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Classroom Management, Education Trends, Productivity Strategies, Sponsors & Supporters, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Mar 20, 2022

3 practices to give you more one-on-one time with students

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

3 practices to give you more one-on-one time with students

By Angela Watson

Finally — a sustainable model for self-paced learning and mastery-based grading!

If you feel like you never have enough time to truly differentiate or personalize learning, try the approach by the Modern Classrooms Project approach.

I’m interviewing co-founder Kareem Farah about three strategies that you can experiment with integrating into your classroom to allow kids to work at their own pace, and free you up to work with students individually and in small groups.

Kareem is a former high school math teacher in Washington, D.C, who started using what’s become the Modern Classroom model (blended, self-paced, mastery-based) because he was really struggling to meet his students’ needs, and was feeling burnt out as a result.  Kareem feels certain that if he had not started teaching in this way, he would have quit after a year or two.

Instead, he continued teaching, happily and successfully, for several more years, and was even named DC Public Schools’ most innovative educator. Kareem now leads MCP full-time in order to support more educators in teaching through the Modern Classrooms Project.

The Modern Classrooms Project is a nonprofit that empowers educators to build classrooms that respond to every student’s needs. They lead a movement of educators in fostering human connection, authentic learning, and social-emotional growth.

The Modern Classrooms Project has empowered over 35,000 educators worldwide through their free online course, and the Modern Classrooms group on Facebook of 9,000 innovative educators. They’ve partnered with more than 100 schools and districts nationwide, and have certified over 300 Distinguished Modern Classroom Educators.

Kareem and I are going to talk about three components of the MCP approach that make teachers more effective (and by extension, make teachers’ lives easier). Kareem has seen this approach work across grade levels and subject areas, and it really empowers educators to spend more one-on-one time with students.

My conversation with Kareem will help you figure out logistics and practical considerations, whether your school’s fully on board with student-centered, innovative teaching methodologies or you’re just getting started.

Listen to my conversation with Kareem of the Modern Classrooms Project using the podcast player, or read the transcript below

Sponsored by Modern Classrooms Project

ANGELA: In your work with the Modern Classrooms Project, Kareem, you’re coming from the assumption that teachers know that the traditional one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning doesn’t work. And the way you initially described it to me was this way: “The kids who already know the content get bored, students who have learning gaps get lost, and students who are absent miss out altogether.”

So your goal is to give teachers actionable strategies and resources for trying a different approach. And I think this is so needed because differentiating and meeting every student’s needs is just incredibly time-consuming and it can be very overwhelming for teachers to manage. Has that been true in your experience?

KAREEM: Yeah, absolutely. I have said for years and anyone who’s ever sort of come in contact with our work has probably heard that I think that differentiation is the most overused and under-executed term in education. And I think that’s the case because most teachers are faced with a categorically unconquerable task in front of them, which is that they have 20, 30, sometimes 40 plus kids in front of them. They all have a diverse set of academic and social, emotional needs. And their goal is to meet their needs as effectively as possible.

And the reality is, it’s impossible to meet every student’s needs perfectly. That is a silly thing to think is possible given the constraints of teaching and learning.So I think it’s the most challenging and most important element of an educator’s life. And I don’t think that the one-size-fits-all or traditional approaches to instruction are actually built to support educators, and actually doing that effectively at scale was the biggest challenge I faced every single day.

And it was why at a certain point, about halfway through my teaching career, I was strongly considering leaving the profession because I felt like I was going into the job with this vision of my capacity to really build relationships with kids and support them, both academically and socially and emotionally. I was finding myself spending much more time trying to control the room than I was actually moving kids across a continuum of learning.

Yeah. I think that’s a really familiar problem in that it does kind of feel impossible at times to be able to differentiate for all kids. And so, I know that in your approach with the Modern Classrooms Project, you’ve identified three core components that you think help make this a little bit more manageable and also get us closer to that goal of meeting every student’s needs.

The three core components are blended instruction, self-paced structures, and mastery-based grading. We’re going to go through each of these three components in depth so that folks listening have some actionable steps that they can use right away in their classrooms.

Let’s begin with the blended instruction piece in which teachers record their own instructional videos to replace in-class lectures.

I know a lot of teachers experimented with this for a while during remote learning, so they’re familiar with the idea, but I think with the push to get back to normal, whatever that means in schools, these really valuable instructional videos may be underutilized. And it may be that teachers have stopped making them now and not really using that as a tool in their classrooms. What approach do you recommend here with blended instruction?

