This series has told the stories of some of the grant recipients of the Next Generation Learning Challenges program, describing schools that have taken seriously the need to adapt, modify and in some cases entirely reinvent learning modes, and teaching models using technology as a basis. In our third and final blog in our series on the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) we’ll explore successes in the elementary school context.

Read our previous blog posts on Assessments and Personalization for the bigger picture.

Today we will look at a grant recipient in the elementary school sphere, an area I’d like to explore more in future blogs as there is far more content and material recording high school blended learning models than elementary school, which speaks to the specific challenges elementary schools encounter in applying blended learning models adapted to younger students.

Next Generation Learning: Elementary School

Redwood Heights Elementary School (RHS) is an elementary school in Oakland, California. The school has 373 students, 16% of which come from limited income backgrounds, 17% have disabilities, and 32% are part of the free or assisted lunch program.

The school sees its challenges clearly, and describes them as:

  • Not all students are thriving academically
  • Conventional instruction is not sufficient to build 21st century skills
  • A diverse student population requires culturally competent educators
  • Not all families feel like they belong.

The school has developed a model that aims to address these challenges. The model includes: multiple blended learning models, competency-based instruction, a drive to develop self-directed and emotionally competent learners with critical and creative thinking, “identity-safe” classrooms, personalized education and social-emotional learning.

Identity-safe classrooms

The concept of “identity safe” classrooms, deserves some attention here. The concept is primarily mooted by Dorothy M. Steele and Becky Cohn-Vargas in their book Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn. One of the key disciplines is improving professional development for teachers to increase their sensitivity to their own innate bias.

A further key discipline is the development of a framework that encourages and identifies diversity in the classroom, working on the principle that without acknowledging a student’s unique identity, they will not be able to thrive fully in class. It goes without saying that students from stigmatized backgrounds benefit most from these strategies, and it has been shown that children in classrooms where teachers are trained and eager to practice identity safety achieved at higher levels, performed better on the state-mandated tests, and liked school more.

Personalized learning

Another key feature of RHS is personalized learning. Theresa Sanders, RHS 3rd grade teacher, says it best,

My goal is to have all students setting goals, working at their own pace, moving through the curriculum as they master content, and making important choices about when, where, and how they learn. We are transitioning from teacher-made groups to student-chosen groups and are developing personal learning plans.

A personal learning plan is a necessary fulcrum for pivoting students from teacher-led instruction to self-driven learning. At RHS students as young as 2nd graders work with their teachers to plan and design what they want to learn and how. Students are involved in setting goals, monitoring progress and using digital portfolios. Progress is tracked using nifty visualization tools, RHS is also exploring a digital tracking tool based in the cloud.

RHS also makes strong use of the rotation model of blended learning, which they have found affords teachers more individual time with students. This is especially important as a significant portion of the student body has a learning or physical disability. In 2015, RHS were one of five elementary schools to receive a 3-year, NGLC “Breakthrough Model” grant to launch their full-school personalization model.

Makerspaces

One of the final aspects of RHS that make it a “Breakout School” is its highly developed use of Makerspaces. Makerspaces are described in one of the seminal books on the subject, Maker-Centred Learning as “responsive and flexible pedagogy that encourages community and collaboration (a do-it-together mentality).”

Teachers in almost every classroom at RHS have deployed Makerspaces with their students, were mechanics, design, craft, engineering and creativity are used in practical applications. Makerspaces are lauded as they encourage trial-and-error, reward curiosity and experimentation, and offer students tangible results. Theresa Sanders concludes,

Our classroom has a culture where failure is a positive. Making is such an authentic learning experience where students take charge of their learning, solve their own problems and share how they solved them. They create challenges like building sturdy towers from newsprint and creating super slow marble runs.

Wrapping up

I have really enjoyed exploring “best-in-class” schools, that are taking a firm grip on their own digital destinies, and not waiting for policy or administrators to arrive with all the answers. It is truly encouraging to see teachers take control of the process, experiment, involve their students as well as the parents and find ways to make blended learning, and all its attendant benefits, a reality in every student’s life.

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