By Cheryl Poage
As an educator, I have always encouraged my students to go out of their comfort zone and challenge themselves—to reach out and stretch just enough to feel a little discomfort. Over the past 17 years, I became comfortable with my content, my school family and my students—quite honestly, I was perfectly happy in this comfort zone. So when my husband proposed moving back to his home state of Kansas, I heard myself telling my students to “challenge themselves and stretch a little”—and decided it was now my time to stretch!
As I began my job search, one position that stood out to me was a Blended Learning position teaching high school English at Andover eCademy. I had never taught high school English, I had never taught online, and seeing the faces of my students every day was extremely important to me! So why choose this? Because it made me stretch…it was a limb I had never reached out to before. What type of educator would I be if I challenged my students to explore the unknown, but wasn’t willing to do that myself?
I secured a position with eCademy and anxiously awaited my August 2019 start date. I knew there would be a learning curve on my end, but the challenge intrigued me; this opportunity would allow me to look at education through a new lens. I had so many questions about the Blended Learning Model and it seemed my list grow longer each day: How will I build solid relationships with students? How will I develop a learning community that will allow students to engage in discussion and share learning experiences? How will I give proper feedback when each student is working at his/her own pace?
As the year progressed, I was able to eliminate many of the questions I started the year with; however, each brainstorming session with colleagues posed a new challenge—adding to my evolving list. eCademy is fortunate to have an administrator who encourages his staff to be innovative and allots time for collaborative brainstorming sessions. This practice inspired me to refine my craft and become more flexible and open to a new way of teaching and reaching students.
The first day of school is always exciting! It is when I am able to put a face to each name on my roster and begin to build relationships. However, this isn’t necessarily the case when teaching virtually. Not every student begins class on the same day and many do not feel comfortable showing their face, so it is important to become creative with lessons and build trust. One modicication I made in order to “see” students in my reading class was to ask students to submit a “selfie” that incorporated a portion of their face with the cover of a novel they were reading. An adjustment I made in a writing lesson was to have students use audio to give a verbal reflection—allowing me to at least hear my students, if I could not see them. These were very small changes, but it allowed me a quick glimpse—it was a starting place.
As the year continued, relationships grew through daily feedback, emails and phone calls; however, the most significant difference I saw was when CoVid-19 changed our world! I used the time for reflection and self-growth and revised my teaching even further. I took trainings that were offered, solicited the help of colleagues a bit more and found ways to personalize my lessons to allow student’s choice, time to reflect, and share more of themselves with me through “Motivational Monday” lessons. I scheduled individual and group Zoom sessions for students to work on assignments with me or with peers. I held daily Zoom check-ins with students who were struggling with motivation during the Stay At Home order. I began to see more faces and the trust began to build! CoVid-19 may have taken some opportunities away from us, but it allowed me the time to grow as an educator and it brought many of my students out from behind the computer screen and into a Zoom session!
Although the road to building bonds looked different than it did in my previous years of teaching, I do believe the gradual growth was critical to form the foundation needed for solid relationships.
At eCademy homeroom is taken to a new level. Each teacher has his/her own group of approximately 20 students to support. Teachers contact their students on a weekly basis to discuss grades, celebrate successes, and discuss a plan of action for those who may be struggling. In addition to working with our homeroom students one on one, we also have bi-weekly meetings with administration and guidance counselors built into our schedules. During this time we discuss each student’s progress and prepare a personalized plan of action for any student who may be struggling. Our roundtable discussions allow us develop a clear understanding of the overall student. During these meetings, It was inspiring to see how well the teachers, administrators, and counselors knew ALL students—both academically and emotionally. So often, in a Brick and Mortar it is difficult to allot time to engage in these valuable whole group discussions due to scheduling, teaching, non-teaching duties, etc.
As a result of these meetings, we are able to focus on students who have consistent missing assignments and a lower than average GPA and create an engagement plan to help them succeed. Students, parents, and the homeroom teacher work together to develop this plan for success.
I saw the impact of these meetings firsthand as I worked with several students, via Zoom, during second semester. Not only did these students go from failing grades to passing all subjects, but they also developed a more positive mindset and sense of confidence as they watched their GPA and comprehension of each subject improve.
What sets eCademy apart from many other online schools is that we follow a Blended Learning model. This is what truly interested me about eCademy and what, I believe, brings in such interest from families across the state. Blended Learning allows students the opportunity to be a part of a school community, while learning at his/her own pace.
Andover eCademy offers students numerous opportunities to be a part of a learning community at all grade levels. Students participate in Live Lessons with their teachers and classmates, attend field trips, and participate in clubs or in-house days offered at our Andover campus. In-house days may include group activities, team building, study sessions, guest speakers, or collaborative work. This time allows for students to build community and gain a sense of belonging.
High school students have their own special spot nestled inside the eCademy building called the eCafe. The eCafe is situated similar to a coffee shop where students are able to study, collaborate, socialize, and develop friendships. It is monitored by a different high school teacher each hour, allowing students to work personally with the teacher on call. High school students also have the opportunity to plan socials, participate in Science Labs, attend field trips, and a select group also serve as mentors to our middle school students.
In an effort to give out of town students the opportunity to build community, we also offer a Mobile eCafe. Once a week a teacher travels to a different library in the surrounding areas and students are invite to come in for a study session. This allows us to meet students who might not be able to travel to Andover, but would like to build relationships with their teachers and peers.
Giving student feedback is a big portion of each day at eCademy. All lessons are loaded at the beginning of the semester and the courses are self-paced, so we receive various assignments from numerous students in several different classes at any given time. Although the amount of assignments coming in can sometimes seem overwhelming, there are a variety of assignments being turned in which keeps the grading fresh and interesting.
Detailed feedback is critical when teaching in an online environment. Since we do not hold daily face to face lessons, feedback is a dedicated time to give each student the guidance needed to master a concept and communicate clear guidelines for students to reference when revising assignments. We offer feedback in several formats: verbal, written and face to face.
I have found that since students in a Blended Learning environment are self-paced, they do not experience time constraints that are sometimes found in the classroom. This results in resubmissions and revisions that demonstrate improved execution, comprehension and overall grades.
As year two begins, I feel reignited as an educator. The past year allowed me to experience one of the greatest learning adventures of my career. I learned it is okay to start small and grow gradually. I learned that even if a student isn’t right by your side, remarkable relationships can still develop. Most importantly, I learned that education isn’t about being comfortable…it is about change, challenge, and having the confidence to climb out of our comfort zone and STRETCH!
About the Author
Cheryl is beginning her 19th year of teaching. In addition to English, Cheryl has taught AVID and served as an AVID Coordinator for eight years in Florida. She is currently a College and Career Elective teacher at Andover eCademy. Her passion is building relationships with her students and changing “I can’t” mindsets into “I can.”
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