Author: Courtney Belolan

Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Supporting Learners with Common Language

February 17, 2017 by

This post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on January 20, 2016. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

Have you ever visited a classroom, or a team, or a school, and felt like there was some kind of secret code the members all shared? Perhaps the learners and teachers were using hand signals, or using specific words and phrases which clearly had a meaning that was understood by all the learning community members. The communication took very little effort, and happened quickly and smoothly. Classrooms and schools that have successfully shared and sustained a common language are special places with an environment prime for powerful learning.

Without a doubt, shared language contributes to a positive culture. When a group has special words and gestures that mean something to them, it binds the group together. The benefits of using a common language across classrooms and grades extends beyond culture, into academic learning as well. Common language removes barriers to learning, allowing learners to move between physical spaces without having to move between too many mental spaces. This in turn increases transference of skills and knowledge between contents and disciplines.

For example, a middle school team decided to work on the idea of problem solving with their learners. They had notices that the learners were waiting for the adults to give them solutions in a variety of situations ranging from a broken pencil to deciding what to write about for a story. Rather than have a different process in each classroom, the team decided to use a common set of steps for solving problems. The team also agreed to use the same language and explicitly make the connection between the problem solving steps and their content.

CB1

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Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Revisiting the Vision

February 10, 2017 by

calendarThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on January 4, 2016. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

January, the start of a new year and at the same time the middle of a year. In the rest of our lives outside of school we are all thinking about new starts, reflecting on the successes and struggles of the previous year and laying plans for embracing what we have learned in order to grow and move forward. In contrast, many of us in school are picking up with a new learning opportunity and continuing along the content marathon of the school year. This year, why not take some time for reflection in school as well?

We all know that using the first hours and weeks of a new school year are optimal for setting culture in our classes and buildings. Turning the culture over to the learners, by engaging them in vision crafting and creating codes of conduct, is a powerful move for establishing a learner centered community that fosters learner agency. It is even more powerful when sustained over the course a year. A culture that fosters learner agency is the cornerstone of learner centered proficiency based learning. It is worth taking the time to revisit, review, reflect, and revise.

Once we get into the groove of content and targets it can be a challenge to find the time for culture sustaining work. It is easy to fall into the pattern of valuing content completion over the nurturing of a learner-centered culture. Now is a great time to revive attention to the culture in our classes and buildings, and it does not have to be overwhelming or complicated at all. Here are some ideas to get you and the learners you work with reflecting on how the year has gone so far, and how to move even closer to their vision of the learning environment they want. (more…)

Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Accountable Talk

January 13, 2017 by

classroomThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on December 15, 2016. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

I cannot think of a subject area, or class, in schools today in which we are not working with learners on articulating thinking. We regularly ask learners of all ages to put forth an idea then explain their reasoning in support of that idea. In English Language Arts we might ask readers to say what kind of person they think a character is, and use evidence from the book to explain why they think that. In Science classes we ask learners to form a hypothesis then use observations and data to prove their hypothesis correct or incorrect. In Social Studies we might ask learners to argue why a particular historical figure was a strong leader. In art and music classes we ask artists and performers to critique works and performances, using observations and knowledge of technique to support their judgments. I’m sure you’ve thought of an example from other contents in which learners are expected to share, or exchange, ideas and why they hold those ideas. This is very important work, and sometimes difficult work.

An education trend well worth embracing is accountable talk. Accountable talk is the process of learners sharing their thinking with others, and engaging in thoughtful discussion with others about those ideas. When learners work through an accountable talk experience, they go beyond simply sharing ideas and thinking. They discuss similarities and differences in their ideas and reasoning with the the ideas and reasoning of others, and work towards clarifying any confusion or misunderstandings between group members. Not only does engaging in this work deepen understanding, it builds a foundation for respectful and civil discourse, an essential lifelong skill we surely want our future learners to be well versed in.

