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Last week Innovative Director Suzy Cox started gathering interviews from our district’s Teachers for future Professional Development training videos. Suzy Cox met with Provo Peaks’ Special Education Teacher, Jeannie Zwahlen, about her innovative and interactive Canvas course. Over the course of our visit, Jeannie shared key takeaways that have helped her craft an effective blended learning environment over the last two years– and there are several takeaways.

Jeannie showed us her Canvas course, and it was immaculate– yet concise. Her Canvas Home Page split modules into topics of study, a parent-friendly choice that allows families to find lessons and resources quickly from home. Topics ranged from Literacy and Math to Life Skills, Social Skills, Clean-up Jobs, Cooking, and more. Each assignment included visuals and supplemental activities through videos, infographics, songs, and printable worksheets.

Jeannie splits her assignments into three sections. The first section, “What do I need for this job?” details prerequisite skills and items required to practice or complete a skill– for example, cinching a belt or tying one’s shoes might be one lesson’s goal. A written list of materials accompanies pictures of required items, which in our example could be a belt, or shoes. The second section, “How do I finish the job?” includes an infographic showing how to accomplish the task in bite-sized steps. A video of an actor demonstrating the skill supplements the infographic. There is also a link below the video that takes parents and students to a song which sings the steps to complete the skill. Lastly, the “Here’s how we do it at school” section listed the classroom routine and instructions used to practice the given skill. Jeannie’s keys to a good course are transparency, flexibility, and student autonomy.

Managing an online classroom, however, is tricky. Every teacher can attest that keeping students on track is a chore without proper classroom management techniques. Jeannie, then, teaches a whole group lesson using her room’s monitor, walking students through Canvas operations and the upcoming skill before they use their computers. Afterward, Jeannie moves students into interactive centers, where students use iPads and computers. Offering a lesson roadmap before allowing students to turn on their computers seemingly makes a world of difference.

Another tricky aspect of online teaching is finding time to create materials for the class. Jeannie confessed that creating a course of this magnitude took time, and it didn’t happen overnight. “I used all of the time set aside in the summer for online classwork to build my class, and it was still overwhelming, at first. I’ve since built a robust online course, and I’ve recycled most of the materials I created from that year. I now build time during my prep periods and right after class to adjust or add to each lesson.

“It takes time to make lessons that work across different levels while developing engaging content, but the students love technology. It is frustrating when online classes don’t work at first– there is some trial and error in creating your course, and it’s discouraging in the moment. I have to remind myself that it’s okay to experiment, and if something doesn’t work perfectly, I can take that failure to the drawing board to create something better for the next class.”

Despite some initial challenges in setting up her blended learning classroom, Jeannie is a big proponent of the hybrid learning style. “Blended learning saves time once you’ve started. There was an initial time investment I had to make, but it’s nice to know I always have a whole lesson cued up any given day.”

“I have a few students that have tricky behaviors. I’m happy that aids have everything to continue teaching if I have to work personally with a student on behavior. Overall, blended learning is a handy tool to differentiate for students, both in the classroom and at home.”

Jeannie also brought up the added value online courses have for homeschooled students. “The online courses also bridge the gap for homeschooled students,” Jeannie shared. “It was challenging to gather materials, send the materials to the student’s home, explain how to complete the assignment, and debrief parents on some at-home practices. Now, I teach parents to log in to Canvas in that first week of school. Families have access to all of our lesson plans and the supplemental videos, music, and infographics posted with each lesson.”

Jeannie is a teacher who has her classroom figured out. There are a lot of takeaways from her classroom and her approach to blended learning– one lesson might be to invest time in your online class in the summer before students ever step into your classroom. Another lesson might be to use a “Canvas roadmap” to keep students on task. Inviting parents to involve themselves in their student’s learning proves vital, too.

Perhaps the most crucial takeaway is that Jeannie also has her trip-ups. Those trip-ups, however, lead her to craft more cohesive lesson plans. Innovation is a process. After a lot of planning, hard work, and maintenance, Jeannie has a yearlong class that will yield profits for years to come.

Spencer Tuinei
  • Communication Specialist
  • Spencer Tuinei