Helping shed a light on blended learning

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Debra Ramm’s office is housed at the Graniteville School, in the same classroom where she used to teach fourth grade, but you’d be hard-pressed to find her sitting in there these days for very long.

As the district’s Instructional Technology Coordinator for a second year in a row, you’re more likely to find her checking in with a classroom teacher about the latest and greatest blended learning strategies and techniques, or working after hours with a group of educators who are sharing some of their best practices in education personalization with each other, or touching base with an elementary class who is taking part in a coding and simulation workshop for the popular Hour of Code event.

Ramm’s passion for utilizing technology is not new, and she has been a leader and an innovator for two decades.

“I spent 20 years utilizing whatever technology I could, and I always tried to create a classroom environment that could reach all of my learners. In a classroom you always have those who get it, those who are struggling learners and those who get it beyond the lesson. Those kids who get it beyond the lesson are the kids we were losing because they are often the ones that are used to teach the other kids,” she said. “We have a lot of supports for the struggling learners who need help but as teachers across the nation, we had to figure out how to further challenge those learners.”

Enter blended learning and personalization in education.

Ramm used a blend of face-to-face instruction and integrated technology to create instruction that would challenge students to a higher level.

“Blended learning has taken turn for the sake of personalization that inspires me,” she said.

She soon became a “lighthouse classroom” for others in the district who were interested in more personalization of instruction in their own classrooms and became a founding member of EdUnderground which helped the early adaptors of blended learning across the state get the support and resources they needed. She also became a member of the first cohort of Fuse RI Fellows, a group of educators who worked with the Highlander Institute to become leaders in blended learning and personalized education outside of the district.

“I had lots of other teachers from other districts coming into my own classrooms to see what I was doing with my students,” Ramm said.

The visiting educators would see Ramm’s students working on blended tasks with a sense of autonomy and purpose, working at their own pace, vetting their own resources and feeling empowered. She had lifted the restrictions and was meeting the needs of all of her learners.

Soon, Johnston was a Fuse district and the new cohorts of Fuse RI fellows were coming to visit.

“We would answer questions about what blended learning looks like in a classroom, what it sounds like, where the struggles are,” she said. “If someone is already doing something successfully or has figured out a challenge, why reinvent the wheel?”

Johnston soon realized that there was a need to have teacher leaders like Ramm, to lead others through the journey of blended learning.

“Lighthouse Classroom” teachers were identified by principals as teachers with a growth mindset who were open to trying new things, even things that at first try might fail, or might be uncomfortable, but were willing to work through it.

“Blended learning is about disruptive innovation,” said Ramm. “It’s about searching out and trying out new strategies.”

The “Lighthouse Classroom” educators met as a group every month to talk about problems of practice and concerns, to discuss the basics of blended learning and the differences from grade to grade. Each classroom was given a set of chromebooks and a cart, as this was in the time before the district had moved this past November to a 1:1 model district-wide. Adaptive software such as Google Suite Tools and Google Draw and Google Forms were resources that educators could utilize in their teaching.

“We talked about how to manage a classroom set up as a station-to-station rotation model,” Ramm said. “This is no longer the traditional model of a teacher standing in front of the classroom and delivering material to students for 45 minutes. There are center-type activities like a traditional center but blended with the virtual piece as well.”

This year there is a new crop of “Lighthouse Classroom” teachers and last year’s cohort is in their second year, meeting every six weeks rather than once per month.

“At the end of last year the first grade teachers began visiting that initial group of ‘Lighthouse Classrooms’ because the Early Childhood Center students all had 1:1 technology,” she said. “Second grade teachers will be starting their first visits to the ‘Lighthouse Classrooms’ soon and then they’ll start meeting here too, as we keep rolling out the blended learning model through the rest of the elementary levels.”

At the end of the January, Ramm started a new support system for her colleagues, a competency-based Boot Camp which will meet three times between January and March.

“I’ve split it up into basic, intermediate and advanced groups and the teachers can choose which level they need based on a Google Form that I sent out because so many of our teachers are at a higher level, but still need support,” she said.

Ramm and her colleagues also participate in a Friday afternoon “Appy Hour” once per month at varying school locations.

“Teachers come with a device, their questions or a problem of practice,” she said. “It’s been successful and by holding them at ‘Lighthouse Classroom’ host schools, many teachers from within their own school will come. Some can stay for only part of the time, while others stay for the whole hour,” she said.

As the district continues to move forward with the redesign of their educational environment and instruction, Ramm continues to help shed a light on the personalization of education and the integration of technology into the classroom setting.

“The Highlander Institute is going to help us with moving this forward at the middle and high school level next,” she said. “There is a design team that has educators coming together once a month to work with the early adopters at those levels and finding ways to support them.”

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