Author: Chris Sturgis

Red Bank Elementary School: Starting with the Pedagogy

February 4, 2016 by

2015-11-16 09.47.31This post is part of the series Competency Education Takes Root in South Carolina. This is the third in the series on Red Bank Elementary in Lexington School District. See the first on five big takeaways and the second on teaching students instead of standards

Throughout my visit to Red Bank, I had the opportunity to speak with educators. They were so very insightful that I did my best to capture the conversation in detail. Thanks to Marie Watson, principal; Jennifer Carnagey, literacy coach; Jamee Childs, technology specialist and instructional coach; Dawn Harden, assistant principal; and all the teachers, including Lauren Vann, Jennifer Denny, Susan Jennings, Sally Kathryn Deason, Tammy Ricard, and Jamie Sox.

How did you get started?

Principal Marie Watson explained that they used their summer retreats (they are voluntary) to begin to understand what is wrong with the traditional system. “You have to look at what is broken and own up to it. Teachers have to understand how the traditional system is impacting their teaching and their students. It becomes a felt need.”

The Red Bank team had book studies that used On Common Ground about professional learning communities, Larry Ainsworth’s work on formative common assessment, and Delivering the Promise. In a later conversation with teachers, they all agreed that Delivering on the Promise opened their eyes to what was possible.

“Once the majority of the teachers felt we needed to do something different, we organized training with Reinventing Schools Coalition,” continued Watson. “Teachers received training on the protocols and practices of designing a personalized classroom. Some teachers can take that and fly.” Others need more support and step-by-step instructions.

Jennifer Carnagey, literacy coach, explained that she was more hesitant, recounting her experience with, “It scared me at first. I’m not a risk taker. It felt like it was a huge ambiguous task, and I wanted to be told what to do. I kept thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t know if I’m doing it right,’ so I would keep on doing things the old way so I wouldn’t mess up. I finally learned that I needed to identify a few places where I did feel ready to jump in.”

Since that time, Carnagey has grown a lot. “I’m proud of the things I’ve done and learned to do,” she said. “What I’ve learned is that when you begin to see the vision of what personalized, competency-based education is, it doesn’t mean that it has to be that way immediately.” Her recommendation to teachers is to “just try something.”

Assistant Principal Dawn Harden emphasized this point with, “Teachers need to understand it is a progression. It’s just like learning for kids is a progression.” (more…)

Red Bank Elementary School: Teaching Students, Not Standards

February 3, 2016 by

This post is part of the series Competency Education Takes Root in South Carolina. This is the second in the series on Red Bank Elementary in Lexington School District. See the first on five big takeaways.

Red Bank Elementary offers a great example of how districts can take a big step toward high quality competency education by allowing schools to move ahead when ready. It’s also an example that schools can go far down the path when districts don’t hold them back from innovating.

It says a lot about the leadership at Lexington School District that they have been supportive of Principal Marie Watson and the team at Red Bank as they took the enormous step five years ago to work with the Reinventing Schools Coalition to transform their school into a personalized, competency-based school. Susan Patrick and I had just completed the scan of competency education five years ago and hadn’t even started imagining CompetencyWorks at that time. It’s this kind of district leadership, to support innovation wherever it develops, that is needed to transform medium and large districts.

Red Bank Elementary is in the Lexington, South Carolina district a bit outside of Columbia. The school serves a socioeconomic mix of 580 students with about 56 percent FRL. The school has a bilingual Spanish Immersion program serving 30 percent of the students. Many of the families were hard hit by the flooding in the fall of 2015. Another thing you should know – South Carolina has its own set of standards, called the College and Career Ready standards, that have been described to me by one educator in my travels in the state as a “tweaked version of the Common Core.”

What’s Happening in Red Bank Classrooms

Red Bank is entirely organized around learning and leadership (leadership is a district initiative). It starts before you even walk in the door of the school with a sign for students coming in late: “Parents please check in at the office, learning has begun.”

The dominant feeling is of a quiet joy mixed with a good dose of respect, hope, and aspirations. There are lots of hugs, constant reminders of the qualities of leadership that everyone is aspiring to, and clear, clear, clear focus on learning. Staff are unified by a commitment to do better for kids and to intentionally improve their school based on a clear set of values and understanding of learning and teaching. After spending a few hours at Red Bank, I just wanted to do my personal best (it may have been the sign that says Everything you need is already inside you that gave me that lift).

Red Bank has taken many of the rituals of personalized learning that I’ve seen in other schools, mixed it with the The Leader in Me program, and then lifted it up into almost every aspect of the school. For example, two students, Hunter and Reilly, gave me a tour of the school, guiding me through hallways named Kindness Avenue, Creativity Lane, Perseverance Path, and Compassionate Way. Hunter and Reilly talked to me about what they like to study, when they like to do their work on a computer and when they like to work in a group, and how they get to make things, “really make things, like windmills” in STEM class. (more…)

Red Bank Elementary: Five Big Takeaways

February 2, 2016 by

2015-11-16 08.46.17This post is part of the series Competency Education Takes Root in South Carolina. This is the first in the series on Red Bank Elementary in Lexington School District.  

