More Than Devices: The Impact of Verizon Innovative Learning Schools Professional Learning – Digital Promise

More Than Devices: The Impact of Verizon Innovative Learning Schools Professional Learning

Students at Sutton Middle School use online research to answer questions during a lesson in history class. Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

April 18, 2024 | By

A fifth-grade social studies class at Middlesboro Middle School in rural Kentucky is learning about the Declaration of Independence. In the past, the class would have watched Liberty’s Kids, an animated historical fiction TV series. But one student in the class dislikes Liberty’s Kids and disengages each time they watch.

Fortunately, Middlesboro Middle School teachers have just attended their second Verizon Innovative Learning Schools “learning experience” on blended learning—a teaching approach that combines face-to-face and online learning experiences that gives students an element of control over the pace, place, path, and time of their learning.

So this year, the teacher employs a blended learning approach to the lesson. Instead of the whole class watching Liberty’s Kids, the show is instead included on a choice board, which allows students to choose how they will learn about the topic. The student who dislikes Liberty’s Kids now has the choice to skip the show and do a different activity instead.

When those outside of Verizon Innovative Learning Schools think about the program, the first thing that comes to mind is most likely always-available access—participating schools receive devices with data plans for every student and teacher. The second-most referenced benefit is the instructional technology coaches who work with teachers to use the technology for powerful and engaging learning experiences.

It’s not just about the devices for our school. It really is the professional learning that comes along with them.
Danielle Wilson
Verizon Innovative Learning Schools Coach, Middlesboro Middle School

However, just as important as the connectivity and coaches is the professional learning provided to the educators in each school on how to leverage the technology in meaningful ways in their classrooms. Schools can choose from five learning tracks on topics such as blended learning, digital collaboration, learner variability, transformative technology, and equity as a mindset. As part of each track all educators in the building participate in three “learning experiences” over the course of the school year comprised of both live and asynchronous learning as well as a follow-up session with the school’s coach.

“I think a lot of times teachers are willing to try new things, but they need training and they need support,” said Carlena Carter, the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools coach at Middlesboro High School. “I think the beauty of Verizon Innovative Learning Schools is that it’s not just an hour-and-a-half PD, but there’s also a follow-up piece to it; you have the support of the instructional coach.”

Both the middle and high schools in Middlesboro Independent School District chose the Blended Learning track because they believed it would help them achieve their goal of increasing student engagement. Prior to joining the program in the fall, technology use in the schools was “very limited,” Coach Carter said. “We had Chromebook carts in our classrooms, but the majority of the teachers did not utilize them. I think that was simply because they didn’t have the resources and the training on how to use them. Verizon Innovative Learning Schools has allowed us to have these trainings to show, ‘This is what it could look like in your classroom.’”

Some teachers in the district were familiar with blended learning, but it was a completely new concept to others. And Coach Carter says that even some of her school’s most veteran teachers who were initially resistant have truly embraced it. “One teacher talked about how the flipped classroom took what he was already doing, but in a new way,” she said. “He’s really about student ownership and students taking responsibility for their learning, and he felt like he was able to take that to the next level.”

Danielle Wilson, the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools coach at Middlesboro Middle School, had a similar experience at her school. She said many teachers bought in after the first learning experience (LX), where the staff learned about the different types of blended learning, but it was after the second, which discussed increasing student agency with tools like choice boards and playlists, where she really saw it click for even more teachers. “After LX2, the number of teachers who said, ‘I’m going to start this tomorrow,’—they were so ambitious; it was just amazing,” she said.

Wilson has witnessed the teachers at her school change their mindsets and approaches to lesson planning. “Instead of ‘I will lecture, they will take notes,’ they are thinking about whether they can incorporate blended learning into a lesson or a unit, can they incorporate a choice board or a playlist into an activity to give students a little more agency,” she said. “Teachers are starting to change the way they plan for lessons to accommodate for more student choice, which, in turn, is impacting learning here because students are the facilitators of their own learning now. It’s not always just coming from a teacher.”

Both coaches said that implementing blended learning in their schools’ classrooms has had the intended impact of increasing student engagement. The high school students “loved how they felt more active,” Coach Carter said. “They weren’t just receiving information for 30-45 minutes.”

“I observed a teacher use a playlist, and the fact that all the students were working so hard—that’s not what you would have seen in a traditional classroom prior to blended learning here at Middlesboro,” Coach Wilson said of the middle school. “You would have seen students off task; the teacher is lecturing and you’ve got students who are falling asleep or doodling or just not completely engaged in the lesson. The playlist gave students choice in their learning.”

She recalled the fifth grade social studies class learning about the Declaration of Independence and the student who disliked Liberty’s Kids. “For him to now have that choice is just great,” she said.

Kayla Barnes, a teacher at Foreign Language Academy in Kansas City Public Schools, had a basic foundation of blended learning prior to engaging in the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools learning experiences, but since the trainings, “she has transformed her practices and is more intentional with blended learning,” said the school’s coach, Abigail Thompson.

“Blended learning allows me to ensure that all students have high-quality instruction regardless of my ability to stand in front of them and teach, freeing me up to be where I’m most needed at any time,” Ms. Barnes said.

And it’s not just the Blended Learning track that is having a major impact on teaching and learning at Verizon Innovative Learning Schools. Tera Phipps, the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools Coach at Orange Preparatory Academy of Inquiry and Innovation, whose teachers are learning on the Digital Collaboration track, says the pathway “has significantly enhanced our students’ communication and collaboration, and some teachers are being pushed to think outside the box and be more creative in providing choice to students. Those classes are seeing increased engagement and more confident students.”

One such example occurred in Freddy Camarena’s Spanish class this fall. Mr. Camarena facilitated a partnership between his students and students in Peru. The classes met over Zoom to participate in an online competition, which allowed them to practice and assess the language they are learning. Prior to this call, the students had an opportunity to introduce themselves using Flip and ask their assigned partner a question. The partners then responded to them in the language they are learning.

“This immersive and interactive learning experience is sure to enhance the language skills and cultural understanding, as well as foster a sense of creativity,” Coach Phipps said.

The coaches all have seen the immense value of the professional learning provided by the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program, no matter which learning track their school has chosen.

“The Blended Learning track has just been phenomenal,” Coach Wilson said. “The continued PD for our teachers instead of just a one-and-done before the school year is great. Without Verizon Innovative Learning Schools, our teachers would never have had access to that kind of professional development to learn more about student agency and how to help your students become the facilitators of their own learning.

“It’s not just about the devices for our school. It really is the professional learning that comes along with them.”

Verizon Innovative Learning Schools is now accepting applications for our next cohort. Learn how your school or district can join and apply now.


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