The Blended Learning Institute: Offering Teachers a Collaboration Space

This post was written by Heather Portnoy, a teacher at NYC iSchool.

The life of a teacher is often solitary, and can be lonely. It is ironic that we, as teachers, encourage group work and collaboration among our students, yet often choose to work independently when developing curriculum and lessons. Upon leaving the second day of the Blended Learning Institute summer workshop series for in-service teachers on July 18th, I felt inspired and invigorated after collaborating with peers; it was the middle of the summer, but I wanted to fast forward to September so that I could put these blended learning strategies to use.

iZone’s Blended Learning Institute (BLI) was launched to prepare math, science, and computer science teachers to lead 21st century classrooms. Started in 2013 with a group of 30 teachers, there are now over 100 teachers participating in the program.

I attended this year’s summer workshop, and the plan was for me to simply observe participant involvement, and help iZone staff as needed.  Five minutes into attending the first breakout session with K. A. Keener, a former NYC English teacher, I realized I could not take off my teacher hat and simply observe. K walked us through her hand-drawn flow chart, used to encourage student troubleshooting of common technology issues. At first I was skeptical – a drawing is pretty low tech, wasn’t this workshop all about blended learning? However, the chart actually addressed a common issue: a student’s ability to independently problem solve for technology solutions.

K offered a strategy to communicate to students that using technology often requires independence and patience.  Conveying to students that they are capable of fixing technological issues on their own, without teacher assistance, and offering them approaches for doing so, is critical.   During this breakout session, BLI members were able to take time to process K’s remarks, build upon them with new ideas, and ask questions. I left K’s session with pages of notes, which included resources like, an online tool to make digital versions of flow charts.

Diedre Downing, a math teacher at NYC iSchool, led the second breakout session I attended. She gave a presentation on using Google forms, and showed us that Google scripts, like Autocrat, can be used to generate feedback; a script like Autocrat is essentially a document merge tool that can automatically generate documents or messages from Google spreadsheet data. These scripts are excellent tools for teachers because they can automatically send messages via email to all students at once, with the option of personalizing the messages.  I spent the rest of my afternoon – at the BLI sessions and at home – experimenting with Autocrat (my siblings can attest to this as they received all of my “test” feedback).  I would not have felt confident enough to use the Google script, Autocrat, or the online program LucidChart without someone showing them to me, or coaching me through them.

The Blended Learning Institute provided a space and time, the two things educators always need more of, for people to learn about teaching strategies and tech tools that may have been on their educator to-do lists, so to speak. BLI members are lucky enough to have on-going support and collaborative learning opportunities, like the conference day I attended, throughout the school year. I am looking forward to connecting further with Diedre and K, to gain further insight about how to make communicating with students more efficient – and fun!