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Genvieve Dorsey: Learning to Manage a Blended Classroom – Tales from a First Year Innovator

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January 13, 2012 04:39 pm

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When I first learned about a hands-on, blended, game-design program for my classroom – Globaloria, I thought to myself, this has to be a part of our STEM program in Oak Grove. This was a chance for my students to be able to learn how to program their own educational web games based on what they’re learning in the classroom.  This was a perfect, relevant and exciting solution for our Silicon Valley students to engage in project-based learning.

I’ve now been teaching game design as an elective class for four and a half months.  What a journey it has been!  I quickly found, as you find in all classrooms, that I had a wide range of skills, abilities, interests, and motivation in my students.  I started out having specific teaching points for each day, expecting all my students to have completed x, y, and z by the end of the lesson.  This produced headaches for both me and my students. Some students needed more explicit vocabulary instruction in order for them to grasp the concept, some were ready to move ahead, and still others needed the motivation to complete the challenging assignments. In short, this year has been a journey for me in trusting my students and teaching process, shifting my focus from concepts or facts to problem solving and learning to inquire rather than direct.  I still provide my students with mini-lessons for things like how to add interactive buttons to their games, but the majority of my instruction has become one-on-one or small group tutorials where I support the students with their self-directed and identified specific needs. This is student-led, differentiated and personalized learning at its best.

If someone just walked through my classroom, they might be surprised at what they saw. It’s most often loud, kids are talking, and some are looking like they’re having way too much fun for being in the classroom. However, if they were to investigate a little closer, they’d see that the students were helping each other, brainstorming possible solutions to a problem they’re having with their game, and experimenting with animation. This is all new to me, and I’m supposed to be a progressive educator working in an experimental STEM program where problem-based learning is the norm.

Accountability and management is another challenge for me.  I struggle with keeping up with the “digital paperwork.” While I feel I need to let students work at their own pace, I still need them to meet deadlines.  I’m challenged keeping up with 35 individual blogs and 35 project pages. Additionally, I’m constantly asking myself how I’m going to evaluate specific assignments.  What am I expecting to see?  This comes easily to me when I’m teaching more traditional subjects. As I go along, I’ve learned little tricks like “following” all my students’ blogs so that I only have to sign on to my blog to see the most recent additions rather than clicking back and forth between blogger and the wiki.  Now that the students are working in teams, I have regular team meetings with them to evaluate their progress and help them with next steps.

This year has definitely been a year of trial and error for me. While I’m comfortable with a certain amount of trial and error in the “regular” classroom, I still view myself as a pedagogical expert, so I can usually make quick adjustments.  I am relying on this skill, as well as my students, while teaching game-design, as I’m learning right along with (or just before) my students.  I’m finding that my classroom is becoming more dialogical because students who grasp programming faster, step in and help other students, and they learn from each other.

Despite the challenges for me as a teacher of letting go of controlling and micro-managing students, I really see the value of project-based, hands-on, student-led digital learning.  As I look forward to next year, I’d like to see digital projects as part of a core course instead of an elective.  I envision game design as the “project” in the “project-based learning.”  If it were a part of my core classes, blog prompts and responses could act as a Language Arts skill application.  I’m just beginning to see the enormous opportunities that digital learning can provide for my teaching and my students.  We all have to start somewhere, and for me it’s been figuring out how to manage a blended learning classroom.

Genvieve Dorsey is a sixth grade teacher at Herman Intermediate School in San Jose, California. She is also involved with the school’s ADVENTURE STEM Program. Read blog posts from the Digital Learning Day Educator Working Group. Learn more about Digital Learning Day at http://www.digitallearningday.org.

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Digital Learning Series

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