About Cari Zall

Cari Zall has been a Social Sciences educator for over 12 years, in both brick & mortar and online environments. She currently works as the Curriculum and Instructional Support Manager for an online high school dropout recovery program, and is the Assignment Editor and a writer for The Educator’s Room, an online education magazine. Cari is certified in Gamification and has worked on several projects incorporating Gamification into online and traditional education environments. Her areas of expertise include Gamification and Student Resilience & Motivation; Conflict Resolution & Collaboration, and social justice education. Prior to her teaching career, Cari worked for 15 years in civil litigation and as a human rights activist in Northern Ireland and Washington, DC. She holds a BA in Conflict Analysis & Resolution, an Masters in Teaching, and an MA in Political Science. Cari is a James Madison Fellow, and is the author of the book, How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks: A Teacher Faces Layoff, Unemployment and a Career Shift. You can finder her on twitter at @teachacari.

virtualwordcloudIn a dynamic change from the usual session at a conference, on the second day of ASCD 2013 in Chicago, one of the sessions was hosted not by a group of educators, but by students themselves.  In “Why I Hate High School,” a five-student panel, moderated by Mickey Revenaugh, of Connections Education, shared how moving to a blended school environment has changed their outlook on education.  The session was actually about why they now love high school.

The five students, from four different blended virtual schools, Voise Academy in Chicago, Nexus Academy (in Michigan and Ohio), and Chicago Virtual Charter School, came together to answer questions and describe their experiences moving from a traditional public high school experience to their current learning environments.  The very first question they were asked was to use one word to describe their original high school experience, they declared: “horrible,” “bleak,” “traumatizing,” “idiotic” and “stressful.”  As high school teachers, we would wish our students could experience a much more positive sense of school, but the truth is, most of them don’t get through the current system unscathed.  I’ve written before about the factory-model of our industrial era education system and how it’s failing today’s modern students.  These five learners gave truly authentic testimony about how their entire outlook on education changed when the were able to access new learning opportunities.

A “blended” school is generally defined as a school that blends online curriculum and learning methods with in-person guidance and/or teaching.  New blended schools are finding a variety of ways to combine student choice with access to the necessary curriculum.  Some of the students on the panel attend school for a few days a week, some for half a day, and some attend a traditional school day.  When asked what were some of the first things they noticed in their new blended school environments, they responded: “flexibility” and “the diverse students and paths.”  “It doesn’t look like a prison,” was one that really struck me.  So many overcrowded and under-resourced American high schools not only look like prisons, but also operate like them.  Getting out from under that kind of assumed juvenile detention so many students – especially urban students – experience opens an entirely new world of learning.

The students explained how their options in their blended school were challenging, but “fun-challenging.” Becoming internet savvy and learning to advocate for themselves has given these students a sense of independence and control over their own futures.  The format allows Douglas Cornelious, a junior at Chicago Virtual Charter School, to focus more on his mixed martial arts and boxing. He does most of his work at home on his own time and uses his brief hours at school as efficiently as he can:

“I work through my curriculum on my own and make a list of all my questions, then go bug my teachers for answers when I am on campus–that works a lot better for me than sitting in a classroom and listening to a teacher talk at me.”

A huge benefit of their small academies is the personal attention they get from their teachers and guidance counselors.  The emphasis on pursuing college, and the provision of resources that they need to follow the admissions process, is a regular part of their learning environment.  Yet they still shared some of the same concerns as their peers in traditional high school – they may be perfectly prepared and ready for college – but they still face the same roadblocks to affording higher education.

When one of the teachers in the audience asked the panel to describe how teachers in traditional public schools could help change their classrooms to provide the kind of environment these students had found in their blended schools, there were a variety of responses.  “Make lessons more personal,” one of the students suggested.  Finding relevance to their own lives in the projects they can do in their new schools has motivated them much more.  “Give students choice,” another declared.  One of the hallmarks of these schools is built-in choice and self-regulation for the students.  On the other hand, students unwilling to take charge of their own education will find a blended environment very difficult, the students warned.

There still exist some important questions for the blended schools that are emerging around the country.  The same issues that face brick and mortar charter schools are relevant – how do we ensure equity in education when some schools can choose their students, while the traditional public schools must (and want to) take all students with fewer resources.  Concerns such as special education needs, English language learners, an environment of individual motivation, and comfort with (and access to) technology are all important to resolve as blended schools become more prominent.  The other side of the equation is the inability of most public high schools across the country to be able to implement any blended learning tools simply because the resources are not available.  While teachers in traditional schools would love to be able to pay more personal attention, use blended tools and move towards these ideas in their classrooms, they have no control over the overcrowding, lack of support and resources and lack of training that make roadblocks to those goals so difficult to overcome.  There still exists a need to be able to provide an equal level of education opportunity to all students.

The student panel certainly attested to the positive results their virtual learning has had for them.  All four seniors on the panel were headed for college, and the junior was on track for the same.  They ended the session similarly to how they started it, but this time they gave one-word descriptions of their new blended schools: “hope,” “innovative,” “advanced,” “perfect,” and “awesome.”

It’s not often you hear students describe their high school learning experience that way.  Finding the way to provide this experience for all high school students is our challenge for the 21st century.

To buy Cari’s book that details her sudden unemployment, “How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks” please click here


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