Tag: middle school

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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PASA Forges Ahead with Competency-Based Expanded Learning Opportunities

May 24, 2016 by
PASA

Photo from the Providence After School Alliance (PASA) Website

“It’s hard to design a competency-based afterschool program when none of us have had any experience in our own lives of learning through a competency-based approach.”

So started the conversation with Alex Molina, Brittany Sandbergen, and Ann Durham of the Providence After School Alliance (PASA).

“We have an idea of how afterschool and expanded learning programming can be better aligned with student interests and their schooling through competencies, but we aren’t there yet,” explained Deputy Director Molina. “Competency-based learning can help clarify how students move from point A to point B in an afterschool experience. It can help improve the learning experience to be very clear about what we want students to be able to learn and also become a way of providing feedback to them. The one thing that is clear is that it starts by changing the way adults think about learning.”

How Expanded Learning Opportunities are Constructed

PASA has created very dynamic afterschool programming with the AfterZone (middle school) and the Hub (high school). The Hub organizes Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) that provide high school credit (.5 of an elective credit) to students for learning they do outside of the school day. Some samples of ELOs include mechanical fabrication, Android app design and development, Model UN, and environmental science.

While the AfterZone is designed for younger students to explore and try out lots of different experiences, the Hub was created for more in-depth experiences for high school students. It is organized to provide a central system for young people to access learning opportunities not currently available within their schools or to learn about content within applied, real-world experiences. The Hub’s ELOs provide a wide range of experiences, including: Young Voices (leadership development); Chrysalis-App Design (computer science for young women); Improv (acting and storytelling); Rocketry (engineering flying machines and then teaching middle students to do it); iPhone App and Game Design; Model UN; Art+Design Lab in partnership with RI School of Design Museum; and Take CoMMAnd (martial arts). (more…)

10 Simple Lesson Plans for Scaffolding Student-Led Projects

March 10, 2016 by

laptop-studentsThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on January 17, 2016. 

When working with my high school students on implementing their own student-led projects, I adapted much of my project-based learning (PBL) curriculum from a guide titled Youth Engaged in Leadership in Learning (YELL), created by Stanford University’s John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Families.

Adapted from the YELL Curriculum Guide (I specifically used Unit 3; Unit 1 is on Communication and Unit 2 is on Leadership- both have great ideas), this was my (shortened) version of my 10 lesson plan for scaffolding student-led projects in my classroom.

Getting Started with Student-Led Projects

  • Assess. Decide how you will access the project and student grade(s) ahead of time and communicate that at the start. I suggest some sort of electronic portfolio (I used Google Docs) where assignments and formative assessments exist at the end of each lesson. At the end, there I had a performance-based assessment with a rubric. There was also a final reflection paper due at the end of the project.
  • Adapt. Flex this up or down according to grade level and skills.
  • Relate to Content. This will work in middle and/or high school advisory, social studies, language arts, or other project-based block.
  • Plan. This can happen in 2 weeks or 6 weeks (or longer). You could also massively extend lessons, especially lessons 6, 7 and 8 and this could become a 6+ week unit. Use your creativity and know what will work best for your students. You are on your way to building successful student-led projects.
  • Involve. Involve other adults in the building, and let parents know this is happening. Line up adult mentors who could come in to the building and help students on particular projects that line up with their expertise, or use online tools to connect students to mentors/adult experts.

Lesson 1 – The World is Ours. What Do You Care About?

Have students brainstorm ideas, problems and concerns. In my classroom, we did this in groups and the list was LONG. It filled two butcher paper sheets long. Students can brainstorm. There are no wrong answers. Examples include: drug abuse, lack of internet at home, more access to video games (this will get listed as an injustice), too many stray dogs in your neighborhood, alcoholism, homelessness. Debrief. (more…)

Lake County Schools: Windy Hill Middle School

February 19, 2016 by

WolvesThis post is the fifth in a five-part series on Lake County Schools in Florida. Begin with the district overview and follow along at these schools: South Lake High, Lost Lake Elementary, Sawgrass Bay Elementary, and Lake Windy Hill Middle

Kathy Halbig, Coordinator of Personalized Learning at Lake County Schools (LCS), described Windy Hill Middle School as “a high performing middle school with a strong level of trust. The staff are confident in their ability to manage change and take risks.” Yet, the team at Windy Hill knew they still weren’t reaching every student, which is why they decided to make the transition to personalized learning with implementation beginning the fall of 2015.

