One of the most challenging aspects of teaching in the classroom, as most teachers will agree, is to meet the learning needs of each student. This is especially true when there is only one teacher and more than 30 students in a class, learning at different paces and grasping concepts in different ways! Columbia Middle School teachers have used a combination of material and presentation methods that engage every student in class and technology-assisted differentiation in order to meet each of their students’ needs.
Robotics and Math teacher Alexi Badaoui has received an Innovation Grant from Silicon Valley Education Foundation. Mr. Badaoui has been offering a unique learning experience to CMS students through project-based robotics since 2008, originally as an after-school club activity, now as a trimester elective open to all CMS students. This grant, at close to $1000, allows Mr. Badaoui’s Advanced Robotics students to design, build, and program a robotic arm that can pick up objects like a small wooden alphabet block from one defined location and place it at another defined location on the table. A coordinate system drawn on paper and placed on the table around the robotic arm allows for precise locations of the alphabet block. Mr. Badaoui’s Geometry students work on determining the angles of each segment of the robotic arm that will allow it to reach a given location on a coordinate system. Teams in these two classes communicate formally with each other, exchanging data and feedback between builders/developers and end users, using a form the students designed themselves. They collaborate without meeting face-to-face, like high tech companies with their R & D teams working in a different location from their fabrication teams. Funds from this grant pay for programming language licenses, programming hardware kits, and robotics arm hardware.
In order to maximize each student’s potential and accomplishment in his classes, Mr. Badaoui’s Robotics students work on their projects at their own pace following a general introduction of a project. One project is making a wind-powered wheel that can roll straight and fast, using only two CD disks, a toilet paper roll, and unlimited amount of paper and masking tape. Students are required to write up and sketch their designs as well as anticipate the hardest and easiest part of the project before they start building. Their wheels need to travel a distance of about 30 feet in under 8 seconds (on wind power provided by an electric fan). When a student gets stuck with a challenge in his/her design, Mr. Badaoui asks leading questions to guide the student to arrive at an answer or encourages other students to observe and offer suggestions. Most students go through multiple designs to achieve this requirement.
Another tool Mr. Badaoui uses heavily in his classes is a class set of Chromebooks. His Robotics students perform in-class research assignments with Chromebooks. His Math students work toward mastery of skills/concepts on ALEKS, an online service to which the Sunnyvale School District subscribes. This online service provides individualized learning for students with information and practice problems, and allows teachers to monitor each student’s progress. Mr. Badaoui’s Geometry students get excited about the number of topics they master every day. Mr. Badaoui tries to meet each student in a small group setting at least twice a week. He pulls students who are ready to learn a given concept or are in need of guidance on the same concept and holds a small-group teaching session for them. He shares that students are most eager to learn at these times because they have been unable to get past a concept and are ready to receive help with understanding and mastering it.
Based on the same model, Mr. Badaoui teaches a differentiated Math 8 class to a group of 24 advanced 7th grade students during CMS’s FLEX period. This group of motivated 7th graders have made great progress. They are on task during class and have fulfilled the requirement of working on ALEKS for about an hour each day, outside of class. In two trimesters, seven students have completed the Math 8 requirements and moved on to Algebra 1 Common Core. The individualized plan for them is to start with Geometry Common Core (a 10th grade class in the Common Core curriculum) next year, when they are in 8th grade. By the end of this school year, all students from this group will have completed their Math 7 class (in their regular math class) and Math 8 class during FLEX. This technology-assisted and targeted, focused, small-group instruction have been extremely effective for Mr. Badaoui’s students. FLEX period meets four days a week, for only 34 minutes each day. Initially offered as an opportunity for those needing extra help in reading, this is the first time at CMS a FLEX class is offered as an extension, an accelerated learning opportunity.
Contributor: Alexi Badaoui, Nina Wong-Dobkin