Category: Insights into Implementation

Lessons from a Social Studies Teacher: Work Study Practices Matter in a Competency-Based High School

May 22, 2017 by

Competency-based schools work to separate the reporting of academic performance and behavior into separate categories as a part of their effort to move from compliance to competency. For many teachers and students, this is a very difficult transition. What we all recognize is that behaviors that lead to learning are still important and can not simply vanish from the school entirely. Instead we need to continue to address them and instruct them so our students are competent academically and possess well-developed employable skills. There are many names for these types of skills; our district uses Work Study Practices, developed by the state, and is working to improve how we instruct and assess them in our schools. It is a work in progress but essential to student success at all levels.

Lesson #1: All students at all levels benefit from instruction in work study practices.

Nothing drives me more crazy than when teachers talk about how students should already know how to do things, and this type of conversation happens a lot when talking about work study practices. We wouldn’t assess students on academic material we haven’t taught them, but teachers do that with work study practices. Teachers expect students to be mindreaders and know what they are looking for in terms of creativity, collaboration, self-direction, and communication even though it may look different with any given assignment. The simple truth of the matter is that students need developmentally appropriate instruction in order to understand the expectations for collaboration on a group project so that they can work to meet them, just like they need to know how communication might be different on a digital assignment versus an oral task. Just like with academic competencies, they need a target so they can navigate their path to success.

Lesson #2: Reflection is an important key to success for students who are practicing work study practices.

Providing students with the opportunity to reflect on work study practices is the key to them internalizing them and applying what they have learned outside of the classroom. Students have the opportunity to identify how their behaviors have impacted their success on a given task: are they contributing to or detracting from the results? I have found that asking students to write about how they have demonstrated one or more of the practices by providing examples of positive behaviors has led to increased success, and it doesn’t take very long to see changes. Another important factor when talking about collaboration is to allow for student groups to reflect together on what they are doing well and what they can improve on the next time they are together. Reflection may look different depending on the age of the students in class, but it needs to be present so students can take ownership of their progress and internalize the experience for future tasks, whether they are in school or in the workplace. (more…)

Lessons from a Social Studies Teacher: The Power of Interdisciplinary Work in a Competency-Based School

May 4, 2017 by

Interdisciplinary projects in a high school provide students with amazing opportunities to learn and grow. Though they can be incredibly valuable experiences, many teachers may face some pretty significant challenges depending on the structure of your school. So I will preface my observations by saying: We can do this in our school because it is valued by the administrators who have helped put people together who believe in it and created a schedule with the flexibility we need to make it work. Similarly, our school has developed small learning communities of teachers in different content areas who share the same students, thereby making interdisciplinary work possible. Finally, our schedule allows for teachers who share students to have common planning time to develop and implement interdisciplinary assignments and common assessments during the year. I recognize that not all schools have these structures in place, which might make this kind of work more challenging but does nothing to diminish its value.

Lesson #1: Two (or three) heads are better than one.

Working with competencies gives me the flexibility to choose a path for my students to demonstrate competency, which means I can select the content, resources, and experiences I want my students to explore. It also means that I can sit down with the biology and/or English teacher and we can look for places in our courses where we can find opportunities to create something together. Each of us can identify what we need our students to demonstrate on a particular performance task, and we can build on each other’s ideas in a way that textbook teaching doesn’t allow. As a result, our students have a richer, more diverse experience and we become better teachers. My favorite example of this is the emergency response plan we have our students write for all three of our classes. In English, they read The Hot Zone by Richard Preston about ebola in the United States; in Your Government, Your Money (a social studies class), we look at government agencies that are tasked with protecting the public from emergencies; and in Biology, they study how viruses and bacteria can be dangerous. This work is all happening at the same time in our classes, and students are totally immersed in the project.

Lesson #2: Get students excited about their learning.

Student engagement is one of our school district’s three pillars, something we are all focusing on and working to improve. This pillar is one of the reasons for doing this type of interdisciplinary work. They are more invested in what they are doing in each class because it is relevant to what they are learning in other classes and it’s not just another assignment done in isolation. Students have the opportunity to make connections between their classroom experiences and apply what they are learning in biology to what they are reading in English and what they are studying in Your Government, Your Money. Educational research tells us that making connections is a fundamental piece of learning for the long term, not just for now, and this is a natural way to help students connect to what they are learning and to increase their curiosity. For example, during our interdisciplinary units, it is not uncommon to overhear students in the hallway talking about the gross new information they learned about their contagion or the new facts about discrimination (the focus of another project we do) that have them outraged. (more…)

What Does Personalized Learning Mean for Teachers?

