In this Educator Spotlight, Allison Shusterman shares her JBlend Miami experiences from the past year and how the professional learning guided her in taking blended learning from theory to practice.
Allison Shusterman was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Allison was very fortunate to have some incredible teachers in elementary school who instilled in her a sense of confidence, a love for learning, and provided Allison with the tools to master any challenge and reach her potential. These teachers inspired Allison to work in the field of education and give back to other students by providing them with meaningful learning opportunities. Allison earned her Bachelors of Science Degree in Elementary Education and Masters of Science Degree in Special Education from Drexel University. She teaches second grade and will soon be starting her third year of teaching at Lehrman Community Day School.
When did you realize you wanted to be a teacher?
Since elementary school, I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher. As a student, I had an innate curiosity about the world around me and found school to be such an exhilarating adventure. I really enjoyed hands-on activities that allowed me to tap into my inner- creativity, ask questions, make new discoveries, and build on my interests. I always looked up to and was grateful for my teachers who instilled in me a sense of confidence and inspired me to take on new risks. I wanted to be a teacher so that I could help students find their passions and realize that they can make a positive impact on the world around them.
What have been the highlights of participating in JBlend Miami over the past year?
I was so fortunate to be chosen to participate in JBlend Miami. In the first two sessions, I was able to learn about blended learning, and how it differs from basic technology integration. This was extremely important because I think that many educators have a difficult time deciphering between blended learning and technology integration. I also enjoyed learning about how to use blended learning to differentiate and personalize instruction to meet the needs of all students on a daily basis. Furthermore, it was very helpful to learn about how to use data from blended learning to drive instruction in the classroom. Looking at case studies of how other schools implemented blended learning was also extremely instrumental in learning how to avoid potential pitfalls and to identify what practices were most effective.
JBlend Miami included visits to Jewish day schools already integrating technology and blended learning. What were the highlights from those visits?
The visits were such a great way for me, as an educator, to finally be able to make connections between theory and practice and see blended learning in action. One of the highlights of the trip was going to Yeshivat He’Atid. I had the great fortune of meeting Rabbi Netanel Gralla. We met with him to learn about the curriculum and philosophy of the school before going into the classrooms. He informed us that each classroom is divided into several learning environments. The Community Space is where the entire class gathers for tefillah, morning meeting, class conversations and whole group instruction. In one corner of the room, there is a Learning Lab with computers set up for one group of students in the class. On the opposite side of the classroom, there is a Collaborative Learning Station. There are two Lead Teacher Stations, where small groups of students can gather to reinforce skills or concepts. For the majority of the day, students rotate between working in small clusters on group projects, engaging in computer-based learning in the Learning Lab, and working independently or in small group instruction with a teacher.
Rabbi Gralla informed us that they use blended learning to aid teachers in customizing lesson plans for each individual student. This approach empowers educators to track students’ progress in real-time and hone in on areas of difficulty in small, rotating groups. This model enables class time to be utilized more efficiently with a better student-teacher ratio. From observing the classrooms, I could tell that blended learning enabled the students to learn at their own pace and experience instructional approaches customized to their unique learning styles, strengths, weaknesses, and academic needs.
What element learned from JBlend Miami are you most excited about putting into action?
The school visits gave me a much clearer picture of the blended learning rotation model, and I am most excited about implementing the rotational model in my classroom. During the school visits, I was able to see how rotations allows for greater collaboration amongst students, a more personalized learning environment for each child, and more individual time between the teacher and his or her students. I learned that when using adaptive learning software that continually differentiates for students in real-time, the students are able to move at their own pace and make self-directed choices. As I observed this model, I also realized that certain procedures must be put in place in order for this model to work effectively. For instance, a timer must be used to ensure that students know when to move to the next center and to ensure that they are able to spend an equal amount of time in each group. Furthermore, teachers must create a system for grouping students. The groups typically change on a daily or weekly basis, based on the needs of each child and the data that has been collected.
Have you implemented any blended learning in your classroom yet?
Yes! I set up centers each week for Reading and Math with differentiated and multi-sensory materials to meet the needs and learning styles of each student. For instance, in Reading we did a unit on Helen Keller and I set up different centers in a blended learning format. I created a board game on the book that included reading comprehension questions based on the story. I introduced the classroom to sensory-based reading in Braille by teaching students how to write their own names in Braille using glue, construction paper, and the Braille alphabet. I also created engaging centers using technology that focused on vocabulary and spelling patterns from the story. In Math, I set up centers using various manipulatives such as cubes and tiles to solve problems and used technology, such as Dreambox Learning, in the classroom to create meaningful and personalized learning opportunities, with the purpose of using the data to inform future lessons. To help students outside the classroom on more complex math concepts, I worked with my school’s technology coordinator to find technologies that would support student learning. For example, I recorded instructions with visuals and examples of how to solve two-step bar model problems using the ShowMe app. I had students watch the video on their iPads to provide extra support when working individually on challenging math problems.
What is a challenge you’ve had to overcome while implementing blended learning?
My biggest challenge so far with blended learning is the pacing! You have to make sure that all of the activities the students are working on in their small groups take the same length of time to complete. When you have students working in four or five small groups that can be tricky!
What’s one rewarding experience you’ve had teaching with technology?
The students read a story called “Lester Fizz Bubble Gum Artist” that teaches how it takes time to discover your strengths and hone in on your abilities. The book also showed the children that they can be loved and accepted no matter what their talent. Since the students enjoyed the book so much, I got in touch with the author of the book, Ruth Spiro, using Skype in the Classroom. The students each wrote down one question for Ruth and then we scheduled a time to do an author Skype session.
The students were so thrilled to be talking directly to the writer of a story they just read and took away many lessons from the Skype session. They learned that even published authors make mistakes and have to write multiple drafts - just like our second graders! They also were able to make connections between the art that they painted this year in school and the artwork in the story. One boy in my class who always said that he was terrible at art confided to Ruth that Lester inspired him to keep persevering even when he might make a mistake! Another student told Ruth that even though she has dyslexia, if she keeps working hard she can improve her writing and become an author one day as well, just like Ruth! Hearing those words brought tears to my eyes and was definitely one of my most moving days as an educator.