Author: Springpoint Schools

Iteration in Action: The Urban Assembly Maker Academy

August 28, 2017 by

This post and all pictures first appeared at Springpoint on February 6, 2017. This is the fourth in a series on iteration in school design. 

On a recent afternoon at The Urban Assembly Maker Academy, a group of students constructs a miniature car out of a shoebox and detached racecar wheels. The car holds an egg as it rolls down a ramp and two students watch their egg fly out of its cotton-ball harness; another group’s egg is crushed when it hits the bottom. The activity measures students’ mastery of key concepts in physics, like speed and velocity. Using a teacher-designed data tracking form, each group records how effectively their car ferried the egg. Some immediately begin redrafting their designs, taking their cars apart and tweaking the configuration of the components.

This is just one example of the kind of student collaboration that permeates Maker’s section of the Murry Bergtraum campus in Manhattan’s financial district. In nearly every class, you’ll find students huddled over clusters of desks solving problems in small groups. Teachers serve as facilitators, setting the boundaries of projects and guiding students along individualized paths to completion.

By spring of their first year at Maker, some students had already completed several projects to demonstrate mastery of core competencies. They had written their own series of blog posts to narrate their experience in a science project; designed and constructed Braille signage for the hallways; and participated in a “design jam” to brainstorm solutions to community problems. When asked why they chose Maker, students agreed that the opportunity to learn about STEM-based content through projects was what sold them.

Systems to Support Mastery-based Learning

Underpinning each project is a rigorous mastery-based crediting system, designed by Principal Luke Bauer and Assistant Principal Madeline Hackett. The system requires students to demonstrate mastery at least three times before they move on to the next standard or group of standards. Each demonstration of mastery is an “at bat,” and only the three most recent “at bats” count toward a student’s credit attainment. Students must perform at 80% or above on a given “at bat” to earn mastery. Since mastery only depends on a student’s last three “at bats,” a student can “lose mastery” of a given set of standards if they perform poorly on recent assessments. The system pushes students to hone their skills from the beginning to the end of each semester while sending the message that skills and knowledge are never permanently attained. UA Maker explains their approach in this series of videos.

The system took a few iterations to become what it is today. Originally, students had to complete five “at bats” to achieve mastery. When that proved too cumbersome, Bauer and his team trimmed it to three. Additionally, when ready-made tech products UA Maker launched with did not seamlessly accommodate the mastery system, Bauer’s team had to awkwardly adapt those systems to make them function properly. A few months into their first year, school leadership opted to ditch the ready-made tech solutions for a DIY combination of Google docs and hard copy records. Eventually, UA Maker hired a developer to build their own tech system, which allows students and staff to quickly access a snapshot of where any student stands on their mastery journey at a given time.

Much of Maker’s early professional development, as Bauer describes it, focused on developing open communication between students and teachers around what students know and what their “at bat” scores mean. One teacher, with Bauer’s support, has been coaching students to take ownership of their collective mastery of standards. Students are encouraged to say to themselves and each other, “Hey, as a class, we don’t know this. We’re not clear on “X” content piece, so let’s figure this out by the end of class.” This kind of self-awareness and collective accountability can only happen in an environment of transparency and rapid feedback. As Bauer describes it, “the narrative of a course” must be clear to everyone, from teachers to families. (more…)

Welcome to Mastery Communications Week!

August 14, 2017 by

Educators implementing mastery-based learning can enumerate a list of priorities to conquer. But all too often the strategy for communicating what mastery means for students, families, and community partners can be left until the end, or ignored all together. Mastery-based learning — also known as competency-based education (CBE) — has the potential to transform how students learn content and acquire skills. Messaging this fundamental truth is key to building understanding, garnering buy in, and implementing a successful mastery-based system.

That’s why Springpoint has joined forces with national partners and schools to present Mastery Communications Week — five days devoted to exploring how to communicate about mastery that starts today.

