Willis Junior High School: Blended Learning comes to the Chandler Unified School District

Date November 6, 2011

My current teaching contract commenced in 2004 and soon afterward social media, for me, sky rocketed. A short time later, most of my communicative life moved into what very few people at the time knew as “the cloud”. Facebook was still locked to the universities and Yahoo! was still a huge stock option for many people. I left a district that provided me a laptop with administrative rights and didn’t filter online sites. I came to a district whose Electronic Users Policy included not putting a flash drive anywhere near their computers.

Honestly, in the last five years the resistance I’ve seen from my district, at different times, has been really difficult on many levels. But it’s changing. While my current administrator has publicly said he’s a relative luddite, he’s open to our visions. In the meantime, some of my colleagues are starting to come around asking “how’s this work?” in terms of technology. Some of them were open to tech earlier but things were (a lot more) clunkier than they are now.

Early this October, my admin told me a local junior high school was doing “interesting stuff with computers”… and he wanted me to visit the school with him. We were off for two weeks and the next time I saw him he told me he was setting up a tour and also a few other things were in the works. I was intrigued. He added that he wanted to send a group of us to a Virtual Schools Symposium in Indianapolis.

Friday morning my administrator, assistant principal, a math teacher, and I headed over to Willis Junior High School in Chandler, AZ where we met with Jeff Delp, the school’s administrator. Jeff started a district pilot program on blended (some call it hybrid) learning in the junior high school by randomly selecting 105 honors students and four teachers (one each from Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies) at a traditional junior high school. The school decided to start with blended rather than a full virtual program, in part, due to the younger age of the students. A blended program offers stronger communicative connections between students and instructors and more guidance in general. Next year an application process will be put in place due to the wildly positive response to the pilot. Jeff has students who “want into the program but has none who’ve attempted to opt out”, and home Internet access isn’t a prerequisite. On the accessibility concern his philosophy and mine mesh; if students need more time online they can visit libraries, come to campus earlier, stay after, etc… In the Chandler District, for example, most high schools are linked to a city library that is an extension of the campus that includes a full computer lab and other workstations within the building. Not to mention several computer labs exist (depending on the site) and student stations in some teacher classrooms.

Jeff stressed that touring other school’s successful programs was essential when developing this pilot. For us, this may include a future trip to Vail School District in Tucson, AZ that seems to be ahead of the game with technology, including wifi-enabled school buses. Professional Development is the key to Willis’ program, which includes understanding that administration and faculty who successfully navigate these programs need to understand an entirely different skill set that comprises of highly collaboration, student generated creations, and evaluation programs. When building his program, Jeff toured schools in both Chicago and New York City.

Teachers must have more freedoms. This includes opening Twitter and blogging in the schools. Blogging and twittering for the Willis team is now unblocked and YouTube is unblocked for all adult logins district wide (not for students yet). Jeff who, tweets as @azjd, uses the #edchat hashtag to continue building dialogue and learning from administrators nationally who are further along in this journey. An aside: Two years ago my own blog was filtered after my using it as a my classroom webspace for four years. In a post I used the euphemism that “so and so must be on crack to believe “… whatever it was I was discussing. It was obviously a euphemism for “crazy” but now it was blocked for “drug promotion”. Shortly after the district’s rule of thumb was that anything that was a blog was automatically blocked.

Jeff encourages his teachers to stretch their ideas and learn about technologies that may confuse them, but he also reminds them that we don’t do technology in the classroom for technologies sake. Sometimes the best lesson doesn’t include any technology (and recently our district computers were off line for an entire school day – no one died & learning continued).

This year Willis uses Edmodo coupled with Google Apps for its pilot; while the district limits Google Apps to only Calendar and Docs, we both hope that other apps will be added as the program develops into next school year. The district is also moving to a new domain name on July 1st and it would be ideal to build Google Apps around that domain name. We’ll see. The district recently approved BrainHoney as their LMS and Pearson’s on board so there may be some shifts away from a purely open source model for the 2012-2013 school year. Jeff also discussed his partnership with Gangplank owner Derek Neighbors who has been in my own social business circles through Gangplank in one way or another for years. The partnerships we Chandler educators are building with local collaborative Chandler technology consortiums are arguably essential as some models of 21st century learning move out of the classrooms and into the apprenticeship and internship areas.

While the Chandler District is behind the curve in terms of technology implementation with our 21st century students, Dr Camille Casteel’s, our district’s superintendent, main concern is student safety. Dr Casteel wants what is best for students and in our case we need to be able to show how we want to use whatever technology, why we cannot do whatever it is without it, and then how we’re going to keep the students safe. The potential for eventually broadening Willis program into the high schools is exciting, as part of the student safety concern is the age of the students. Today’s pilot is with junior high students and tomorrow’s application may be with high schoolers. (Their age seems to be the predominant reason the Google mail App is not currently being used.)

CC image posted on Flickr by Devon Christopher Adams

Part of Jeff’s philosophy that he emphasizes with his teachers is the Flipped Classroom model. I realize I’ve used this model for years by promoting content consumption outside the classroom while focusing class time on the creation and synthesis of key curricular concepts. This concept is not new. It’s called homework, but now traditional approaches to homework and how students are consuming it has shifted and become a lot more interesting. For example, if Susie has grasped a certain math concept, she can move onto the next one while Billy may still be working on the former concept. Willis teachers use screencasts and take Cornell notes on their needs before applying that learning in class.

One nice example Jeff Delp mentioned is trying to increase access to YouTube (perhaps through a school YouTube channel) so, in class, students and the teacher can better individualize learning where one group may review a certain video while another group views a different video. It is not feasible to have the teacher show 10+ different videos throughout the class for different small groups but if the students had access to do so, they’d arguably learn more effectively.

Our high schools have always struggled with textbook management and most of the schools in this district do not have a bookstore (we have a bookstore manager but we are responsible for disseminating, collecting and recording our own books). This is a hassle. I can’t wait until virtual textbooks at our level works smoothly; we’ll save so much money and time (our textbooks now do have an online component, but we still purchase paper copies). Part of what Jeff said when we discussed Google Docs and online text(e)books was that he can use funds that once purchased thousands of reams of paper on more netbooks for the classrooms.

Jeff took us on a tour of a Language Arts class in a computer lab. The students were reviewing their content through the online textbook and working on reading responses in Google Docs. While I’ve used Google Docs for collaboration for probably close to six years now, one thing that I liked that his LA teacher did was to give the prompt/response directions/questions to the student via a viewable Google doc. Then they made a copy and wrote into it before sharing it back to the teacher. No more paper. While I’ve done that before, it was never for work completed IN CLASS due to the fact that I could not be sure every student had access to the document. While Jeff did mention the use of mobile devices on campus (and his campus is wireless) and high schoolers tend to have even more wireless mobile access, not everyone does.

Netbook Shelf
CC image “Netbook Shelf” posted on Flickr by Enokson.

We also visited with the Social Studies class who had groups of 2-4 students around the room collaborating around HP Mini netbooks. He chose netbooks because battery life lasted the entire school day and they’re relatively cheap. This year Edmodo is the LMS of choice, in part, because of the approachability and Facebook like interface which is familiar to so many. Other technologies Jeff and his team use with the students include Twitter, Glogster, and Poll Everywhere, and while none of them are new novelties to me and my (tech) colleagues, it is a relief to see Web 2.0 being better embraced and unlocked by our district’s powers that be.

I’m relieved in many ways that this program has emerged and while I don’t know the background or what it took to get this far, people like Jeff Delp and his visions at Willis Junior High School are what we need to bring our district forward… for the sake of the kids.