Category: Case Studies

Thompson School District: Student-Driven Learning at Work!

September 28, 2017 by

This post is part of an ongoing series on Colorado schools. Read about D51, DSISD, and Westminster Public Schools for more insights. 

Conrad Ball Middle School sits on an unremarkable street in Loveland, Colorado. Other than its claim to fame as the nation’s “Sweetheart City,” Loveland is similar in many ways to other small- to medium-sized cities across the nation. However, across this school district, something truly different is happening inside its classrooms.

Conrad Ball Middle School (or “Con Ball” as it is referred to by district staff) is one of several schools that are leading implementation of Thompson’s vision for personalized, competency-based learning. Thompson’s vision for competency based learning is described this way.

“The teachers and staff in TSD are dedicated to working with students and families to design a personal learning pathway for each student based on their passions, strengths and needs. We care about students having more meaningful learning that is not based on seat time and gives students more choices in what they want to explore at a deeper level. Teachers are committed to providing specific feedback to help students transfer and apply the skills they gain during their learning to foster growth and inspire students to excel. We are committed to ensuring that every student is prepared for success and is college, career and community ready.”

Thompson’s competency-based structure is founded upon four core areas of teaching and learning:

1. Competency-Based Instruction is designed to:

  • provide flexibility to students in demonstrating proficiency within personalized learning/personalized learning pathways,
  • ensure acquisition of knowledge and skills essential for success in higher education, careers, and adult life (state standards),
  • afford equitable access to education,
  • support communication that helps students learn more effectively through better feedback, and
  • foster ownership of the standard and the scores accessed through open gradebook.

2. Competency-Based Scoring: Students, parents, and teachers build understanding of what each scoring level looks like for each standard in each content area.

3. Competency-Based Assessment: Formative and summative assessments that are identified prior to the learning, aligned to standards, criterion referenced, and authentic to student learning.

4. Competency-Based Reporting: Consists of quarterly progress monitoring reports that are designed to be links within a year-long chain of evidence toward end-of-year expectations, and one final report card at end-of-year.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about classes at Conrad Ball is how actively students are leading their classroom experience. Walk into Mrs. Steele’s eighth grade math class, and students are leading discussions at each of the tables scattered around the room. Student groups are re-distributed daily rather than remain fixed in static ability groups. Mrs. Steele rotates around the groups to offer guidance, answer questions and check in on progress. Meanwhile, any student can go at any time to the “Help Table” where other students sit doing their own work, but ready to be interrupted at any time to help fellow students. Outside of class, Mrs. Steele uses an online platform to review student work, provide individual feedback and make adjustments for students. (more…)

Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD): Competency-Based by Design

September 21, 2017 by

This post is part of an ongoing series on Colorado schools. Read about D51 and Westminster Public Schools for more insights. 

Few public-school leaders outside of the charter sector have the opportunity to design their school from the ground up. In 2013, Danny Medved was invited by Denver Public Schools (DPS) to do just that. With support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Opportunity by Design Challenge, Medved worked alongside staff from DPS’ Imaginarium to design a new, competency-based high school in Denver. This type of “in-house innovation” is unique within large urban school districts, and it provided an opportunity to draw upon the district resources and expertise while still enjoying the benefits of school autonomy and a fresh start.

Mr. Medved looked directly to iNACOL’s 2011 working definition of competency-based learning to design the school. As any good innovator would, Mr. Medved borrowed from and built upon existing innovations and the experiences of others. As he explains, “we did not want to create from scratch what already exists but did want to use them in a way so as to have an individual school identity.” Other resources that directly informed the school design included Summit Public School’s Base Camp and Tony Wagner’s discussion of Play, Passion and Purpose. The ability to build upon the efforts of early innovators enabled the school to focus its creative energies upon the core beliefs and purposes of the school, and select the tools and resources that supported them. Core elements of the school’s competency-based model that ultimately emerged include:

  • School structure organized around iNACOL’s working definition of competency-based learning
  • Academic and socio-emotional competencies aligned with DSISD’s four Qualities of an Innovator domains (Personal Academic Excellence Domain developed by Summit Public Schools)
  • Instruction organized into six-week blocks, each focused upon a set of “power standards”; curriculum scope and sequence spirals throughout the year so that skills can be re-taught in the context of the next six-week sequence
  • Personalized learning platform from Summit Public Schools
  • Use cross-content standards to develop Student-Learning Objectives
  • Deliver instruction using something similar to a rotational model that is differentiated using the modalities of minimal direct instruction, small group direct instruction, collaborative group work, and asynchronous learning time, with an emphasis upon project-based learning experiences embedded throughout the academic year and used to deliver cross-disciplinary content
  • FLEX block included in students’ weekly schedule that allows for both acceleration and remediation opportunities as well as elective classes, such as art
  • Clear set of teacher competencies; explains Mr. Medved “you can grow people to teach in this environment, but you need some rock star anchor teachers.”

