Category: Case Studies

Strategies for Building Student Ownership of Their Learning

August 20, 2019 by

This is the fifth post in a series about the Eastern Carver County Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts will be provided at the end of this article.

Two Girls at Pioneer RidgeCompetency-based education can lead to some interesting conversations. One exchange that stuck in my head after a recent visit to Pioneer Ridge Middle School was:

Student: “Can I go to the bathroom?”

Teacher: “Is that what’s best for your learning?”

A teacher shared that exchange as an example of how his team relentlessly seeks to build student ownership of their learning. The teacher’s message is “If you need to go, then definitely go.” But he also likes to convey, “Let’s be honest with each other. Are you really just asking because you need a break? Because if what you need is a quick walk or some type of support to help you refocus on your learning, that’s fine too.” (Yes, this gets personal, but teachers know the out-sized role bathroom discussions can take on.)

So many conversations at Pioneer Ridge were about having a task become collaborative between teacher and student, rather than a compliance exercise in which students were just following orders. The goal was for students to learn about themselves as learners, while they’re still in K-12 education with a safety net. For the student mentioned above, maybe they start out taking some kind of quick break every 20 minutes. Maybe over time it becomes every 30 or 60 minutes. But their agency, self-knowledge, and self-direction are the fundamental issues.

One teacher told me about a student who was in tears because he hadn’t met his learning targets by the end of the school year. The student was able to see and acknowledge that he didn’t use his time wisely. The teacher told me, “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I didn’t learn that until my freshman year of college, when I was wasting a $40,000 tuition!’ So sometimes students are off task, but it’s such a different conversation, where we’re helping them identify behaviors that are best for their learning.”

Sign Saying Could You Should YouMany aspects of the personalized learning approaches in the Eastern Carver schools call for student ownership and self-direction while also building these qualities, in a virtuous upward cycle. As described in recent posts, students at the Integrated Arts Academy develop intensive projects related to their interests, and students at Pioneer Ridge Middle School learn to allocate their own learning time based on transparent information about their progress in different courses. An 8th-grader at Pioneer Ridge told me, “If you’re ahead and you’re done with stuff in one class, then you can really focus on the class that maybe you’re not doing as well in, and keeping hitting those seminars and focus flexes and coaching workshops to spend time with the teacher and really understand the topic you’re working on.”

Pioneer Ridge Principal Dana Miller described seeing a group of students engaged in what was clearly a coaching workshop, but there was no teacher present. She realized that a student, not a teacher, was leading the workshop. The student had mastered the material and was passionate about the topic, so she offered to coach her fellow students. Perhaps this suggests another dimension of ownership—taking responsibility for other students’ learning. But teaching a topic often solidifies the knowledge for the teacher, so the student coach was likely well-served too. Miller pointed out that part of what facilitated the student-led coaching was that “The roadmap of our standards and learning targets is so clear. It wasn’t a secret anymore what we wanted them to know.”

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Flexible Scheduling, Supports, and Monitoring at Pioneer Ridge Middle School

August 15, 2019 by

This is the fourth post in a series about the Eastern Carver County Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Pioneer Ridge Student With LaptopPioneer Ridge Middle School demonstrates that it’s possible to start shifting to competency-based education with a small program and limited resources. In 2012, near the beginning of Eastern Carver’s district-wide efforts to increase personalized learning, Pioneer Ridge began researching ways to let students be primary drivers of their own learning.

The district gave permission for a small program with three teachers and 60 students. Students were in the program for four hours per day—one hour each for science and social studies, and two hours for English language arts, per state requirements and to operate within the rest of the school’s bell schedule. (Math has been added since then.) They started with 6th grade and added a grade each year, so the first cohort will be seniors this fall.

The initial cohort had been in a traditional, accelerated track in 5th grade, but the school quickly realized that the personalized approach was appropriate for all students. Subsequent cohorts were open to all students, and the school offered presentations and school visits to help parents understand what personalized learning looked like. In the second year, about half of the 200 students opted into the personalized track. The eventual goal was for all teachers and students to shift to the personalized track, which has now been achieved.

The three teachers who started the program—Carly Bailey, Jen Larson, and Dan Thompson—are still there, thrilled with the results, and continuing to innovate. They recounted their original personalized scheduling system, a white board with 240 magnets, to schedule 60 students for four periods each. Too often the magnets fell, got lost, or were moved by the wrong students. Now they use scheduling software created for them by a local programmer, as well as the Empower learning management system to organize student work. After students learn how to use Empower, they make a presentation about it at home and bring any questions from their parents or guardians back to the school.

