I can honestly remember sitting in a high school Language Arts classroom as a sophomore in 1990 and thinking, “Man, there has to be a better way of learning than this.” But I was that pimple-faced, just-want-to-play-sports, socially awkward kid who tried his best not to be noticed due to an affliction of P.S.S., or Painfully Shy Syndrome. I wasn’t about to voice my criticism. Truth is, however, my inner voice was screaming so loudly for alternative ways of proving my knowledge, of revealing my talents, of challenging myself to conquer personal weaknesses, of stimulating my desire to learn by being physically active in class…anything other than the usual drill of lecture, read, and worksheet. You know what I mean. I was longing for a Shakespeare rap in the style of Public Enemy, an improvisational acting of Jem and Scout’s scary, nighttime walk in To Kill a Mockingbird, or maybe just the creation of a totally original short story to demonstrate my understanding of character development. Heck, my simplest classroom wishes had me daydreaming of a teacher who found some way of invoking all students’ voices to form a symphony of diversity via anything other than the one-size-fits-all pedagogy. Now, I’m not going to lie and say I had visions of multi-touch screens that accessed a world of knowledge by wirelessly connecting to a digital, infinite library. If that were true, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post, but instead I would be stretched out with my feet propped up while I watched the sunset on Lake Washington as a 40-year-old retiree of Silicon Valley. Oh, but I am far more blessed than that. You see, I, along with Dr. Lisa Sheehy and Wes Vonier, facilitate learning in a classroom with infinite possibilities. Not only is it a classroom where personalized and asynchronous learning dictate the students’ individual paths, but it is a classroom where creativity reigns supreme through flexibility, shared classroom ownership, and a superfluity of educational choices. Think of it as a classroom where all types of learners can succeed…on their terms. You know, students as diverse and different as, say, Tupac Shakur and Albert Einstein. Hmmm. Tupac and Einstein? Now that sounds like a unique blended learning academy. Let’s take a tour.
The Seven Zones
In order to efficiently structure our classroom in some organizational manner and to accommodate all types of learning styles and activities, we established seven zones that bear the names of famously different learners. These names will remain for a half-semester, at which time they will be replaced by the names of other unique learners. Ultimately, our pie-in-the-sky goal is to end the year with the zones renamed in honor of our current students. Here is a brief introduction of our seven zones:
The Yousafzai Zone and a Welcoming Collage of Greatness
Our first zone, named after Malala Yousafzai, is located immediately inside the entrance to our blended learning academy. It is simple. With only two comfortable chairs, a small table, and one dry-erase board, this learning area beckons students to curl up with wifi-connected tablets or no technology gadgets at all as they brainstorm and collaborate about their next big creation or their next, epic educational stance. They need not look far for inspiration. A collage of diverse thinkers ranging from Will Smith to Mahatma Gandhi to Steve Jobs to Ray Charles hangs nearby and reminds all students that they are stepping into a room designed for greatness.
Currently top-secret knowledge at this time, our ultimate plan is to gradually replace these famous faces with expressions from our brilliant students to create the final collage at the end of the year. After all, students should believe themselves capable of the extraordinary.
The Tupac Zone
Not to glorify any negative actions but to lift up the potential of a truly dedicated and focused blended learner, a portrait of the often troubled but extremely talented Tupac Shakur and his inspirational poem “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” hang just above the entrance to our professional-grade music studio. Equipped with all the appropriate musical hardware and the highly-touted ProTools software, this music studio is ready to pump out high-quality tracks and lyrics. My years in Studio 113 taught me that music almost always gets the students’ attention. Whether they can sing or not, every student is curious about the process of crafting an original poem and setting it to music. I have witnessed students over the years who had no singing ability whatsoever who were filled with enthusiasm and engagement at the daunting task of demonstrating knowledge through originally written music. Even if the songs weren’t actually worthy of a download from iTunes, the assignment always pushed them way past finish lines normally marked by worksheets and preparation for standardized testing.
