Starting with the Kindergarteners in McComb

April 9, 2018 by

Felicia Thomas, Lead Learner at Kennedy Early Childhood Center

This is the sixth post on a series about McComb School District in McComb, Mississippi. Start here.

The next stop in my visit to McComb School District was the Kennedy Early Childhood Center.  We met with Lead Learner (Principal) Felicia Thomas; Dr. Alicia Walker, Site Based Curriculum Coordinator; and Angel McMillian, Literacy Specialist. Kennedy is designed to have all the kindergarteners in McComb introduced to personalized learning. They currently have over 200 kindergarteners as well as fifty younger scholars in preschool. The school day is organized into blocks around the academic domains of social studies, science, literacy, and math.

Before we left the front hall, we had dived into a conversation about the consistency of early childhood development with student-centered learning. (Bob Sornson has written about Simpson, Mississippi’s experience if you are interested.) Thomas and others emphasized that it is very important to create opportunities for scholars to reflect on their learning and begin to build metacognition, to provide some freedom to make choices to give scholars control over their environment, and to have ongoing conferencing so that practitioners and scholars have an opportunity to reflect on progress.

There were some unforgettably touching scenes from the learning labs I visited. In every learning lab, all scholars were on task on some type of learning activity. Snuggled into the corners were scholars who were doing individual reading – one with his head tucked under the bookcase, one cuddled into a laundry basket, one hidden away in a colorful tent in the corner. Not one of them looked up as we entered the learning lab. These were young readers already making a great start as scholars.

Like Summit, there were common practices used to give scholars a sense of purpose, inclusion, and ownership. However, the practitioners had all been very creative using different themes – some original and some drawing on Dr. Seuss or Disney. Walker described one adjustment that had to be made for kindergarteners to the model developed at Summit: Instead of using scholar names on target trackers, they had to use photos or icons, as not all scholars recognized their names at first.

Scholars are grouped for reading and for math separately so that they receive instruction and support that meets their individual needs. Groups change at least every four weeks, and often more frequently as scholars advance. Thomas emphasized, “We meet scholars where they are. For some, this is the first time they are having the opportunity to identify letters and numbers. Each of our scholars has their own learning path. We tailor the instruction, including the technology-based resources, to their needs. Every scholar has face-to-face time with practitioners (teachers) to set goals and discuss strategies for reaching those goals.”

At Kennedy, scholars begin with learning first grade math. Thomas explained that it is important that scholars learn mathematical concepts and skills, and that by beginning with the first grade standards, they can set higher expectations for scholars. Many children need help learning to count and what a number means, while others are ready to begin to start using numbers.

In a conference room, there was an enormous chart on the wall monitoring scholars in terms of their progress. It indicated which scholars needed urgent intervention with an additional thirty minutes of individual or small group support two or three times per week; intervention of additional individual time once a week; those who were on watch; and those at or above grade level. Once again, this prompted a discussion about the differences in using a cycle of learning based on where scholars are as compared to covering the curriculum. McComb has to have a foot in each camp, even in kindergarten, because of the state assessment exams, although there was agreement that they would see greater gains if they could solely focus on what scholars need to learn.

Thomas reflected on the process of introducing personalized learning into Kennedy with, “There are many aspects that are the same as early childhood development. However, personalized learning is different in how it expects scholars to own their education. It took some time to get buy-in from staff. They had seen what it looked like, but it is different when you have to do it yourself. It is a change in mindset to learn how to let go.” She continued, “I wasn’t used to kids taking ownership. I wasn’t entirely sure they could do it. It really helps to keep them motivated and focused on learning. I was truly shocked about what kids could do. They want to know how they are doing, and when they take an assessment, they want to know what they can do to do better.” As she spoke, I remembered that at some point extrinsic motivation can begin to have the effect of intrinsic motivation when students feel that they can be successful.

Thomas also reflected on her own experience. “It was hard for me to let go as an administrator. I like structure and I like the sense of control and knowing what to expect. It took me a year to let it go. And then I realized that it’s really about changing your focus on what you pay attention to. Now I’m focusing on things like whether practitioners have the resources they need and the opportunity to collaborate. And we are seeting tremendous gains.”

Walker added, “Motivation is very important. We also think about what motivates practitioners as well as scholars. They are taking on responsibility for making sure scholars are learning and are always thinking, How do I get my scholars to learn this? The key is to not let practitioners get overwhelmed. They should only be taking three to four bites at a time as they change practices and build their skills. We encourage them to start with one of the six pillars and work to really develop it.”

McComb’s Six Pillars of Student-Centered Learning

  • Scholars are grouped by readiness
  • Scholars assume ownership for their  learning
  • Scholars work at their own pace
  • Scholars show evidence of mastery
  • Scholars are provided with continuous feedback
  • Teachers are practitioners

Angel McMillan, Literacy Specialist, added, “Celebrating the smallest of successes is part of our approach. We want to keep the focus on what scholars and practitioners can do. We introduce one practice at a time to give practitioners an opportunity to develop their skills and understand how pieces fit together. When they are ready, we introduce another practice.” Thomas continued, “As administrators, our job is to create a culture that supports learning. We need to be able to create flexible environments so that practitioners can respond to the scholars. Our goal as a school is learning.”

Johnson pointed out, “Although the philosophy is the same, student-centered learning at the kindergarten level should look different than at the elementary level because of the developmental stages of kids. It’s a huge transition for kids to be in school alone all day without naps. The approach is the same, but the types of developmental steps we are focusing on is different.” Thomas added, “However, some of our scholars are so engaged they don’t want to take a nap; they don’t want to go home at the end of the day because they are having so much fun.”

Read the Entire Series:

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