With support from DPS, Mr. Medved was able to hire teacher leaders during the design process. Together, they completed the school planning process, including the build out of the school instructional plan. This distributed leadership model was an intentional part of the school design, which places an emphasis upon building the leadership capacity of other leaders within the school.

After two years of focused planning, in 2015, the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD) welcomed its first students, a class of 100 ninth graders. Like any new school leader will tell you, you plan the school you envision, but the school isn’t established until the students arrive, testing the strength of a school design and forcing the school to determine what is fixed and what might need to change in response to what students and families bring with them to the school community. That first year was a learning experience for DSISD as much for the school’s faculty as for the students. A summary of lessons learned during that first year have been previously captured in a report by Denver Public School’s imaginarium, and you can read about them here: Personalized Learning: A Journey Through Year One (2016). However, a few lessons are worth calling out here with regard to the implementation of DSISD’s competency-based model. Some of these were identified by students and faculty at the school and others are offered by the author. (more…)

Lessons from a Vanguard: A Look at Metz Elementary

September 18, 2017 by

This post is part of an ongoing series on Colorado schools. Read about D51 for more insights. 

Westminster Public Schools is accustomed to being in the spotlight. In 2008, Westminster became one of the first public school districts in the nation to adopt a competency-based model. In 2000, Colorado was one of the first states to adopt a school report card system. Based primarily upon standardized test results, the new law also put into place mandatory state interventions for schools and districts with persistent low performance. As the district website recounts, “after years of declining scores on the Colorado Student Achievement Program, commonly known as CSAP, the Board of Education decided the academic success of its students was too important to address through small curriculum shifts or a subtle tweaking of its programming. Instead, the district needed to radically change the way it educated students.”[1] Already looking for a more effective way to serve the districts’ rapidly changing student needs, district leadership made a bold move. Rather than pursue “drill and kill” strategies designed to quickly boost test scores, the district chose instead to implement a competency-based education model with the intention of honoring students and supporting deeper learning. This was a bold move and reflects an ethos about students and educators that continues to this day.

Metz Elementary was the first school to pilot Westminster’s new performance based system. Beginning in 2009, the school abandoned its traditional system of age-based learning to focus instead on what they wanted for students – deeper learning and performance. The school serves approximately 340 students in grades K-5, most of who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Borrowing from Chugach School District in Alaska and other schools across the country that had made the move to a performance-based system, Westminster Public Schools introduced a personalized learning approach that was all its own.

Claudette Trujillo, the principal at Metz, grew up in Westminster. After a few years teaching in a neighboring district, Ms. Trujillo ultimately returned to Westminster, where she has served in multiple roles at multiple schools. When she arrived at Metz in 2013, the school had returned to a traditional structure. Despite the district’s continued commitment to competency-based learning, a series of circumstances resulted in a lack of consistent implementation at Metz. Changes in leadership and staff have resulted in teachers relying on what they knew best, more traditional models of teaching and learning.

Principal Claudette Trujillo

Four years later, Ms. Trujillo has solidly re-established competency-based learning at the school. Teachers and students alike are invested in the structure and the enthusiasm is palpable throughout the school. Ms. Logsdon, a Level 4/5 teacher, describes it this way. “[Adopting competency-based learning is] absolutely the right thing for kids and it is absolutely the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.” When asked what lessons she has learned in the process, she offers the following reflection, “leadership for competency-based systems has to be there, and [leadership] has to believe in it.”

Today, thanks to the leadership and dedicated teachers and students at Metz Elementary, the school has implemented a dynamic system that is very much home-grown. The district’s brochure How Personalized Learning Works outlines the key components of the system at work in Metz Elementary. Core elements of the district’s approach include:

  • Clear learning targets that determine each student’s performance level in each subject
  • Ongoing assessments that inform student pathways and provide opportunities to demonstrate proficiency
  • Promotion to the next performance level as soon as a student demonstrates they are ready
  • Transparent reporting systems that allow parents, students and educators to log on any time and see where a student is and what’s next

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Taking a Minute to Reflect on Competency Education and ELL students

September 12, 2017 by

Why would a school serving high numbers of ELL students want to turn to competency education? As I visit schools serving students who are learning the English language while also learning academic skills, content, and the powerful higher order skills, I always seek further understanding about how competency education is being implemented to better serve English Language Learners.