I think at its core, the single most precious resource in a classroom is the teacher’s time. It’s just a reality. You need to maximize the capacity for educators to be able to engage with students in small group and individualized instruction. That’s when any effective strategy, in my opinion, at scale, really comes to life as it relates to differentiation.

When you think about sort of the one-size-fits-all model, an educator spends a lot of time at the front of the room, talking at kids. And yeah, they might post some questions and kids kind of raise their hands and there’s a few checks for understanding, but it’s a lot of time that’s being spent pretty far away from kids in the grand scheme of things.

And I think the power of instructional videos is it actually pulls the teacher away from that, pulls the teacher away from putting on a performance, which is not only not a great use of time, but also incredibly exhausting and really not effective, by the way, for kids that are either experiencing trauma, not in class at all, because they’re absent or multiple grade levels behind or ahead so whatever you’re saying is not actually resonating with them or particularly engaging.

When you build those instructional videos, it actually removes the need to have to put on a performance, which I think is really powerful, because you replace all that time with time spent with kids, time spent getting to know kids, but time spent also remediating and reteaching and supporting students as they’re struggling to master content, the powerful kind of elements of the learning experience that are important, hitting roadblocks and you’re kind of supporting them as they get through those roadblocks.

That’s the power of infusing instructional videos into classrooms and simply put, in our model, teachers just don’t lecture — they replace all their lectures with instructional videos.

And I always stress when I share this part of the model that that doesn’t mean you don’t bring kids together. You bring kids together as a whole group for a variety of reasons. It could be a spiraled mini-lesson that you want to bring the kids together to chat about because you see common mistakes happening throughout the unit, or you might bring kids together because it’s a core collaborative experience such as a lab or a Socratic seminar. We love when teachers bring kids together, but you want to bring kids together for a purpose, not to deliver information to them and for them to then take those notes down.

The other reason why this is a critical part of the model is phase two — that self-pacing piece. The reason kids can’t work at their own pace in school today is because they are reliant on that live delivery of information. If every single day the teacher has to give that information live in a lecture format, well, kids just can’t be at different spots. It’s a key bottleneck to that experience, which I would argue again, it’s not a great use of teacher time and student time, but it’s also an equity question.

Ultimately, we want to provide an avenue for kids to have unlimited access to content — anytime, anywhere — so that if they’re not in the headspace to digest information at the time that you’re delivering it, they can at another time. That’s phase one, which is the building of instructional videos.

The last thing I’ll say is we encourage educators to build their own instructional videos. We tried using externally created instructional videos. But when we did that, we realized that we forgot that the most important factor in learning is the teacher themselves outside of the student. You can’t replace an educator, you can’t replace an educator with a disembodied voice that doesn’t exist in the room. And we realized that had real damages when we tried to have kids watch someone else teach content to them.

Right. And I think I’ve also heard some parents complain. They feel like the education’s being outsourced. Like you’re not even teaching, you’re just showing this other video.

Totally, which is true by the way. And part of the reason why that is true is when I used external videos at scale, I actually started to lose my understanding of the way other folks were teaching the lessons. I remember trying to replace myself with instructional videos externally created, and a kid asked me at one point in the lesson, “Hey, can you explain how to do this? I’m struggling.” And I started to explain. And the kid was like, “Well, that’s not how the computer told me to do it.”

And in that moment, I felt that while I’m a pretty invested, caring teacher and I plan pretty detailed, it certainly was my mistake that I wasn’t aware of how the instructional video or that online resource was teaching it, but it also just showed me that when you start to replace your own kind of role in the classroom, you start to really become pretty distant from the learning experience, and that’s not the goal.

Two questions about this. The first is how long are these video lectures? And second of all, what does it look like when students are watching them? Because I’m envisioning a teacher listening to this and thinking, “If my administrator walks in the room and my students are watching a video of me teaching, they’re not going to like that.”

How should this time be structured to make sure that it’s really, really valuable for the kids?

I always say the biggest compliment I was ever given in my classroom was when the Edutopia film crew came into my classroom and the film director tapped me on the shoulder before filming started and said, “Are you sure this is a blended learning classroom?” And I looked back and I was like, “I’m pretty confident it is.” And she was like, “But only 20% of the kids are on computers.” And I just looked back and I said, “Thanks.”