We had a rich conversation with Assistant Principal Abby Crosby and Personalized Learning Facilitator Mary Ellen Barger. Here are the highlights:

Building a Common Understanding of Personalized Learning: The journey to personalization at Windy Hill started by engaging everyone, including the school advisory committee, business community, teachers, and parents.

Four (Overlapping) Steps to Personalized Learning: The Windy Hill scale up strategy has four components that are not entirely sequential. First, invest in the culture of personalization, including growth mindset. Second, go with the teachers who are ready, willing, and able. Third, build capacity through a train-the-trainer model so Windy Hill teachers can train others in the personalized learning classroom design and delivery skills. Fourth, build the capacity for writing units that take into consideration that students are starting at different points and using a variety of multiple assessments. (more…)

Kids in the Pipeline During Transition to Proficiency-Based Systems

January 12, 2016 by

PipelineI have made the case for “turning the switch” to a proficiency-based model versus “phasing in” a new approach to educating our youth. I have discussed the preparations that I believe are necessary to successfully implement a proficiency-based system. How could I have missed this!? I expected our proficiency-based model to be so much better for our students than the traditional approach, yet many of our learners are struggling. What’s going on and why? What can be done? With hindsight being 20/20, what should we have done differently with our implementation?

What’s Going On and Why?

The jump to expecting students to demonstrate proficiency on clearly identified targets based on national standards is a step up for all, perhaps a bigger step for others. The expectation that students demonstrate proficiency on all standards assigned to a course is a significant change from a traditional system where a student need only score 70 percent (or less) to achieve credit and move on. Of course, we can look at this issue from a different view and state that students have been allowed to move on without 30 to 40 percent of the knowledge, concepts, and skills necessary for success at the next level. Many of us refer to this as the “Swiss Cheese Effect” of what our traditional high school model has allowed for…generations.

Now that we have made the transition to our proficiency-based model, we have students in high school whose clock is ticking toward graduating with their class. They are the kids in the pipeline without the foundational skills required to be able to demonstrate proficiency in required topics. We need to remember that students come to the system with eight to eleven years of “Swiss cheese.” The pressure on learners and our learning facilitators to fill holes in learning and complete graduation requirements is extraordinary. This, to use Chris Sturgis’ analogy, is one of the “elephants in the room” that needs our attention…in a hurry.

What Can be Done?

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RSU2: Continuous Improvement at Richmond Middle and High School

January 7, 2016 by

pumpkinThis post is part of the Maine Road Trip series. This is the second post on my conversations at RSU2 in Maine. The first post is on lessons learned.

During my visit to RSU, we stopped off at Richmond Middle and High School. It was a glorious fall day, perfect for the middle school students to do a bit of pumpkin pitching with the catapults to culminate their study of Newton’s Laws and simple machines.

Richmond serves 260 students in grades sixth through twelfth, of which 40 percent are FRL. The size of the school means each academic department is approximately two people. This allows for ease in collaboration. For example, ELA and social studies are starting to explore how they can be integrated.

As we stood out on the field watching pumpkins soaring over our heads, Steve Lavoie, Principal of Richmond, emphasized that the induction process is vital to the success of the school. In the summer, he brings new hires together for a full day to talk about the philosophy of personalized, proficiency-based learning. During the school year, he meets with the new teachers every other Wednesday. Lavoie explained, “I bring an agenda item and the new teachers bring agenda items that feel pressing to them. We look at issues in the context of their work. As they become comfortable with work in a proficiency-based school, we begin to have meetings as needed.” When there is only one new teacher, other teachers join in this process so the new teachers always have a cohort of support.