Amazing that a five-hour site visit at Red Bank Elementary School with Principal Marie Watson, her staff, and the students could produce so many big takeaways.

Teaching Students, Not Standards: At one point, Watson referred to the difference between standards-based and competency-based education. I asked her how she differentiated these two phrases, which are often used interchangeably. Her insight was so powerful that I’m now embracing it myself. She said that in standards-based systems, the schools teach based on the grade level. The focus is on the standards. Competency-based is about teaching students, starting where they are in their own development and academic level and then ensuring they reach proficiency on the standards. You start with the students. (This is the concept that most of the vendors of grading and tracking systems can’t seem to get their heads wrapped around. They keep creating systems based around the standards in a grade level or course.)

Intentional Blending: There is a lot of talk about models in the world of blended learning, but much less about pedagogy and how the instructional delivery choices reinforce it (or not). The team at Red Bank starts with pedagogy and building a shared understanding of how students learn as well as the implications for teaching before they make choices about products and apps. They think about whether products will support the development of higher order skills (they use the 4 Cs – creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking – as the criteria for making purchasing choices).

Competency Education for the Littlest Ones: Red Bank has one kindergarten class serving four-year-olds and one serving five-year-olds. Watson and the kindergarten teachers helped me to think about how important it is to understand the developmental stages of children and their brain development, especially when it is impacted by poverty. Watson explained, “Some students haven’t had exposure to colors or how to write their name. Some have rarely had books read to them. The idea of letters is totally new to them. It is their developmental stage that shapes whether they take off once they become exposed to new ideas and new skills, or whether they are going to take more time to build these early foundational skills. We have to pay attention to how their memory is developing as well as their motor skills. Some students may take three or four years to reach the level of development they need to become strong readers and learn their numbers with enough fluency that they can thrive in mathematics. We often see them take off and catch up at this point.”

This makes me wonder: Would it be useful to make the interplay between development and standards more explicit for teachers and parents so personalized learning trajectories could be created? If a student’s brain hasn’t developed enough to memorize 1-100, why would we expect them to do so? Wouldn’t it be more valuable to help them strengthen their skills at memorization first? Or perhaps what we need are bands or benchmarks rather than grade-level standards? (more…)

January CompetencyWorks Catch-Up

February 1, 2016 by

Calendar Page JanHere are the highlights from January 2016 on CompetencyWorks. Happy reading. And let us know if you have questions you want us to delve into!

Maine Road Trip Series

RSU2

Wells High School

University of Maine at Presque Isle

Northern Maine Education Collaborative

(more…)

Northern Maine Education Collaborative: High Aspirations

January 29, 2016 by

Northern Maine CollaborativeThis post is part of the Maine Road Trip series. 

While visiting with President Linda Schott and Provost Ray Rice at the University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI), I learned about the Northern Maine Education Collaborative (NMEC), which was formed by seventeen districts to implement proficiency-based learning. Through its partnership with UMPI, NMEC is located downstairs from the President’s Office. Luckily, the stars were aligned and I had a chance to meet with David Ouellette, Director of the Central Aroostook Council on Education and the coordinator of NMEC.

Ouellette is a long-time educator in northern Maine, including having served as a principal. He described the community as “low income and high aspirations. We expect our kids to do well. They may leave to pursue education and jobs. However, we expect them to eventually come back here. This has been the foundation that has enabled us to be progressive in taking the initiative to improve education.”

Ouellette explained that the districts in Aroostook County are very interested in proficiency-based learning but have wanted to let the effort get grounded before they take substantial steps forward. He said, “We have learned that there can be a danger in getting too far out front. Previous efforts such as building new systems of assessments have died of their own weight.”

As he described the collaborative efforts of the seventeen districts in NMEC, it didn’t sound as if they were hanging back at all. In fact, because of the deep commitment to building the system together and with UMPI as a partner, what I was hearing was an intentional strategy that would ultimately create a relatively seamless, countywide proficiency-based system. The NMEC was formed because the districts knew that proficiency-based diplomas are a statewide policy and that there are cost-savings to be found if they coordinate their efforts. Lois Brewer, Assistant Superintendent, RSU 39 and Rae Bates, Curriculum Coordinator, RSU 29 are the co-chairs.

NMEC started by studying proficiency-based learning. They then began to make decisions together about instruction, habits of work, and information systems. Ouellette enthused, “It’s been quite an adventure. How lucky we are! These seventeen districts have come together in this time in history to create a system stretching from PreK-16. They have done some groundbreaking things by making countywide decisions.” For example, they are using the Art and Science of Teaching as a foundation for instruction and evaluation. The districts are all using iObservation to support evaluation and instructional improvement. They are adopting Habits of Mind as a strategy to support students in building the skills identified in Maine’s Guiding Principles. Finally, they are investing in the purchase of Empower (it’s the 2.0 version of the information management system Educate) to track student progress. They are working with the team that created Empower so they can build the local capacity to use its functionality and continue customizing it as needed. (more…)

University of Maine at Presque Isle: Eliminating Remediation

January 27, 2016 by
UMPI President Linda Schott

UMPI President Linda Schott

This post is part of the Maine Road Trip series. This is the last in a three-part series on the University of Maine at Presque Isle. Read the first overview here and the second post on a faculty perspective.

