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By Alexander Groff

After passing through a metal detector and past barred windows to get to the classroom, the last thing I expected when I entered was applause. But this is the effect Kareem Farah has on his former students, and I was in Washington, DC to learn why.

Farah is the cofounder of The Modern Classrooms Project, a style of blended and personalized learning that he and another teacher developed to help improve scores at Eastern High School, one of the lowest performing schools in DC. Located between Lincoln Park and RFK Stadium, students at Eastern are affected by high levels of poverty and crime. Their test scores reflect the impact of their environment on their learning: according to US News and World Report, 20 percent of the students at Eastern were proficient at reading in 2016. That same year, only one percent were proficient at math. This was the school Farah came to after teaching in Hawaii. This was the school he brought me to so I could see his model in action.

I first learned about The Modern Classrooms Project when Farah spoke at the Blended and Personalized Learning Conference in Providence, RI. His great success at helping students succeed by allowing them to work at their own pace struck a chord, and I immediately applied some of these concepts in my own classroom. Within days, students who were regularly argumentative or disengaged began to focus on their assignments and ask academic questions. It was a revelatory moment to sit down next to one of the most disruptive students not to talk about behavior, but to discuss history. An administrator who observed this class charted the kinds of questions the students and I were asking when we talked against Bloom’s taxonomy. It was rare, he said, to see a class where there were more higher-order thinking questions asked than lower-order thinking questions. This was a standard level class, but by empowering the students to learn, we had moved beyond simply “who’s, what’s and when’s” and into the richer questions of how and why. The curiosity that too often disappears as students grow older was back, and it transformed my class.

Despite the successes of that first attempt, I still had a lot to learn, so I worked with Farah and cofounder Robert Barnett to learn how the plan worked. The Modern Classroom Project has grown each year since it was founded, and so Farah took me to visit six different high school classrooms, taught by six different Modern Classroom teachers. These courses included science, math and social studies, and reached all levels of student from AP Psychology to ESL World History. In every case, I was struck by how engaged the students were, and how the classroom encouraged them to improve themselves and help their peers.

On the walls hung charts tracking student progress, an important reminder of accountability in a self-paced environment. Yet even more powerful were the signs that hung beside those pacing charts. In each class, there were signs stating which students were the experts on the lessons that they were studying. Experts were students who had already mastered the material and done more than was expected. These experts tutored their peers, which not only improved grades, but also created a culture where learning and helping is valued. Outside of these rooms, gang-related violence was on the rise, and guns had to be kept out of the building by armed security and metal detectors. Inside of these rooms, those problems and tensions disappeared behind an atmosphere of learning.

This last year, Farah left the classroom to work full-time on The Modern Classrooms Project, leading training sessions, visiting fellows who are part of their program, and giving tours to other teachers like me who want to see how it works. When his former students saw him during my visit, they applauded and class paused so they could talk with him. (And because the class is self-paced, the pause was not a disruption but part of the normal flow of class.) It was clear, seeing these classes, why he was so well-loved. He had created a system that allowed students to feel empowered, to learn more and to be able to teach others.

My greatest fear of technology in the classroom is that we, as teachers, will find a way to turn it into an expensive worksheet. The power of technology is not simply the ability to do more, but to fundamentally change education, give students control of their learning, and allow teachers to help students grow. It is empowering to see it happening, and it inspires me to continue to grow as a professional.