April 28, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on March 28, 2017. 

As families, communities, parents, teachers and students around the country have deep conversations around how to transform schools to better prepare each student for future success, many schools are implementing personalized learning models to best meet the unique needs of each student and prepare all students for a lifetime of success (simultaneously).

Good teachers have always sought to match their teaching to the unique needs of each student – by offering options to dig deeper into an assignment for advanced learners or by offering additional support or a modified assignment to struggling learners.

Yet, doing so for a class of 20 to 30 students has been simply impossible for every student, in every lesson, every day with a single teacher and a single textbook.

It’s time for empowering educators to personalize learning. Now, thanks to new designs, tools and approaches, teachers can provide every student with powerful, personalized learning experiences. Teachers find this empowering and motivating.

In personalized learning models, educators’ roles are more important than ever as they design customized approaches, their professional expertise is valued and respected. In fact, many teachers explain that one of the biggest benefits of personalized learning is that they can “get back to the reason I became a teacher.”

Teachers prefer personalized learning for these reasons: (more…)

The Illinois CBE Initiative: Overview and Reflections

April 17, 2017 by

The Illinois State Board of Education has announced the districts that will be participating in the 2017 Competency-Based Learning Pilot for high schools: Chicago, East St. Louis School District, Huntley Community School District, Kankakee School District, Peoria Public Schools, Proviso Township, Rantoul Township High School, Ridgewood High School District, Round Lake Area School, and Williamsfield Schools. A quick overview of the pilots are below.

This is an exciting initiative although I do have a few concerns:

  • Some (but not all) of the pilots seem too small. At CompetencyWorks we recommend school-wide strategies. There will always be roll-out strategies, of course, but the goal is to have school-wide as quickly as possible. Some of these pilots look more like exploration than transition strategies.
  • I hope that the IL districts will take the time to learn from others around the country. There is a lot known already about how to design high quality competency-based alternative schools and how to help students build the skills for becoming independent learners (such as starting with a growth mindset). Based on the descriptions, there is a lot of emphasis on clarifying the standards (not sure if the focus is still on delivering grade level standards or meeting students where they are), creating flexible learning environments, and expanding formal pathways rather than on building strong cultures of learning, helping students build skills for owning and managing their learning, and supporting teachers in building their skills to personalize instruction.
  • It’s not clear that these districts or their school boards have actually made a commitment to competency-based education or have engaged their communities in defining what they want for their students. We’ve learned that any district taking CBE seriously is going to want to roll back to feeder schools pretty quickly. Once districts shed a light on the number of students coming into high school with gaps both big and small in their foundational skills and take the responsibility to actually help them build those skills and not pass students on, they are going to go downriver to created competency-based middle and elementary schools.

Reviewing these schools got me to thinking: Given that competency education is expanding, and possibly expanding in more programmatic ways, it may be time for us to create a way to categorize CBE in terms of scope; robustness implementation (clear pedagogy, CBE structure, personalized approach, strong culture of learning, etc); and fidelity of implementation. I don’t think we can expect that a CBE initiative aimed at helping students be better prepared for specific career pathways is going to produce the same types of outcomes as a district-wide commitment to a proficiency-based diploma and personalized learning approaches.

Illinois CBE Pilot Participating Districts

(more…)

Why Teachers Should Free Up Their Time

April 10, 2017 by

Kelly helps a student with an online lesson.

This post originally appeared at the Christensen Institute on February 8, 2017.

I am concerned when I see a classroom that is locked in teacher-led instruction. Of course, some good can come from an interesting lecture, demonstration, or lesson. If it is part of a Station Rotation blended-learning model, then teacher-led instruction can be a good opportunity for teachers to enhance the content their students learn online. So, the problem is not that teacher-led instruction is necessarily bad. The problem is that delivering instruction limits teachers from having time to do something even better.

Kelly Kosuga felt this limitation firsthand. Kelly teaches 9th-grade Algebra I at Cindy Avitia High School, part of the Alpha Public Schools network in the San Francisco Bay Area. At the start of the 2015–16 school year, Kelly implemented a Station Rotation that consisted of three stations: Solo Station (independent work), Peer-to-Peer (pair work), and Guided Group (teacher-led instruction). Each student spent 25 minutes in each station before rotating—a classic Station Rotation model.