One of the most fascinating discussions that was woven throughout my day at the University of Maine at Presque Isle was about the potential (and issues) of deeper alignment with high schools.

Linda Schott, President of UMPI, pointed out that creating the opportunity for students to build college credit while in high school is very important for their students. “Seventy percent of our students are eligible for PELL. High school students earning college credits are saving a huge amount of money, as the cost to them is $15 per credit instead of $220. For many who are going to be the first in their families to go to college, they are learning that they can do college level work. Dual enrollment helps students financially, can speed up the time to degree completion, and of course we hope that they will want to come to UMPI.”

Ray Rice, Provost, described the changes to dual enrollment in a proficiency-based system with, “We have always organized a little bit of early college and dual enrollment with a few of the districts in the county. With the introduction of proficiency-based learning at UMPI, we are retooling the process to meet the expectations of high quality pedagogy and transparent learning objectives, with the high school teachers becoming adjunct professors. UMPI faculty review the syllabus and the summative assessments as well as norming the rubrics in a process to calibrate at a college level.”

According to Rice, UMPI faculty are learning from high school teachers about practices used in proficiency-based learning and vice versa. In addition, the dual enrollment coordinator is now playing a catalytic role in helping to build up a set of proficiency-based dual enrollment courses. Of the sixteen high schools in the county, UMPI is currently working with five of them. (more…)

UMPI: Faculty Perspective

January 25, 2016 by
Scott_Dobrin

Dr. Scott Dobrin, Assistant Professor of Biology

This post is part of the Maine Road Trip series. This is the second in a three-part series on the University of Maine at Presque Isle. Read the first overview here or continue with the third post on eliminating remediation.

During my visit to University of Maine at Presque Isle, I had the chance to meet with Scott Dobrin, an Assistant Professor of Biology, to hear about his experience in moving toward proficiency-based learning. He has been wanting to organize a course that would look at consciousness from several perspectives (such as scientific, philosophical, literary, and psychological) for a while. When the opportunity for designing a proficiency-based course arose, he and Lea Allen, an English professor, proposed designing a course for freshmen on consciousness. The first discussion centered on the question of, “What do we want the students to get out of the course? There is no way they are going to learn everything about consciousness in one semester. So we had to identify the learning objectives that we wanted them to do really well.”

They designed the course by identifying themes, out of which they would then build the text, movies (such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Matrix), and other activities to engage the students. As students engaged in questions regarding consciousness, they then began to develop presentations to capture their analysis and ideas. Thus, in addition to building a base of knowledge, exploring and analyzing complex issues, students built up the workplace skill of organizing and communicating complex ideas.

Our conversation moved to what is different in his biology classes now that they are proficiency-based. As Dobrin put it, “The pedagogy shows you that lecture doesn’t work well. Proficiency-based learning is about students being active and engaged. So now my classrooms are much more about activity than pure lecture. I use the flipped classroom and then develop ways for students to be active in the classroom. My classroom is totally different.” He noted that he hasn’t been able to find all the videos he needed, so he has been making his own videos that are organized to be more “bite-sized and streamlined.” He pointed out, “I tell my students that there is zero possibility for you to be a passive learner in this classroom and get anything out of it. You need to participate and stay on top of things.” (more…)

University of Maine at Presque Isle: Moving at the Speed of Light

January 20, 2016 by

Speed of LightThis post is part of the Maine Road Trip series. This is the first in a three-part series on the University of Maine at Presque Isle. Continue reading with the second post on UMPI faculty perspective and the third on insight into eliminating remediation.

I’m a newbie when it comes to understanding competency education in institutions of higher education (IHE). At the highest level, competency education is the same for higher education as it is for K-12. However, the policy and market context are so, so, so different that I tend to listen carefully for the variations. Furthermore, most IHE are creating competency-based programs to expand the options available for students.

Not so at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. This college is turning proficiency-based from top to bottom (or at least as far as the policy constraints will allow). And they are doing so “at light speed.” What this means is that in a few years, when you travel beyond the end of US 95, you will find what I think will be the first aligned proficiency-based K-12/higher education system. I’m getting goose bumps just writing this! [Note: Given that Maine has a catalytic policy to introduce proficiency-based diplomas across the state, UMPI uses the term proficiency-based, whereas the phrase competency-based is generally used in higher education.] (more…)

Wells High School: The Timeline to Transformation

January 19, 2016 by

WellsThis post is part of the Maine Road Trip series.

The sign that greets you as you drive into Wells, Maine labels the town the friendliest in Maine. Certainly the young women working at Aroma Joe’s, where I stopped to get my caffeine fix on a brilliant fall day, were over-the-top friendly.

Wells High School is situated along the Maine coast, serving a student population of 440 students running at about 18 percent FRL. This means the school has to mitigate a huge gap in terms of social and educational capital available to students outside of school. They are doing very well with a 98.4 percent four-year graduation rate, the highest in Maine. (more…)

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