Phases of my classroom implementation: Suney Park, 6th grade

Khan Academy at Eastside College Preparatory School

Alma Suney Park

6th Grade Classroom


My career in teaching began in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois.  I taught 5th grade for five years before moving to California.  After a one-year teaching job in San Diego as a 6th grade math and science teacher, I moved to the Bay area and began teaching 6th grade at Eastside College Preparatory School.  Eastside College Preparatory School is a 6th-12th grade independent school in East Palo Alto whose mission is to serve students historically underrepresented in 4-year colleges.  Eastside students are the first in their families to attend college; they create a ripple effect, changing their own lives, the lives of their families, and the life of their community.  The 2013-2014 academic school year will mark my ninth year teaching 6th grade at Eastside. Eastside is an extended-day school with the day starting at 8am and ending at 5pm.  There is only one 6th grade class, 7th grade class, and 8th grade class.  The 6th grade class is the only self-contained class at Eastside.  I teach all subjects:  math, science, social studies, language arts, and reading.  Every year I have 24 sixth graders, all coming from different elementary schools in the neighborhood and surrounding communities.  Because it is a self-contained classroom, these new students are able to begin their Eastside journey as a tight-knit family.  Creating a close and safe class community is always my number one priority.  I believe that this must be the foundation in order for learning to take place. Part of the community-building is introducing the students to the new behavioral and academic standards/expectations.  I tell the students that they are in this together; that they must look out for one another’s well being and growth as a student.  We establish that every student is important, must be accepted just as they are, and unique in their strengths and areas to improve.  This sense of family and community has been vital to student success and to the successful implementation of Khan Academy into our math curriculum.
In the summer of 2011, my colleague (7th/8th grade math teacher, Jen Johnson) and I were approached about piloting Khan Academy in our classrooms.  Although I tried to keep a calm demeanor, my initial internal reaction was an emphatic “no!”  Being afraid of change and the thought of needing to learn and do one more thing on top of everything else, the idea of piloting something new made me anxious and overwhelmed.  I could have said no and I would have said no, but there was a part of me that knew change was necessary in my math instruction.  In all my years as a teacher (at that point 12 years), I was never satisfied with the way I was teaching math.  I was successful and creative in the lesson-making and delivery, but I knew that I wasn’t reaching and teaching every student.  I knew with certainty that there were students who were completely bored with the lesson because they had already learned and mastered the material in previous grades.  Then there were the students who were completely confused because I was moving too quickly without giving them enough time to comprehend and practice.   It was shameful and painful to know that my instruction was not meeting all the students’ needs.  I knew it, but I didn’t know how to address the problem.  I tried differentiating the class and material into three cohorts: low, middle, high.  I divided my classroom into three separate spaces for each group, and then I modified the material to challenge the high group and support the low group.  However, managing three groups in one classroom, creating three levels of practice materials, and also addressing individual student needs made this system almost impossible to sustain on my own.  It always started out strong with lots of purpose and momentum, but this action plan would eventually fizzle out due to problems with management, physical space, lack of time, and upkeep difficulties.  So, to make things easier, I would revert back to the “old” way of teaching; whole group lesson, same practice examples, same homework practice, and then same assessment.  If a student got it, good.  If a student didn’t get it, I’d try to find time after school or before school to offer help.  If there was no time, the student would move on with a huge “hole” in their math understanding, and I would feel terribly, terribly guilty.  I knew this wasn’t the right way to teach.  And so, despite my fear and trepidation, I agreed to learn more about Khan Academy.  After watching Sal’s TED talk and attending a Khan Academy workshop for teachers, I knew that I had to participate in the pilot program.  It was a possible solution to my desire to reach and teach every student.  Not participating would have compromised my integrity as a teacher.  The Khan Academy pilot began in the 2011-2012 school year and has continued ever since.



2011-2012 was the first year we introduced Khan Academy into the math curriculum at Eastside.  At the workshop, Khan Academy’s Implementation team inspired and motivated us about this innovative educational tool.  We were given the freedom to design and implement Khan Academy into our classrooms in any way we felt best.  The team offered some possible classroom models, and my colleague and I decided to begin by using Khan Academy as a supplemental resource that was separate from the math curriculum. Students would use it twice a week in forty-five minute time blocks.  This was my way of slowly and cautiously getting my toes wet with Khan Academy while still maintaining “control” of the math curriculum and my own teaching.  Although I was carving out time for this new way of learning, I refused to let it encroach on what I was already doing. Khan Academy was definitely “on the side”.

Although I was carving out time for this new way of learning, I refused to let it encroach on what I was already doing. Khan Academy was definitely 'on the side'.

This method of using Khan Academy as a tool for reviewing and practicing, separate from the curriculum, lasted for the first semester.  After several ongoing conversations with Elizabeth from the Implementation Team, I was encouraged to take the next step and implement Khan Academy into the math curriculum.  I knew that the way I was using Khan Academy in the classroom wasn’t maximizing its potential; I knew I was holding back for the sake of comfort and control.

