Interview with Rob Barnett: Modern Classrooms

Rob Barnett is the co-founder of Modern Classrooms Project, a teacher-created, research-backed instructional model that helps teachers respond to every student’s individual needs. What follows is a conversation between Rob and R.E.A.L. Discussion founder Liza Garonzik, which has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Liza: Rob, we’re so excited to be speaking with you today. Tell us: what is Modern Classrooms Project, and what is your mission? 

Rob: Well, thank you. I’m happy to be here. Modern Classrooms Project is a teacher-created, teacher-led organization that helps teachers meet every learner’s needs. My co-founder and I were math teachers in DC public schools, and we found it very difficult to teach in a way that would meet the needs of students who are advanced and ready for more; of students who were behind and got lost; and of students who weren’t there at all. We would stand at the front of the room and wonder: how can we possibly meet all these students’ needs? 

The answer was that we couldn’t, just by standing at the front of the room. We needed a different way. 

And so what we did, and what we do now, is…

We train teachers to create classrooms that are blended – meaning, we help teachers record instructional videos with some of their content, so instruction comes from the computer and also from the teacher.

That frees the teacher up during class to work individually and in small groups with learners. 

Our classrooms are also self-paced, which means learners have the time they need to learn material. When they’re ready to move on, then move on; if they need more time, they have the time they need. Our classrooms are also mastery-based, the idea being that you shouldn’t move on to something advanced until you’ve mastered the basics. We first did this ourselves in our own classrooms, then we helped our colleagues do it themselves. Now, we train teachers all over the world to make this model their own.

Liza: That certainly resonates with our spirit at R.E.A.L.; we’re teacher-created and teacher-led as well, and I appreciate your dedication to the needs of actual classroom-based teachers. 

In our first conversation, you told me that Modern Classrooms is not an edtech company – rather, you’re all about human skills. Can you talk to me about the role of technology in creating a classroom where, as you say, every child feels fully recognized for who they are and challenged at the appropriate level?

Rob: I found that when I was standing at the board, trying to teach something, it was really difficult for me to have high-quality interactions with my students and for them to have high-quality interactions with one another. I was usually yelling at them, trying to get them to be quiet. When they were quiet, they weren’t talking to one another, and nobody was happy. 

When I think about learning experiences that were meaningful to me, I was usually working directly with my teacher, or in a small group. It was an active kind of human experience. And so I thought, how can we replicate that in this classroom? The way to do that was kind of to clone myself, by taking the lesson I was giving at the board and putting it on video.

Now my students can come to class and pick up where they left off. They can watch my video there. They can watch it at home, they can watch it with their parents or their siblings. They can rewatch, they can skip ahead. I don’t have to spend my energy lecturing to a room full of unengaged kids. 

And I spend my time sitting down next to students, talking with them, getting to know them, maybe leading a small group discussion. And the students do the same thing. They don’t have to just sit there, staring at me. They can sit with their friends and work on something together. The technology has enabled a much more human learning environment.

Liza: I really appreciate the link you’re making between the importance of differentiating as a pedagogical tool. Teachers know they should differentiate – they should figure out a way for their content to hit both their high-fliers and the kids who need the extra scaffolding. But I think we  often forget about how empowering differentiation can be from the perspective of student autonomy and belonging. It’s empowering for a student to realize: I have choices I get to make based on what I’ve already done, and they might be similar or different from the choices that my classmates are making. 

Rob: When I think about education, the question I’m always wondering is: how does it feel to be a student in this classroom? How does it feel to be a teacher? I think, if you’re a student, and you’re ahead of pace, and you walk into a room where you’re going to get a whole-class lesson, you’re already bored. If you’re behind pace, you’re lost. And if you missed yesterday’s class, you’re not going to get it today. 

That’s what I think about when I think about differentiation being really meaningful to students. It’s a question of understanding how the student needs to feel when they walk in the room: that they’re both challenged and supported. Unfortunately, I think a lot of students don’t feel that way. 

Liza: What’s your sense of teachers? The teaching profession has always been hard, and right now it’s arguably more challenging than ever. In what ways is Modern Classrooms Project supporting teachers and specifically elevating teacher voice?

Rob: Great question. When they walk in the room, the teacher needs to feel that they can actually have fun, they can speak with their students, they can meet each of their needs, they can help them be successful. Nobody becomes a teacher to manage behavior – they become a teacher to be the coach and the mentor and the tutor of individual learners. 

When we talk about empowering teachers, or helping teachers, we want to create environments where they can feel successful. The whole Modern Classrooms Project is really just a community of teachers taking this approach, making it their own, and sharing it with one another. 

When I started using this approach in my classroom, my co-founder Kareem heard about what I was doing and made it his own, and then we shared it with our colleagues. I was a high school math teacher – I had no idea this could work in a middle school English class or a kindergarten classroom. But teachers heard about it, they did it, they found it worked, and now they’re sharing their stories.