And the reality is, I’m not saying kids can’t be on computers during classrooms. There are a variety of things that they could be on computers for, but with instructional videos, the research says they need to be nine minutes or ideally, under six. And certainly for younger students, even shorter chunks than that.

When you think about the scope of the overarching learning experience, that’s a very small chunk of it. And when you think about layering and self-paced learning, which is the next phase, there are kids doing a variety of things in the classroom, it’s truly controlled chaos.

So maybe only 20% of kids at any given time might be watching an instructional video. And if they are, they’re taking guided notes, they’re answering questions that are popping up through any of the programs out there that allow you to bake checks for understanding into the actual videos themselves. So even though the video watching experience is engaging, it’s a pretty small percentage of the time.

And that’s critical because you want kids to spend the majority of class working through actual content, struggling with content, wrestling with content, engaging with their peers, and with the educator to master that content. That’s a key component of it.

Okay. Just to be clear for everyone listening, we are not recommending that you just put on a 30-minute video of you lecturing and sit in the back of the classroom.

Absolutely not.

This is really figuring out what the most important content here that I need to deliver to students and delivering it really efficiently and effectively and then getting back to using that class time for collaboration, for remediation, and so on.

Absolutely.

The second component of the Modern Classrooms Project is the self-paced structures. And the idea is that teachers build systems and procedures that allow kids to learn at their own individual paces, while meeting all of the same essential learning objectives and deadlines.

They have those learning objectives and deadlines in common, but they’re doing it at their own pace. Can you tell us about some approaches to self-pace structures that really work well for kids and that you found are simpler for teachers to manage?

I always tell folks that blended learning is kind of the flashy component of the model — instructional videos, technology, and all that kind of stuff. But I actually think the really powerful learnings are happening once you get to self-paced structure and mastery-based grading, because that’s when you’re really transforming the classroom in a powerful way, and it’s also what you’ll find students isolate every single time as the most impactful.

And their favorite thing about the model, if you go into any of our thousands of modern classrooms out there at the moment, you’ll hear students say, “Oh my God, I love learning in this way because it’s self-paced.”

And the structures that are critical: the first is just making sure that we’re clear that this is self-pacing with guardrails. Part of the reason any teacher can do this literally anywhere, in any district, in any school, theoretically, is because this is self-pacing with unitive study, even shorter chunks than that. I was just at a school out in Dallas and they all self-paced one week at a time, which is fabulous. It’s clear guardrails.

The kids know what objective needs to be completed in a certain span of time. They have to execute. And then there’s a variety of sort of checkpoints where teachers really intervene and then they kind of move on to the next chunk of self-pacing together. So self-pacing and chunks are the first things that are really, really critical.

The second thing (covered in a lot of the research and we did a literature review at John’s Hopkins as well), that kind of supports the core components of our model, but it’s really important that when you walk into any self-paced learning environment, that the kids know exactly where they are in the larger scope of the learning experience and the teacher knows where every kid’s at.

I’ve always said, a controlled chaos environment is a teacher’s dream and a completely chaotic environment is a teacher’s nightmare. And in many ways, the systems and structures you put in place for you to know where the kids are at and for the kids to know where they’re at is the big key differentiator between those two styles of a classroom.

When I walk into a modern classroom that’s effective, you’re either going to see game boards or checklists. And those are what we call personal trackers — systems and structures — where kids are able to identify where they are in the larger scope of the unit, and move day by day through each activity, and mark where they’re going.

And then physical and public trackers are ways where you can walk into the classroom and see where you’re at in the larger scope of the learning experience. And they can be anonymous or not, but either way, they’re really powerful ways to ensure that everyone’s super clear about where they are in the moment and where they need to go.

And that includes, by the way, identifying for all the students every single day what lesson is on pace right now, what lessons you’re actually kind of behind in the pacing calendar, and what lessons are ahead of pace, pushing forward and getting through content fast-paced. So everyone’s just really, really comfortable and clear as to where they are and where they’re going.

Then the final piece, which is so integral, is our lesson classification model. The reality is, there are some skills in a unit that are integral and non-negotiable. There are some skills that we’d like every kid to master, but we know some kids aren’t going to get to them. And then there’re some skills that are extension lessons.

So when teachers go through our program, whether the free course or a virtual mentorship program, they’re actually going to plan a full unit in advance and they’re going to isolate: what are the must-do lessons, what are the should-do lessons, and what are the aspired to-do lessons? This creates a really healthy framework to send kids on different pathways, depending on how successfully they’re mastering content at the pace that you’ve kind of outlined.

