D.C. fellowship program rewards teachers who use tech

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When Kate O’Connor applied for the Education Innovation Fellowship in Washington, D.C., she wanted to test a hypothesis: Can online content replace teachers?

So far, she said, online resources have supplemented her instruction as she teaches third-graders at E.L. Haynes charter school about multiplication and division. The blended learning model, which she is now in her fourth week testing, has also motivated her students to think more critically and be more communicative about solving math problems.

“My kids weren’t getting a chance to grapple with things that are hard for them,” O’Connor said in an interview with EdScoop. “They shut down and look at the teacher to tell them what to do. And I wanted to teach them that they don’t need me to tell them, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to balance that with the need to teach every day.”

With the help of the fellowship, which was launched about two years ago by the nonprofit CityBridge Foundation and NewSchools Venture Fund, O’Connor and about two dozen of her peers are piloting personalized learning programs in their schools this summer.

The 31-year-old teacher started experimenting with online programs like LearnZillion and Khan Academy, and divided her 25 students into five groups. At any given time, the groups learn with O’Connor, work on computers, complete independent work and solve problems during group activities.

In just three weeks, she has seen a difference in the way they learn.

“There’s a lot less sitting around paralyzed and staring out the window,” she said. “It’s not about getting the answer right every single time, it’s knowing how to solve things that are tricky.”

That’s the goal of the program, which also sends fellows on field trips to schools across the country to see best practices.

Mieka Wick, executive director of CityBridge, told EdScoop that fellows have usually been sent to visit schools on the West Coast, where more innovative blended learning programs are standard.

When they come back, she said, teachers can import their knowledge to schools in Washington.

“What we’re talking about today is, what does it mean to build schools that meet all kids where they are? How do we use time, talent and technology differently to meet the needs of our students?” Wick said. “People don’t have to go to California anymore to see how this works.”

The yearlong fellowship, which is supported by a $1 million grant from Microsoft, first exposes teachers to other schools in California and Chicago. Then they pilot their own personalized programs during the summer.

After that, teachers get coaching and feedback from experts about how to tweak their programs, until they flesh out their design on a larger scale to put into place during the next school year. Principals also have to commit support and spend time with the fellows to hone their programs.

The fellowship culminates in an annual Education Innovation Summit, where more than 100 educators and experts in D.C. discuss personalized learning strategies.

Wick said fellowship proposals have ranged from videotaping Advanced Placement physics lessons and uploading them on the Web, to training parents to use tablets at home so they can do literacy work with their children.

“We give our fellows great freedom to articulate problems they are experiencing in their community,” Wick said.

The fellowship is open to teachers in traditional and charter D.C. schools.

O’Connor said she hopes revamping her teaching style will help her students not only solve math problems, but other challenges as well.

“My hope is if we do this work long enough, it stretches to other areas of their lives,” she said. “When they face a problem, they know how to act and not stop and be paralyzed. That includes any problem filling out [financial aid forms], or figuring out directions to get somewhere on public transportation.”

For more information about the Education Innovation Fellowship, click here.

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