In this Educator Spotlight, you'll find out how Jennifer uses blended learning to differentiate instruction and empower her students to be independent learners.
Jennifer Ohana has been teaching middle school English at RASG Hebrew Academy since 2001. Prior to that she taught English in Boston, France, and Israel. She is also a mentor to other teachers, as well as yearbook and newspaper advisor in the middle school. Jennifer received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Michigan, and a Masters of Teaching from the Boston University.
When did you realize you wanted to be a teacher?
For me the idea solidified after college. I had really wanted to go to Israel and to do something in a social service position. I’ve always loved working with people and the Jewish community in particular, because there’s that connection, giving back to my community while improving the world. So after college I applied for a number of jobs and through that process I got a job with the JDC and ended up going to Morocco. I was there for eight months and worked in a nursery school where I taught English. When I came home, I did some tutoring in schools and realized that this is really what I wanted to do. I had always been passionate about English literature and discussing ideas. When I came back from Morocco it all coalesced - my personal interests and passion for reading and literature, and my desire to help people. It all came together and that’s when I went to graduate school to get a degree in teaching.
How did you learn about technology integration and blended learning?
In terms of using the technology, that originally came from the push towards using more technology in the classroom to stay current with the world. We had a donor who gave an iPad to each of the teachers, and there were some professional development days dedicated towards teaching us some of the apps and how to use them. I’ll admit that I was a very late adapter. It took me a while to fully embrace the iPad. I am getting more comfortable now, and I’m letting my students use their technology. They are very comfortable typing an essay on a phone. The philosophical approach - the why and how of blended learning - that came from JBlend Miami for sure. Seeing the technology as a way to really reach each student better and maximize their learning, that was through JBlend Miami as well. It was not until the JBlend Miami school visits that I saw the technology through the lens of personalization. How to leverage the tech for personalized learning - that crystallized for me on the trip.
What have been the highlights of being part of the JBlend Miami cohort this year?
Definitely the site visit trip and being able to see what other schools are doing. That was tremendously helpful. Also, working with this particular group of teachers in the cohort has been really great. I’ve enjoyed learning from them and from what they’re experimenting with in their schools. Everyone’s willingness and openness to share what they’re doing has been amazing. At its core, the best part is the opportunity to learn what is on the cutting edge in education and how to use the technology in meaningful ways. It’s not just technology integration; it’s replacing old-school, conventional ways of teaching, and using the technology as an opportunity to maximize each student’s learning. Being exposed to all these new concepts and techniques that will make me a better teacher and make my students better learners - that’s been really amazing. It has really shifted for me what I thought I was doing right to empower my students. I realized there's so much more to do by stepping back and giving students autonomy, and that’s been really powerful, too.
What were some highlights during the JBlend Miami school visits?
For me one of the highlights was the way the trip was set up; it did such an amazing job in demonstrating how essential it is that there is intentionality behind whatever you’re doing in education. A school can have technology and it’ll look good, and you end up with a nice looking product, but so what? It doesn’t mean students learn any better or that they demonstrated understanding better. It’s just a use of technology. Without intention, design, and purpose in why you are using technology, it won’t work. The trip really highlighted that it’s not about the technology. Amazing things can happen, but only if you use the technology in the right way.
How have you used blended learning for teaching language arts?
Usually I’ll give a quick frontal presentation to introduce a new concept and then have the students use IXL for practice and to get immediate feedback. I have told the students that they are completely free to go on and explore. If they are struggling with something, they can go and do practice sets for other concepts. If they’re in 7th grade and they don’t understand prepositions, they can go back and do the 5th grade language arts practice - they’re not just limited to their own grade level. They can move onto higher grade level practice as well. It’s flexible!
How does blended learning with IXL help to differentiate instruction for your students?
The data from IXL lets me know which students are having trouble and in which specific areas they need help. I’ll design class time so that students can practice on IXL, and then I’ll be able to work with a small group or an individual student, or the whole class if we’re honing in on a particular trouble spot. One time I saw that the whole class was struggling, so the next day I came in and put some more sentences on the board. We worked through them together - I put the IXL screen up on the Smartboard and let them collectively work through it as a class. The data from IXL points me to where to go the next day. Am I working with the whole group, a small group, or an individual? IXL tells me what to do so I can help everyone reach mastery of each concept. When I had an individual student struggling, she came over to my desk and we opened up IXL and went through some of the questions together. I broke down the grammatical concepts for her. IXL is also helping me to be more focused and hawkeyed in other ways. I’m not using IXL with the 8th graders, but because of having that mindset I’m looking at all their work, even on paper, as data that I can apply to differentiate their learning.
What are some other ways you’re using educational technology?
For vocabulary, students used to do individual index cards to prepare for their test. They could have gone on Quizlet or Wordly Wise 3000 and printed off notecards, but I wanted them to have a more interactive experience, learning from each other and using each other to build their learning repertoire. They started using Google Classroom as a way to interact with each other and create collaborative community slideshows for each word. There they could comment on each other’s slides to help one another prepare all the words. I’ve also given them writing buddies. When they have questions, they have to consult with their writing buddy before they come to me. Using Google Docs, their buddy makes comments and peer edits before they submit it to me. This encourages them to figure out answers themselves and to draw on the experiences of one of their peers instead of constantly coming to me.
What have been the advantages of blended learning for your students?
IXL allows students to have a deeper understanding of what they know and don’t know. I think it also gives them a better opportunity to communicate with me about what they know and don’t know, because of the reports I get. They know I’m getting the data and that they can come to me and say, “Did you see what I got?” or “I’m stuck on this.” It gives them something specific and immediate to target when they might be having difficulties and need support. It also lets them interact and collaborate more with peers, and they have begun to see peers as sources of information and allies in their education, partners with whom they can work, learn, and accomplish a task. Whatever it is, they’re really learning how to work with each other better. There’s a much more seamless workflow, too. The technology also makes the world open to them. There’s nothing that’s not accessible to them in terms of information and opportunities, especially for students who take initiative and go beyond the expectations. Before students who finished early would sit there waiting and doing nothing, but now it’s easy to have them do something else that is completely connected with the current lesson. To get here, though, it can’t just be technology alone; it has to be intentional use of the technology.
Do you have other go-to resources for your blended learning classroom?
ThingLink and ScreenChomp help with the flipped classroom model. I’ll record little grammar lessons and put them on this overall grammar Thinglink. Then the students can access those if they’re stuck on a concept and can replay those lessons at home as many times as they need to. I started using Quizizz recently as well for grammar.
What element from JBlend Miami are you most looking forward to putting into action?
Finding more ways to empower students to be independent learners. I’m excited to learn more about technology that can enable them to do that. I’m going to use my own learning to better help my students identify their strengths and weaknesses and build on each. Really, all the strategies to reach each learner better!
What have been your most rewarding experiences with classroom innovation?
One is seeing students who struggled before in grammar feel confident and recognize their own breakthroughs. Another has been watching students work together and hearing the conversations they have around content and skills. They’re realizing the value of working together and embracing how it’s different from doing a group project. They’re used to working in groups on projects but this isn’t the same as doing a group project. The students are really moving towards collaboration with peers and understanding that this is how we work through problems and questions today.
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