I love that so much, because I feel like there’s so much, often just clutter in the curriculum and you feel like everything’s important, everything’s urgent, the kids have to master everything right now. But really dialing down and figuring out, “What are the key essential skills? What are the most important things that I need to make sure all my students are able to do?”

If you can identify that before you begin implementing the unit, I think it saves so much time. Have you found that too, that it just makes it so much easier for teachers to make sure they’re maximizing instructional time?

100%. I often hear folks, one of the many buzzwords in education is obviously personalized learning. And I always tell folks a lot of times personalized learning as it’s created is actually quite impersonal. I think that structure gives an avenue to true personalized learning, where teachers are making live decisions around what pathways kids need to go on based on what skills are most important to master.

And it just also honors the reality that you have a very diverse group of students in front of you, and you want to hold them to as high expectations as possible. But it’s also not realistic to say that every single kid is going to learn every single skill in one fixed timeframe. That just doesn’t really make all that much sense.

I think when teachers are told that’s the reality that they need to live up to, they kind of roll their eyes. They kind of walk out of the classroom and the professional development session or like, really? I have a pretty diverse set of learners in front of me. It’s not realistic for that to play out the way that you’ve described it.

So creating that structure creates comfort for teachers before they walk into the room to say, “Hey, I know what is non-negotiable for my students and what I need to just guarantee they all understand.” And then we build up from there, and I think that’s a really powerful way to prioritize time.

The example school that you just mentioned in Dallas, you said that they’re planning the self-paced structures are for a week at a time. Does that mean the kids basically get the assignments on Monday and then have everything complete by Friday, or what are some different ways that might look in a classroom?

Yeah, totally. They get every Monday something called their “quest”. That’s what they call it at the school, which is super cool because it’s a gaming school, which is even more fascinating. So there are quests and they have to complete their quest by Friday.

Now, if they don’t complete their quest by Friday and there are mastery checks in there and all that kind of stuff, well, they can always complete their quest on their own time. You’re not saying that that content’s done, which is another thing that really bothered me about sort of one-size-fits-all traditional instruction. It’s like, “Hey, you missed it yesterday. You didn’t get it. It’s over.” That sends such a weird message to kids about how learning works.

So, if you don’t get everything on your quest done, you have to spend class time next week on the next quest. But if you want to come in at lunch, before school, after school, or work at home, you can watch the instructional videos anytime, anywhere, and you can still master those skills and complete those quests.

So, it creates those clear guardrails and those clear structures, but learning’s never-ending. Kids can always go back to a quest they never finished, but you want to really create a space too where kids don’t start to diverge what they’re doing so far, that it makes it difficult for them to collaborate.

If some kids are on quest 1 and then other kids are on quest 10, which means they’re 10 weeks apart in the kind of curriculum, well then it makes it quite difficult for them to connect and collaborate. It also makes it difficult for you to bring the kids together and say, “Hey, we’re going to have a discussion about this.” That’s why we kind of create those guardrails. I think it’s healthy for kids.

Yeah. I like that week-long timeframe of a quest. Have you found that teachers like to leave their time very unstructured and just go with the flow and see what the kids need? Or do you find that when the kids are working on their quests, the teacher has a more specific schedule?

Like, “Okay, I’m going to pull this small group” or “I’m going to go work one-on-one with these kids on this schedule.” What does the teacher’s class time typically look like?

I think there’s an important amount of unstructured time you need to do the model effectively because I think one of the coolest things about the model is you’re responding to live indicators of mastery and then intervening. It’s more about how you structure your time spent in the classroom, but not over-structuring it to the point where you’re not grading live and then giving feedback live.

I actually modeled this for one of our partners in Connecticut the other day where I just kind of brought the adults in the room and I said, “Pretend you’re in my modern classroom.” And I think one of the core elements of it is we have, whether it’s the teacher station, we often call it the teacher nest, is where you’re largely doing all your small group and individualized instructions.

You actually have all these kinds of mastery checks coming in, where kids are demonstrating their mastery of the skills, and live right there, you’re pulling those out. You’re looking at them to see if the kids have mastered the skills and then you start clumping them together.

“Alright, these three kids didn’t master lesson three. Come on down to my teacher nest — we’re going to do a small group instruction.” And everyone on the outside is really just learning at their own pace. They’re working with each other, working with their peers and tackling content.