Scheduling takes place during a daily morning meeting when teachers describe the seminars and small-group instruction sessions that they will offer throughout the day. Students can schedule themselves for these activities or other types of individual or student group sessions. The figure below shows part of a daily signup that illustrates some of the available session types—focus flex, group flex, fishbowl discussion, coaching workshop, and review/summative assessment.

Pioneer Ridge Part of Daily Signup

Teachers also have the ability to assign students to specific activities in a way that’s either locked in or just suggested. There are ways for teachers to automate aspects of the scheduling, such as locking all students who haven’t taken a particular summative assessment into a block where that material is being addressed. The process of creating these types of efficiencies has been ongoing for seven years, in collaboration with the programmer who developed the scheduling software.

To keep class sizes manageable, teachers often offer the same seminar more than once. One teacher described asking a student why she showed up to the same seminar two days in a row. The student said, “Yesterday I came to take notes. Today I came to listen—to make sure I understand the notes I took yesterday.” Clearly this student is gaining the essential skill of reflecting on her own learning and recognizing when she needed some additional exposure to challenging material.

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It Takes a Village to Personalize Learning to Every Student

August 12, 2019 by

This is the third post in a series about the Eastern Carver County Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Conversations at many of my school visits come around to how schools are managing accountability to state standards while also personalizing learning for each student. A discussion at the Integrated Arts Academy, an arts-based high school discussed in the previous post, shed valuable light on this topic. The following is part of my conversation with Tera Kaltsas, IAA’s Principal, and Brian Beresford, Eastern Carver’s Leader of Personalized Learning and Innovation. It provides insights into strategies for satisfying diverse stakeholders in the development of a complex, competency-based system. It also illustrates the “tight vs. loose” decisions that are made in evolving CBE systems, and it touches on the state’s role in facilitating innovation.

TK: The district has “power standards” with many learning targets. What we learned was that, for our school, that was too specific. So we spent many years working with teachers to figure out which power standards must be met, and how to make them user-friendly for IAA—so they’re more applicable for life. For example, a physics teacher from another high school helped us figure out how to make the physics standards more applied and less math-focused. Also, students can take classes at the high school if they want; one of our students recently took AP Calculus at the high school.

EL: What do you say to stakeholders who insist that every student needs to meet every standard?

TK: Well, we’ve worked closely with the math specialists in the district to become more project-based, and there are times when students need to do old-school worksheets and “you just need to know this and learn it in a traditional way” kinds of math activities. And let’s not forget that students in conventional schools don’t always finish the textbook; it happens all the time.

But part of the idea of being an alternative learning center is that it really is alternative. When we as the district were creating and designing it, I refused to just be a smaller version of the mainstream high school. If kids are coming here because they’re disengaged from the whole learning process, then how are we going to reengage them? If the old system didn’t work in a big high school, why would we think that just making it smaller will make them engage in the same worksheets and sitting in rows and being compliant? That’s not going to happen. It’s going to be a colossal waste of time.

IAA’s Aquaponic System

Our system has some checks and balances. Students need a learning plan that everyone signs off on. We hold to our standards, but we get there by different pathways. I’ll give you an example: We have a student who loved our aquaponic system. She spent hours and hours creating her own aquaponic system, helping create the school’s aquaponic system, getting a grant for the aquaponic system. So in her learning plan, I gave her a biology credit for going that in-depth on a handful of biology standards. She didn’t meet all 10 biology power standards, but she went so far in depth with a couple of them. But then everyone signs off on that. That doesn’t happen often, but it happens.

EL: What is the district’s perspective on that? (more…)

Personalizing Learning in an Alternative Arts High School

August 6, 2019 by

This is the second post in a series about the Eastern Carver County Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Integrated Arts Academy Student PaintingThe Integrated Arts Academy (IAA) in Chaska, Minnesota brings a deeply personalized approach to embedding visual arts, culinary arts, horticulture, and floral and textile design into core academic subjects. Most of the high school’s 125 students arrive as juniors and seniors who struggled with academic engagement at their previous high school. The school used to be a program for these students in one of the district’s two large, comprehensive high schools.

The leaders wanted to do something different, because the program’s graduation rate was too low. They decided to create a program where arts drove the learning. In 2012 they moved to a different building and began developing studios—one or more classrooms—related to several career paths. Some students come with a specific career in mind and spend much of their time in a single studio. Others want to be in an arts setting but don’t have a particular career in mind, and they divide their time across multiple studios.

Integrated Arts Academy Gala Display 01My visit was the day before the school’s Annual Gala, where students display and sell products from their projects. The halls were covered with displays of visual arts and flowers, the hydroponic gardens were in full bloom, and culinary students were preparing food for the event.