Each part of accountable talk can be challenging, especially for learners not used to practicing this kind of conversation. When first starting with accountable talk it is best to give learners some scaffolding. There are two important scaffolds to begin with: modeling and talk prompts. Modeling gives them a concrete example of what the accountable talk process looks and sounds like. Talk prompts give them a concrete way to start. Below are some examples of talk prompts for different ages and contexts. Think about the learners you work with, and which ones will work best for them. Remember scaffolding is meant to be temporary. Once learners are successful, begin to remove the scaffolds. (more…)

Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Steps to Grow Learner Autonomy

December 21, 2016 by

suppliesThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on December 9, 2016. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

Choice in learning is an essential element of the Applied Learning philosophy. When learners have a say in the what, where, when, and how of their learning both engagement and autonomy flourish. Sometimes when we start thinking through choice in the learning environment our minds swing to the extremes. We imagine a place where the learners direct everything.

How successful our learners are with directing their own learning depends greatly on the supports we put in place, and then take away, as learners gain skills and confidence. Here is a sequence of steps to take with learners who are just beginning to take on the responsibility for their own learning-related decision making. This step system will work well during the input and processing phases of the learning process.

  1. Two Choices, Repeat Tomorrow: Offer learners the choice between two activities or resources to interact with. Both choices should be clearly connected to learning targets and/or foundational knowledge. Repeat the choices again the next class day. Support learners to keep track of their choice for day 1, so they can independently move on the other option. Some ways to do this:
  • Make a T chart on the board with the choice options, and have students put sticky notes with their names on the day 1 choice.
  • Give them a very simple work planner, or goal setting sheet
  • Put popsicle sticks with learner names in cups for choice 1 and choice 2

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Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Applied Learning and W2AL

December 9, 2016 by

h20This post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on November 30, 2016. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

There has been some confusion here in RSU2 as of late about what Applied Learning is. So, let’s take a few moments to clear some things up. First, Applied Learning is NOT an IT. Applied Learning is a philosophy, a set of principles for instruction and includes some specific filters for instructional decision making:

Students working their way through a well defined continuum of learning using their passions to create a path and choose how they will demonstrate their understanding of the learning. Applied learning opportunities include:

  • inquiry based in driving questions or problems
  • choice in learning process (input, process, output)
  • learning put to use, not simply tested
  • reflection on learning

As you can see, there is no one prescribed way to “do” Applied Learning. As long as a teacher, or team, is living up to the philosophical framework the learners are working in an Applied Learning environment. Design thinking, project-based learning, place-based learning, Expeditionary Learning, game-based learning, service learning, and any other x-based learning you can think of can all fit under the umbrella of Applied Learning. That is exactly how we use the term Applied Learning here at RSU2. It is an umbrella term to hold all of the different ways a teacher, team, or school could approach learner centered, proficiency based education. The key is that an applied learning opportunity includes all of the philosophical aspects; without them the learning opportunity cannot be considered to be Applied Learning. An Applied Learning opportunity can happen in any class, in any content, at any time, with any teacher. (more…)

Crucial Mindsets

November 17, 2016 by

love-of-learningIn order to transition to an effective learner-centered proficiency-based community, we have to make some important shifts in our stances as educators. Sometimes these shifts are subtle and nuanced. Other times they are clear and straightforward. Focus on and change in instructional practices will only take a learning community so far if the underlying philosophical stances do not change.

Before we go any further in exploring some of the crucial mind shifts, take a moment to check in on your own stances using the following survey. Take your time with it, and be completely honest. This survey is completely anonymous and for reflection purposes only. Emails and names are not being collected. You will be able to see a breakdown of how people responded.

Personalized Learning Check In

Now that you have checked in, honestly, with your educational stances, let’s talk about where we really need to be operating from in order to truly have a learner-centered proficiency-based learning community. (more…)

Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Making Targets Visible…Really

October 28, 2016 by

aimThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on October 18, 2016. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

We all know that making learning transparent is a key element of learner-centered proficiency based education. We’ve all gotten the memo: have targets posted. Many people have even taken posting targets a step further and posted all the learning targets for an entire project, course, or year. All of these methods can be a solid part of making learning targets and progressions visible to learners. The important thing to remember is that making learning really visible is about much more than simply slapping a learning target up on the wall; It is about developing learner agency. When learners know what it is they are supposed to be learning, and where that fits in the bigger picture of what they have to learn, motivation and engagement go way up.

