Zealous for Zeal

I’ve worked for 5 years to truly personalize learning for my students. Until recently, it hasn’t been possible.

My school began when parents in our community came to my charter’s CEO seeking better educational opportunities for middle schoolers in our area. In 2012, this vision became a reality when Alpha: Blanca Alvarado Middle School opened its doors in the fall of 2012.

Throughout our first two years, we set out to do something bold: consistently reach the diverse needs of all of our students.

In our fifth year, we are now making significant strides towards our vision of personalizing learning through online programs and a truly blended learning approach. But this wasn’t possible until we tried a new math program this year.

My name is Bianca Wright. I teach 6th grade math at Alpha: Blanca Alvarado in East San Jose, California. I have the privilege of working in this wonderful community, a place enriched with the cultures and traditions of Latino and Vietnamese first and second generation immigrant families.

We serve a student population that is approximately 95% free and reduced lunch. Many students arrive below grade level in multiple academic subjects. According to the initial NWEA Map assessment given this fall, out of the 66 scholars that I serve directly, 27% ranged from the mid to top quartile in Mathematics, 28% were within the mid-bottom quartile and 45% in the bottom quartile of all sixth graders nationally. Their needs are diverse, so our teaching approach must be diverse and personalized to reach all our kids.

In my first four years at Alpha, I tried many different approaches at personalization. I started by modifying the way I delivered instruction to different students based on their past performance. A genuine attempt, sure, but hardly personalized. I then implemented heterogeneous and homogeneous station rotations, developed different-leveled packets and enrolled in multi-leveled online practice programs. I even signed on to a new wave of adaptive online programs that claimed to adjust in real time to my students’ needs.

To make learning truly personalized requires a great deal of both analyzing data and allowing that data to drive further instruction, with a very short feedback loop in between. So the world of technology seemed like a reasonable place to seek solutions to my personalization challenge. Yet even with the rapidly proliferating breadth of online adaptive learning platforms, I struggled to find programs that actually adapted and then responded — in organic, authentic ways — to student needs. I felt I wasn’t using technology in the most powerful ways possible. Something seemed to be missing in my execution, because I wasn’t seeing the academic growth I expected from these initiatives.

Why? Because no “revolutionary” computer technology will close the achievement gap alone. Education is an intensely human endeavor: to meet all students at their exact levels with responsive instruction, we cannot fall for the trap of looking to technology as a silver bullet.

When I first heard that my school was considering implementing a new online math program called “Zeal,” I wasn’t sure what to think. To be completely honest, I was skeptical of Zeal’s live coaching component. In theory, it sounded great. What teacher wouldn’t want to have access to extra coaches on an ongoing basis?

But the logistics concerned me. I had a lot of questions:

How can I get students invested? Will they take the live coaching seriously? What data points can I take away from this program that will inform future instruction? Will this just be another online program that gives the appearance of personalization, or will this program actually help me to differentiate the learning experience for each of the individual needs of my students?

In the past, it was easy to use technology on a daily basis and then slap a label on it: “yay, personalization!” But I must admit that, at times, I felt I was using computers to “babysit” my students or keep them busy so that I could accomplish two lessons or activities simultaneously.

I knew that having access to more adaptive programs would help me reach my goal of personalized instruction. Adaptive programs, in theory, ensure that when students use their computers, they are receiving rich personalized instruction despite the fact that they’re sitting next to other students who are at completely different levels.

In theory.

So when Alpha signed up for Zeal, I approached with the eye of a hardened skeptic.

Could Zeal fill the theoretical vision of truly personalized learning? Would Zeal actually help me close the achievement gap by filling in the missing pieces that prevent my students from achieving at levels they deserve?

It’s only been a few months, but I can honestly say that with Zeal, we are finally on the right track to true personalization.

And we’re closing Alpha’s math achievement gap as we go.

With Zeal, I pick the standards I want my students to focus on and then circulate while they take short diagnostics that determine their current mastery on the standards I set. Zeal’s questions are carefully crafted so their tech can quickly diagnose the gaps in a student’s understanding. Depending on each individual student’s measured level, Zeal adapts the questioning up or down to fit exactly what the student needs.

But there’s more to it than that because, again, computers won’t close the achievement gap alone.

Zeal adds humans — real, live, thinking, questioning, nurturing humans — to my classroom, in the form of a nationwide team of on-demand math tutors who are ready to help my students at a moment’s notice. This, to me, is true personalization and adaptability. Zeal’s coaches pull my students in for quick, targeted 1:1 sessions when they need an extra push to get them to proficiency.

And the proof is in the pudding! After a couple sessions on Zeal, I saw significant growth that led my students from 14% mastery for finding the greatest common factor to over 50% mastery!

The “Growth” tab in Zeal gives me a high level overview of where my students are before and after using Zeal. I can click into each color-coded section to drill down on individual student misunderstandings.

Witnessing this increase in proficiency, I really believe that Zeal’s live coaching component is essential to this program’s success. Incidentally, live coaching is what sets Zeal apart from other programs that claim adaptability.

After Zeal sessions, I worry less about whether or not students are progressing because Zeal compiles reports for me that show my students’ growth and development for each standard. I can even listen to audio recordings of the coaching sessions so I can build common language and strategies used by Zeal coaches into my daily instruction.

With this information compiled automatically, I can spend more time responding to the data and less time trying to collate and build out my own data infrastructure. Zeal has shortened the feedback time between receiving a piece of data and acting on it. As the year progresses, I look forward to pulling small groups based on Zeal data so I can personally tailor in-class instruction to meet the unique needs and diagnosed misconceptions of my students.

So what’s it actually like to have live coaches take part in my math classes?

Well, it took a while for my students to believe that the coaches were real human beings. They’ve seen the litany of tech products that exist in schools, but this is new and different from anything they’ve experienced. At first, my kids were a jittery bundle of nerves and intrigue, and it’s been a process teaching them how to talk to new adults they can’t see. But I love the way this program allows me to conduct live coaching demonstrations for my whole class to show my students what it’s like to engage in a coaching session with a new acquaintance.

And Zeal coaching has become a big part of my personalized instructional approach in math. I’m so excited that it’s working to build my students’ proficiency every time we use it, not just babysitting them. After four years, I finally feel like Alpha is utilizing a math program that has the potential to really help us close the achievement gap.

So fellow teachers, check out Zeal, and watch your scholars’ proficiency (and Zeal for math) take off with live coaches!