Principal Tera Kaltsas and a senior who had focused on culinary arts spoke with me and led my tour of the school. The student had earned a 3.7 GPA at their previous high school but seldom went to class. “I would do my work and then go take a nap. I literally napped in school daily. I was just there to get the grades, and that’s it. Then I went to the IAA gala at a friend’s invitation and was like ‘Oh my gosh, you like going to school and get to learn about things you want to learn about?’ I was a good student, but I wasn’t learning anything important. I was just doing worksheets and turning them in and then doing nothing. Then I came here and ran a coffee shop and became part of a great community. At my old school there were 3,000 kids. That’s too big for a school, and I didn’t know anyone. I wasn’t part of it. Here I know everyone and they all talk to me. It’s a community.”

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District-wide Transformation to Personalized Learning in Eastern Carver County, Minnesota

August 1, 2019 by

This is the first post in a series about the Eastern Carver County Public Schools. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

The Eastern Carver County district in Minnesota has worked intensively since 2011 to transition to more personalized, competency-based learning. Located about 25 miles southwest of Minneapolis, the district has 16 schools and almost 10,000 students in four communities that span a region of 88 square miles.

During a recent visit to two Eastern Carver schools, I spoke with students, school staff, and district officials. Superintendent Clint Christopher, Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Amy LaDue, and Leader of Personalized Learning and Innovation Brian Beresford provided valuable reflections on the strategies, challenges, and rewards of district-wide transformation.

A key strategy has been creating a district-wide definition of personalized learning but then allowing it to take shape differently in different schools.  Personalized learning can take many forms, so the district strives to be clear about what they mean. The focal point of their definition is “the Star,” illustrated in the graphic above, which provides a compelling way to communicate the district’s approach to learning. The star is accompanied by powerful language on the district’s website, explaining the rationale for personalized learning. Some samples include:

  • Purposeful Learning – “In the past, teachers stood in front of the class for each lesson, expecting all students to learn in the same way and at the same pace. This is becoming a thing of the past. Teachers in Eastern Carver County Schools not only lead instruction but also facilitate learning for each student. They teach by guiding students toward mastery of content and instilling 21st century skills. Students have access to a variety of resources and tools, and teachers connect students to learning beyond the classroom.”
  • Collaborative Environment – “Design of spaces and their furnishings reflect purpose: how we live, how we work, and how we learn. We are redefining learning spaces with a variety of furniture, layouts, and technology that facilitate collaboration, creativity, comfort, and safety. They also convey a sense of belonging and purpose. School should be a place where students feel welcomed and empowered to learn.”
  • Learner Voice and Choice – “Students have the freedom to design the way they showcase their learning based on individual styles, experiences, passions, and needs…Treated as co-designers, students take greater pride in their success and ultimately find meaning in their work.”
  • Purposeful Instruction, Assessment, and Feedback – “Learning is continuous in our schools. This means that students are not limited by their age or grade. They are able to work at the level that is right for them. Students are consistently challenged…With teachers as facilitators, students effectively communicate their learning journey and progress. They then work with their teacher to determine their next steps for learning.”

Christopher is clear that they plan to transform the entire district, but says “it’s not going to happen overnight. We know it’s a long journey.” He emphasizes that Eastern Carver has 16 buildings with 16 leaders, faculties, student groups, cultures, and parent communities. The district has a document for each building that identifies where it is with personalized learning and the next steps to move forward.

Three Elementary Students from Eastern Carver“We need gentle pressure, relentlessly applied,” he said. “We need that constant focus on this, moving forward, adjusting, identifying what’s working. And what our board pushes back on, rightly so, is that we have pockets of excellence throughout the district, so how do we identify that and bring it to scale? This is also an equity measure, so the experience you’ll get in this district doesn’t depend on where you live. It may look different in different schools, but student outcomes need to be the same. We allow buildings to have some flexibility in that journey but are clear on what the parameters are around that.” (more…)

Innovative Scheduling: Digital e-Learning Days and Academic Support Periods

July 1, 2019 by

This is the fifth and final post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

Farmington Tigers MascotInnovations in school scheduling are key elements in shifting to competency-based education. They can enable “anytime, anywhere” learning, ensure that students receive frequent personalized support, and support deeper learning such as high-quality, project-based work. Innovative scheduling is an essential component of increasing organizational flexibility, one of the competency-based education quality principles. Two scheduling innovations in the Farmington school district are Flexible Learning Days and Academic Support Periods.

Working from Anywhere But the School Building

Farmington implemented flexible learning days or “flex days” several years ago. On these days, students don’t come to school but are expected to work via the school’s digital platform. Teachers are available and provide online “office hours.”