Liza: One of the things that was so striking to me when I was looking at some of the Modern Classrooms materials is exactly what you’re talking about regarding the diversity and breadth of teachers who are using this approach to differentiation. It was amazing to me because they were clearly so diverse in so many ways, and yet what I saw and felt when I watched a gallery of teachers sharing their experience was that their passion for what they were doing was pretty darn uniform. 

That gave me energy as a viewer. And I wonder: do you think elevating teacher voice is also a strategy for reducing burnout? It just struck me that those Modern Classrooms teachers were lit up about what they were doing in their schools every day. 

Rob: I think teachers are passionate people. That’s why teachers give up jobs that are easier, jobs that pay more, because they have a passion for teaching young people. 

But to avoid burnout, teachers have to feel successful. It’s so hard to be an effective teacher, especially when you have students who are all over the place, and you don’t know how to meet all of their needs. That’s not the fault of teachers – that’s the fault of a system that is not designed to meet learner needs. So we have teachers who are frustrated with how things are going. They don’t know what to do differently, but they don’t want to leave the classroom because they love working with young people so much. 

And then some of them find us, and they think, “Wow, this is great! This works for me; this helps me be the teacher I want to be.” They’re excited to go to school the next day, and they’re excited to share about it. 

A lot of the teachers, I should say, have also gone through our certification process and work for us as expert mentors, and we hire them at $50/hour to train other teachers. As a teacher, there aren’t too many natural leadership opportunities to pursue. You feel like, well, I can be a principal, or I can pursue a different career. We’re trying to create an opportunity for teachers who love teaching to stay in the classroom, where they’re passionate, while also earning extra money by sharing what they know. And teachers are happy about that. 

Liza: At R.E.A.L., we really share your devotion to empowering teachers and dignifying the teaching profession. I know that Modern Classrooms is a nonprofit, which is inspiring, and your social impact is very clear. Who are some of your biggest supporters and some of the biggest believers in the Modern Classroom vision?

Rob: I think the biggest supporters and believers are the educators who have discovered us and take us where they go. In 2018, we trained eight teachers. In 2019, we trained 25. It felt like what we had was useful, so we created a free online course that anyone could take. And in 2020, we had 15,000 teachers from all over the world sign up.

They’re the ones who have taken us to their principals and their superintendents to say, “This really works, you need to bring this to our district.” Much of our support comes from contracts we have with schools and districts who see the value in this and pay us for it, even though we’re a non-profit. Everything comes from our educator advocates. 

The other way that we get support is we go to cities, and we ask funders if we can train teachers in their city. And they say yes, if you can find the teachers. So we don’t get the money unless we go out there and find teachers who are interested in doing this. We never have teachers forced to do this; they’re always opting in. Our whole business model is built on the interest of teachers.

Liza: I love that idea too, that while it is extremely teacher-centric and teacher-serving in a wonderful way, there are spaces in which other stakeholders in the education system can get involved. I think that, too, is powerful, because I do think there’s more support out there for teachers than is immediately evident. I can only imagine how powerful it is for communities to be able to invest in something like this and see it make an immediate difference in the lives of kids in their zip codes. 

Rob: That’s absolutely true. We’re very focused on teachers, but we couldn’t do the work without instructional coaches, principals, district leaders, and funders. They’re hungry for something like this, because they’re as invested as anyone in the success of young people in their communities. They are just looking for something that will work, because they understand how big the challenge is. 

Liza: To take a step back: those growth numbers you just referenced were staggering. Congratulations. What’s next? What does success look like in the next five years? What’s ahead for Modern Classrooms Project?

Rob: Since 2020, we’ve had about 60,000 teachers sign up for our free course. It’s part of our mission to give everything away for free: the only thing we charge for is the support of our expert mentors, because we want to pay them for the time. We’ve trained about 10,000 teachers through our Virtual Mentorship Program. It’s really our goal for every teacher to have the opportunity to meet every learner’s needs. 

Liza: That would be a pretty wonderful world, if every teacher could meet every learner’s needs and use technology thoughtfully to do that. I think, in a funny way, that would really restore humanity to our classrooms – both in terms of helping kids feel seen and recognized and challenged as individuals, and also in helping teachers feel purposeful and effective, and able to be to be the teachers they dreamed of being when they chose the profession. I’m certainly inspired by that vision. 

Rob: We used to show a Venn diagram of teachers and technology. In the middle, it focused on who’s training the teachers to use technology thoughtfully. That’s where we fit in – and we were the only ones there!

We have noticed something interesting in our free online course and our Virtual Mentorship Program.

At the beginning, 30% of people say they have a clear vision for how they’ll use technology to help students learn. When they leave the program, 95% say they understand how they’ll do it. 

Teachers are there, they have the technology, and they want to use it in a way that makes the classroom more human. 

Thank you, Rob, for sharing your story with us. You can learn more about Modern Classrooms and the important work they’re doing to enable all learners here

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