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IFT Interview of Miriam Lyons, Teacher, EGUSD Virtual Academy - "Knowledge is Power and Self-Knowledge is Empowering"

From a very early age, the love of books and learning was a central part of my life. I grew up in a  working class home in Sacramento, California where  my parents provided a simple and love filled home.  On hot summer nights, we would sit on a blanket under our backyard’s spreading mulberry tree and listen to our mother read from her favorite classics or gaze into the heavens while my brother used his telescope to give us close up views of the moon’s craters and Saturn’s rings. My father was always there to discuss the news of the day and guided us in developing a knack of seeing both sides of a story (he probably regretted this once we became teenagers and would use these debate skills on him).  

I graduated a year early from high school and began putting myself through college to attain my goal of being the first in our family to get a college degree. It was a proud moment when I graduated with my degree, and then went on to obtain my teaching credential.

My early experiences translated into opening up the wonders of our world for me and I longed to share this love of learning. Throughout my thirty years of teaching, I have had the privilege of doing just that.  I have taught and worked mostly in Title One schools (as a classroom teacher, curriculum specialist, and Title One coordinator) where I found equally dedicated colleagues that generously shared their talents, love, salaries, and at times groceries, to give these students a rich and meaningful education.

In 2010 I was one of three teachers hired to open the first virtual school in our district. Just like the books and telescope from my childhood opened up a world of wonder and possibilities for me, the Internet has allowed the world to become a student’s classroom.  It is one of the most demanding but rewarding roles (aside from being the mother of two) that I have taken on. No two days are alike, access to events and discoveries as they happen, and the ability to engage students at this level is nothing short of phenomenal. It continues to be a profession where we open the doors of endless possibilities for each and every one of our students and help them develop their talents, interests, and skills to become all they are meant to be. 

 At the end of this interview you will have an opportunity to offer your comments.

IFT - We are delighted you have agreed to participate in this strength-based interview and we are especially interested in learning about the EGUSD Virtual Academy.  But first, tell us a little about yourself.  When did you first become a teacher and what motivated you to enter the teaching profession?  Also, when thinking about your own professional experiences, what especially stands out?  Is there anything in particular that prepared you for the EGUSD Virtual Academy?

ML - I have always had a love for learning; I guess you could say it is my passion.  My appreciation for teaching began when I was a little girl.  I loved helping my younger siblings and I was a helper in my classroom.  In high school I was fortunate to have an internship where I worked with elementary students.  For me, it simply made sense to be a teacher. 

As a teacher, I taught most grades and subjects, including kindergarten, with the majority of my teaching being in Title One schools.  Being a Title One teacher, I felt it was important to focus on student strengths and to do whatever I could to individualize instruction for each student.  

My students had a lot taking place in their lives, so it was necessary to work hard at discovering their interests - what really mattered to them - and to make sure their learning experiences were engaging and meaningful.  By focusing on the unique academic and social needs of my students, I gained valuable experiences and skills as a teacher - all of which prepared me for the EGUSD Virtual Academy.   

Also, preparing me for the Academy, was my involvement with online education.  I had the opportunity to take online courses and to teach online professional development courses.  I found online education exciting and filled with potential. The questions that kept coming back to me were: Why aren’t we using online education in the public schools?   Why aren’t we taking advantage of the tools that online learning offers to teachers and students?  You could say this was an “ah ha” moment.  It became clear to me that online learning and individualized instruction were a natural fit.  

IFT - So let’s talk about the EGUSD Virtual Academy.  First, describe the Academy for us.  What are some of its key characteristics?  What makes it uniquely different from traditional education programs?

ML - Funny you ask that - so many great things have happened to our program. We are currently in our seventh year of existence.  We are part of the Elk Grove School District and are fully accredited.  Our hope is we can expand to the 9th grade.  Concerning specifics, we partner with an online provider and we have three teachers with over 50 years of combined experience in brick and mortar classrooms.  Our program is completely based on student needs.  Curriculum and daily schedules are individualized, as much as possible, to the student and their family’s needs.  The learning environment is very flexible; students can begin their studies based on their schedule -- not the schools.  Parent involvement and support can take place anytime; a strong relationship is formed between the Academy and the family, way beyond what you normally find in a traditional public school setting.  

