First Person

In Our Online Learning Experience, More Ups Than Downs

The comments left on GothamSchools’ recent coverage of the Innovation Zone raised questions about the value of online learning similar to those we hear from our students and their families. As co-principals of the iSchool, a two-year-old school built around using online courses to individualize student learning, we thought it might be worthwhile to share the reasons we use online learning and how it works in our school.

Online learning means many different things at different schools. At the iSchool, we use the term to refer to courses where the content is delivered online only, and the teacher and student are not online at the same time. Each of our online courses is facilitated by an iSchool teacher, licensed in that content area, who designs the course, tracks student progress, and meets with students individually and in small groups when necessary. Our students spend about seven hours a week learning online at their own pace. Because of state regulations about awarding credit, these hours take place during the school day.

What does this look like inside our classrooms? Picture a traditional classroom with 34 students sitting in rows. Each student has a computer out on his/her desk and a notebook for taking notes. Each student is doing something different — some are watching a video of a teacher lecturing about the First Constitutional Convention (which students are pausing each time they take notes), some students are working on math problems, some are reading literature texts, and some are labeling the parts of a cell on a digital image.

We chose to incorporate online learning in our model for several important reasons:

  1. Learning online is — and will continue to be — a reality for the world in which our students are growing up. Our students will be required to learn online during their college and graduate school experiences, as well as throughout their careers. If we are to prepare them to be successful in their future endeavors, we must prepare them to be successful online learners.
  2. Learning to make sense of online texts and resources is a critical skill for our students’ academic success as well as their ability to be literate citizens of the 21st-century workplace and global community. Reading and analyzing online material requires development of the same skills that will facilitate their success with more traditional paper-and-pencil academic tasks and standardized tests.
  3. Online learning supports one important tenet of iSchool’s mission: to individualize our students’ high school experiences. Online learning enables students to progress through coursework at their own pace, to take courses when they are ready, and to more easily and readily have their learning presented in ways suited to their style and needs, through the use of audio and visual features.
  4. Finally, online courses broaden the curricular options available for our students. As a small school, we are limited both in funds and personnel. By offering our students the opportunity to take coursework online, we can offer Advanced Placement and college-level courses in any area to our students. This means that our students can pursue in greater depths those subjects of interest to them. It also means that our students will enter college ahead in credits and graduation requirements, increasing the likelihood that they will be successful in and complete college in four years.

While the argument for incorporating online instruction into students’ high school experience is compelling and strong, online learning isn’t easy for the teacher or student. Our students often tell us it would be so much easier if someone would just lecture at them and tell them what to memorize. Indeed, it would be easier, but we don’t embrace online learning at the iSchool to make learning easier. Of course, online learning does not in and of itself make classes rigorous, but used correctly, online learning enables each student to work on the content on which he needs to work — providing a level of individualization that is just not possible in a classroom with even the most gifted or experienced teacher.

At the iSchool we spend a great deal of time determining what kind of content is appropriate to put online, and what learning can best occur when directly facilitated by a teacher. What we’ve learned is that students do not need teachers to help them memorize low level content (e.g. that 2×2=4), but teachers are necessary to help students understand the reasons for (e.g. why 2×2=4) or the application (e.g. what we can do with this understanding) of this low-level content. Our students don’t spend less time in classrooms with teachers because of their online coursework; instead, time in classrooms focuses on developing students’ higher-order thinking skills (synthesis and application), rather than on drilling on content. We know that a computer will (likely) never be able to pass on the kinds of discussions, interaction, and skill development that can occur in the presence of a great teacher, but why waste our great teachers and valuable time on memorization and test prep?

As with any new instructional approach, we all have much to learn as we begin to implement it. Many of the concerns raised by GothamSchools’ readers are real and reflect the type of challenges teachers deal with every day, although they are not dissimilar to those faced by teachers in traditional classrooms. In fact, while students easily grasp the reasons and benefits of online learning, they experience much more difficulty adapting to the role of online learner. Online learning requires significantly more independence, self-discipline, and time management than has likely been required of students in their previous education and many of them struggle with this at first. During the past year, we have discovered several common factors that cause an iSchool student to struggle in their online classes:

  • Students look at the timeline presented in the course, but do not abide by it, thinking there is no “class” to attend.
  • Students think that they are invisible to the teacher and do not have to participate according to the guidelines.
  • Students don’t use the available tools to track their progress and access help when required.
  • Students forget that a real person is evaluating them, and may be tempted to turn in lower-quality work, use others’ work, or skip assignments altogether, thinking that nothing is “due.”
  • Students forget that online classes also have homework and don’t spend the time required.

After noticing the pattern of these common struggles, we put in place several structures to support students as they develop their online learning skills:

  • Each online course has built-in hints and tips to provide immediate assistance when a student is “stuck.”
  • Each online period has a proctor, who can assist students with technical issues, or provide general course help.
  • Online course teachers are available during office hours for students who wish to “drop in”; teachers also regularly mandate students to attend special online support sessions during office hours.
  • Students participated in tutorials at the beginning of the year with hints and strategies for online success; ninth-grade students spent additional time in class discussing online learning and strategies for success.
  • Students reviewed expectations for online coursework in Advisory, and were asked to sign an online learning contract.

While we have figured a few things out, we still have much to learn about how to be more effective online instructors and learners. For the iSchool, the benefit of the new iZone is that we will now have a community of schools who are thinking of the inherent challenges (which are far outweighed by the benefits of online learning) and working together to come up with solutions. We will also be working together to develop the best online curricula that will provide a broader range of courses and a more personalized high school experience for New York City students. Having teachers from different schools work together on curricula and pilot them with students in a variety of contexts will allow us to more efficiently design curricula that are effective across the broad range of the city’s student populations. Working together, with systemic support for the development of more innovative learning experiences, will enable all of us to do a better job of preparing our students for college and the future.

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.