Category: Classroom Practice

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…)

Illustrating Proficiency Grading Levels: 1234 Versus ABCDF

June 7, 2019 by

This post originally appeared at KnowledgeWorks on April 30, 2019.

When you walk into the Early Childhood Center of Kenowa Hills Public School District and talk with Principal Dan Brant, is it immediately clear that engaging families in their journey to personal mastery learning is a top priority. New language and concepts that are different from more traditional approaches to teaching and grading require being thoughtful about how to build clarity in communications. Just like many schools who are working to shift to student-centered learning or personalized, competency-based learning, helping parents and guardians understand and engage with their child’s learning is critical.

Principal Brant uses simple images to help illustrate the purpose and importance of proficiency-based grading for people who may only be familiar with thinking about grading in terms of percentages, points or As, Bs and Cs.

These impactful visuals are one of the first things visitors see when walking through the school’s doors and helps easily explain their proficiency grading levels of 1, 2, 3 and 4:

Bulletin Board at KHECC

Image of Baby Chick1: Not Yet: Students unable to perform any part of the task at this time. Like a bird hatching, you’re just getting started and need more help to get ready to fly.

 

 

 

2. Image of Goose About To Fly2: Emerging: The student demonstrates some, but not all of the knowledge/skill to perform the task. You’re spreading your wings and trying to fly on your own.

 

 

Image of Goose Flying3: Proficient: The student demonstrates all of the knowledge/skill to perform the task. You’ve done it! You’re flying on your own with ease.

 

 

Image of Geese Flying in Formation4: Advanced: The student demonstrates knowledge and skill above the expected task and can lead other children with task. You can help lead your flock and show others the way). (more…)

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…)

Littles, Middles, Molders, and Olders – Multi-age Learning at Journey Elementary

May 30, 2019 by

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

Harrisburg Students Working on Floor, Three GirlsWhen I asked a teacher at Journey Elementary how he liked teaching in his school’s personalized, competency-based model, he looked at his bare forearms and said, “It gives me goosebumps every time I think about being able to do this. I love it. I could never go back to being the boring teacher I was for so many years. I wish all my former students could have had this opportunity.”

Journey is the second elementary school in Harrisburg to shift to a personalized model. As with Freedom Elementary, described in the previous post, Journey has phased in two personalized cohorts in two years, while keeping one cohort in a traditional model to accommodate parent preferences.

The two personalized cohorts are each about 90 students—a little over 20 students in each of the four age groups that traditionally correspond to 2nd through 5th grade. However, learning happens in multi-age groupings for mathematics and English language arts in the morning. Then afternoon classes in other subjects are conducted by grade level, although the school’s goal is eventually to have those be multi-age and flexibly scheduled too.

To de-emphasize the idea of different grade levels, the four age groups  are called “littles, middles, molders, and olders,” terms that have become familiar and normal in the school. The school’s architecture complements the multi-age groupings, with four “studios” arranged around a large, carpeted central area. The personalized schools in Harrisburg prefer the term “studios” to “classrooms” to suggest that all the needed tools are present, but student agency is needed for the tools to result in acquiring knowledge and demonstrating learning. The youth and adults also use the terms “learners” and “facilitators,” rather than “students” and “teachers,” to shift everyone’s mindframes toward learning that is driven by student agency and personalized adult support.

Notice all the wonderful new words, plus new meanings for old words! One of the exciting opportunities of transforming education is creating new language that both describes and enables new ways of thinking and doing.

Kindergarten and first grade do not participate in the personalized cohorts, in part because after first grade a small percentage of students leave Journey to attend the district’s gifted and talented program. However, school administrators reported that the kindergarten and first grade teachers are increasingly adopting personalized practices and pushing for permission and supports to move further in that direction.

Harrisburg Scheduling ScreenshotPersonalizing Student Schedules

As with many other personalized schools, Harrisburg uses the Empower learning management system to organize student assignments into playlists that permit personalized scheduling and progression. All students have to demonstrate mastery on lists of standards that are divided into learning targets. Each learning target has activities developed by teachers in categories called iLearn, iPractice, and iMaster, with iLearn focused on exposure to new content, iPractice providing opportunities to develop skills with the new content, and iMaster providing options for demonstrating mastery. (The playlists are online, but many of the activities are offline in a variety of formats.)

During a given class period, different teachers offer different iLearn activities, and students who haven’t demonstrated mastery of the corresponding learning targets attend those activities. This is where multi-age grouping comes in, because a given learning target might be the next step in the learning progression of both littles and middles, or both molders and olders. At the elementary level, teachers do most of the personalized scheduling of students into activities. Some of this takes place during the teachers’ common planning time, using data about student progress from Empower and from shared Google Docs that the teachers developed. (more…)

Project Example: Mobile App Design at Urban Assembly Maker Academy

April 16, 2019 by

Students Working on Laptops at UAMAThis is the fourth post in a series about the Mastery Collaborative in New York City. Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Whether you’re already deeply engaged in competency-based learning and assessment or just starting, it’s helpful to see how other teachers who are doing this work are structuring their units. After our recent visit to Urban Assembly Maker Academy, a Living Lab school in New York City’s Mastery Collaborative, the design teacher shared one of his unit plans and student work. This blog post discusses the unit and aspects of the Definition of Competency-Based Education and the Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education that it illustrates.

