As part of our teaching and learning guest blog series, we’ve invited Paula Barr, second grade blended learning teacher for Lawrence Public Schools in Lawrence, KS, to share her tips on how to create a collaborative learning environment within the classroom:
Collaborative Room Setup
The students’ learning environment contains six round tables, two large half-round tables with Mac Minis and 31 inch flat screens and white boards around the room. Our class has 5 Mac Book Airs and 5 iPads. Students choose where they want to sit and move around throughout the day according to their learning needs. The environment is designated as the students’ space – not mine. I removed extra furniture, removed Pinterest-inspired, personally pleasing decorations, and two four-drawer file cabinets in order to return the classroom to its workers.
I also purchased half-size white boards at Home Depot for $9. Because they only weigh 3 pounds I was able to secure them to the wall with adhesive Strips. The size allowed me to place the white boards lower so that my second graders could more easily use them for collaboration.
Engagement comes from designing the students’ learning environment to be one where they are doing the work at their own pace and level. Rather than me standing in front of the room giving them the information, now I use Blackboard to house the information I want them to learn and they have to work together to acquire and apply that knowledge. They also work together and use Blackboard to demonstrate their learning. The engagement naturally occurs because the students spend their day in charge of their own learning and learning at their own pace and level.
Involving & Educating Parents
Before the first day of school I sent a welcome email to parents and students. I included links to videos and information about blended learning. Then on the second week of school when parents came for Parent Night, I used pictures and video clips from the year before to give parents a peek into a blended learning environment.
Starting in November I opened my classroom one day a week all day long to parents. They may stop by anytime throughout the day without appointment. Most of the time parents just pull up a chair and sit with their child, helping them and the collaborative group with whom they are working. This has been powerful in helping parents understand blended learning.
When asked about how my thinking changed when I became a blended learning teacher I like to use this analogy: As a traditional teacher I stood in front of the classroom, the vessel of all the knowledge, and I poured that knowledge into my 25 little sponges at the rate and level I decide. As a blended learning teacher, I explain our common core goal and throw my 25 little sponges in the pool. Some happily swim independently to the other side and even move on the next pool. Some need water wings and my support to get there. Some students work collaboratively to build a raft and work as a team, to get to the other side, and some get clear out of the pool and go their own way. My job now is to design the learning environment so students acquire and apply their own knowledge through Blackboard, online resources, and paper resources independently or collaboratively to meet state standards. In other words, the students do the work.
Authentic use of technology is an important part of a blended learning classroom. For our classroom Blackboard houses our information, videos, and links. Students upload pictures and write on Blackboard wikis. They use the discussion boards and take quizzes on Blackboard. Blackboard allows them to connect immediately with some commercial curriculum. We use technology as a tool for students to demonstrate their learning. Technology also allows me to provide the means through which students can progress at their own level and pace. It allows me to provide choice for students to design their own learning path.