Highlander Charter first grade teacher encourages learning to students through independence, teamwork

By Andrew Wuebker | November 13, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Pieces of broken glass are scattered about on the floor. The juice from the broken bottle of Kombucha had spread to the corner of classroom 1B. The students hadn’t arrived yet, so she had to hurry.

Carrie Sorensen of Highlander Charter School fetched a mop and cleaned her early morning spill as fast as she could.

It certainly wasn’t the start of the day the first grade educator had envisioned. And it was only 8 a.m.

“Maybe it’s some sort of first grade teacher coping mechanism, but during the day there are a lot of spills, accidents and unexpected moments,” the 35-year-old said. “Being able to let things go and just move on—something I was less successful with when I started—has made my job more enjoyable and fulfilling, and it lets the kids know that everyone messes up.”

With the spill cleaned up just in time, her 18 six and seven-year-old students flooded through the classroom door at 8:30. With much joy and laughter for the school day ahead, the students eagerly handed their teacher the spelling homework from the night before.

Sorensen directed her students to the classroom rug in the corner of the room, asking the students which greeting they wanted to use that day. Sitting in an imperfect circle, the students slowly greeted a classmate one at a time with high-fives and smiling “good mornings.”

That type of independence, cohesiveness and engagement is what Sorensen tries to teach to her students every day.

“You can teach kids to sit down and be quiet and follow the rules, but that’s not what we want to teach them,” said Sorensen. “We want to teach them to be independent. We want to teach them to find a place in this room that they can do their best learning.”

Janae McGinnis, a student teacher at Highlander in Sorensen’s classroom, thinks Sorensen has really set the standard for first grade educators.

“She’s so much fun, she’s literally the perfect example of what a first grade teacher should be. She’s very energetic and you can definitely see that when she’s conducting lessons,” said McGinnis. “She’s so enthusiastic, so theatrical. She just shows through her past experiences that she really connects herself to the concepts that she’s teaching and makes it really engaging.”

While it seems like Sorensen has been at it for a long time, Highlander is her first teaching job. A career-changer, Sorenson became a teacher five years ago.

A native of Geneva, New York, Sorensen earned a bachelor’s in theatre at State University College at Geneseo, New York in 2002. Sorensen then moved to Brooklyn, New York and lived there for six years, working in many different jobs including restaurant maître d’, trust management for an insurance brokerage and performing in musical theatre while traveling on cruise ships whenever she got the chance.

“I had always been interested [in education] especially with the work I had done with theatre,” said Sorensen. “I had done a lot of teaching of theatre and summer camps with kids.”

She earned a master’s in teaching from Brown University in 2010 and decided she wanted to serve students in high need, urban settings. Later that year, she started her teaching career at Highlander.

Rose Mary Grant, the Head of School at Highlander Charter, said it was Sorensen’s exuberance in her teaching lessons that urged her to hire her.

“Carrie interviewed well,” said Grant. ”[She] had been a student teacher with us and demonstrated her love of teaching, energy and skill during her demonstration lesson.”

Even with five years of experience, Sorensen says she still struggles with being an educator. She says the balancing of the academic and emotional needs of her students has been the biggest challenge.

“I am both discouraged and inspired on a daily basis,” said Sorensen. “There are days when I don’t feel I’m doing my best, when I wish I had more time to talk to kids one-on-one, when I wish I could toss out the tests and triple the time they get to play, but there are equal times when I get hugs from first graders, have former students ask to have lunch and chat, and when I get to share in the experience of students discovering and creating things for the first time. Honestly, all of that stuff happens just about every day.”

Her colleagues say they admire Sorensen’s energy and enthusiasm even on days when things don’t go as planned.

“She can have the same energy at nine o’clock in the morning, right at three when they are getting ready to leave,” said McGinnis. “That’s been kind of one thing that has captivated me.”

As teachers across the country are feeling increasingly pressured over high-stakes test scores and political leaders debate the future of the Common Core standards, Rhode Island educators say they, too, sometimes feel unfairly blamed for problems that begin outside of the classroom, particularly poverty. This is particularly true for teachers in urban districts such as Providence, which has 2,000 teachers and nearly 24,000 students.

“Teachers are certainly under a certain amount of scrutiny these days, and looking at education under through the lens of large scale standardized testing is both limiting and dangerous,” said Sorensen.

Eighty percent of students in the Providence district are also available eligible for free or reduced lunch, an indicator of poverty. At Highlander it is 78 percent compared with the statewide average of 47 percent.

“The most challenging thing about teaching, for me, is balancing the educational needs with the emotional needs,” Sorensen said. “If a student comes to school and hasn’t had enough rest or food, they’re going to have a harder time focusing on learning to read.”

Despite the hardships, Sorensen has always seemed to pull the best efforts out of her students.

“I always send visitors her way because I know they will see a dynamic teacher engaging all students,” said Grant. “Carrie’s students always show growth from the beginning of the year to the end in math and reading, but more impressive is the growth in their ability to be independent and thoughtful learners.”

First grade students at Highlander Charter School in Providence, Rhode Island take part in different classroom activities aimed at learning independently. (Photo courtesy Andrew Wuebker)

As the students shifted from their morning greeting to the activities of the day, the children split into groups. Students sat at a table with McGinnis doing arts and crafts, while others listened to a lesson on their laptops. The last group of students read a book called, Animal Park, with Sorensen at her desk. Each student took turns trying to read the chapter out loud, with Sorensen occasionally interjecting her knowledge on various animals in between.

One student, who was reading alone on the classroom rug, needed a bit of help. Sorensen got down on her knees with that student, guiding them through the book and answering every question the student had to their own joy.

