January 2016 Teacher Feature: Brian Blair
“Life is the hardest teacher, she gives you the test first and the lessons after.”
Hey teachers! The Teacher’s Academy is excited to kick off 2016 with an introduction to a high-tech, innovative 9th grade modern American history teacher from PA. (Yes, I used high-tech and history in the same sentence!) You’ll be inspired by his out-of-the-box approach to teaching and motivated to create your own digital lessons. It doesn’t matter what subject you teach or even the age, grade or ability level of your students. Mr. Blair’s custom learning experiences are cross-curricular, engaging and adaptable to a variety of academic levels.
Get ready, because this is not your typical history class and Mr. Brian Blair from Bucks County, PA has no interest in being a typical history teacher…
Through innovation, experimentation and communication, the lucky students in Mr. Blair’s classroom are obtaining the skills necessary for success in college and career while having a blast… in the past! Images of modern American history cover the walls of classroom 501. Louis Armstrong plays soft jazz music over-head as students file in and get settled. The 1920’s culture is the theme for today, and to bring them back in time, Mr. Blair begins class by allowing students to observe and discuss a political cartoon from that era. Even though they are separated by almost five generations, these savvy students are able to quickly observe striking similarities in the 1920’s culture and politics with our own 21st century society. Students are given time to discuss the fear and symbolism in the cartoon while connections are made to a current events article. The feel in the classroom is easygoing, safe and positive. His students seem to know what is coming and are excited to begin their exploration of the 1920s.
Exploring history does not happen merely in books in this classroom, rather learning occurs in a digital realm. Mr. Blair and his team of teachers have worked together to create digital learning experiences for students in grades 7 through 9. Using Web 2.0 tools, students have access to the “Course Site” where videos, advertisements, pictures, articles and teacher-created questions related to the content have been posted. (Teachers can also post questions or additional information while the students are working.) There is a “comments” section for student responses, and they can also access the videos and articles from a home computer. Students now have the freedom to review on their own or spend more time on an area they found interesting.
Creating an online curriculum takes planning and collaboration, but once the process is in place, the content comes to life. This method is certainly a major change in the way teachers can deliver curriculum, but it in no way diminishes the role of the teacher. In fact, the teacher becomes a crucial piece of the learning process by creating an environment that supports and challenges all students. In this environment, the teacher has more time to coach one-on-one or clarify misconceptions and enrich learning.
Back to the ‘20s…
As his students gather their laptops and head-phones, Mr. Blair directs them to digital “stations” that he created so his students can experience history in a whole new way. In Station #1 students are able to witness the popular roaring ‘20s dance craze “The Charleston.” A picture of the actual dance steps is posted in this station for adventurous students who want to get out of their seats and try a few steps. (Several do, to the delight of the rest of us!)
Station #2 introduces the dynamic changes in transportation that occurred in the ‘20s by allowing students to watch and/or read about Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight and understand how the assembly line allowed Henry Ford to build his Model T at the rate of 1 every 93 minutes!
“Oh my gosh! There is a kid doing The Charleston on the wing of a bi-plane!” Click on Station #3 and you get to see “barnstorming” the very real and death-defying entertainment of the 1920s. (Thank goodness for Steven Spielberg!)
As the students begin to immerse themselves in the videos, the classroom becomes more vibrant and exciting. Mr. Blair encourages the excitement by posting a few new pictures and tempting his students to check them out. “I think I just found my favorite barnstorming image and I’m posting it on the Course Site.” Frantically, the students search for the image. It’s a picture of a few men playing cards while flying on the wing of the plane. Hilarious? Well, his students think so!
Since 2011, Mr. Blair has been the department coordinator and catalyst for introducing Web 2.0 tools into the classroom. This has encouraged digital collaboration between teachers. He is a proud member of a talented team of 7-9th grade teachers also possessed with the ambition for creating amazing learning experiences for their students.
“I work with an incredible team of teachers in my department, in my building and in this district as a whole. They are all great collaborators and expose the students to high quality teaching and learning daily. We even have a member of our department here that is getting published and has a fledgling career as a historical rapper on iTunes.”
His decision to become the department coordinator did not come without some apprehension. With the support of his principal, his new roll allowed him to completely redesign curriculum delivery using the latest technology which has had lasting effects on the department and, more importantly, the students. He has incredible confidence and does not hesitate to take risks or experiment with ideas outside of the teaching “comfort” zone. He is aware that things will not always go perfectly, but taking risks is important for growth and change.
“I think the best advice for anyone in this profession is to not be afraid to try new ideas or experiment with new technology. I know at times we have a tried and true approach and we may not want to deviate from the norm, but some of my greatest moments as a teacher have evolved from trying a new digital platform or creating a screencast of content I used to stand in front of a class and deliver. We sometimes need to refine who we are and what we do. Sometimes it works and sometimes… it is dynamic…”
“The students need to be comfortable talking in this class,” he says with a wide smile.
I know exactly why he’s smiling. Student chatter can be quite uncomfortable for some teachers to accept, but learning to communicate effectively is a key skill that students will not learn by staying quiet. Of course, anyone who works with 13, 14 and 15 year old students can also understand the challenge to get any kind of valuable response! No doubt, these students were very comfortable discussing ideas with Mr. Blair, but most of the discussion happened between the students. Discussions about the political landscapes, the differences in the cultures, and the similarities in our hopes and fears were happening in small groups all around me. Mr. Blair supports students just enough so they are able to succeed independently and challenges others to dig deeper. Some students formed strong opinions based on the new information gathered from the videos but also from listening to their peers’ reactions. Many were practiced in the art of persuasion and used those skills to change minds. His students are expert communicators already.
Mr. Blair mentioned his team of teachers more than once and, to an outsider looking in, it is clear that this team of teachers has created an effective, fun way to accomplish many academic goals. Through collaboration and effective communication with each other, no one loses site of the end product.
History in the Making
Mr. Brian Blair began creating his own history in his junior year of high school. As a teenager, he would sit in his favorite class (social studies) and imagine ways of using different types of visuals or primary sources to make the lessons even more interesting. After graduating from Penn State, earning a Masters degree from Villanova and years of teaching experiences, Mr. Blair still imagines news ways to make his social studies class even more interesting!
He has been awarded by his district for in-house assessment services, worked for ETS, The National Board and currently contributes to Learning Bird.com. (As part of Learning Bird, he creates short educational videos to increase student engagement and keep education moving in a digital direction.) He runs a Claymation Camp with a fellow teacher at Bucks County Community College and has coached tennis and track for years. Like any respectable Pennsylvanian, he is an avid participant in fantasy football and could be considered an originator of that great pastime considering his family involvement since 1972. (Respect.)
Most importantly, Brian is the proud father of two little aspiring rock-star girls and a brand new baby boy! I must mention that he happens to be married to another fantastic teacher who was featured in our 2015 line-up of amazing teachers. J
Back to the 21st Century
The time flew by and I seemed to have been lost in the super fun, “roaring” ‘20s, because class was about to end and I was not prepared. I jumped to get my notes and continue my observation, but most of the students had filed out. So, I thanked Mr. Blair and started to leave.
Just before I walked out the door, I had a chance to ask one of Mr. Blair’s lingering students about the class.
“What do you think about your history class?”
“It’s pretty cool,” she responded.
“Well, what do you think about your teacher?”
She too gave me a wide, easy smile, “He makes class really fun!”
I’d have to agree, Lexi!
Thanks Mr. Blair, for being The Teacher’s Academy January 2016 Teacher Feature! You are truly making history!