Yesterday, I had a wonderful opportunity to observe a 1:1 high school here in Omaha. I’m on spring break and had some extra time so I asked a teacher I know at the school if I might come in and observe. She was gracious enough to set me up with a diverse group of classes to observe and it gave me a lot of insight into how a 1:1 school runs. Besides the laptops, the school has a unique scheduling system. The day is broken into “modules” that each run 40 minutes. Most days the students meet in small groups (15-25 students) with a single teacher, but on other days all the sections combine for a larger, lecture-style class led by one or more teachers in that subject area. On other days, two modules are combined for an 80 minute period (typically labs). I was fortunate enough to see each of these setups during my visit.
Small Group Reading
My morning started off in Miss Kizer’s room. She runs a special program for students who need extra assistance in reading. Her biggest group is only 5 students and she has a wonderful mentor program set-up, so students get lots of one on one help. The students have a number of activities to complete each week and having their laptops at the ready makes it all run pretty smoothly. While I was observing, students read one on one with their mentor or Miss Kizer and then completed a form (created by Miss Kizer in Word) that guided them through a series of comprehension strategies. Once completed, the students typed up summaries of what they’d read, listened to their summaries with the text-to-speech function on their Macbooks, then made any necessary corrections.
While the students were reading, Miss Kizer gave me an extra laptop and I tested out the school’s filters. As I browsed, I found that a lot of web 2.0 sites I regularly use were blocked. On the student end, YouTube, Drop.io, Nings, and even Bubbl.us weren’t allowed (along with Facebook and some other standard fair). I later learned that YouTube is unblocked for teachers and that they could request access to other sites if they wanted. In a school this big, I think that the filters are necessary. Because of the module system, students have open times during the day where they can check in with teachers, but (several teachers pointed out) only a small number really take advantage of it. As Miss Kizer walked me through some of these study areas to my next class, it seemed like a 50/50 mix of students working on their laptops vs. playing on their laptops.
Regular module science
My second observation of the day was a 9th grade science class of about 25 students. It was an 80 minute module with a 5 minute break in the middle. The laptops weren’t a central component of the lesson but Mr. Fryda, the teacher I observed, was full of energy and had a great command of the classroom. His lesson was built around the analysis of a lab on water and temperature from the previous class. Students had recorded their data on a lab sheet and spent the first half of the period graphing their results. Mr. Fryda used a SMARTboard to project the graph and had students come up and label the first few data points on the time/temperature chart, while the other students completed the graph with their own data on their lab sheets. Before and during this activity he asked students to predict or make inquiries about why the results turned out a certain way. Students responded to these questions on whiteboards.
While the students could have completed a lot of these activities on the laptops, their absence may have made the lesson run smoother. Distractions are just one of the factors in a 1:1 school. While it is great that each student has a computer, some “forget” their laptops, others are at tech support, and others may not be charged. It’s definitely a balancing act on the teacher’s part to decide whether or not using the laptops will add value to the lesson. If the school had Google Apps for Education it might have been possible to integrate the laptops smoothly, but the paper method seemed like the best approach based on the tools available. To submit things to a teacher, the students have to email it in or use Blackboard – both pretty inefficient in terms a feedback. The paper lab reports and whiteboards allowed Mr. Fryda to give an impressive amount of feedback throughout the class.
During the second half of class, things transitioned from a whole group approach to a more individualized one. After a brief introduction by the teacher and a clear outline of the expectations, the students worked on the rest of the analysis questions from their lab. Upon completing it they got in line to show their work to Mr. Fryda who (literally) gave his stamp of approval or had the students redo answers that didn’t fit – such as saying your hypothesis was correct when the results showed something different. Overall, I was pretty impressed with the students focus during the individual work time. Students were a little chatty from time to time and one student had to go to a special area for being unruly, but it was pretty typical of my own classroom and many others I’ve been in.
Most students didn’t get all their questions stamped right away and had to fix things and get back in line to get their final okay (and credit). A few students got immediate approval and spent the rest of the time doing a variety of tasks. The first student to finish took out his iPod (allowed in class) out and quietly played a game on it. A few others had their laptops out and appeared to be checking email, looking up brackets on ESPN, or searching for fairly innocuous things. As more people finished, Mr. Fryda (occupied with a line of students and their lab reports) told them to stick to science related content and look through their upcoming notes. I wasn’t exactly sure if these notes were posted online (I think they were) or if the students had a hard copy. Either way, with 10 minutes left in the module and about half the class finished, the only person I saw making any attempt at something science related was the young man who’d been on his iPod. Again, this was pretty typical of my own classroom and others when students have completed their work and there is down time. It’s a challenge to get teenagers (and adults) to do extra studying/research when it’s not required. The laptops weren’t really a distraction as some students just wanted to chat once they finished.
Overall, I thought the lesson was very good. Mr. Fryda’s high expectations and stress on individual feedback made the class very productive. He didn’t use technology needlessly, or underutilize the resources available to him. I liked his inquiry based approach to teaching science that didn’t depend on a text book. I very rarely use a textbook in my room and I felt like my 8th grade students would be well prepared for a 9th grade science class like this one. (I’m not sure if my students would excel in a textbook driven science course). During the final minutes of the module, I took the opportunity to ask a couple of students what they thought about the class, laptops, and the modules. The reviews were all positive and students generally enjoyed how things were going. I followed up with some questions about the large group sessions (200-300 students) they had once a week, because that’s where I went to next.
Large group Literature
The feedback I got from students and teachers was mixed on the large group sessions was mixed. For some students it worked well, but for others it was easy to zone out in a sea of classmates. Upon entering the auditorium for the class, I was amazed by how many students there were. It was very much like a college lecture, except instead of one professor at the front, there were 6 or 7 teachers wandering throughout the aisles while another teacher led a PowerPoint. I didn’t see many laptops out (not sure if they were allowed) – most students just had notebooks. Every so often the teacher would ask students to write down something that went along with one of her slides and most people in the audience seemed to oblige. The presentation was pretty solid and the teacher engaged the class with questions or interesting points. I only stayed for about 15 minutes, but it didn’t appear that the laptops were going to be involved in the presentation. There may be other presentations or other classes that utilize the laptops more in the large groups, but I could see how it would provide a unique challenge in a room of 300 9th graders.
By the end of the day I felt like I had a pretty good idea of how things run in a 1:1 school. At this particular school, students had a lot of freedom and they seemed to handle it fairly well. The filters also help prevent more problems than they create. It was great that students could pull out their own laptops whenever they teacher needed them for a lesson. Trying to schedule the computer lab or find ways to get students on a limited set of computers is a huge pain. Even though the laptops can be a distraction, I think there are a lot of benefits. While I didn’t see any especially innovative uses of the laptops, I thought that teachers utilized them fairly well based on the tools available. I think that Google Apps would make a big difference in sharing and collaborating on projects in a school like this. Unblocking a few more sites might also open up some things. It was a great day and I’m very thankful to all the teachers who were kind enough to let me observe.