I knew I was holding back for the sake of comfort and control.  If I really wanted to see the way Khan Academy could help me differentiate, reach, and teach students based on their own needs, I would have to step out of my comfort zone and take a risk.

If I really wanted to see the way Khan Academy could help me differentiate, reach, and teach students based on their own needs, I would have to step out of my comfort zone and take a risk.  It was a frightening thought, but I knew I had to press through the fear of the unknown.  As in all other areas of life, change is necessary for growth and progress.  It often involves struggle but will result in something better.  I trusted in this as I began opening myself up to Khan Academy, allowing it to disrupt my math class in hopes of replacing it with something stronger and better.
I spent a great deal of time between first and second semester trying to figure out how I could fold Khan Academy into my math curriculum.  How could I use it to help me teach the content to my students?  After days and maybe even weeks, an idea began to form, and soon after, I pictured some sort of syllabus/map that would include Khan Academy as a teaching resource.  This was the birth of the unit packets.  Each unit would have its own packet to guide the students through the content.  One column would list the learning objective, the second column would list the videos on Khan Academy that teach the topic, a third column would name the exercises on Khan Academy that students would need to practice and pass, and the final column would be a list of textbook lessons and practice pages that students would be responsible for.  Having this packet as a guide, students could move through the unit independently, slowing down if they needed help, and continuing forward if they were ready.  Peer tutoring and mini-lessons would be happening simultaneously alongside the independent work.  Students would be working at their own pace, getting individualized help, and working right where they should be.  I would be “free” during this time to teach/reteach small groups and help struggling students.  I could picture it, and when the day came for it to actually happen, it worked!   Because the behavioral, structural, and community norms had already been established since the beginning of the school year, moving my class into this next phase of Khan Academy was a smooth transition.  Kids were motivated, enthusiastic, and felt elevated with this new sense of independence and control over their learning.  I was holding my breath but then began to release and breathe.  I felt as though a miracle had happened; as though a “cure” had been discovered.  It all happened right there in my classroom, right before my eyes.
Finally, this math instruction was student-centered, based on student need and on individual capacity, each student was learning exactly what they were ready to be learning.  As I looked around the room, every single student was 100% engaged, and they looked so scholarly with their computers, journals, packets, and with the look of intent on their faces.  There was no boredom, spacing out, fooling around, or disinterest in their faces or body language; what I saw was complete engagement and learning.  It was a priceless and beautiful scene.
In this second phase of Khan Academy implementation, I was still holding back.  Yes, I did incorporate Khan Academy into my curriculum.  Yes, I did let students work at their own paces, allowing them to move forward or slow down based on their need.  Despite these two leaps, I knew there was another that I had to take.  Up until that point, students were able to work at their own paces, but only up to a certain point.  If the unit was Fractions, they could start and finish the unit work, but that was it.  I was not letting them proceed to the next unit.  Rather, I had them work on different projects related to Fractions until everyone in the class caught up to them.  Then, as a whole class, we’d move onto the next unit together.  The biggest reason for doing this was that I did not think I could handle the mayhem and pandemonium that could arise from more than one unit happening at one time in one classroom.  What would that look like and how could I manage all of it?  However, if I truly released control to let the students work at their own pace without holding them back or keeping them busy with extra work, I had to let them proceed to different units and new units.  I had to let go of those remaining reigns that were keeping my students where I wanted and needed them to be.  It was not 100% student-centered yet.


It was my responsibility to create a system where I could manage multiple units happening at the same time in the same classroom.  Creating this system became my mission for the summer preceding my second year of the Khan Academy pilot.  During this summer, I created all the unit packets for all the 6th grade math curriculum.  In addition, I created all the pre-tests and post-tests for each unit.  I also had to come up with meaningful and rich projects that could accompany each unit; projects that would foster conceptual understanding, problem solving skills, and projects that would bring the students together to foster community in the math class.  Everything had to be in place before the start of the school year because I had to be ready for the students who were ready to progress forwards.
In the second year of the Khan Academy pilot, my students worked through the units using Khan Academy, peer-tutoring, mini-lessons, and other resources to help them along the way.  At one given time, I discovered that there were no more than 3 units happening simultaneously.  Naturally, three cohorts were formed; a slower group, average group, and fast-paced group.  Peer-tutoring was happening in every direction and never waned with time.  Motivation levels. engagement, and enthusiasm remained consistently high as well.  Everyone had different goals, accomplishments, setbacks, and everyone knew where everyone else was.  Because they knew, they were able to help each other and celebrate with each other when challenges were overcome.


In the 2013-2014 school year, I’ll be making adjustments to and solidifying what was done in Phase 3 of the previous year.  Some of my goals for improvement are:
  • build a better bank of project ideas and problem solving practice
  • revise pre-tests so they are shorter and easier to grade
  • identify volunteer helpers at the start of the year and define their roles
  • find a way to turn the Percents/Proportions/Ratios/Rates unit into two separate units (lands)
  • establish stronger unit completion deadlines
  • review each unit packet to make sure all the videos and exercises are relevant, grade appropriate, and useful; remove extraneous items
  • in the unit packet, rather than list all the videos on the topic, pick only a few and make it a requirement for them to watch those videos