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An Hour in the Life of a One-to-One Teacher in Baltimore

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Last week I was fortunate enough to sit in on an 8th grade math class led by Kevin Tame, a Teach for America corps member that’s in his 2nd year of teaching at Booker T. Washington Middle School. Booker has had some tough years and is sadly one of Baltimore’s lowest performing public schools. In fact, it has seen a turnover of 4 principals just in the past 5 years. Teach for America is a non-profit organization that transplants top performing teachers into distressed schools around the country hoping to enact radical change within the schools. They’ve placed Kevin at Booker which is just the type of school that welcomes this type of intervention and as I found out last week, Kevin isn’t just living up to their expectations, he’s exceeding them.

A Dojo of iPads

It didn’t take long for me to notice a profound uniqueness about Kevin’s class. It’s filled with technology. I don’t just mean computers, I mean the raw sense of the word. He’s applying scientific knowledge and evaluation to every aspect of his class. His chalkboards and walls are covered in charts and graphs that serve as a bit of an analog dashboard of analytics for his class’s performance. At any given time, a student can look up and see just how they’re performing that day or cumulatively throughout the year.

The desks are equipped with iPads and headphones and he even has a Smart board projector screen in the front of the room. His Smart board is showing off a free software product called ClassDojo which acts as a dashboard of the entire class’s behavior that day. As Kevin walks around the class, he can control ClassDojo by using his iPad to +1 or -1 behavior ratings for each student. The main screen on the Smart board has a little avatar for each student in his class and their score that day. A student answers a question, they get a +1, accompanied by the sound of a coin being flipped. If the student screams out loud or cusses, he demerits them with a -1 accompanied by an annoying honk. ClassDojo is a product of Startup Weekend EDU in San Francisco which is identical to the Baltimore Startup Weekend and Education Hack Day events that were organized in Baltimore last year.

Kevin’s class is considered a “One-to-One” classroom. By definition, this means his class has access to an advanced technology device for each student in the class. More often this refers to iPads but it could mean Google’s NetBooks or other tablets and laptop computers. In Kevin’s case, he has over 20 iPads that the students can use while they are in his class.

Kevin opens each of his math classes with a brief “morning meeting”. He has all the students stand up and recite a daily chant:

He then performs another daily exercise, a Guinness Book of World Records (GWR) challenge. He tells them that a new world record has just been broken for the world’s shortest man and asks the class to guess his height. While the students start shouting out guesses, he’s giving them +1′s on ClassDojo for intelligent guesses. While the students are guessing he holds up a ruler and shows them what 6″, 12″, 18″ looks like. When everyone has had a chance to guess, he then shows them a YouTube clip provided by GWR that reveals the answer: a 72 year old man from Nepal coming in at 21.5″.

“Choose your own adventure”

Each kid pulls out an iPad and begins reading that day’s task, which Kevin has published on his self-created class website powered by Posterous. They’re reviewing algebraic inequalities that day and each student is offered a “choose your own adventure” array of review techniques to pick from. Their choices are: watching videos and taking an activity from Khan Academy on the iPad, filling in a worksheet with paper and pencil as an individual, or doing the worksheet in small peer groups. This process reminded me of a new instruction method being evaluated in New York State called School of One. The basic premise is that since each student learns at a different pace and through different methods, offer each of them a choice instead of forcing them to learn through the traditional method of 1 teacher in the front lecturing to 30 students in the back. School of One has developed a system for this process that can predict how students will learn new topics based on retention performance from previous topics.

As the kids being their activities, a few of them become a little restless, as expected at their age. I didn’t expect to hear some of the profanities but a lot of Baltimore teachers will tell you, they have to pick their battles. I was reminded of “The Dog Whisperer” Cesar Milan as Kevin maintains complete control of his class. At times, you could tell they were begging for attention from their peers (and maybe the new guy in the back of the room) and Kevin didn’t give in once. He would quietly walk around the room making sure they were on task and occasionally tap the shoulder of someone talking. To help distract the students from the idle noise, he’d put on an upbeat music playlist of Bon Iver and M83 (nice!).

An Academy of Extended Resources

I gave some of the activities a shot myself and chose to use an iPad with Khan Academy. It was actually my first time using the tool. Khan Academy is the brainchild of American educator Salman Khan, a graduate of MIT. Realizing that quality education can be distributed freely to anyone who has internet access through YouTube, Khan decided to record free lessons on all sorts of topics. He’s since converted these into a curriculum that anyone can follow and even has interactive activities that go with the videos.

Continuing Challenges

When the class let out I had about 10 minutes to catch up with Kevin before he did this all over again with another class. I asked him about some of the challenges he faces. One of those challenges was illustrated by the graph on the right of his classroom. Each red square shows his student’s completion of a specific topic. The squares die off at about 25% of the total graph and there is a Post-it not at about the 80% mark. He said the Post-it represents where they should be in that years curriculum but that he unfortunately had to stop teaching new material at the 25% mark so they could review what they’ve learned in preparation for the upcoming MSA test. This is the state-wide test that all schools must take which decides the fate of the teacher, the class, and the school as part of Race to the Top. Each year these kids are learning exponentially less than the year before because of preparation for this test as well as catch up from what they missed the year(s) before.

Another challenge for Kevin was literally the physical toll it’s taken on him. He’s compared his job to running a sprint all day, every day. He lives about an hour away and gets up at 4am to begin his regiment. Because other teachers in the school aren’t adopting these forward-thinking teaching methods, he has to work extra hard to introduce this technology into his curriculum which he clearly recognizes as a “game changer”.

In the coming months, Kevin, along with a handful of other EdTech teachers in Baltimore, will be making some significant advancements locally to help bridge the divide of technology in the classroom. Make sure to follow his progress on Twitter. Finally, I’ve prepared an interactive map of Kevin’s classroom which lets you click around different parts of his class to see what tools he is using. It’s worth noting that Kevin’s classroom isn’t something out of the future and his school isn’t endowed with millions of dollars worth of technology. He’s experimenting with free tools that any teacher can being to bring into their own classroom.

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