IFT - Recalling your conversations with parents, what are some of the most positive comments you have heard about the EGUSD Virtual Academy?  Speculating on these comments, why do you believe parents feel this way?  How does the EGUSD Virtual Academy increase the value of parents in the teaching and learning process?

ML - Our parents are wonderful; they constantly give us positive feedback on the Virtual Academy.  From our flexible schedule to our teaching and learning climate, our parents are very appreciative and true partners in the EGUSD Virtual Academy.  Based on the feedback we receive, our parents tell us that the Academy creates a learning environment where they feel very close to their children.  For example, we are told it’s almost like an extended family with older students mentoring younger children. This is most obvious with parents who have had their children start with us in Kindergarten and remain in the program. Our program is really like a village of teachers and parents all committed to ensuring the success for all students.  

Parents also tell us they have a solid sense of their child’s education and that they work more closely with their children.  Parents appreciate the fact their children can go online anytime and anyplace and that the Academy is sensitive to family needs.  Parents also tell us that the Virtual Academy creates a healthy and positive learning environment because family ideals and values are considered and often reinforced in the development of each child’s program.  

Specific examples we hear from parents are that they are very appreciative they can travel with their children, that homework is no longer a struggle, the curriculum is very fluid and flexible, and that the Academy has high standards for success.  

One of the special joys of teaching in the EGUSD Virtual Academy is creating a learning environment that fits the unique qualities of each student.  Parents love this about our program.  Our parents, like most, believe their children are unique and we do everything we can to support our parents’ beliefs by discovering and building programs that match their students’ talents and interests.  In this sense, teachers and parents are working together for the success of their children, where each child is treated as the special individual they are.

Finally, parents are involved in the day to day learning process. This really helps us as teachers because parents know the feelings of their children, when to push and when to layback and give their child some space.  What better way to establish a solid partnership between the home and the school?

IFT - Let’s now move to the same questions for students.  Recalling discussions and conversations with students, what are some of the most positive comments you have heard about the EGUSD Virtual Academy?  Speculating on these comments, why do you believe students feel this way?

ML - Because so much of the EGUSD Virtual Academy is online, students can learn from almost any place.  Home, traveling with their parents - it makes no difference.  This is something that our students love about the program.  Our students tell us they love being able to do their school work while traveling with their parents. Many of our parents take their children to the places they are learning about online. In this sense, learning becomes very dynamic - everything is a teachable moment.  When students travel with their parents learning becomes alive. 

Most important, our students tell us they feel secure in our program.  Students are in an environment where everyone is on their side - students feel safe to share what they are thinking.  As teachers, we do whatever we can to encourage our students to voice their ideas.  We believe for our students to be successful, they must first feel successful. Students work at their own pace; they can take 10 minutes or an hour, they control their own learning.  We believe this approach helps to make our students independent learners; they are empowered and intrinsically motivated.

Students can explore topics in greater detail with the resources provided to them. Their parents can also provide resources to support what they are learning.  Thus, homework, in a traditional sense, no longer exists.  Student with their parents determine how they want to extend the learning process at home. 

IFT - Summarizing your thoughts about parents and students, in what ways would you describe teacher-parent-student relationships in the EGUSD Virtual Academy?  Thinking about these relationships, what stands out in your mind?

ML - We want out students to be the best they can be.  This is not just a slogan but something we practice each day. Our program is available 24/7.  As teachers we log on in the morning and late at night to support and provide assistance to our students and parents. Parents often deliver the prepared materials we provide and monitor both the academic and social progress of their children. With teachers and parents working so closely together, students realize they are part of a dedicated team to do what is necessary for them to reach their potential. Students interact with their parents on many levels and students learn how to communicate with adults in a positive fashion. Students know they are not alone as they have a teacher-parent team supporting them.  All this results in a spirit of community and increased self-worth. 

IFT - Let’s discuss the EGUSD Virtual Academy curriculum.  My understanding is that you have a very unique curriculum as well as delivery system.  How would you generally describe the curriculum and how it is delivered to students? Are there specific strengths that stand out?  Are there aspects of the EGUSD Virtual Academy curriculum that can be applied to a traditional school setting?