“The joy she imparts into her classroom,” said Grant. “It is a joyful environment that encourages a love for learning.”

Some days, though, Sorensen feels a tinge of regret about all the things she didn’t get to or the opportunities she missed.

“I just try and do my best everyday and I don’t always and sometimes we have a talk at the end of the day and I’m like, ‘I could have done better today.’ And they’re like, ‘Me too,’” said Sorensen. “It’s kind of really validating to be like, ‘This day was great, this wasn’t great and this day—man I really wish I had done that differently,’ but I think it’s just about creating a community in which you’re allowed to celebrate the wins and talk about the failures and try again the next day.”

On a recent afternoon, Sorensen held a glass jar that was full of shells she had collected from a nearby beach in Rhode Island. Each shell represents a reward for teamwork, which they must earn as a whole class for their work.

“I tapped it so they could see how close they were to filling it. It shattered into a million pieces,” said Sorensen. “So, sometimes I break things. In that case, I declared the shell jar full and they were able to celebrate that Friday with a pizza party. Pizza fixes everything.”

Even when she’s teaching, breaking things or making things right with her students, Carrie Sorensen always seems to find a way.

Highlander Charter School leads Rhode Island’s blended learning mission

By Andrew Wuebker | October 23, 2015

Within the walls of Highlander Charter School is a revolution that has spread like wildfire in schools across the country.

Blended learning, the personal and collaborative initiative that pairs classroom instruction with the integration of technology, is aiming for students to absorb more information and be more engaged in the classroom than ever. Blended learning is prompting teachers, administrators and school committees to give students more control over how and at what pace they learn.

Highlander Charter School, located in one of the poorest sections of Providence, is leading the way in Rhode Island. The 400-student school has made blended learning its number one priority for all of its students, which range from pre-k to 11th grade.  A twelfth grade will be added next year.

“Highlander decided to develop a blended learning model in order to better meet the individualized approach we take to teaching and learning,” said Head of School Rose Mary Grant. “The goal was simply to increase engagement and to give teachers tools to further individualize for students in their classrooms, as well as to expand offerings at the upper school.”

With blended learning at Highlander, students are able to engage with curriculum at their level and teachers are able to work with smaller groups for targeted instruction. The software in use allows for independent learning practices, while tracking progress for teachers.

Highlander’s success with blended learning came in fits and starts and the school frequently shares the challenges it faced with other school districts that are expanding the use of technology in classrooms.

Grant was uncertain whether teachers would be up to the task. And the technological changes produced problems in the early stages of the transition process.

“Teachers were hesitant at first, which is to be expected with any new initiative. They were concerned about training and their own skill level,” said Grant. “Administration really had to relook at how the funds would be re-assigned from materials like textbooks to technology. A development of a long-term technology plan that would meet the growing school’s needs was imperative.”

Although teachers were worried at first about this new approach, over time they came to believe that blended learning benefitted students in more ways than one.

Carrie Sorensen, a  first grade teacher at Highlander, credits Highlander for its willingness to let teachers do their work.

“Highlander is an incredibly receptive and flexible place in which teachers are given autonomy and respect,” said Sorensen. “As educators, we are encouraged to experiment, and to incorporate technology with responsibility and freedom.”

In Sorenen’s first grade classroom, her students have roughly 30 non-consecutive minutes per day of whole group instruction. Sorensen implements blended learning into her classroom with a variety of programs. She has her students use programming such as Lexia, RazKids and Dreambox that will increase their mathematics and literacy skills. Sorensen makes playlists for her students in every subject, using a program called Blendspace for lessons and assignments. Sorensen also uses the social media platform Instagram to connect her students to the outside world with photographs. Video chatting and virtual fieldtrips with her students also help to expand their communication and connection to the outside world.

“Students are almost universally interested and excited by the idea of accessing and sharing knowledge,” said Sorensen.

“These programs can be used to increase or decrease difficulty level for individual students, meeting them where they are,” said Grant.  “In science and social studies, there are programs that allow for teachers to assign readings on the same subject matter at different levels so a student reading two or three years below his or her peers is still reading the same material about the subject matter, but the passage is written at his or her reading level. The student learns the material without the barrier of the difficult reading.”

Grant says that blended learning has caught on nationally because of the promise it holds to personalize instruction for every student, going as fast or slow as they need to master material, and to better prepare students for the global workforce.

“There is no one definition for blended learning and it is critical that there is an understanding that blended means just that. It isn’t all virtual. It isn’t just reading your book on a Kindle or an electronic textbook,” said Grant. “It is combining a variety of tools and strategies to make the teacher more effective in reaching the varying needs of the students in his or her classroom.”

Sorensen agreed that it’s a combination of tools and teacher initiative that makes blended learning so hotly discussed across the nation.

“Blended learning offers the very best of teacher practice with the best of online learning and collaboration.  It can help personalize education so that teachers are no longer teaching toward the middle, but rather encouraging all students not just to learn the material, but also to learn how they learn.  It’s the future,” said Sorensen.

As the blended learning process continues to grow and weave its way into education at Highlander, Grant says the progress has been promising.

“Blended learning has definitely increased engagement, focus and understanding for students and better efficiency for teachers,” said Grant. “It has certainly met our goals of increasing engagement with subject matter, differentiating for individual students above and below the mid-line, and expanding offerings for our middle and high school students.”

Grant believes that if children are given the chance to succeed with their education and is done correctly, it can certainly bring them lifelong success.

“In order for blended learning to be successful, it needs to be adapted to the culture of the school. There is no one size fits all model,” said Grant. “Teachers need to be trained and held accountable, administrators have to invest both financially and philosophically and a coordinator needs to ensure that high quality application is happening.”FullSizeRender