So it’s structured in that the teacher should be spending the vast majority of class time, literally grading live and giving feedback live. And when they’re not doing that, kind of roaming the room and checking in one-on-one with students. That part is structured.

But what you don’t want to do, which is I think a potential downfall of some of the station rotation models of say, “Well, at 15 minutes in, I’m going to pull these 4 kids. And then 20 minutes in, I’m going to pull these 5 kids.” Not every kid actually needs to be pulled down in those scenarios.

When you over plan those elements, sometimes you’re forcing kids to be in small group and individualized instruction that actually don’t need it, whereas you could spend that time with other students that really need it quite badly.

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I like what you’re saying there about spending a bit of class time looking at student work as it’s coming in and beginning the assessment process, because that’s obviously another major pain point for teachers — giving timely feedback, giving detailed feedback, and giving grades in a timely manner, particularly with mastery-based grading.

Let’s dive some more into that, as it’s the third and final component of the Modern Classrooms Project. We talked about the blended instruction where you are not lecturing live. All of your lectures are in short 6-9 minute videos. We talked about the self-paced structures in which students have these quest-like self-paced structures, so they have those guardrails to try to keep them on pace and make sure there’s lot of checkpoints along the way.

And the mastery-based grading I know is a third and really a very crucial part of your structure as well. I know many teachers like the idea in theory, but have found that it’s really difficult to manage and stay on top of. So, what are your recommendations here for this component?

First thing I’ll tell everyone is we see mastery-based grading, competency-based grading, standards-based grading, and proficiency-based grading all as synonyms to us. They all mean the same thing to us. And they’ve all been stuck in theory for what feels like 100 years.

Folks are just talking about it because intuitively it makes perfect sense. It’s what we all want. But then to see it in action never gets there. And I think that’s because most of the resources out there are not practical. They don’t provide a clear blueprint for how to make it come to life in the classroom. But then people also get really stuck in the sort of standard deconstruction world that they kind of forget what the overarching premise is.

All we’re saying here is kids have to understand one thing before they go to the next thing. And that’s as simple as we want people to digest it when they’re learning the modern classrooms model — you want kids to understand skill A before they go to scope B. And ultimately the reason why this is not that hard to pull off in our model is because you’ve got self-pacing.

The first thing I tell everyone is you can’t go to mastery-based grading, competency-based grading, proficiency-based grading if you don’t have self-pacing baked into your classroom environment. The two things just can’t work without each other. It just doesn’t make any sense.

You can’t say, “Hey, I’m going to hold kids to understanding skill A before going to skill B, but by the way, everyone has to go to skill B tomorrow.” Those two realities don’t make any sense. That’s the first thing. Don’t dive into part three of the model until you figure out part one and part two.

The second most important thing is just the art of the mastery check, which is this idea that you have a bite-size skill (not that different from an exit ticket) but we call it a mastery check because you’re not exiting the room. You’re demonstrating mastery on the lesson that you just completed. And that can be at the beginning of class, middle of class, end of the class, it’s whenever you’re ready to demonstrate mastery.

Those mastery checks really need to be bite-sized. They need to be pretty easy to grade live, which is why you can then deliver feedback really quickly. They need to really distill that skill and be connected to the skill you’re trying to measure. And ideally, there’s a clear avenue for how a student can be reassessed or be revising that mastery check.

In simple terms, in a math class, a kid takes a mastery check and they don’t get it right. Well, there are multiple forms. I always had three forms of the same skill mastery check. If a kid doesn’t get the first one right, calm down and say, “Hey, let’s chat about this,” and then I give him a different mastery check to work on.

And with some of the more humanities classes, they’re much more revisable, maybe the mastery check is constructing the thesis that you’re going to use at the end of this unit. And they get to revise that thesis statement until it’s up to the standard that you want to see.

Then the final piece is really making sure that you’ve constructed your learning environment to make sure that academic integrity is at the forefront around mastery checks. We love environments where kids are collaborating, but when it comes to mastery check time, that’s really the time for kids to say, “Hey, I can show you that I can do this without the support of others.”

A lot of our teachers use mastery check zones. It’s a part of the room reserved just for taking mastery checks. So when the time is right, the kid says, “Hey, I’m ready for mastery check number three,” and they grab it. It might be a colored sheet of paper. They go into that mastery check zone and they take it there. So everyone kind of knows and honors that space is quiet. You don’t bring resources in there. It’s time for you to demonstrate your ability to do this.