The Frida, Lennon, and Mandela Zones
Named after Frida Kahlo, John Lennon, and Nelson Mandela, respectively, three of the seven zones contain 65-inch Samsung flat screens with touch overlays, or windows, that allow up to six simultaneous touches at once. These powerful tech screens also allow students to hook up their tablets or laptops through HDMI or VGA cables. By simply switching the “source” input on the screens, students can toggle back and forth from different computer screens. However, the Frida Zone’s Chromecast and the Lennon Zone’s Apple TV help add extra flexibility and efficiency by allowing students to share directly from wi-fi enabled tablets, laptops, and smartphones from any location in the room.
The Lee Zone
The energetic, rebellious, courageous, and gifted spirit of Bruce Lee encapsulates this zone. Comprising a six-section, portable stage that maxes out at 18” x 12’ x 16’, speakers that will absolutely rock the house, a pull-down screen, and projector, this zone is perfect for mind-blowing presentations and concerts. Furthermore, by reconfiguring the stage into different dimensions, an infinite number of gamified and interactive learning structures may be set up. These structures may stem from Whose Line Is It Anyway? or they may be some of the totally original ones created by our class as a whole. I can’t wait to show you some of our future presentations and interactive structures. Please stay tuned.
The Einstein Zone
This particular zone, named after the genius himself, adds pretty cool bit of technology. Enter the media:scape from Dekalb Office. Take a look at this picture, and you will immediately understand the concept. So far, our first two weeks have revealed this zone to be one of the favorites. This dual screen setup allows students to toggle to and fro from up to four computers. Students can choose to share their laptop or tablet screens by simply clicking on circular, push-button switch that shoots the image directly to one or both of the flat screens. As you can easily imagine, this zone is powerful for teamwork.
Our Digital Learning Platform and Google Drive
To deliver our digital content, we use “Dell’s and Intel’s DLP user interface sitting on top of the Agilix BrainHoney learning management system.” (O’Dell). Our county has rebranded the digital learning platform, and we now refer to it as HallConnect. To provide even more 21st century technology tools to our students, our county has integrated the power of Google Drive into HallConnect. Students are absolutely blown away by the effectiveness and collaborative potential of creating and sharing all their work in Google Drive. Me? I’m pumped, too. I can’t wait to grade my first stack of essays with Voice Comment in Drive.
The Tech Gadgets
Our 1:1 program affords us the privilege of using Dell laptops, Dell tablets, and iPads, and to help with our full-scale movie program, as well as a multitude of other creative ventures, we have access to HD cameras, a 10’ X 20’ chroma key set, and lapel mics. Basically, if the students can imagine, they can create it.
Perhaps the foundation of what we intend to accomplish in our blended learning academy can be found showcased on our entrance wall in digital picture frames. Scrolling through fifteen seconds at a time, the slideshows announce to our learning family the strengths, weaknesses, talents, and ambitions of our students. No weakness is too great to demand help, and no strength is too humble to hide and go unused. Modeled by the teachers also, students are asked to be as appropriately transparent as possible. Only in this way can students move forward.
An Evolving and Flexible Schedule
As our program develops, we envision a day where “school” hours may resemble a two-shift factory instead of a traditional 8:00-4:00. Due to various conditions, some students in the future may not be able to be present in our physical classroom, but they will easily be able to work on their course content through HallConnect. To show mastery of the standards in a creative way or to seek extra help, students may check the master schedule and plan a time to visit our academy. At this time, students will have access to the latest educational and creative technology to complete original projects. And that’s not all. Students will be encouraged to register and attend interactive learning sessions where they can collaborate on an interactive level with their peers. It may sound funny, but, hey, it has worked for Home Depot. It’s been proven. People want to be creative, and they will show up when the learning is scheduled to begin.
Nestled back in our classroom, a 10’ x 12’ area serves as the teachers’ homebase, and high above Mother Teresa sets the atmosphere for what will surely be a sanctuary as we try to provide answers for all the questions we have about this first-year program. But there is no need to worry. And if there is, lyrics from Tupac will help us stay the course:
I’m sure Einstein would agree with these lines, even if my colleagues and I do have a different version of his famous equation. You see, whereas “E” equals “engagement” and “MC” stands for “many choices,” there isn’t anything square about this academy.