Kelly gave most of her attention to whichever students were in Guided Group at the time. As the semester progressed, however, she became increasingly frustrated that she could not clone herself so that there could be someone to monitor and help students at the other two stations. Plus, she didn’t like that the structure made it hard for her to differentiate instruction to a smaller size than three groups. She wanted to be able to meet with one or two students at a time. She felt stuck. (more…)

Guiding Students in Reflection: The Gateway Process at Parker

February 28, 2017 by

notesThis post originally appeared at the Center for Collaborative Education on November 30, 2016.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

― Søren Kierkegaard

When we take the time to reflect, we take a moment to stop and critically think about what has come to pass. Without an understanding of why things unfolded the way they did, we rarely feel empowered to change the status quo. However, we often focus on the “living forwards” instead of “understanding backwards” – reflection.

Quite often, the time for reflection is the first agenda item to be compromised in a course or meeting. After powering through a class, educators often leave reflection as an afterthought, a final half-hearted question. After a couple students share out their brief, underdeveloped thoughts, educators often consider the subject complete and ready for assessment. Eventually the student receives a grade and moves on to the next task.

I recently sat in on a conversation between my cousin and my aunt about a low test grade. My aunt attempted to guide my cousin in reflecting about why he received his grade, her final statement being:

 “At the end of the day, I don’t care about your score as long as you understand what you got wrong and go back and learn those concepts well.” 

His response:

 “Are you kidding me?! You don’t care about the score?! That’s all that matters!” 

There are many reasons for my cousin’s response, but I would argue that one is that his learning does not intentionally incorporate reflection; he hasn’t discovered who he is as a learner.
(more…)

Proficiency is for Hope

February 3, 2017 by

PathwayI recently found myself discussing the latest round of State test scores with a group of Maine superintendents. There was concern that we are not realizing the overwhelming success we had wished for when we began the march to proficiency-based education. As a result, they want to leave proficiency-based grading and return to traditional grading and reporting. I wonder, does how we report student progress truly have an impact on Standardized test scores?

What we are trying to create in a true learner-centered or personalized school is not improvement on a snapshot of academic achievement. We want young people to see a future they desire and persevere to make it real regardless of the obstacles that lay ahead of them. We want a world of thinkers and not simply knowers. Learners who know life’s pathways all have struggles, but see them as mounds to get over or go around. We want students to have hope. The research is clear, the level of hope a student has is a far better predictor of future success in college and life than aptitude or achievement scores. I argue that you cannot get there unless you have clear learning expectations and success criteria. Those bones come from being proficiency-based.

How can schools have a positive impact on a student’s perception of what lies ahead? The answer might be found in a definition created using the brilliant work of Shane Lopez in Making Hope Happen. Shane reports that hope has three core competencies: goals, pathways, and agency. Hopeful people believe the future will be better than the present and they have the power to make it so. Also, people with hope are aware that there are many pathways to their goals and none of them is free of obstacles. A school system that is truly learner-centered, competency-based can help create the goals, agency, and pathways that build students’ hope. (more…)

A Close-Up Look at How a Workshop Framework Can Enhance Personalized Learning

January 19, 2017 by

workshopWhen I started teaching first grade over twenty-five years ago, I quickly realized that I was going to need additional strategies and support in order to help each of my students become independent readers and writers. The research and work of Donald Graves had a profound impact on my teaching as a young educator. I can remember reading Writing: Teachers and Children at Work (Graves, 1983) and falling in love with the workshop approach. This was the kind of supportive, communal learning experience I wanted to replicate for my students.

It was this revolutionary research and work of Donald Graves and his colleagues Lucy Calkins (Calkins, 1986) and Mary Ellen Giacobbe (Giacobbe, 2006) that supported my early years of teaching. Donald Graves taught me how to create a safe space for children to use their voices to tell their individual stories through speaking, listening, drawing, and writing. This philosophy of personalization enabled me to really listen to my student writers and allow them to show me what they needed next for instruction.

Fast forward to 2008 when I found myself working as an Instructional Strategist in RSU #57 in southern Maine. Conversations were beginning in Maine about WHY we needed to transform teaching and learning in the twenty-first century. I listened to Tony Wagner, Co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, speak at an ASCD conference about his research. His research findings presented a strong case for reimagining our school systems and teaching the 7 Survival Skills of -21st Century Students to prepare students for college and careers in a new global economy.

