Blended Learning

Blended learning pilot means a new role for teachers in 16 Memphis schools

Brad Osbourn presents a unit involving Frankenstein

At the Shelby County district building on Wednesday, school board members were digging deep into 10th grade English language arts—and the questions at the core of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—as they were stepped through a model lesson of a new blended learning program, in which much of students’ work and learning takes place on a tablet computer.

Brad Osborn, the vice president of business development for education publishing company Pearson, pulled up a reading lesson and showed the sorts of screens and questions students would encounter after reading Frankenstein.

“We keep hearing how robots are getting smarter and they’re going to rule the world,” said Osborn. “So we want to ask our kids, what does it mean to be human?”

“Well, what do you think?” Osborne said to Shelby County Schools board chair Kevin Woods. “What does it mean?”

Shelby County Schools is looking to blended learning to help schools reach an ambitious set of goals that includes having 80 percent of students graduating from high school college- and career-ready by 2025. Next year, a new blended learning program will be piloted in 16 schools, including some of the district’s neediest and most promising: Those receiving students from schools that are closing, and schools in the district’s turnaround-focused “Innovation Zone.” District officials say the program represents a major shift in how teachers will teach and how students will learn.

On Tuesday, the Memphis board of education voted to approve a $5.5 million, three-year contract to purchase the devices. Each student and teacher in the participating schools will receive a device that they can take home.     

On Wednesday, board members got a preview of what the curriculum in those 16 schools will look like. Representatives of Pearson Publishing, which has a one-year contract with the district to provide curriculum and support, presented slides and answered questions about how the program will work in Memphis.

Cleon Franklin, the head of virtual education for Shelby County Schools, said that while people often focus on the devices in conversations about digital learning, the real change is in the curriculum and how students will be learning.

Unlike previous versions of digital textbooks or school-based curricula, the Pearson program means students will receive most of their English and math instruction from videos and guided questions on the digital tablet itself. Teachers shift from being the “sage on the stage,” solely responsible for explaining content laid out in a textbook, to facilitators of what Pearson described as a workshop model for learning.

larry singer from Pearson at Memphis board
Larry Singer from Pearson at Memphis board

Competitive Application

Thirty-nine schools applied for the program, which might eventually be used in classrooms around the city, said Franklin. Interested principals had to guarantee, among other things, that all staff were on board with the program and would participate in professional development. Schools pledged to be open to sporadic visits from the virtual education department, to host parent trainings, and to create common spaces where students can use devices.

Seven of the pilot schools are receiving students from schools that will be shuttered next year as part of an effort to consolidate resources and improve academics. During a series of heated meetings protesting the closings, superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said the blended learning pilot was an example of the district improving academic offerings for students affected by the closings.

Schools and teachers are touting their participation: An image of a laptop and announcement about the program is featured on the homepage of Lowrance Elementary School, one participating school. Karsaunder Carson, a teacher at Caldwell-Guthrie, another participating school, said, “We are excited about that.”

Shelby County’s Franklin said that the district intentionally chose a mix of schools that had “high capacity” to implement the program—their teachers are already using technology, for instance—and those that had less experience. Since the district eventually hopes to have blended learning in more of its schools, “we wanted to learn the tough lessons now,” he said.

Preparing for change

The program board members saw Wednesday includes lessons aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Schools will use the program mainly for math and English language arts, though readings include history and science features, Franklin said.

Shelby County board members examine devices at Tuesday meeting.
Shelby County board members examine devices at Tuesday meeting.


In a sample elementary school math lesson, students would watch a video laying out a problem involving students opening and shutting doors in a specific pattern. Students were asked what strategy they would use to determine how many doors were open before actually answering. Students had constant access to a glossary feature, but could also use non-digital tools like “counters” as part of their strategy. 

Lessons like that one might be done at home, with students then coming to school with questions about the content—an approach known as the “flipped classroom.”

At school, students might rotate between a computer station, a group-work station, and a teacher-led station.

The curriculum is differentiated: For instance, in a lesson on Huckleberry Finn, advanced readers might probe into symbolism on their devices while struggling readers focused on comprehension.

In upper grades, district officials said, students might move through courses at their own pace. In lower grades, students can choose between different lessons or readings focusing on the same skills.

All the while, teachers have access to students’ screens and information. Teachers can notice where each student is struggling, or even turn students’ devices off if they are off-track.

“It’s a new instructional model: Instead of the teacher in front and kids absorbing, the teacher manages a set of activities,” Singer said.

Franklin said that Shelby County Schools had examined a blended learning program in Huntsville, Ala., and had had concerns that, in some instances, when students got things wrong, the digital curriculum did not provide sufficient feedback for students to get the correct answer without the teacher being present.

He said the new program addresses that concern. Assessments are embedded throughout the program. But while teachers will have immediate access to how students did, students receive coaching from the program to help explain what they missed.

Pearson also helped design questions for the PARCC exam, which Tennessee students are likely to take in 2015-16. Singer said that means students using the blended learning program will be prepared for assessments they’ll face down the line. “People say that good test takers have an advantage. In Memphis, they won’t,” Singer said.

Potential issues

Franklin said that the devices, and Pearson’s virtual learning program, were unanimously selected by a working group of teachers and principals.

In the Wednesday meeting with Pearson, board members Chris Caldwell and Kevin Woods asked what issues might come up as the program is implemented.

Singer said the district should be prepared to address schools struggling with technological issues; for teachers who are less-than-enthused about the new program; and for parents who are uncertain about the new technology. “It’s a change management issue,” he said, pointing out that any new initiative is often met with resistance.

Franklin said that the district had already ensured pilot schools would have enough bandwidth. District officials said teachers would be taught by other teachers, so they could “speak the same language.”

As for theft and hacking issues that have plagued other one-to-one device programs, Franklin and Singer both downplayed concerns. “The devices have a market value of zero,” as they are only operable by students, Franklin told the board.

Still, Franklin said that the district had decided not to give students backpacks or carrying cases for the devices so they would not be easily identified as having devices.

Board members were enthusiastic, especially about the idea of students guiding each other through group work. Caldwell said that the initiative might preview a move away from textbooks for the district as a whole.

“With this, everyone’s a learner and everyone’s a teacher,” Caldwell said. “It’s an environment that trains you for jobs you’re doing.”

As for what makes a human, board chair Woods cracked a joke before saying that at least part of it is humor.

At least in this presentation, the devices cracked no jokes.

The following schools will pilot the blended learning program:  

Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary

Cherokee Elementary

Douglas K-8

Fairley Elementary

Ford Road Elementary

Hamilton Middle

Highland Oaks Middle

Levi Elementary

Lowrance K-8

Lucy Elementary

Maxine Smith STEAM Academy

Melrose High

Raineshaven Elementary

Riverview K-8

Riverwood Elementary

Sherwood Middle


Contact Jackie Zubrzycki at [email protected]

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Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.