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From the desk of Debi Crabtree . . .

Village Virtual founder and CEO Debi Crabtree shares her thoughts and vision for online learning and welcomes your feedback and comments.  Let's talk!

The Power of Celebrating Yourself

Debi Crabtree

Girl, Make It Happen.  It is the empowering message of posts like these that have me time and again scanning the Facebook wall of Ms. Tiffany Thomas, an Ed Tech Consultant that I met last year through my work with Louisiana schools. I took interest in Tiffany’s story when, after meeting her face-to-face in her office in Baton Rouge, I friended her on the popular social tool and watched her run longer and longer races and lose more and more weight.  I was impressed.  But even more striking than the weight loss was the way Miss Tiffany celebrated herself and her every day triumphs in her messages to followers.  That confident come-on-out-here-and-join-me smile was there for running, cycling, and wall climbing, and her “be stronger than your excuses” pep talks encouraged me to do a little bit more myself even though I was 600 miles away.  For some reason I couldn’t explain, when Tiffany celebrated her success, I was encouraged to celebrate my own. 

Turns out there is really something more to that than just entertaining Facebook posts. A study by Teresa Amabile of The Harvard Business School is one of a number of studies that show that rewarding ourselves for small daily achievements increases motivation and boosts our self-confidence, qualities that can be leveraged toward achieving future and larger goals. 

Tiffany said her drive toward change began at the birth of her second child.  At 360 pounds it was difficult for the doctors to administer an epidural, and the result was permanent nerve damage to her left leg.  She said she realized that the weight had “done nothing but hinder everything in my life,” and in the absence of high blood pressure and diabetes, her doctor agreed to a gastric bypass when her daughter was only nine months old.  “My goal was to be able to play with my kids and not be out of breath.  The injury with the needle during the epidural could have paralyzed me, and this was a direct result of my morbid obesity.”  

Part of the problem with her weight, says Tiffany, was cultural.  “Within the black community, working out was not stressed to us.  I was overweight because I ate.  I ate what was cooked. . . . But when you know better, you do better.” Tiffany began with a walking program and joined Black Girls Run when she needed to add more social activity to her life following her divorce.   Previously, says Tiffany, she never considered running.  “I had a stereotypical idea of who runners were and what they looked like – petite and fit.  In the group [Black Girls Run], I saw people who looked like me and they were running, so I decided to train for a 5K.”  Using the app Couch to 5K, Tiffany began training by running five minutes and then walking five minutes and repeating.  She says her memory of running that first five-minute span of time is more vivid than the memory of finishing her first half marathon.  “I was screaming and celebrating with the group members who were there supporting me, and people were looking at us like we were crazy.  But I was on cloud nine.”

Tiffany acknowledges that she doesn’t feel the same level of enthusiasm all the time. “Every day is not going to be a good day,  Every workout is not going to be good, but you have to just keep doing it.”   When she needs inspiration, Tiffany says she often finds it in the words of others, quotes she shares with her Facebook following and which also often help me push ahead through a difficult time.   I believe Tiffany has embraced what Dr. Carol Dweck calls “the growth mindset,” believing that effort is a pathway to mastery, that criticism and failure are just part of the learning, and that inspiration can be found in the success of others.

Tiffany  feels that if she were to create her dream job, she would be in the business of motivating others.  From where I sit, she is already in that job and inspiring all who follow her story to get outside their comfort zones.  “If I am talking about getting over your fears and trying new things, then I need to be out there trying new things,” says Tiffany.  All I can say is “Girl, keep making it happen!”

 Hats off to Ms. Tiffany Thomas.  Celebrating her daily successes has fueled longterm growth and achievement. 

Hats off to Ms. Tiffany Thomas.  Celebrating her daily successes has fueled longterm growth and achievement. 

Is Online Learning Harmful to Struggling Students?

Debi Crabtree

In a recent article in The New York Times, Susan Dynarski (@dynarski) levels strong criticism against high schools who use online learning for credit recovery or for alternative options for students who are struggling in face-to-face classes. (Online Courses Are Harming the Students Who Need the Most Help)  To some extent, I know that her criticism is justified.  I remember the sick feeling I had in my stomach a number of years ago when the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Hamilton County Schools at the time proudly announced in a Title I meeting that the summer credit recovery program (a two- or three-week initiative she had hosted at a local community college) had culminated in the awarding of more than 400 credits!  My virtual school program students had earned far fewer credits that summer, but I knew the students in my program had engaged in rigorous content, had been robustly supported by course facilitators and student support specialists, and were undoubtedly going back to school that fall more prepared for the next level of learning than before they entered their courses.  I know many educators can point to horror stories of students completing Algebra I in two weeks and similar egregious practices utilizing online learning, but that is not everyone's story.

Done appropriately, online learning is a powerful game changer for students who do not thrive in the traditional setting, regardless of their SPED or IEP status.  The interactive nature of good online learning often focuses a student whose attention wanders. We have seen learners who are daily discipline problems in traditional school literally take off online.  These students like having the ability to "rewind the teacher," to pause for note-taking, to review and retake assignments if the first result is not a keeper.  A responsive online learning program that personalizes the learning experience for students who come to courses without adequate foundations for learning can easily add content to a level two foreign language course or scaffold middle school math or Algebra I content into a Geometry course to help address learning gaps in a timely and cost-efficient way.  This level of personalization is just not possible in face-to-face settings. One Village Virtual course facilitator for English and Latin, Ron Heady, observes that his struggling students "have been very appreciative and responsive to my nagging and repeatedly asking them to 'add some more,' 'try again,' 'watch out for this kind of mistake next time,'" adding that many of them were just "beasts" (in the good sense of the word) when it came to getting work done.

I agree that students with strong academic skills do better in online courses and that just utilizing these opportunities to let advanced students "move when ready" is of great benefit. But I am completely opposed to the notion that some online students do poorly because they are online.  These same students with no work ethic and no structure to their learning time will do poorly in face-to-face courses and online.  The issue is not the course material, nor is it lack of access to assistance.  While it may seem counterintuitive, online learning can be far more personal than classroom settings because the conversation with the course facilitator is one-to-one.  The direct instruction, embedded directly within the course, is accessible, customizable, and repeatable  -- options that are also not present in traditional schooling.

I think Professor Dynarski and I would agree on many, many things.  But I don't believe online learning should be eschewed for credit recovery or limited to just the gifted.  Schools need to avoid the cheap solutions they often buy from big-box vendors as credit recovery "solutions" and spend the money to do it right.  With appropriate support and solid curriculum, online learning can offer many benefits to all types of learners.

Why Online Learning?

Debi Crabtree

I believe in online learning.  I first started working with virtual school students as the coordinator of a middle school summer remediation program in Hamilton County, Tennessee, in 2006.  I remember that hours of phone calls with parents that first summer all started out one way – “Is the computer on?”  From there we talked about browser plug-ins and enabling pop-ups, and I marvel now that so many of them persisted.  In 2006, there were no iPhones or iPads, people still rented movies and games from Blockbuster, and Instagram was four years from launch.  Dropbox and iCloud didn’t even exist.  Yet persist these learners and families did, and online learning has grown into the mainstream of learning for students at every age level.  Why?

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Making the Entrepreneurial Jump

Debi Crabtree

I am often asked, “Why did you decide to start your own business?”  After all, at the time I was the head of the Hamilton County Virtual School, the online program of the fourth largest district in Tennessee.  I had ten years in and was making a good salary.  I was even offered a $20,000 raise and a promotion if I would stay with the district.  So why jump off the entrepreneurial cliff?

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