Tara Grudin, lead teacher at El Dorado Union High School District’s Virtual Academy, was shocked when Channel 10 called her with the news she had been chosen as their Teacher of the Month for April.
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“I had no idea how it happened,” said Grudin, who is in her fifth year teaching at Shenandoah High School. “I don’t even know why. If you find out, let me know.”
It might have something to do with Grudin’s enthusiasm and love for her job which is obvious when she talks about the Virtual Academy, El Dorado Union High School District’s blended learning approach utilizing virtual instruction at Shenandoah High School.
This is the program’s first full academic year, after an initial pilot year, and Grudin, 29, splits instruction and student advisory with Aprille Osborne and Leah Applegarth.
Talking to the trio about the Virtual Academy is like watching a glass of champagne. Bubbles of thought and ideas rise to the surface at an accelerated pace — their standard pace.
“You’ve got to be quick in the virtual world,” said Grudin who teaches social sciences. “If you don’t quickly engage the students, they jump ship.”
Osborne, 34, teaches English in the Virtual Academy. After teaching English in Africa in the Peace Corps and substituting at Shenandoah for years, Osborne said she feels she is having more impact on her students’ education now.
“I taught in a traditional classroom and had about two minutes with a kid each day. Now I’m really able to work with the whole student in all of the subject areas,” said Osborne.
“This type of teaching is collaborative, focused and high energy,” said Applegarth, 36, who teaches math, coaches cheerleading and runs engineering and design as well as robotics for the district. “I love it.”
The three instructors use Smart Boards at Shenandoah to present curriculum; students access lessons, information, college classes, their instructors and each other through their home computers using Skype, Instant Message, You Tube, Drop Box and a host of links and accesses set up by the Virtual Academy team.
The learning management system, Desire2Learn, is the same one used by the Los Rios Community College system.
“That was one of the main reasons we chose it,” said Grudin.
At a Desire2Learn conference that she attended with Shenandoah director Debby Hanson, Grudin found that they were the only high school represented in a sea of colleges.
“We’re on the cutting edge with this,” Grudin said.
Taking the D2L shell, teachers can populate what they wish to include in their virtual program, including curriculum, lessons, news about upcoming events for students and links to other programs such as AP courses and college classes.
“We link to Coursera which has access to classes from Stanford, Brown University, Duke and Princeton,” said Grudin. ” Students can take classes in very specific areas that our district doesn’t offer and receive full college credit that will be reflected on their diploma. They can take up to two classes at Los Rios for free.”
There are 84 students currently enrolled in the program which is completing its first full school year.
“After Christmas break our enrollment doubled,” said Grudin.
Any high school student in El Dorado County or in the contiguous counties can enroll at the Virtual Academy.
“I have two students from Amador County and three from up by Strawberry,” said Grudin.
Applegarth said the learning system takes away traditional student excuses for not turning in work. “Nothing gets lost and there is always a way to get work done.”
Applegarth can Skype with a student and work out a math problem using the Academy’s Smartboards.
“They can see the process right in front of them, work the problem and check their answer,” Applegarth said.
Lessons taught by the three teachers are recorded so that students have full access even if they are ill or snowed in.
“There are no sick students; advanced students can go faster, and it’s great for students who are struggling with a concept because they can pause the lesson and replay the part they are having difficulty with,” said Grudin. “It’s a universal medium where all students can achieve.”
Access is the key word — access to instruction, to higher centers of learning, to interaction with other students, to grades and progress and, most important of all to Grudin, Applegarth and Osborne, access to the teachers.
“I can receive an Instant Message from a student who wants to know how to do something. I’ll Instant Message an example; they’ll Instant Message me their response. It all happens in minutes,” said Grudin. “I’m available to them. I have tutorial time with all my students. They can’t fall through the cracks.”
Osborne loves the ability to demonstrate growth to her students.
“I can pull up the first week’s paper and the last week’s to show them how much they’ve grown and I can check their work to make sure it is their own work,” Osborne said.
Using a software program called Turnitin, Osborn can see where students have gotten the material for their essays and prevent the Wikipedia cut-and-paste.
“All college writing classes are doing this now,” Osborn said.
“Technology is the portal, but the students are what counts and we want to keep them connected,” said Grudin.
Although students access lessons remotely, complete and submit their work online, they are still connected face-to face with teachers and fellow students through weekly direct instruction at Shenandoah, a weekly advisory meeting, tutorial time and labs.
“I ‘m an advocate for my students’ education,” said Applegarth. “Every week we have an advisory. We work tightly with all the teachers on campus and I require the students to send their assignments and grades to me.”
The advisory is an opportunity for both students and instructors to keep on top of student progress, student needs and their goals.
“We build connections for students in how to use the knowledge they have access to — helping them to structure and organize it,” said Grudin. “At this small school, we are able to connect with every single student every single day. Our students also have access to clubs, sports, all the things that connect students in traditional settings.
“When students answer a question in a virtual class, it’s not an impulse, like in a classroom,” said Grudin. “They can take time to think, post, use Spell Check — their answers are much richer than in a regular classroom.”
“We do all the college prep, the ACT and PSAT assessments, college applications, personal statements — things that at the big high schools, students have to take care of for themselves,” said Osborne. “In addition, students who take virtual courses are learning an essential skill for college.”
D2L is a secure system, so students and teachers never have to worry about the system being unavailable. Those who don’t have wireless or DSL where they live are able to use the computer lab at Shenandoah or work from Internet zones at the public library or other places in the county. Students can check out laptops if needed.
“The program is completely transparent — it records when things are opened for view and date stamps submissions. Parents have access to their students’ work, grades and even teacher comments on their work,” said Applegarth.
“When you tell students they don’t have to come to school, they want to be here,” said Grudin. “High achievers come to school on their own three times a week. There are very few discipline issues because they want to be here and they have access to their teachers in every single subject.”
Demonstrating growth is also built into the program with standardized testing as well as with unit tests, finals and virtual quizzes.
“We are the only high school in the district that will be doing standardized testing with the PSAT for grade 11, the ACT for grades 11 and 12, PLAN — a 10th grade college readiness test — and the ACT Explore for ninth graders,” said Grudin.
“Teachers aren’t the keepers of knowledge anymore because kids have access to anything they want to learn through the Internet,” said Grudin. “Our director, Debby Hanson, likes to say that we are the curators of knowledge — helping students to navigate through the information. We are re-inventing education.”
Grudin, born and raised in Placerville, is also a candidate for Channel 10’s Teacher of the Year and will attend the June ceremony in Sacramento. She and her husband, Kevin, live on rural acreage which Grudin loves.
“After college in San Diego, I missed the connections you have with a small town. I love the connected feeling I grew up with and being able to have that with my students.”
For more information about the Virtual Academy visit shs.eduhsd.k12.ca.us.