Though she was new to ECOT’s staff last year, Maryalice Leister is no stranger to teaching K-12 students online. After teaching English at a brick-and-mortar high school in Michigan for 18 years, Leister became one of the first pioneers to integrate technology into a traditional classroom.
On the brink of the new millennium, Leister’s school district in Michigan was anxious to acquire some new technology grants – “even though nobody in the school knew much about technology,” she says. “If you were lucky, you had a computer lab in your district; this would actually bring computers into my class. I was doing a remedial high school English class, and (the school administrator) came to me and said, ‘We want you to integrate technology into your classroom. We don’t know what that looks like, so figure it out because we’ve got to use this grant wisely.’”
Though she had her fears and inhibitions at first, Leister quickly realized that the students were fearless when it came to new technology.
“I could have stood in that classroom and tried every creative idea verbally, on the whiteboard or in hand-outs, and I wasn’t reaching them,” she says. “These were 10th graders who had been cast aside because they couldn’t read or write. But when they stood in line to sit at the two computers that the grant brought to my room, they fought to be able to push keys and find out the correct answer. They were totally unafraid and fascinated by it. I was mesmerized by what they wanted to do that they’d never done before. They wanted to write. They wanted to express themselves, because they could type it on a keyboard and correct it easily. I knew then that there was something exciting on the horizon, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Establishing a virtual school
Shortly after her first exposure to technology-infused education, Leister relocated to Toledo to be near her daughter. In 2002, she saw an ad in the paper for Ohio Virtual Academy, an online school that K12 was launching in Ohio. After attending an informational meeting, she inquired the next day and told them she’d do whatever she could to help establish the school.
“I got on board because I was excited about seeing education change,” she says.
“People who don’t understand virtual schools roll their eyes, but you’ve got to keep changing. Education has rolled into the technology universe, and we are not going back. If we want to stay connected to kids, we’ve got to go in the direction kids are going. Communities cannot afford to support the infrastructure of bussing and hot meals and aging buildings anymore. The way to do it is to channel the resources to give children a universe of opportunity.”
Leister quickly advanced from teaching at OHVA to become a lead teacher, middle school assistant principal, high school principal, and then academic teacher trainer. After more than a decade there, Leister took time off to return to the role of student, earning her master’s degree in online teaching and learning/instructional design while writing curriculum for www.study.com.
Meanwhile, she kept hearing positive feedback about another online K-12 school in Ohio called ECOT.
“Everything I heard was good, and I decided this was the place I wanted to bring my expertise,” says Leister, who joined ECOT as an 8th grade language arts teacher in 2015. “It’s fun to wake up in the morning and come to this job. ECOT is doing the right thing with the right tools, and has some pretty awesome people who are making it happen.”
Connecting with students
While there are obvious differences between brick-and-mortar school and online education, one thing remains the same for Leister.
“My favorite part of teaching anywhere has always been getting to know the students, and it’s no different online,” she says. “A student may try to hide, but so much personality shines through in responses, live session chats and messaging.
While online learning is, by nature, distance learning, there doesn’t need to be anything distant about it. Live video feeds bring me into each student’s home and generate countless conversations.”
Leister takes copious notes to record observations about her students. For example, she knows that Sarah often misses live class sessions because she’s practicing ballet several hours a day. So, if Sarah requests a one-on-one breakout session to cover a lesson she missed, Leister is sure to ask how her last performance went.
Because of the data available through ECOT’s tools, Leister would argue that technology makes it even easier to personalize her approach to each student.
“ECOT has a tremendous network of databanks in the Learning Management System that give me a true 360-degree view of every student,” Leister says. “It shows me when they are online and where they are spending their time; what they have or haven't started or completed; where their strengths and weaknesses are.”
Sure, some brick-and- mortar schools utilize testing data, to some extent, but the most powerful difference, according to Leister, is ECOT’s collaborative approach to analyzing this data. She meets weekly with her teaching team – where language arts, math, social studies, science, special needs and support teachers are all represented – to discuss the progress of individual students.
“We have six to eight minds talking about Johnny and Susie,” she says. “That’s how we discover that, not only does Susie have a low Lexile reading score, but she hesitates when she’s asked to read aloud, and she doesn’t have her math facts memorized – so we’re beginning to get an accurate picture of her.
As much as I loved teaching in brick-and-mortar, we didn’t do that. We taught behind closed doors, and I never talked to the math teacher or the social studies teacher. We didn’t share data. We were considered experts in what we did, and yet, I’m not an expert on Johnny unless I find out everything I need to know about Johnny. We do that here at ECOT, and that’s what spells success for a lot of these kids.”
Assembling the puzzle of education
Rather than treating each teacher as an island in her own discipline, the structure of online school enables collaboration over independence. For example, the entire team of subject-specific 8th grade teachers attend live sessions and while one is teaching, the others are monitoring comments and helping facilitate lessons behind-the-scenes.
“The analogy I came up with is that each of these kids is an unassembled puzzle,” Leister says. “How am I going to put that together? Am I going to sit by myself, or ask other people to help me put the pieces in the right place until we have a fully realized eighth grader? We work together as a team, and that’s critical for success at ECOT.”
In addition to grade level teams, each subject area team at ECOT also meet weekly to adjust the delivery of their curriculum. “We are constantly analyzing and restructuring our subject disciplines in every department,” Leister says. “People open up those virtual filing cabinets that were never open in brick-and-mortar to tailor lessons to their students.”
Through those teams, teachers share ideas and best practices about methods they’re trying in their classes. For example, Leister started experimenting with the Screencast-O-Matic program early in the school year to produce reward-based games and dramatic vignettes. Her innovative videos have been featured in the weekly Middle School Principal's staff newsletter to show other teachers how she was engaging students.
Because these videocasts were so effective with students, Leister’s teaching team also produced some for parents. After only a handful of parents showed up to the team’s parent teacher conferences in Columbus, they produced video invitations for the next quarter’s teacher conferences and ultimately engaged dozens more, hosting the event via live online conference sessions.
“In education, it’s all about the conversations we generate – between teachers, teacher-to-student, student-to-student and teacher-to-parent,” Leister says. “At ECOT, the conversations never stop.”
Original story published 6.21.16 - Updated 1.14.17
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