This is the fifth post in my site visit to Charleston County School District in South Carolina. Read the first post on building the CCSD framework, the second on implementation strategies, and schools Pepperhill Elementary, Stall High, Goodwin Elementary, and Pinehurst Elementary.
Goodwin Elementary School is located in North Charleston, SC. 93 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, 70 percent are African-American and 25 percent are Hispanic. Goodwin serves students in child development (CD) through 5th grade. A big thank you to teachers Michelle Mazell, Kelly Vossler, and Shannon Feit for letting me visit their classrooms, and Jessica Lucas, Personalized Learning Coach, for sharing insights into Personalized Learning.
First Steps toward Personalized, Competency Education
Goodwin Elementary was the birthplace of Personalized Learning in Charleston County School District (CCSD). They began their journey during the 2012-2013 school year when a cohort of 12 teachers began exploring best practices for integrating 1:1 iPads as a tool for teaching and learning. “We read everything we could find about personalization and competency-based education,” said Lucas who was then a teacher at Goodwin. “We thought we were researching blended learning but quickly realized Personalized Learning was so much more.” Three months later, the District was awarded one of 16 Race to the Top District grants. The vision for Personalizing Learning across CCSD began to take shape shortly after.
A Conversation with Elementary School Teachers
I began my conversation with Ms. Mazell, Ms. Vossler, and Ms. Feit by asking them what lessons they had learned in their journeys to implement Personalized Learning. Ms. Mazell immediately jumped in, “I was a control freak. I had to learn to let go, and it was really hard for me. I couldn’t imagine that an elementary classroom could run so smoothly without the teacher controlling every minute of the day. However, once I observed a Personalized Learning classroom, I was totally convinced this was what was best for kids. The students are much more interested when they have ownership. I don’t have to worry anymore about the student who is totally disengaged. All students own their learning and they hold themselves and each other accountable for their behavior and mastery of standards.”
Ms. Vossler shared her fear of letting go, “Before Personalized Learning, we wanted every student to be at the same point in their learning at the same time. I’ve had to learn to let go of time being the driving factor and concentrate on learning being the goal. There are always a few kids who need a bit more time. I may have to work with them 1:1 for an extended period until they can demonstrate a skill, but then I know they have learned it. We use a learning plan to track their progression of learning so they know they are making progress.” Ms. Vossler emphasized that kids enter school with different skills, and for those who do not have the foundational skills, it may take more time, but that’s okay. The important thing is to set high expectations for all students to master their standards no matter where their entry point is in their learning. Ms. Vossler explained that another initial concern with Personalized Learning was whether it would be appropriate for primary students. However, Ms. Vossler says that the growth in learning was tremendous and her students were able to own their learning, even at 5 years old. Dr. Brittingham notes, “The strategies for Personalizing Learning can be implemented K-12. The content is different, but the strategies can be applied at any grade level.”
The teachers indicated that changing their culture and climate has been critical to their success. It has helped change their environment and has set the stage for changing instructional strategies. They have found goal setting to be impactful, especially when students are expected to set and track progress against their goals.
Meeting Students Where They Are
The teachers I visited during my trip to Goodwin are committed to all aspects of Personalized Learning. They believe that among the most powerful elements are meeting students where they are in their progression of learning, filling in gaps, and accelerating learning.
Ms. Mazell emphasized that Personalized Learning is really valuable for students who are behind grade level. “In my second grade classroom, I have some students at a kindergarten grade level and some who can manage fourth grade content. The students who start behind grade level are making significant growth and gains. We are setting goals with them in their reading levels, and they are really motivated to reach them. Teaching and learning this way has also allowed me to accelerate learning for those students above grade level. Personalized Learning is also increasing the amount that students read. The expectation is for students to read 25 books and all of my students exceed that goal. I even had one student top out at 78 books.” Ms. Feit added, “Students are reading more because they are discovering for themselves in science and social studies. They are engaging with texts all day long.” Vossler continued on the theme of reading. “I’m becoming more intentional about texts. I am starting to make connections in my planning so students are able to work on more than one standard at a time. Students are so much more aware of what they are learning and they are making their own connections.”
As we concluded our meeting, Dr. Brittingham reflected on the importance of a continuous improvement process and the impact it has had at Goodwin and across the District. “Goodwin was the first to jump into this work. If they had stopped innovating when something wasn’t successful, we wouldn’t have made any progress. Instead, we had a dedicated group of teachers who weren’t afraid to fail and try again. At Goodwin and across the District, we are working to develop a growth mindset. If something doesn’t work, we ask what we can do to improve it. As we find strategies that are successful, we share across schools. It has taken time, but now we have a model that can be implemented by any teacher who is willing think differently about teaching and learning. We are proud of what we have built and the principals and teachers who have helped us get here.” Dr. Brittingham noted that they will continue to improve and build on their Personalized Learning practices.