This year's annual back to school tidal wave is almost here, but this year, I've got my surfboard. Surf's up. 

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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 16 years in education as an intermediate school teacher, an elementary school principal, instructional technology coach, and Google for Education Certified Trainer. 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 Sunday, 17 February 2019