Seven Chicago schools get $100,000 for schoolwide 'blended learning'

Goal: Use technology to individualize learning

April 29, 2014

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
For their personal project, two Wildwood students interested in DJing wrote a proposal to their principal. They got equipment, learned how to use it, and will be DJing the 8th grade dance.

Seven Chicago public schools got some big news Tuesday—they won $100,000 each to help transform their schools through technology.

All the schools have already begun to change how they “do school.” Take Chavez Multicultural Center, in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. Teacher Pat Quinn, the tech coordinator there, says the school has at least one computer for every student, most of them accessible to students all day.

If you walk into a Chavez classroom on any given afternoon, Quinn says you’re likely to see a teacher working with small groups of just 4 or 5 students, giving them individualized teaching, or leading discussion. Meanwhile, the rest of the class is working on computers, each student working at his or her own level.

"So instead of the teacher standing in front of the classroom and teaching 32, 33 kids the same thing, the (computer) program itself will identify the kids’ weaknesses or what they’ve mastered, and either spiral them up or spiral them down," says Quinn. "The teachers can look at the data they get from these programs and say, 'OK, this kid knows X, Y, Z.'" Quinn says that helps teachers figure out what to teach next, where students need help, or where they need to be challenged.

Technology in education is hot right now--from massive online courses at universities, to computerized exams that adapt based on students' answers, to e-readers that record how children read so their teachers can listen later.

Heather Anichini believes technology can make teachers’ jobs easier and more effective. Anichini directs the Chicago Public Education Fund, one of the groups administering the grants announced today. The money, given in part by the Gates and Broad foundations,  will help schools expand what’s called “blended learning”—this mixing of traditional classroom strategies and technology.

Anichini says the seven schools winning grants may not look wildly different from more traditional schools. But, she says, "you’re going to see technology integrated in really smart ways, and what you’re going to see is student engagement with learning—and with their teachers—is radically different than what’s possible in a classroom without (technology)."

Most of the grant winners have been working with the Chicago Public Education Fund on technology since last summer.

How schools are using technology varies widely--across the district, and even among grant winners.

At Wildwood Elementary on the city's Northwest Side—which also won a grant--two eighth graders show off a video they made. It features close-ups of them Irish dancing, painfully high up on their toes. Fourteen-year-old Sheila says she knew she loved Irish dance; she had no idea she would love editing a movie.

"My favorite part was figuring out how to do everything. We went into it knowing only simple little editing tricks, but now we know how to turn things in slow motion, and fast, and backwards. This was the one project that I never got bored of."

These "personal projects" have become a major part of middle school at Wildwood this year. Students decide what they want to study, and what they want to produce for a final project. They use technology to research, write, design, present, and even sell or publicize their projects. Teachers say the projects are engaging for all kinds of kids, from struggling students to the academically gifted.

"My personal project is to make a tournament for dodge ball for all the whole school," said a sixth grader named Todd. His idea is actually a fundraiser—for new dodge balls, of course.

One student is making a line of natural cosmetics; she said she found recipes on Pinterest and plans to hawk her make-up online. Another boy is creating a compost system. Two eighth graders learned how to DJ and use audio software to make mixes. A girl is making bracelets from recycled water bottles and old sweaters--and is teaching others what she learned at a nearby store. A seventh grader who didn’t like school now gives up his lunch period to work on his personal project, which involves the school's 3-D printer, purchased through donations.

"It’s not about the device, it’s about what the kids do with the device," says Wildwood teacher Monica Balen, who guides students in their personal projects. "We can no longer think that these kids are gonna be inspired by pencil and paper. It worked for me, but I’m an old lady. The idea is to inspire, and technology is the perfect tool, or the tool that is most exciting right now."

Some teachers have raised fears that the real goal of technology in education is to eliminate teachers, or at least save money by hiring fewer of them.

Teachers at the winning schools don’t seem to buy that.

"This is (a) completely different kind of teaching," says Wildwood teacher Catherine Tanner.

Tanner says she’s proud Wildwood has shifted from assigning projects to letting students direct their own learning. And she says she’s learned how to teach and assess kids doing 30 different projects at once. In fact, she says she knows her students better now than she did before, even though they’re using more technology now.

"I know their interests, I know their drives. I have a better personal relationship with them. That’s completely valuable. They feel important," says Tanner, who says she finds the new student-centered focus has made kids "more outspoken and better spoken—about their needs and demands (for) what they want for their learning."

Roxanne Owens, chair of the department of teacher education at DePaul University in Chicago, echoes the view that the teacher’s role is not diminished in a classroom with lots of technology.

“(It) almost becomes more important because you want to make sure the kids are using the tools in ways that really enhance their learning,” Owens says. She says she’s been in classrooms where kids routinely waste time on things like deciding what font color to use, for instance. Owens says overall she’s fine with added screens in classrooms—within moderation—and as long as it doesn’t take away from human interaction.

“Blended learning in general is a good idea, as long as it doesn’t try to replace teachers or replace the face-to-face interaction and the community that happens in a classroom,” says Owens.

Wildwood plans to spend its grant money in part on more technology--phones, tablets, laptops. They say they want the devices available schoolwide, so there is always access to the right tool for the task.

The seven schools awarded $100,000 grants include:

Cesar E. Chavez Multicultural Academic Center,
Chicago Academy High School,
Chicago International Charter School (CICS) — West Belden,
Great Lakes Academy Charter School (slated to open 2014-15),
John C. Haines Elementary School,
KIPP Chicago Public Charter Schools, and
Wildwood World Magnet School