And my favorite thing, I was just talking to a teacher the other day about this in Minnesota. Instead of the bin saying mastery checks, it’s called prove it. They just make it clear to the kids that they’re just proving that they have this, like they understand and are super clear. It’s the coolest part of the model, but it’s actually quite simple once you’ve been able to get blended and self-paced structures off the ground and running.

A lot of times teachers spend so much time grading stuff and it never actually leads to any sort of personalized feedback and kids start to not pay attention to it. But if you say, “Hey, I got a lesson, I got 10 lessons in this unit, but I’m going to focus on this bite-size assessment at the end of each lesson — that’s where I’m going to drive most of my grading energy because I know it’s bite-size enough or I can grade it quickly and I can translate it to feedback.”

And it’s also isolating the most important skills in the lesson so that you can confidently say, “Hey, if a kid got these questions correct, they’re in good shape. And if they didn’t, I’ve got to intervene.” So it’s usually teacher graded, but it also reduces the amount of grading that needs to be done because you’ve done a really good job distilling the learning into those bite-sized assessments.

I know that one of the goals behind this three-prong model of blended instruction, self-paced structures, and mastery-based grading is making sure that teachers have more one-on-one time with students.

That really resonated with me when I was looking through the Modern Classrooms Project resources, because every single teacher that I talk to, wishes they had more time to get to know their kids as individuals.

And they’ll say things like, “If I just had more time, we could do this” or “If I had fewer students, then maybe I can make this happen.” They talk very wistfully about all the things that they would like to be able to provide their students and feel like they can’t.

I wonder if you have any advice for teachers who like what you’ve shared here so far and really are very intrigued by this model and want to maximize the way that these three structures can help them individualize instruction and have that time with individual kids.

What I tell folks first is just know that we’re a nonprofit that doesn’t force our instructional model on anyone. The beauty of that is we really tell folks, you can make this model your own. Whenever I present about this model alongside other educators, it’s one of the first things they isolate — know you can make the model your own.

What’s great about it is you can go in there and learn about the practices and then customize it: make it right for your learning environment because you know your kid’s best, you know the circumstances in your learning community best, you’re going to make it right and tweak it for your kids.

If you’re wondering if it’s going to accomplish the goal of allowing you to spend more one-on-one in small group time with kids, my favorite data point from our Johns Hopkins study when we asked control teachers: Are you able to work closely with each of your students during class? Only 19% of control teachers felt like they could do that and 86% of modern classroom educators felt like they could do that.

Wow.

It’s obviously an enormous difference. It’s statistically significant and a very high P-value. So it really sends the message like, look, it’s a real thing, it’s possible to do.

The last thing I’d say is ease into it. You don’t need to sort of totally redesign your classroom by tomorrow. One of the things that we see quite consistently each year is the vast majority of our teachers really redesign their classrooms over the summer and do a reset at the beginning of the school year.

So ultimately, what we know at the Modern Classrooms Project, and I think every teacher knows and hopefully every admin knows is that teacher time is the most precious time and resource that exists in the classroom. Our model is really built around maximizing how you use that time and using it in small group and one-on-one settings. So just give it a try and know that you can make it your own as soon as you kind of start to access the content.

I know that you have a free course available at learn.modernclassrooms.org. I want to talk a little bit about that for listeners because I’m really impressed with it. It is not a freemium course. There’s no paywall, and it contains all of the teacher training content that the Modern Classrooms Project has ever developed. It’s all in there and it’s designed to help teachers learn and implement an innovative instructional approach that’s going to meet every student’s need.

It sort of gives you more ideas and support around these three components of the model that we talked about today. Can you tell us more about the free course and how it can help support teachers who are listening to this and who are really excited to dive deeper into what you shared?

Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s part of the core fabric of our organizational vision and mission. We’re founded by myself and my co-founder, Rob. We were just two teachers trying to figure out how to meet students’ needs effectively.

I tell folks that we were sitting at Qdoba years ago and he looked at me and asked me, “Hey, what do you think you’re going to do for the rest of your life?” And I said, “I think I’m going to be a teacher for the rest of my life.” And I said the same thing to him and he said the same thing back.

We never really had an intention of founding an organization, but we realized that we were sitting on an instructional model that people really wanted. The first thing we did when we created the organization was say, “Hey, we’re going to put everything we know about this instructional model out there for free. And we’re going to try to design an asynchronous, self-paced learning space for adults that’s completely free. And one thing we’re going to do in perpetuity of is to ensure that no matter what, when we create really powerful resources that we think teachers can use, we’re going to make it freely accessible.”