Given the release of iNACOL’s new paper Next Generation Learning Models for English Language Learners by Natalie Troung, I thought I would take a minute to reflect back on what I’ve heard from educators over the past six years of visiting schools on behalf of CompetencyWorks. I realized as I revisited my conversations with educators that much of what has been shared certainly applies to any student.

From Flushing International High School in NYC

Power of intentionality and transparency impacts students and teachers. Principal Lara Evangelista explained the value of competency education, “We started along the path toward mastery-based learning when we began to ask ourselves why we assess. Why do we grade? We realized that every teacher did it differently. The transparency and intentionality of mastery-based learning makes a huge difference for our teachers and our students. Our teachers are much more intentional about what they want to achieve in their classrooms. It has also opened up the door to rich conversations about what is important for students to learn, pedagogy, and the instructional strategies we are using. For students, the transparency is empowering and motivating. They are more engaged in taking responsibility for their own education than ever before.”

Targeting conversations on learning and habits of success. The topic of how to help those students who are really struggling ran through the conversations. Math teacher Rosmery Milczewski explained that she was unsure at first, as she wasn’t familiar with mastery-based learning. “The thing that convinced me is that in the traditional grading systems, when a student would come and ask how they could do better in a class, all I could really say was study more,” she explained. “The grades didn’t guide me as a teacher. There was no way to help students improve. With mastery-based grading, we talk about specific learning outcomes. I know exactly how to help students and they know exactly where their strengths and weaknesses are. With mastery-based learningI am much more focused and goal-oriented when I’m conferring with students. In my advisory, mastery-based grading has changed how I talk to them about how they are doing in other classes. We always look at their work habits. That is going to tell you everything.”

Improving quality of learning experiences and assessing students. Assistant Principal Kevin Hesseltine noted, “Our projects are teacher-designed. The intentionality has made a huge difference on the quality of our project-based learning.” Wolf explained, “The question of how you judge what mastery is has made a huge difference for me. I don’t use quizzes any more. I would rather spend a day working on project with students than designing and grading a quiz.”

Finding ways to build successful learning experiences. For students who are really struggling, Jordan Wolf suggested that the key is seeking ways to build success, “Sometimes it is important to find small chunks that give a roadmap to success for students. In JumpRope (Flushing’s grading software), I can expand down to a much more granular level until I can find a place to focus in which the student can build success on one or two things. After they realize they can be successful, they’ll be willing to try a little more.” To make sure students get extra attention when they are having difficulties, a policy has been developed where a 1.7 triggers an intervention. There is also a policy for course extensions when students have not been able to reach all the learning outcomes. The expectation is that students will finish everything by the end of the following semester.

Helping teachers improve their own learning. Milczewski explained, “When I look at JumpRope and I see that a majority of students are having difficulty with a specific outcome, it tells me two things. One, I need to re-teach it, and two, I need to reflect on my own teaching to find a better way to reteach it.”

From Dual Immersion Academy (DIA) in District 51 Colorado

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3 Lessons Learned from PACE

September 6, 2017 by

Principal Amy Allen

Parker Varney Elementary School in Manchester, NH has been involved in the PACE initiative since 2015. (You can read more about Parker Varney here and here.) PACE, or the Performance Assessment for Competency Education, is an initiative designed to transform classroom practice to improve college and career readiness by building educator capacity and increasing student engagement through the design and use complex performance tasks. The initiative is also helping to build a shared understanding of proficiency for ELA (third and eighth grade) and math (fourth and eighth grade) across New Hampshire by using cohorts of districts that work together for a year.

As we moved to personalized, competency-education, there could have been many missteps. However, the strong network of district leaders, principal, and teacher leaders proved invaluable. With a powerful network supporting us, what might have been missteps instead became powerful lessons learned.

#1 Making the transition to personalized, competency-based education with performance assessments is paying off.

Our students are more engaged in learning than ever before. The result has been deeper, more authentic learning opportunities and greater student engagement. At Parker Varney Elementary, students in a multi-age 2/3-grade classroom exhibited significant progress in reading achievement. At the start of the 2016 school year, 29% of Grade 2 students and 75% of Grade 3 students were proficient in reading as measured by the district’s benchmark assessment. By March 2017, 77% of Grade 2 students and 85% of Grade 3 students were proficient in reading as measured by the district’s benchmark assessment.