My school district embraced this effort and hired coaches from the Reinventing Schools organization to guide us. Staff began to wrap their heads around the concept of “learning is the constant, time is the variable.” We were encouraged to start growing a personalized, proficiency-based learning model in our classrooms. What this would look like in practice became a focus of our collaborative conversations and work. (more…)

Staying the Course

January 18, 2017 by

courseThis is the final article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

Many districts are converting to competency education in states that have not yet begun to take the steps toward creating the vision and policies to support competency education. Even in states that have embraced competency education, leaders may need to respond to policies that have not yet been re-aligned. Thus, leaders must learn to stay true to their vision and purpose in navigating state policy. They may turn mandates into opportunities or actively work in partnership to co-create the new policy infrastructure. Essentially, they operate beyond the boundaries of the policies so that decision-making continues to be student-centered.

One of the leadership functions needed to stay the course is being able to turn top-down compliance requirements into opportunities to reinforce the empowered culture of learning and improvement. Superintendent of Chugach School District Bob Crumley talks about how he manages mandates by stating, “I’ve learned to see mandates from the state as opportunities. We will meet the letter of the law, but we aren’t going to let the tail wag the dog. For example, we have a state mandate about including state assessment scores in teacher evaluations. We have a great teacher evaluation tool developed by teachers and our administrative team. I’m not going to make any changes to the evaluation tool that causes a loss of ownership. Instead, I’m going to tell our teachers that there are state requirements we need to meet, and we’ll take this opportunity to see if we can improve the evaluation tool to help us get better at serving our kids. If we said that we were doing it only because the state required us to, it would send the wrong message to teachers and students. We look to see the value and opportunities that develop when outside forces require us to change and adapt. Continuous improvement is a core value and process at Chugach School District.”

States and districts are also finding ways to work together to advance competency education. For example, four districts in New Hampshire are partnering with the Department of Education to pilot the development of local performance-based assessments that will eventually lead to a state-wide system. These assessments, known as Performance Assessment for Competency Education or PACE, are designed to provide richer feedback to teachers and students in a much more timely fashion than state assessment systems.

Sanborn principal Brian Stack advises school and district leaders that, “Making the transition from traditional to competency-based grading is messy. No matter how much you plan for it, administrators and teachers will feel a sense of building the plane while flying it in those first few years of implementation. Stay the course in the face of adversity. Stay true to yourself and to the model. Trust that your teachers will stand with you, and together you will face the challenges that will lie ahead and find a way to work through them as a school community. Your patience and persistence will be rewarded.”

Bottom line, leaders will need to turn to shared leadership strategies to empower educators and engage the community through the ups and downs of the change process, even though there will be pressure to become the sole decision-maker. (more…)

Continuous Improvement: Addressing the Needs of Struggling Students

January 17, 2017 by

foursquareThis is the twenty-sixth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders.

After the first few years of transition, districts begin to have the bandwidth to look more deeply at where students are not advancing or are at a lower level academically than their age-based grade. Although not necessarily done in a linear fashion, there are three ways that districts and schools begin to respond to struggling students. First, they create strategies and direct more resources to struggling students. This often opens a conversation about how to meet students where they are so they build their pre-requisite skills rather than always depending on scaffolding that makes curriculum accessible but often leaves students in the same situation – taking on higher level courses without a strong foundation. (For more on this topic see Meeting Students Where They Are: Academic Domains and The Accountability Paradox.) Second, they begin to explore more deeply how habits of learning impact student achievement, building out their capacity to nurture students. Third, they seek out ways to improve instruction overall so that more teachers within the school have the disciplinary knowledge to help students advance.

At Sanborn Regional High School, the Freshmen Learning Communities are designed to help ninth graders build the skills they need for success and identify where students need additional support. They are finding that the conversations about students with special education needs are more focused on learning and progress than behaviors. The understanding of standards, differentiated instruction, and accommodations for assessments has become much more clear and intentional.

Pittsfield Middle and High School (PMHS) is exploring different ways to respond to the needs of students who are struggling or enter school more than one year behind in grade level. They’ve developed a strong intervention system, with an emphasis on reaching students in middle school. They have reading and math specialists and are providing double doses of reading and math. They also are reaching into elementary school with a special education teacher at every grade level, working to help students learn foundational skills. Still they aren’t seeing the results that they would like so they are continuing to explore what else they can do to ensure students are successfully learning. (more…)

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