Lavoie has noticed that students are talking more about their GPA and going to college. “The conversation about what it means to be academically successful has lifted the expectations that students hold for themselves.” At some schools I’ve visited, the competitiveness surrounding the GPA has created an environment in which students want to re-assess to get higher scores. Lavoie explained that hasn’t been a problem at Richmond. “We stay focused on helping students reach proficiency and always do their best. Students can go back and finish things they didn’t get done. They can go back to things they didn’t learn well to strengthen their skills. But wanting to increase the scores on the GPA is not a reason for re-assessments. We want them to do their personal best the first time around.”

Like many competency-based schools, Richmond has moved from an honors track to honors performance. Any students with 3.75 are designated as honors. Lavoie emphasized, “We want to reward students for performance.” Another example is that if a student in an AP course gets a 3.25 in class and a 4 on the AP test, their final performance score will be a 4.

In an exciting new partnership, University of Maine Presque Isle (UMPI) is sending new teachers to Richmond to understand the personalized, proficiency-based system. Seven student teachers visited RSU2 in the fall. The first day was focused on gaining an overall perspective on proficiency-based learning; the second day, teachers were fully immersed in the classroom. The partnership is also opening up experiences for students, as well. Last year, thirteen students took an online course offered by UMPI. College-going confidence skyrocketed when students realized they were doing as well or better than some of the college students. (more…)

RSU2: Entering a New Stage in Building a High Quality Proficiency-Based District

January 5, 2016 by

poss pic for rsu2_oneThis post is part of the Maine Road Trip series. This is the first post on my conversations at RSU2 in Maine. 

RSU2 is a district that has been staying the course, even through two superintendent changes (Don Siviski is now at Center for Center for Secondary School Redesign; Virgel Hammonds is now at KnowledgeWorks; and Bill Zima, previously the principal at Mt. Ararat Middle School, is now the superintendent). This says a lot about the school board’s commitment to having each and every student be prepared for college and careers. If we had a CompetencyWorks award for school board leadership, RSU2 would definitely get one.

Given that they are one of the districts with the most experience with competency education (Chugach has the most experience, followed by Lindsay), my visit to RSU2 was much more focused on conversations with the district leadership team, principals, and teachers rather than classroom visits. My objective in visiting RSU2 was to reflect with them upon their lessons learned.

It takes a load of leadership and extra effort to transform a traditional district to personalized, proficiency-based learning. It’s a steep learning curve to tackle – growth mindset, learning to design and manage personalized classrooms, learning how to enable and support students as they build habits of work and agency, designing and aligning instruction and assessment around measurable objectives and learning targets, calibration and assessment literacy, organizing schedules so teachers have time for working together and to provide just-in-time support to students, building up instructional skills, new grading policies, new information management systems to track progress – and districts have to help every teacher make the transition. I wanted to find out what they might have done differently, what has been particularly challenging, and what they see as their next steps.

I began my day at RSU2 in Maine with a conversation with Zima (a frequent contributor to CompetencyWorks); principals from all nine schools; Matt Shea, Coordinator of Student Achievement; and John Armentrout, Director of Information Technology. I opened the conversation with the question, “What do you know now that you wished you knew when you started?”

Tips for Implementation

Armentrout summarized a number of insights about implementation: (more…)

Preparing to “Turn the Switch” to a Proficiency-Based Learning System

November 3, 2015 by

SwitchIn an earlier blog, I discussed the implementation of a Proficiency Based Learning System via a “phase in” approach and the unintended consequences of such a plan. Although I referred to the alternative approach as “overnight,” clearly much work happens prior to turning the switch from a traditional to a proficiency-based system. However, it does avoid the pitfalls of a phasing in approach. When you turn the switch:

  • There are no guinea pigs. All stakeholders transition at the same time; no one group is left facing change year after year.
  • The this will go away syndrome disappears because the change is here, now. It’s not going away. Our work then turns to a cycle of continuous improvement of the system.
  • The pilot doesn’t exist. By making the change across the board, the message is sent that “we are confident this is the direction to take” and it will succeed.
  • Apples to oranges, the comparing of proficiency-based and traditional grades, is a natural part of the transition. However, it does not happen via the structure of the implementation.

