Do you reach ALL your students ALL the time?

By Courtney Paull

Do you reach all your students all the time? It is a question I immediately want to respond to with, “yes, of course” but I know in the back of my head that would be a lie. I try to and I do my best, but I know it is still a work in progress.

My first six years of teaching was in a public upper-middle class school outside Boston, Massachusetts. We grouped our students by unit, shuffling into leveled groups based on their understanding of the major topics.  It was easy to reach students in homogeneous groupings, and then shuffle again, based on understanding, for each unit.

All that I knew about teaching changed when I picked up my life to join the international teaching world, heading to teach at International School Manila. Before setting foot on campus, I did not know much about the population of my students or their backgrounds.

As the first few weeks of school progressed, I was using the same teaching strategy I had been accustomed to using back in the states; taking notes together, having students complete an activity to demonstrate understanding, and finally having students complete an exit ticket.

I was beginning to notice more and more blank stares in class as we moved along from one topic to the next. I was struggling more than ever to reach all my students. When my students were completing the activities, I felt like I was putting out more fires than ever before, answering questions left and right. I started to realize that not only did I have students working far below grade level, but I also had students who spoke very limited English. I had to do something to shift my teaching strategy in order to reach all of my students and ensure everyone was able to understand the content.

I began to explore new teaching strategies online, and landed upon @Blended_Math on Twitter. I was intrigued by the possibilities of self-paced learning and how I could use it to support my students, allowing them to work at a pace that was right for them. I began to think about how I could use Google Apps to increase student access to material that would allow them to work at their own pace (and possibly in their home language) and move on when they were ready.

My first trial was a huge flop. It was a 25 page Google Doc that was essentially a giant digital worksheet, containing an entire units’ worth of material. What my students did not need was a gigantic document with more problems than a textbook.  Time to go back to the drawing board.

After a bit of reflection, I thought about the problems in my classroom and what my students needed from me as their teacher. My students needed material to work through at their own pace; notes with subtitles, the ability to rewatch notes, self-checking practices that let them know if they are on the right track. My students needed different ways to demonstrate their learning.

My next attempt started with video notes which I created from a screencast of my Google Slides and uploaded to YouTube (YouTube automatically adds subtitles to all videos). The students took notes from the video and completed an activity before taking a short GoFormative to demonstrate their mastery. While students were working on the video notes, I was free to meet one-on-one with students and check in about their understanding.

From my perspective, everything was working. But what did my students think? Did they think everything was amazing? After their assessment, I surveyed the class and here is what they had to say:

How did you feel about taking notes from the videos?

“I really liked it because it was just like Ms Paull teaching us, but the advantage was we could stop and write it clean and make sure we have everything and I could understand a lot better than I did before.”

“I didn’t like it that much I just didn’t want to do note taking”

“I liked taking notes from the video since I could pause and go at my own speed. But also since I could independently choose which data I found most important and organize my information in a way I can understand.”

“The video notes were helpful but some of the videos became repetitive by making us do a very similar problem multiple times”

What would you keep about the format? (On your own learning)

“I like following the videos because for me when I listen to the instructions, I feel like I am always at a good pace to take down notes.”

“The set up, I mean the template you had, how I would do the notes first then an activity then the test then the TQ.”

“Watching the videos and having a to-do list so you can keep track of where you are.”

“I would keep the visual examples on the video because it helps you to understand the topic.”

What would you change about the format?(On your own learning)

“Some people took advantage of it and started playing games and things like that and it got distracting.”

“I would have more review games”

“I think we could do a big class sometimes so that you could check and help slower people”

“I would change instead of doing one activity doing multiple activities before the goformative”

“Maybe adding less examples to right down in our notebook, because it takes up a lot of room.”

Between the survey results and the assessment scores, I could relax a little bit. I had not ruined my students. The students liked learning at their own pace and the assessment results showed the students still understood the content.

However, the survey gave me some new things to think about when creating the next unit. The videos need to be short and simple, no more than 5 minutes long. There needs to be more than one practice activity for students who need extra practice. Every once in a while, it helps to pull the class together for a check-in and discussion of the material.

Ms. Paull