Originally published in CenterEd on October 25, 2013
On any given school day, you’re likely to find fourth grade teacher Cady Looper parked squarely in front of her computer screen, playing Jeopardy® or engaging in online chat sessions.
No, she’s not goofing off. She’s doing her job.
For the past four years, Looper has been teaching at Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy (OVCA), a public charter school authorized by Choctaw-Nicoma Park School District and online learning provider K¹². The school has only been in operation for five years, so everyone involved is on a pretty steep learning curve.
Moving from what she calls a “brick-and-mortar” school environment into her current situation, in which she is responsible for 80 students across the state, has been a challenge, Looper admits. Without daily, face-to-face contact with her students, she has to be more creative and intentional when it comes to building relationships with them and getting to know their individual learning styles.
What helps keep Looper motivated is how she sees the virtual school model making a difference for students who don’t thrive in traditional school settings. “We don’t have very many ‘middle of the road’ kids. We have a lot of special ed kids, and we have kids at the extreme ends of the spectrum: they’ve either been pulled out of brick-and-mortar school because they’re not getting the help they need, or they’re really smart and want to go faster and learn more,” she says.
“This model of ‘doing school’ is a great option for kids who aren’t thriving in a brick-and-mortar school. They feel comfortable at home, in their own environment.”
Putting best practices in place in a non-traditional setting
Part of helping students thrive involves giving their teachers a roadmap of best practices and teaching strategies that work in any classroom setting — traditional or virtual. And so, two years ago, Looper and her colleagues embarked on the journey of implementing the Marzano Teacher Evaluation Model into their teaching practice, knowing full well they were in for a challenge.
“You can imagine the scratching of the heads when we first adopted this model, right? Even the instructor for our three days of Marzano training was scratching her head on how to implement this in our environment,” Looper says. “So we use Marzano as a foundation and come up with creative ways to make it work in our situation.”
Making Design Question 5 a reality in a virtual classroom
She gives the example of determining whether or not students have understood the content she has taught them. “Obviously we’re not face to face with the students, so we use other ways to find out if they understand. They can demonstrate understanding by typing in a chat box, giving a smiley face, or using some other notification that it’s still not clear enough for them,” Looper says.
“So we are still able to check their understanding, but it’s different. It might not be as clear as what you’d get in a brick-and-mortar school, but you still get a really good idea where they are.”
The technology platform she uses in her interactions with students allows her to create virtual breakout rooms in which she can have one-on-one or small group conversations to check for understanding, share interactive PowerPoint presentations that students can modify, and give them “exit tickets” (based on Dr. Marzano’s suggestions for how to get students to reflect on their learning after a lesson) when they demonstrate they’ve mastered the content. Students are able to write responses on a shared white board, communicate via microphone, and send and receive emails through a dedicated email system.
To reward and motivate the kinds of learning behaviors she wants to see, Looper sends encouraging emails and calls students and/or their parents to let them know she’s pleased with their progress. She also gives prizes and plays a variety of learning games (Design Question 5, Element 25) with students to keep them engaged.
“Jeopardy®,” she says, laughing. “They really love Jeopardy® and it’s really easy to do in our environment — we can make a Jeopardy® game out of anything.”
Her students are very competitive, Looper adds, noting that they are so trigger-happy on their mouse that it can get very intense at times.
“At least I know they’re not just sitting there,” she says. “They’re definitely engaged.”
Stay tuned for Part II of Cady Looper’s story to learn more about how she motivates her students, uses learning goals and scales to track progress, and implements classroom management techniques.