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February 21, 2018

Online Schools: Changing Schools for Changing Student Needs

An interview with Matthew Schempp, English Teacher and Reading Specialist at BlueSky Online School

Ever wonder what it is like teaching schools online? I was lucky enough to meet Matthew Schempp from West St. Paul, MN at a local gathering of like-minded citizens. We quickly figured out that we have education in common, but in very different ways. He was kind enough to respond to my questions about his teaching situation: I was fascinated by his responses –  I hope you are too!

Q. What drew you to an online school environment vs. a “traditional” school environment?

What appealed to me as a teacher is I saw a way to continue to serve under-servedpopulations in new and unique ways while also giving me increased flexibility to spend time with my family. I still spend 60 hours a week at school in my busiest times, but even then, I can easily get away to pick up the youngest from daycare or go attend a Kung Fu belt test. That’s something I couldn’t do when my school was atwenty milecommute away.

The main advantage I see an online school has is that it is a unique way to front loadand guarantee curriculum delivery to all students, so much so that traditional schools are now trying to replicate it through 1-1 programs and cloud-based textbooks. As a result, it becomes much easier to separate “what” you are teaching from “how” you are teaching. BlueSky, in particular, has an environment that gives a lot of autonomy to teachers in how they teach, which is something I greatly enjoy.

Q.How many students do you work with each term?

I’m a part-time teacher, part-time intervention specialist, so I work with around 75-90 students each term. Full-time teachers have from 130-150 students a semester.

Q. How often and in what ways do you personally interact with individual students? How do you build relationships with students?

I have a weekly hour-long live session with a classroom-sized group of 10th graders (25-30) where we communicate over video and chat about the assignments that week. I communicate with the majority of students through text, phone, email and our Learning Management System (LMS), Moodle.

I’ve really treasured some of the relationships with students I’ve formed teaching at Bluesky. Students are not shy about sharing parts of their lives with you even through email, as I’m sure most teachers know. I just recently attended my first graduation of students I taught in tenth grade, and it was a very meaningful and nostalgic event.

Q. Do students interact with one another, and if yes, in what ways or using what tools?

Students interact in the LMS through forums and discussion boards, and they can message each other (the messages are recorded and monitored). They also interact in live lessons using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. We’ve also focused on having get togethers/field trips at least once a month throughout the year, which offers students a chance to bond. We’ve also had a MinecraftEDU server the past two years, which a small, committed number of students have used.

Q. How do you help students stay motivated to participate from home?

This can be the biggest piece of the puzzle! Student attendance is tracked by engagement in assignments, so that is a big motivator. Students are also assigned an advisor as part of their three-person-team at BlueSky (in addition to a counselor and a social worker), and the advisor’s job is to check in with students regularly about school and attendance. Middle school students are also required to have a learning coach in the home (usually a parent).

Q. Are there certain kinds of students that seem to thrive in online schools (or struggle)?

I definitely think so! One of my colleagues is currently researching the connection between self-regulation and achievement for her MAE. We’ve found many times over that students who engage consistently in a course have a much higher rate of success. For that to happen, it takes the ability to set a schedule, be self-disciplined, adjust goals, etc. Sometimes students have difficulty prioritizing these things, especially when their life outside of school influences what they can do. Our support staff emphasizes frameworks like the Healthy Mind Platter and being a Trauma-informed school so that we can best reach the students who need help when they need it, and not just when they finally request it.

Q.Do you believe that this format of school affects social behavior or social development of students in any different ways?

Well, sure. Experience informs behavior and vice versa. Some students do very well and blossom here when they don’t have the distractions, while some students end up feeling isolated. Traditional school affects social behavior and development as well, and that’s one reason why I think online school fills a very real need for our population. We have a high number of students that report social anxiety or other mental health issues, and we also have a high population of students with IEPs for EBD.

 Q.How are “classes” structured?

There are two types of classes, My Pace and Group Pace. Group Pace works very much like a traditional classroom: students have weekly assignments that unlock and are due every week, and they meet together once a week to talk about their progress. My Pace is structured more like a flipped model: all curriculum and resources are unlocked and available for students from day one.

Q.What does a typical day look like?

It’s up to the student! The only requirement we have is weekly attendance based on 15 assignments a week across their classes (roughly 3 a day).

Q.Is content/curriculum research based?  

Yes! We have a curriculum committee (I’m currently the chair), and we have our curriculum go through a thorough review and revision process.

Q.Are there special education services? How do you meet service minutes for students with IEPs?

Yes. We have Special Education teachers who meet virtually with students as required.

 Q.Are student expectations time based or project based?

Student expectations are assignment based. We look for engagement and completion first, although we do have some rough guidelines about how long assignments should take, and how long students should spend completing the course.

Q.Is learning self-paced/individualized?

Yes. We are able to offer a high degree of individualization through Moodle by using access restrictions, groupings, and other tools.

Q.How is student work evaluated and tracked (ie, grading, etc)?

Through Moodle we have access to all student work and can assign scores and comments for feedback. The English Department also uses Google Docs for essays and presentations.

Q.What curriculum tools are standard and allowable?

Some or all students use Moodle, Google Docs, Edmentum Plato (usually through Moodle LTI), MobyMax (middle school only), MathXL, Blackboard Collaborate, Poodl, our Overdrive Library, and many other tools. We try very hard to use Moodle Integrations and Single Sign On to make the student experience as painless as possible.

Q.Are there opportunities for parent involvement or community events?

Yes, we have community events at least monthly during the school year. We also have parents active on our School Board and in various sub-committees, as opportunities arise.

Q.What kind of technology training, support, and tools are offered to teachers and students via the school?

We have both in person and asynchronous training available for teachers in many different areas. Students attend an orientation when they begin, have access to a commons area where support documents are held and have video tutorials and lessons inside the classes themselves. We also have an IT help desk that is very responsive to student and staff requests.

Q.What advice or recommendations do you have for teachers looking to work in an online school?

Well, just like our students, you need to have the ability to prioritize, stick to a schedule, and meet goals. That first day of school is always strange, as there’s a moment when after preparing feverishly for the last two weeks, you are met with complete silence. It’s up to you to be proactive and figure out what to do next. It’s quite a contrast from the nonstop schedule of the first day of traditional school.

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