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Blended learning academy to start next school year at East Hall

POSTED: May 29, 2013 12:58 a.m.

Around 60 students will be the introductory class to what is currently being described as a blended learning academy, beginning next school year at East Hall High School.

This program is so new, these inaugural students get to pick the official name.

“It is not the only place in Hall County where blended learning is going on,” said Aaron Turpin, executive director for technology for the Hall County school system. “So it’s a working title, if you will.”

This style of education is becoming more and more popular, as a way to engage students in learning at their own pace.

“Most of this, if not all of this, is based on student choice, student voice, student talent, passion, skills and their personal learning styles,” said John Hardison, who will serve as the American literature teacher for the new program. Hardison is also the co-chief of staff for the new program, which will include math, Spanish and health classes.

Teaching methods include online lectures, hands-on projects and a mix of independent and group learning — all combined with some traditional lectures along the way.

“The program is asynchronous, so they go at their own pace,” Turpin said. “That’s one of the things that’s always frustrated me about education, is when a third-grader becomes a fourth-grader in May, yet they mastered the standards of third grade back in February.”

Hardison described this approach as “creative” and “hands-on,” but said it should not be confused with strictly online learning.

“You’ll hear a lot about blended learning academies. A lot of what they’re doing is online digital content, and that really can be very effective. If we have students who want to go that route and they want to do the online course, and they learn individually and at an accelerated pace, then we’re going to let them do that. But a lot of research shows that kids don’t really thrive in that type of environment.”

This new program excites Hardison’s co-chief Lisa Sheehy, who is joining the program next year from her position at Wood’s Mill High School in the Gainesville system. She will also teach the math classes.

Sheehy suggested that, once a student is given some level of control over his education, he has the confidence to continue learning and not fall behind.

“Kids don’t really get behind, if that makes sense, because they’re doing it at their own pace,” she said. “Once you take that anxiety away from the kids, they learn it and then they feel more confident in themselves, and they build trust with their teacher.

“For a kid who is way behind, that’s just extra time spent on the material,” Sheehy continued. “That’s the most beautiful part of blended learning, is that when a kid gets stuck, there’s no hurry. You just stay there (until) you get it.”

Students will still follow the regular assessment tests, such as state End of Course Tests. The Advanced Placement students will also take the end-of-year AP test, administered by the College Board.

However, this method of blended learning is not so concerned with assessments done throughout the year — only at the end of the class.

“Yeah, you’re still being assessed and you’re still earning grades, but you’re working toward mastery of standards,” Sheehy explained. “You’re done with the course when you can prove mastery of all standards.”

Spanish teacher Wes Vonier said that the student is still responsible for meeting all standards, but it is up to the students, with the guidance of the teacher, to demonstrate how they are meeting those standards.

“The procedure is different, the end product is different, but the standards are the same,” he said. “It’s just how they go about it. That’s up to them.”

The students — who will be taking AP and honors American history, math and Spanish classes — will be divided up, either taking morning or afternoon classes. Class structure will be fluid.

“Let’s say we have a group of kids coming over during a two-hour time period,” Hardison explained. “And let’s say they’re struggling in some math area. Well, Dr. Sheehy will then be working with them for two straight days, two hours at a time.

“It’s however long that student needs to fully grasp a concept.”

The program will be located adjacent to the East Hall school.

“There’s an old child care building next to our gym at East Hall High School, and that building is being renovated right now,” Hardison said, explaining how the center will be completely “tricked out” with electronics and other equipment.

“Our facility will be moveable, breathable, flexible,” he said. “It’s going to be one large open area where we can move furniture around. Even our stage will be on wheels.”

“It’s the size of four traditional classrooms,” Turpin explained further. “The setting has no desks. It has tables that are squares. You can push them together and make a big rectangle. There are some soft seating comfort areas, also what you and I know as cubicle spaces for a small group. There are also some collaboration spaces, and there are also 10 computer stations that are stationed in a traditional computer lab type of setting.”

The initial students would be from the honors classes, pulled from those who signed up for advance placement and honors American Literature for next year. The teachers are hopeful that a wider variety of students will be able to participate in the future. “We hope to be getting any of those students who, for some reason, are just not on fire for learning, but have those skills and those talents. Those kids who are overlooked sometimes, who for some reason it just doesn’t reach them,” Hardison said.

He said a blended learning program would also be a good option for students who may have a physical illness or disability that prohibited them from attending regular classes during school hours.

While Turpin explained that classrooms across Hall County have used a blended learning style of teaching for years, all of those involved with the program are hopeful that it will continue to spread to multiple schools in the Hall system. “I think it’s going to spread out in Hall County, to all schools,” Vonier said.

The biggest thing all four stressed was the importance placed on allowing students to work at their own pace.“It is anything that is needed to reach that kid,” Hardison said. “If we can tap into that kid’s talent and skill and abilities, and get that kid fired up.”


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