Preparing to ‘Turn the Switch”

So what are steps that experience teaches us need to be taken prior to making such a significant change? Make no mistake about it, this is second order change. It is not the “band aid” approach to school reform that has been happening for decades. Well-meaning tweaks to a failed system can only take us so far. This change goes well beyond what has been happening within our schools. (more…)

Biddeford School District: Never Unpack Alone

October 27, 2015 by

Maine Road TripThis post is part of the series Road Trip to Maine.

Dan Joseph, Reinventing Schools Coalition/Marzano Research Lab, suggested I visit with Jeremy Ray, Superintendent of Biddeford School Department, to learn about how they were progressing toward proficiency-based diplomas. The conversation included Margaret Pitts, Principal, Biddeford Primary School; Lindsey Nadeau, Early Childhood Coordinator, JFK Memorial School (kindergarten); Kyle Keenan, Principal, Biddeford Middle School; Mary Bellavance, Instructional Coach at the Middle School and a contributor to CompetencyWorks; Deb Kenney, Principal, Biddeford Intermediate School ; and Paulette Bonneau, Principal, Biddeford Regional Center of Technology. Thanks so much to all of you!

Biddeford is a small district serving a town of 21,000. The student enrollment is approximately 2,600 with about 60 percent FRL. Ray described that although they aspire to higher student achievement, “those kids who go to college tend to stay.” Thus, driving their focus is a strong emphasis on improving achievement and expanding the numbers of students going to college. Already there are signs they are moving in the right direction – Pitts mentioned that the proficiency-based instruction along with strong RTI has resulted in a decrease of third graders who will need intervention next year. Biddeford is already seeing signs of an upward trajectory.

Ramping Up

Ray explained they didn’t jump to the RISC model. He believes that change starts with people. He wanted to make sure that principals would trust the RISC staff. Dan Joseph joined two leadership team meetings before a contract with RISC was established and he began working with teachers.

Biddeford made a decision to focus the community engagement at the school level rather than district. It was a strategic choice for Biddeford. The state policy requires districts to create proficiency-based diplomas, so there is less demand for community-wide engagement to move forward. Yet, community engagement is important for building a shared vision and embracing the new values. Given that Maine takes local control very seriously, it made sense to use an even more decentralized strategy. Keenan explained that they started with having schools engage their parent communities about what is best for our kids.

Ray also believes that “the quickest thing to get a thing killed is to name it.” With the support of the Biddeford School Board, he made sure the message was clear that proficiency-based learning is not an initiative or a fad. This is based on what is best for children.

Starting with K-8

It made sense for Biddeford to start with K-8, as it was already comfortable with standards-based education. Furthermore, high schools add a layer of complexity to change: Maine state policy starts the clock ticking when a student enters ninth grade by only calculating a four-year graduation cohort and counting students who need a fifth year as a drop-out. Thus, they are often the most intransigent to change. (more…)

Phase In or Overnight Your Implementation?

October 20, 2015 by

Guinea Pig Reading a BookWhen implementing a Proficiency Based Learning system, many schools need to choose between a “phased in” approach or an “overnight” approach. Typically, a phased in approach identifies a specific group of students for which change happens over a prolonged period of time. Conversely, an overnight approach involves developing a program from philosophy through logistics (such as scheduling, assessments, reporting, transcripts, etc.) and making the transition for an entire school or district to happen at the same time.

Having experienced both, I offer a discussion of unintended consequences to one of these choices. In one school, implementation was scheduled for a freshman class with a four-year phase in process through which the entire school would transition to a new system. In another, a decision was made to transition an entire school together at one time, given the thinking that ultimately “we’re going that way” anyway, why not do it together approach.

We’re the Guinea Pigs

Stakeholders may or may not embrace a change to a proficiency-based system. When deciding to implement this change, a single group of students (in this case, a freshman class) and their families experience the change over a period of multiple years. While it is a fact of life that schools are “building the plane while flying it,” it has a dramatic effect upon the “guinea pig” class. Not having answers is natural when transitioning to a whole new philosophy and approach to educating our youth. It is natural not to anticipate some of the issues that arise within transition; however, the guinea pig class certainly had their fill of “I don’t know” responses from teachers and administrators. (more…)

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