If the goal is supporting learner agency, and not simply the posting of the target, we have to think differently about how we use targets. As a start, here are some target-posting pitfalls to be aware of, and some ideas about how to sidestep them and make the learning truly visible.

Pitfall #1: They Are Posted, And Rarely or Never Referred To

The point of having learning targets, or anything really, on the walls of a classroom is to have a visual reminder for learners. But anything that gets put up on the walls and ignored might as well be old wallpaper. Relying on the off chance that learners will notice or refer to them, even after being shown where they are, is not a successful strategy.

Sidesteps:

  • Have a consistent place in the room where current targets are posted
  • Point to the posted learning targets whenever you mention them
  • Mention the current learning targets at the start of every lesson

Pitfall #2: They Are Posted, And Are Too Small To Read From The Class Seats

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Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: The Perennial Homework Question

October 14, 2016 by

mathThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on September 29, 2016. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

Just the other day a colleague sent me a note saying “please post about homework!” I can’t say I’m surprised, the homework question is one of the perennial questions in education; I even wrote about it last year. And like a stubborn weed, it spawns and shoots many other questions:

  • How much homework should students have?
  • Is homework for practice or learning?
  • Is it fair to assign homework that relies on internet access?
  • What is the purpose of homework?
  • How does homework count, if at all?
  • Does everyone have to do the same homework?

The truth is that despite all of the research compiling on the effectiveness of homework, the answer is a big thorny “depends.” Under the right conditions, homework can be a fantastic support for learners moving ahead and growing with their skills and knowledge. Under the wrong conditions, homework can actually be detrimental to learning. In a learner-centered proficiency-based culture, the homework weed can be even more noxious and thorny. We need to be considering the right conditions for every learner, every day.

If we step back and think about homework through the lens of personalized learning, we can come to some clarity around homework in our schools. Here are some questions to ask yourself about homework, and some resources to help you tame this weed. (more…)

Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Moving to a Culture of Cooperation

October 7, 2016 by

paintThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on September 16, 2016. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

The other week I sat in on a new teacher meeting at one of the elementary schools here in RSU2. The group, which included teachers new and new-ish to teaching or the school as well as teachers further into their careers, discussed ideas from the Responsive Classroom book The First Six Weeks of School. One comment in particular stood out, and has been bouncing around in my head ever since. I’ve even mentioned it to other teachers and teams who are working through culture building.

“.. it struck me this year that even with all the work I do in my room around building culture, the students still tend to see it as an adult-pleasing thing. When I am there everything runs well, but I often get notes from subs that sound like a completely different class.”

I think this is super important for all of us to think about. How are we working to make sure the culture we are building in our classroom and teams is also part of a larger school-wide culture? I have some ideas: (more…)

Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Starting the Year Off Strong

September 9, 2016 by

Back to SchoolThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on September 2, 2016. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

Welcome back! Students are back, and the buildings feel alive again. It is the end of the third day, and we are already settling into the year. As you and the learners get ready to start new learning adventures this year, keep these ideas in mind:

1. School and Classroom Culture Is Dynamic
Many teachers spend time at the start of the year working with the students to build culture. This is a hugely important step to creating the environment needed for learner centered and proficiency based systems to be successful. Even more important is setting up a plan for maintaining culture, and keeping it alive throughout the year. Visions, codes of conduct, SOPs, Flowcharts, all of these culture tools need to grown and change in response to feedback from the day to day, week to week, and month to month life of the classroom. Here are some ways to plan for culture maintenance from pK-graduation:

– regular team/class meetings (as much as every day, as little as once a month)
– a Parking Lot
– regular, simple self reflection on the vision and code of conduct
– recognition based on the vision and code of conduct (more…)

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