One advantage is that school days that in the past would have been cancelled due to inclement weather can now be productive learning days that don’t result in disrupted schedules and extended school years. The district also believes that it’s a great way to learn. Executive Director of Educational Services Jason Berg explained, “Students need to learn how to manage their own time, so we have to set up some experiences to let them learn that—to see that they don’t have to be in school to do learning.”

Flex days aren’t just to prevent school cancellations, however. The district also has two scheduled flex days each year with activities that teachers set up and post online for students to complete on their own schedule. Students can reach teachers digitally during school hours, although they’re also free to complete the work on their own schedules. Some students do group work electronically, and some classes that require out-of-school work, such as a photography class, schedule special activities on flex days. If students have several different activities that they need to get done that day, it is up to them to develop a plan to get it done, with teacher support as needed.

To help caregivers plan for the two pre-scheduled annual flex days, the district announces the dates at the beginning of the school year. The community has also set up some child care opportunities for those days for families who need it, and some of the older students go to the community centers and serve as tutors. Students are not permitted to go to the elementary or middle schools on the planned flex days, but high school students who have work that they can only do in the building are permitted to come if they have their own transporation. (Buses are cancelled on flex days.) The Farmington website provides more information about their flexible learning days. (more…)

Interstellar Time at Boeckman Middle School

June 24, 2019 by

This is the fourth post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Eliot and Students at BoeckmanFarmington’s emphasis on teacher agency means that competency-based education is evolving in many different forms across the district. Boeckman Middle School has developed Interstellar Time, which brings a competency-based approach to selected subjects and grade levels.

During the 2018-19 school year, Interstellar Time served 90 7th-graders during a four-and-a-half hour period every other day focused on language arts, math, and social studies. During the 2019–20 school year, the initiative will expand to include 8th-graders in language arts, social studies, and art classes. These academic subjects reflect the teachers who wanted to participate. The expansion to 8th grade will mean that students in the 7th-grade Interstellar cohort will be able to continue their involvement in this approach to learning for a second year.

Boeckman Principal Megan Blazek explained, “Our mission is to provide an environment where learners become owners of their learning, informed problem solvers, and reflective goal setters.” The Interstellar Time website explains that the personalized learning innovation “allows learners to schedule time to work on their specific learning needs at any time, any place, any path, any pace. Our goal is to develop strong learners and leaders—learners who are able to think flexibly, critically, and creatively as well as communicate and collaborate with others.”

Every student has an iPad, and teachers build playlists of learning activities and assessments aligned to competencies that students need to demonstrate. These playlists are provided via the Schoology learning management system, and students’ progress on demonstrating evidence of competencies is tracked with an individualized Google sheet. Next year they will move away from the Google sheet and use Campus Learning, which is an add-on to Infinite Campus. Some learning activities are carried out on iPads, but others take place on paper or through group activities.

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Shifting the English Department to Competency-Based Learning

June 18, 2019 by

This is the second post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to other posts are provided at the end of this article.

The administration of the Farmington Area Public Schools believes that their strategic plan, combined with “radical trust” in teacher agency, has led personalized learning to flourish in ways that are deep and expanding. Rather than prescribing what exact shifts should happen, they believe that changes in practice will emerge more naturally over time and with greater buy-in by giving teachers time and resources to support new ways of thinking and practicing.

Four English teachers at Farmington High School—Ashley Anderson, Adam Fischer, Sarah Stout, and John Williams—explained that these changes have played out in their department as a gradual process of becoming more focused on what each student wants. Over time, their work has become more closely oriented with all five parts of the working definition of competency-based education.

Wherefore Art Thou, Student Engagement?

Three years ago at a PLC meeting, the teachers and an administrator decided to expand the curriculum, which included readings such Romeo and Juliet and To Kill A Mockingbird, to include a wider range of traditional and contemporary books and authors. They believed this would increase student engagement and the curriculum’s cultural responsiveness. The PLC thought carefully about what outcomes they wanted and realized that the skills and dispositions students needed could be developed from this wider range of readings. Not everyone needed to read the same books at the same time with the teacher leading from the front of the room.

So they bought sets of 13 new books. The students not only began choosing what books they wanted to read, they also began leading their own book groups. The teachers helped them build higher-level skills such as leading a discussion and developing engaging questions. “So we get all of that ‘standards stuff’ in there,” one teacher explained, “but then it’s about them taking charge and leading the conversation.”