ML - We have a K-8 program.  Our curriculum includes texts books that cover all subject areas with a mixture of online and offline virtual meetings.  What is most unique about our curriculum is its flexibility and that it can be changed to meet the needs of our students and parents. We have what we refer to as blended learning where students attend classes online and at times, in the classroom. We offer unlimited possibilities for how we structure our program and we tailor our program and curriculum to meet the needs of each student.  

IFT - Thinking about the connections learning based education company that delivers the curriculum for the EGUSD Virtual Academy, what are some of its strengths?  What are some examples that show how this technology has benefited students and parents?  

ML - The EGUSD Virtual Academy offers a highly interactive, engaging curriculum for students. For example, studying the planets is not limited to a single text book.  There is a live feed to NASA, connections to space museums and various online resources.  Whatever the topic, there are real time resources provided to students, creating a multidimensional learning experience.  Schedules are flexible and lessons can be adjusted to student and parent needs. Parents are directly involved in the curriculum for their children and are continually made aware of how the curriculum is aligned with state standards and the global curriculum.  Every effort is made to involve parents in the development of curriculum and that the curriculum is consistent with the values and beliefs of our parents.    

IFT - As you know, the IFT is all about strength-based teacher driven change.  In what ways does the EGUSD Virtual Academy support this approach or philosophy?  Can you provide a few examples?

ML - Our program is a perfect example of teacher driven change and we certainly emphasize the strengths of our students.  The administration has been very helpful but without the three teachers in the EGUSD Virtual Academy, we would not exist. Teachers have played a key role in securing administrator support and have done a great job in getting the administration to listen and understand the value of the EGUSD Virtual Academy.  Our school is a perfect example of what teachers can do when they have the passion and opportunity to act.  Our teachers have shown they have the positive experience and expertise to develop and support the EGUSD Virtual Academy.   We often feel like pioneers.  As a teacher team, we combine our strengths to create a picture of the student environment we want to create.  We hope others will share what we are doing.  Our goal is to increase trust among teachers, students and parents and to show them our program is a valuable option for consideration.  

IFT - When thinking about moving from a traditional to a virtual environment, what challenges exist? How can these challenges be converted into opportunities?

ML - Biggest challenge we have right now is to have educational policy catch up with what we are trying to accomplish.  An alternative Education Code needs to be developed to accommodate our virtual program.   Rules and regulations get in the way, causing too much paper work and less time to focus on our students.  For example, our program offers important input for developing new forms of student assessment. Virtual learning creates a completely different environment for students, where success cannot be measured in the same way brick and mortar schools assess student progress.   The EGUSD Virtual Academy provides new opportunities for learning which requires new forms of assessment.  From ADA verification to where and how our students learn, policy makers need to recognize education is changing and our students are changing what and how they learn. 

IFT - Pretend you just woke from being asleep for 5 years and during this time the most powerful ideas and approaches of the EGUSD Virtual Academy have expanded throughout public education. What would our school districts, schools, and classrooms look like?

ML - The EGUSD Virtual Academy is thriving.  We use state-of-the art technology in multiple ways. Every student is assessed virtually and we have programs that adapt to their learning needs.  Our schools are without borders.  Students are organized within learning cohorts. Students are exploring their education in 3-D Virtual Reality.  For example, when students are learning about volcanoes, they smell the sulfur and can feel the heat.  In other words, the learning process includes all our senses.  Students explore their ideas and interests.  The focus is on what they like and enjoy, what they are able to do and most important, their talents. It is more project based/relevant to everyday life. Students know they are successful. They are valued and are proud of their learning.  Students  support and are supported by their peers.   Students feel secure and loved and it all starts with the home. Students with their parents determine what is valuable and EGUSD Virtual Academy teachers, collaborating with parents and students makes it happen.  Finally, educators do not define student success. Students, working with teachers and parents, establish goals and work toward them to become positive contributing members of society.

IFT - Are there any other ideas or thoughts you would like to share about the EGUSD Virtual Academy?

ML - My final thought is that we educate our students so they are empowered; empowered to make a positive difference in the world: for themselves, their family and country.  That’s the goal of the EGUSD Virtual Academy.  For us, knowledge is power and self-knowledge is empowering.  

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