From September 2016 to April 2017, special education referrals declined by 21%. At the start of the 2016 school year, our Grade 2 and Grade 3 English Language Learners were 54% proficient in reading as measured by the district’s benchmark assessment. By June 2017, 85% of those students were proficient and making at least one year’s growth as measured by the district’s benchmark assessment.

In the student exhibitions, you see students shining as they take on the role of experts. During a tour, I brought two national visitors to our innovation-learning lab. Eighty-nine students were showcasing their Jr. Steam projects in which they had designed robotics to solve environmental problems. With 100% of the class participating, the room was filled with students excited to share their ideas, learning, and success. These deeper learning opportunities removed the barriers encountered by students in special education, English Language Learners, and poverty.

One of our parents called me after the presentation and told me that they had to move across town and would have to enroll in a different elementary school. She said she was concerned that her student would not have the same experience at the other school as she did at Parker-Varney. I asked her to clarify and she said, “My child has never been so excited for learning. He has always felt that he was not as smart as his classmates. We moved a lot and he has always been catching up. I saw him today and he was glowing. He was so proud to show off his robot and how it would improve pollination. He loved talking to every visitor and answering questions. He used words that I have never heard but more importantly, he knew his information and he has never felt so smart.” Every parent wants their child to love to learn and feel good about themselves; competency-based personalized learning has opened that door for our students.

#2 Meeting students where they are is a whole school commitment.

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Red Flag: When Habits of Work and Learning Become Extrinsic Motivation

August 29, 2017 by

If I had only two choices between a thumbs-up and thumbs-down, I don’t know which I would use to comment on Portland School District’s new policy that will prohibit students from participating in extracurricular activities if they don’t meet the expectations for demonstrating the habits of work and learning. It is a great idea for a school district to embrace the idea of Habits of Work and Learning (I’ll use HOW as an acronym to indicate the behaviors and skills students need to learn only because HOWL raises images of wolves in my mind), since becoming a lifelong learner is essential to preparing students for college, career, citizenship, and their well-being as adults. However, in tying it to access to and the denial of extracurricular activities, the district has bureaucratized and corrupted the power of using HOW to engage and motivate students.

When you see a good idea at a school, it makes sense that district leaders would want to scale it to everyone. Certainly Portland’s Casco Bay High School a leading example of competency-based education highlights how a competency-based structure (referred to as proficiency-based in Maine) can contribute to a school that has a rich pedagogical theory of learning emphasizing inquiry, communities of learning, and horizon-broadening experiences. The problem is that when we do this, we take a practice out of the context of the culture and related practices that make it work. Implementing habits of work and learning as a gate for whether students can play football will simply never work to improve engagement, motivation, and academic learning, or to prepare students as lifelong learners. Here’s why.

#1 Opening the Door to Opportunities for Learning, Not Closing Them

In competency-based (or proficiency-based) schools, the practice is to shift how we communicate student progress. The traditional grading system is based on points (extrinsic motivation that works for the students at the top and does little for everyone else) for: 1) assignments and summative assessments (which may indicate how well a student understands the material but does little or nothing to motivate students who are not understanding, as they never have a chance to go back and learn it) and 2) points for behavior that may be related to learning or not (being helpful or bringing in cans for the food drive). Zeros for not turning in an assignment are nearly impossible to recover from and will actually chip away at a student’s motivation.

Underlying the traditional grading system are two beliefs: 1) extrinsic motivation is the best way to get students to put in the effort and 2) a focus on ranking students that believes some students are smart and others not so much, and there is little a teacher can do to help students learn. The second one is directly related to our ability as a nation to improve equity or continue to reproduce it – if we don’t think students can really learn, we just pass them on with Cs and Ds. If we believe that all students can learn, if we truly believe the evidence underlying Dweck’s theory of a growth mindset, then we should be constantly seeking out opportunities for students to keep learning and for educators to have opportunity to build their skills to better support students. Instead of ranking, we should be monitoring growth and seeking to discover each student’s potential.

In competency-based grading systems, we make two big changes from the traditional grading system. First, grading is no longer used to rank students. It is focused solely on letting students know how they are progressing toward mastering the material. A student who attempts a unit with misconceptions and/or gaps from previous years may stumble at first and take more time to do some more learning. The scoring system lets them know if they are just getting started, are making progress but aren’t quite there yet, or have mastered the material. All students have a chance of succeeding if they keep at it and if they receive effective instructional support. (It’s important to remember: Asking a student who has a misconception to just keep trying is totally unfair. They’ll never know that they have a misconception and will discover no way of uncovering it. It will only reinforce that they are dumb, when the fact is that no adult offered them the help they need.) (more…)

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…)

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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