We’ve partnered with Great Schools Partnership, Mastery Collaborative, Next Generation Learning Challenges, KnowledgeWorks, iNACOL, and CompetencyWorks to share expertise around some of the most common questions about mastery communications. Throughout this week, principals, teachers, students, district leaders, community partners, and parents will share their experiences with mastery and their role in ensuring that it supports and accelerates student learning. We hope this compilation of best practices, tools, tips, ideas, and open questions can spark an insightful conversation and prove useful for educators and school leaders as they prepare to engage key stakeholders on all things mastery in the coming school year.

Defining Mastery-Based Education

To communicate effectively about mastery, educators first must get clear on their own working definition. While mastery can mean many things to different people, we generally cite CompetencyWorks’ five elements:

  1. Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  2. Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  3. Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  4. Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  5. Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

(more…)

Iteration in Action: PACT Academy

August 8, 2017 by

This post and all pictures first appeared at Springpoint on January 30, 2017. This is the third in a series on iteration in school design. 

If you ask one of the 200 students at PACT High School about grades, one of the first things you’ll hear is “we can’t fail here.” That’s because this high school is designed to foster positive youth development through strong relationships between students and adults.

It’s also because PACT does not give failing grades. Instead of an “F,” students receive the designation “not approaching proficiency.” This remains on a student’s transcript until they master the content in their course, which they can continue to work towards throughout their high school experience. This mastery-based approach means some students can be working to master standards from their first year after they’ve already moved onto their second year coursework. Others are able to skip ahead—in courses like Health, math, and science—using one of several available tech tools and with teacher supports. In the words of one student, “if you don’t get something, you work on it until you master it.”

Positive relationships to support mastery-based learning.

PACT opened in fall 2014 as part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s participation in Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Opportunity by Design Initiative, and has since nurtured a strong culture of mastery-based learning supported by positive relationships between students and adults. This approach permeates the school, from everyday interactions to instructional policy. At PACT, students have an active voice in shaping both their learning path and the school’s design. For example, at the end of its first year, students expressed a desire to reorganize the instructional day to achieve a better balance between hands-on projects and online learning. Principal Reynolds and his team listened to students’ concerns and, beginning in the school’s second year, retrained teachers to give students more voice and choice in choosing and participating in projects.

In addition to giving students a voice in their education, PACT has a laser focus on ensuring students are college and career ready. On any given day, students can be seen working on a variety of projects: running cars down ramps to measure velocity and friction, or creating a multimedia presentation about a “turning point” in their life for their English class. In each project, students are measured based on how well they have mastered problem-solving, communications, and presentation skills that will truly prepare them for college.

The PACT team is committed to helping each and every student succeed, despite challenges they face academically and personally. For example, the majority of PACT families make less than $20,000 a year, and many students care for younger siblings and extended family members. Principal Reynolds says that the pressure of street affiliation and gang violence is ever-present, particularly for young men in the community.

Knowing this, the PACT team works hard to create an environment where students can open up about their concerns and responsibilities. In the words of one student, “I have a voice here. I joked my way through sixth and eighth grade, but this school and its teachers changed my view of things.” PACT hosts several after-school activities geared toward giving students choice and agency, including theater, astrophysics, and a girls’ empowerment club called “Cover Girl.” The school’s staff has cultivated an awareness and responsiveness to challenges students face. Teachers like Mr. Hurt, an English teacher for first-year students, realize that, “for many kids, their day starts after they leave school. My goal is to give them something positive to think about when they leave us, and hopefully to help them make good decisions.” (more…)

Iteration in Action: Eagle Academy

August 3, 2017 by

This post and all pictures first appeared at Springpoint on January 11, 2017. This is the second in a series on iteration in school design. 

At E3agle Academy, a public high school in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, students support one another in mastering rigorous, college-ready standards. With a personalized approach and a focus on social justice, students are encouraged to connect classroom content to their experience in the real world, and to move at their own pace along a sequence of clear benchmarks.

