“One thing we discussed was how would teachers help support the morale around blended learning,” Principal Kimberly Chai Benaraw said. “How do you get the kids to understand that this is not just playing games, but this is actually going to help us learn?”
Though most of Titan’s teachers were eager to try blended learning, fifth-grade teacher Meredith Abel hesitated, worried about the impact on her classroom environment.
“The image of my classroom is kids talking a lot and having conversations with each other,” said Abel, a 10-year teaching veteran. “So, part of me was nervous thinking that my students were going to be on the computer, by themselves…. I was afraid of taking away from that atmosphere, that community, that collaboration.”
One year ago, the experiment began in eight kindergarten through third-grade classrooms. Initial challenges included preparing students for the independence of online instruction and helping teachers who struggled to understand the software data.
“There’s a lot of data,” said Montero, the second-grade teacher, “almost too much. The tricky part is finding out how best to use it.”
To tackle that issue, Titan hired a blended learning instructor, Jhonn Hernandez, who monitors online data and holds “data talks” with teachers to discuss online student performance and recently began publishing a newsletter called “The Weekly Blend.” Hernandez also assists teachers in understanding the dozens of features on the software programs. And he circulates from class to class, helping students troubleshoot technical glitches or online lessons.
“He’s like an ambulance,” added Freddy Esparza, who also teaches second grade. “Whenever somebody is in trouble at the computer, Jhonn is there.”
Hernandez, who grew up in the tough East L.A. neighborhood of Boyle Heights, can relate to Titan students, many with few educational resources in their homes or communities. Although there has been much discussion on the academic benefits of blended learning, Hernandez said the psychological benefit for low-income Latinos is even more significant.
“Some of these students have never even been on a computer before,” Hernandez said. “So the fact that we’re giving individual students the opportunity to use these computers, all by themselves, that empowers them. It makes them feel a sense of greatness because they are able to do something they’ve never done before.”
Titan’s approach to blended learning is low-key in comparison with some other places nationwide. At Carpe Diem schools in Arizona, for example, the classroom has glass-enclosed cubicles surrounding the perimeter of a large central learning space for its 280 students.
Michael Horn, co-founder of the nonprofit think tank Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, has studied more than 100 schools in the United States that have converted to blended learning and said Aspire has been more cautious and less innovative than other organizations.