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

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.