That’s what the free course is. A lot of times we estimate, especially when districts shared out at scale, it takes about 3-5 hours to go through, but ultimately you could spend 100 hours in that free course because there’s just so many different gems in there that you can kind of explore and use and tons of templates you can make copies of and all that good stuff.

So, I encourage anyone that’s curious about the model, the two best ways to understand it better, first to watch our Edutopia videos — our high school and our elementary one — and then to just go right into that free course.

And that’s at learn.modernclassrooms.org, correct?

That’s right.

And then you also have a virtual mentorship program for teachers who want extra support. Can you tell us about that?

Yes! Once the free course was created, we started to get both schools and districts and teachers individually saying, “Hey, I love the free course, but can we get a little more support? I want feedback on the things that I’m creating. I want to talk to a real person who does this effectively.”

So we thought again about how we could construct a PD environment that we would’ve liked when we were teachers. We determined the best way for teachers to learn, in our opinion, was to actually pair them with someone who’s really good at it, so they can get that personalized feedback and get those coaching calls they need. So we created a mentorship program that essentially takes the brilliant educators who do our model and credentials them into distinguished modern classroom educators and then mentors.

What happens is, if you are a sixth-grade English teacher and you enroll in our virtual mentorship program, you’re going to get paired with a fabulous educator who does our model beautifully, who’s going to be your mentor. And then we have a series of assignments you complete on a schedule — it’s asynchronous and self-paced, and every time you submit an assignment, your mentor’s going to review it and give you detailed feedback.

You can jump on coaching calls with them. You get enrolled in a Slack channel. It’s just a really personalized, asynchronous, virtual way to get feedback and support as you launch your own modern classroom.

Now, I will say there’s a ton of educators who enroll individually, but the vast majority of educators who we actually enroll in our virtual mentorship program end up coming through school and district partnerships. It’s still a totally opt-in exercise, but what schools and districts will do is basically purchase seats for cohorts of educators to kind of enroll in the program and learn the model alongside each other and our mentors.

That’s awesome. A good start then would be for teachers to go check out the free course at learn.modernclassrooms.org. Get a feel more for the model, for the type of resources there, and then approach administration or someone in the district about maybe partnering with you all for the virtual mentorship program.

That’s exactly right. And the most popular time will probably be enrolling between 2,000 and 3,000 teachers into our virtual mentorship program this summer. Our Virtual Summer Institute is the most popular time for folks to learn the model. It’s a really exciting time where folks can take a step back and think differently about instruction.

The pathway you described is exactly right, and in a lot of cases, you might just have one teacher who really wants to do it and just goes to their admin and says, “Hey, can you reimburse my seat in this?” And just so folks know, it’s $500 a seat in our virtual mentorship program. A lot of times, schools,  districts, and principals can cover that cost for educators.

That’s really exciting, Kareem. I think this model is something that is flexible enough to work in all different grade levels and subject areas. I can’t think of any curriculums I’ve seen that couldn’t work with this in terms of the skills and the content that kids need to learn.

I love that it’s not prescribed, that there’s so much flexibility. There’s so much room for the teacher’s personality to shine through and do the things they do best as well as really following the kids lead and being responsive to their needs. So I’m really excited about this, and I hope that everyone listening to this will check it out, go to that free online course and get more resources because I think this is a really sustainable path forward.

I talk a lot about finding a more sustainable approach to teaching learning, because I think not only are we burning out our teachers with the current model, but we’re also burning out kids. We’ve got to find a way that is going to work for both, to find that overlap between what’s best for kids and what’s best for teachers. And that’s what I hear in the Modern Classrooms Project. And it’s exciting to me — you’ve got me really fired up!

Good. I’m glad. I can promise you I’m equally fired up!

I know you are, and I’m so glad that you’ve pursued this, and I’m glad that you’re sharing this with Truth for Teachers listeners. I’m wondering if you can take us out with a takeaway truth, something that you want people to remember in the week ahead, something that you wish every teacher understood about what we talked about here today.

Absolutely! I think the most important thing I’d say is that every educator should know that they’re the expert in the room, and no matter what strategy, idea, tool, or instructional model that’s offered to them, they should be able to customize it, to make it their own, and trust their instincts.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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