Principal Lennox Thompson describes the school’s approach as fundamentally student-centered. “I want to give students benchmarks so they can track how they are progressing. This lets them stay on top of their work so they don’t fall behind and then get overwhelmed,” he says. To facilitate this, E3agle places students into groups of 10-12 to form “advise-aeries” (an aerie is an eagle’s nest). Advisors deliver students’ personalized schedules, and serve as a hub for messages to and from students’ core subject teachers.

On a recent visit, students were learning about proportions in a co-taught immersion math class. A teacher was leading a lesson on body image, anchored in an activity measuring Barbie’s body proportions. Students broke into groups and measured their own body proportions before presenting on their findings: How do normal body proportions compare to Barbie’s, and what does that say about body image? The activity gave students an opportunity to develop mastery of math and social studies skills—first in a group setting, and then individually.

E3agle’s underlying belief is that young people—even those who are entering high school with significant gaps in skills and knowledge—know themselves and can be trusted to make positive choices about how they use their time and energy. Teachers and administrators understand that for many students, the structural mechanisms of promotion between freshman and sophomore years must be more fluid, and that some students will take more time to finish courses than others. For students, the awareness that mastery of content—rather than “seat time”—is what matters has compelled them to take charge of their learning like never before.

Supporting mastery-based learning

To drive home the message that learning—rather than class standing—is what matters most, E3agle combines freshmen and sophomores in some courses like English and Social Studies, where the gradient of skills is more fluid. Recently, on a recent afternoon in an English class, freshmen helped sophomores analyze song lyrics to find evidence of characterization. When asked, nearly every student could articulate the exact competencies they were working toward. They knew the end goal and how they would work toward it.

English teacher Eleanor Salzbrenner describes a student named Marco*, who struggled in his first year, to manage his time and coursework. This year, says Salzbrenner, with attention and support from his teachers—and lots of opportunities to continue to work toward his mastery goals in each of his classes— “he’s almost chasing [us] down the hallway, saying ‘I need to get this done!’” (more…)

Iteration in Action: Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design

August 1, 2017 by

This post and all pictures first appeared at Springpoint on January 11, 2017. This is the first in a series on iteration in school design. 

On a typical day at the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD), groups of four or five students are reading different novels in ELA class. They discuss the characters and plots of their books, record standards-based observations and respond to questions on their Chromebooks. One group is predicting a protagonist’s next moves, and another is using context clues to infer the definitions of key words.

The curriculum, designed by English teacher Stephanie Price, allows students to move through the course in two distinct, yet intertwined, paths—some are in AP English and others are in Intro to Lit (the equivalent of a standard ninth-grade English curriculum). Students can opt into whichever path they want, and rather than being in the same path for an entire year, they have an opportunity to move between them at the beginning of each trimester. If a student wants more of a challenge or is improving quickly, she can opt into AP English after just a few months. To read more about Ms. Price’s classroom design, see here.

Student-driven design decisions

When DSISD opened, it didn’t feature this kind of deeply integrated differentiation. Originally, students spent the majority of their time working individually to master online course material. The curriculum was mastery-based, but—according to students—it wasn’t engaging. Alex, a student who chose DSISD for its emphasis on student agency, thought there should be more time for direct instruction. So Alex, along with a few other student leaders, took action. As Alex describes it, they “held the principal captive” to discuss “how students are learning. Not necessarily what they were learning, but how.”

Principal Daniel Medved remembers the conversation differently. Because his team had designed a space for student leaders to share their feedback on the model, they were comfortable articulating their desire for more direct instruction. In response to their concerns, Medved adjusted DSISD’s model to support teachers in rewriting their lessons to incorporate more direct instruction alongside personalized projects. The shift gave students the tangible instructional benefits they asked for, but it also sent a powerful message: As one student said, “if you [have feedback] and you talk to Principal Medved about it, and it’s reasonable, then he will do everything he can” to make a change.

DSISD students feel that they’re part of a dynamic community that responds rapidly to their needs and gives them room to grow. According to another student, “I used to have the mindset that once I turned in a paper and got a grade, it was done. The greatest thing about this school is that you can always make yourself and the grade better.” (more…)

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