Some of the new titles were The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Flight by Sherman Alexie, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and All American Boys by Jason Reynolds—acclaimed books with diverse authors. The teachers described students coming in and saying things like, “Wow—do you know what’s in this book?!” and that it was the first book they had ever read cover to cover, sometimes in one weekend. (more…)

“Radical Trust” and Teacher Agency Drive Deeper Change in Farmington

June 13, 2019 by

This is the first post in a series about the Farmington Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Links to the other posts are provided at the end of this article.

Jay Haugen, Farmington

Jay Haugen

Jay Haugen is Minnesota’s 2019 Superintendent of the Year, and his leadership has helped the Farmington Area Public Schools make great strides in advancing competency-based education. After 30 years in administration, Haugen has adopted a philosophy of “radical trust” in his staff, based on his experience that top-down initiatives fail to bring deep and lasting change.

During visits to Farmington High School and Boeckman Middle School, about 20 miles south of Minneapolis, I spoke with Haugen and Jason Berg, Farmington’s Executive Director of Educational Services. This post focuses on their philosophy and experiences with moving toward more personalized learning. Other posts in the series will explore specific changes in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and scheduling.

Jason Berg, Farmington

Jason Berg

Promoting Agency, Not Compliance

Jay Haugen: I’ve tried to make big change my whole career, but for decades I’ve watched all the right stuff come to nothing. So we don’t talk about “rolling out” changes anymore. That hasn’t been our language for the past seven years. We don’t “run initiatives.” The central office doesn’t decide what people should do and then schedule staff development for everyone on those topics. It’s very organic. We invite people to innovate, we get them inspired about our direction, and we unleash our staff and provide the supports they need. This has led to many types of competency-based innovations in our different schools, disciplines, and grade levels.

One of our top words is “agency,” and that’s for both students and staff. We do not tell staff what to do and how to do it. I think that’s what been wrong forever. Everything emanates from our strategic plan, and our purpose—to ‘ensure that every student reaches their highest aspirations while embracing responsibility to community.’ As long as staff are connecting to our purpose, we’re going to honor their agency and their ability to bring about that result.

We need to go slow to go fast. District offices tend to wish that people would all just get on board with mandates, but what you get is compliance. Then five years later you wonder what happened to your initiative. So the issue is how you go about it. You need to realize that you can’t tell a human what to do and how to do it. You just can’t! We won’t accept it! We will pretend. We will comply. Compliance is the 10% solution, because it makes your big initiatives become tiny increments that don’t keep pace at all with our world. So we need to do something different. The leap is radical trust—preserve people’s agency, and let them self-organize.

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Habits of Mind and Learning New Ways of Learning at Journey Elementary

June 4, 2019 by

This is the final post in a series about the Harrisburg School District in South Dakota. Links to the other posts are at the end of the article.

Harrisburg Math Coaching SessionOne teacher at Journey Elementary who was in her third year of personalized learning recalled, “Early in my first year it was chaotic and I said, ‘I don’t see how this is going to get better.’ But by mid-November the learners were moving, they were advocating for themselves, things were clicking for them. It’s something about that time frame. There’s enough time there that you can build some structures and routines for them. Then it gets easier for both learners and facilitators in the second year and beyond.”

Another teacher explained, “This was the first year for my cohort, and we spent about the first 10 days of the school year setting up our procedures. We don’t really do any curriculum during that time. It was a lot of team building with learners because it’s so different from traditional. You’re used to having 24 learners, but with our multi-age groupings there are now 90 of them that you might see at some point in the year. So we want them to be comfortable with us, and we want to be comfortable with them and know who they are. You also want the different ages to be able to interact with each other. That was particularly true because it was the transition year for our cohort. For the cohort that started a year earlier, they didn’t need as long to do culture-building at the beginning of the school year. You need everyone to be comfortable with each other and the program before you really dive in.”

The initial weeks of school are also used for students and teachers to get comfortable with changes in the use of space. For example, since students move across studios during the day, there are no student desks containing a student’s own supplies. Instead, each room has bins of pens, markers, paper, and other supplies that students share. Each teacher sets up the supplies in their room similarly, so students can easily find what they need and don’t keep asking the teacher.

Habits of Work

Another key aspect of helping students learn to make good use of personalized learning, flexible scheduling, and multi-age groupings are the “Habits of Work” utilized across multiple competency-based schools in Harrisburg. These are the skills that students use to manage their learning, which also go by other names including “personal success skills,” “habits of work and learning,” “non-cognitive skills,” and “21st century skills.”

Harrisburg uses Costa and Kallick’s “Habits of Mind,” which is the longest list of these skills that I have seen used in practice. There are 16 in total, each with a name, a phrase (listed below), and a description (shown in the image below, from posters on the walls in Freedom Elementary): (more…)

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