The unit plan on mobile app design from Teacher Gerry Irizarry’s prototyping course is here. This course is part of UA Maker’s digital media sequence, one of their two approved Career and Technical Education pathways. The unit plan begins with naming the design outcomes (here called “standards”) that are being assessed, such as:

  • I can demonstrate the application of the design process to define and solve design problems.
  • I can demonstrate purposeful arrangement of text and image for a creative layout: size, shape, location, and resolution.
  • I can demonstrate an understanding of a target audience.
  • I can demonstrate the ability to give constructive criticism & feedback.

Mobile App Design Project Components

The project summary section of the unit plan describes an “entry event” intended to increase student engagement by personalizing it to their experiences and interests. First students write a list of their favorite mobile apps, then the group discusses the lists together. This leads to a discussion of the most popular music apps and the pros and cons of each, and finally a more general discussion of what makes apps successful and popular (or not).

With students’ knowledge about apps activated and deepened, the work becomes more individualized, with each student selecting profiles of at least two target buyers (based on factors such as (more…)

How Data Notebooks Can Support Goal-Setting and Student Agency in Elementary School

February 25, 2019 by

This is the final article in a nine-part “In Real Life” series based on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.” Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Goal-setting plays a big role in a personalized, competency-based learning environment: cultivating an awareness of why you’re working on what you’re working on, what’s next and instilling a sense of ownership over your learning and in your classroom community.

Even when you’re six.

At Batesburg-Leesville Primary School in Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina, students in first and second grade keep data notebooks to help them record their behavior, reading goals and progress. They track their growth each day and reference their data notebooks not only when they’re working, but also as a means of reflecting on their week. The data notebooks make students’ learning tangible to them.

Cultivating an awareness of learning is critical for all students – especially those students who struggle. According to Michelle Maroney, a second-grade teacher, “that visible record changes a student’s thinking. Before when we gave assessments, it was just taking a test. Now when they take an assessment they can see what it looks like from the last time to what it looks like today. They have that   visual,” says Maroney. “For kids way behind grade level, they feel defeated a lot. But when they can see their growth, they move at a much higher rate.”

(more…)

In Real Life: How do CBE systems support all students to reach mastery?

February 20, 2019 by

Alison Kearney, Assistant Principal, Noble High School, ME

This article is the seventh in a nine-part “In Real Life” series based on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.” Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Since learners are met where they are in CBE systems and are supported to reach mastery at their own pace, what supports are needed to ensure everyone succeeds?

To better understand this question, I sat down with Alison Kearney, Assistant Principal at Noble High School in North Berwick, Maine.

A rural school, Noble High School serves roughly 1,100 students across three towns up to an hour bus ride away. Its students often come from rural poor backgrounds, influencing how the school has structured its student support system. Noble High’s proficiency-based system was profiled in a CompetencyWorks blog post in 2015.

(more…)

3 Tools to Engage Ownership in Your Classroom

November 19, 2018 by

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

It’s easy to say teachers should give students more ownership of their learning. It’s easy to say students have to be motivated to learn. It’s easy to say teachers need to give up more control of the teaching and facilitate more of the learning. It’s easy to say but they are definitely NOT easy to do.

When students are drivers of the learning and not just passive recipients, it turns a dormant classroom into a thriving incubator of innovation. Many educators want to do all of these things but are too often left to figure out how to do it. (more…)

The Day in a Life Student in a Personalized, Competency-Based School

July 31, 2018 by

Mile Wolking

Mike Wolking, currently completing an Axford Fellowship while on leave from Education Elements, sent me a summary of a short investigation he completed in how a student spends their day. He followed a student in a New Zealand secondary school for a day and tracked her activities. As I read through the summary, I thought it might be a helpful way to begin to think about the quality of personalized, competency-based education. This type of data could be useful for reflection and opening up conversations about where there might be opportunities for strengthening instruction, assessment, and learning experiences as well as identifying where operational policies or organizational habits are getting in the way. One would have to also consider the question: How do we think a student should spend their time in order to optimize learning and development? (more…)

Three Misconceptions of Competency-Based Education

July 25, 2018 by

Stephen Johnson

Every school in every district wants to meet students where they are and allow them to show what they have learned. As good as this sounds, schools have different ways of getting there. We find that school leaders use many of the same words and phrases but those phrases imply something different. Definitions of models like competency-based education (CBE), student-centered learning, and a number of other learner-centered models affect the way in which the strategies are implemented, leading to scattered, inconsistent results in student achievement. Recently, national efforts have been led to connect entities in the CBE space to share ideas and to establish a common language. This common language would help to ensure that the words spoken carry the same universal meaning, regardless of locale. (more…)

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