Category: Classroom Practice

Developing a Competency-Based ELA Classroom

June 8, 2016 by
Stephanie Price

Language Arts Lead Teacher Stephanie Price (right) and Dean of Curriculum and Instruction Lisa Simms (left) collaborate on DSISD’s around competency-based approach.

This post originally appeared at Springpoint on June 1, 2016.

When I started my journey at Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD) in spring 2015, I was excited. After nine years of teaching in a traditional model of education, the new possibilities at my disposal sparked my creativity. Little did I know how much I would feel like a first year educator all over again once school started in the fall. I was embarking on uncharted territory, and no amount of summer planning could have prepared me for what was next. Now, a year in, I’m able to reflect on what I’ve learned, and offer a bit of advice to teachers and school leaders who might be interested in this model.

Discovering Pacing for my Students

As I learned what competency based education meant, it was my understanding that students could and should move through acquiring content and skills asynchronously, or at their own pace. Our learning management system, Summit Public School’s Personalized Learning Platform (PLP), allowed for students to access content, assessments, and projects on their own.

My initial approach prioritized the pace of the learning over the personal needs of each student. Students could move as quickly or slowly as they wished through their work, choosing supports and enrichments as they went along. This student-led approach didn’t account for the fact that students weren’t ready to identify their own needs without my guidance. Many of them lacked the self-directed learning skills and agency. It became messy, and it started to feel like each student was isolated. I missed the collaboration I was so used to in a traditional model. I also realized that about a third of my students were ready for the rigor of Advanced Placement coursework while about one tenth of them were struggling to keep up at an appropriate pace, even with the scaffolds provided for them to choose from. This was all useful learning for me, and at the end of the first trimester, I developed and implemented a differentiated grouping system that I called a “cohort model” in response to these challenges, and influenced heavily by student voice.

Implementing the Cohort Model

The cohort model simply allows students to choose their own adventure in the language arts classroom. Although all students work in small groups at their own levels, they are connected through common themes, tasks, and texts. My class has three cohorts: Introduction to Literature, AP Language Cohort, and AP Language Veterans. An example of a typical day would include the Intro to Lit students reading leveled versions of Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr. in preparation for writing a short response on figurative language in the text while the AP Cohort analyzes the whole letter for a rhetorical analysis essay. Meanwhile, the AP Veterans read Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau alongside Letter to Birmingham Jail to write a full compare contrast analysis on the figurative language each author used to support his argument. (more…)

Moving from Theory to Practice: Designing a New Competency-Based High School

June 6, 2016 by

This post originally appeared at Springpoint on May 31, 2016.Screenshot 2016-06-07 08.53.23

Every school leader wants to create their dream school. They want the kind of opportunity that would allow a passionate team and community of learners to cast a shared vision, to side step the bureaucratic elements of schooling, and to create an atmosphere and experiences that educators and students long for. However, when the opportunity of a blank canvas for school design arrives, there are a number of unspoken challenges in moving from theory to practice. In December of 2014 we embarked on this leadership journey with Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD). As we look back on our first year, there are many lessons that contributed to the success of our first year and our goals moving forward. Most importantly, our strong foundational systems and goals allowed our leadership to steer DSISD through the uncertain waters between theory and practice.

North Star: DSISD Vision

Our theory from the start was that a competency-based approach would make our school truly student-centered from startup to launch. Moving from theory to practice inherently means that an organization will need to navigate uncertainty and change. Many of the daily structures that ensure confidence and coherence in an established school or organization do not exist in a startup situation. What does exist in a startup situation is enthusiasm and excitement about new possibilities. However, enthusiasm is a finite resource that can be whittled away as challenges, which are sure to come, arise. To navigate uncertainty at DSISD, we built a compelling vision to anchor decisions in and test designs against.

The DSISD vision is “To empower ALL students to OWN their learning, SHAPE their dreams, and CREATE a better world.” This simple statement paints the picture of what we hope to instill in all of our students. It is also the first test for all of our decisions and school design elements. From identifying staff dispositions, to curricula choices, to student experiences—if the choice doesn’t align to the vision, then we don’t do it. This simple stake in the ground creates unity and confidence among the staff and provides consistency in the midst of uncertainty and change.

Map and Compass: Year One Goals

But vision alone is not enough—leaders also need to provide concrete criteria to know whether the group is heading in the right direction. Having clear benchmarks and goals helps generate momentum and secure early wins. This positive momentum is critical for counteracting the challenges of change and uncertainty. To secure these wins, the DSISD leadership team set three core goals for a strong first year: (more…)

Classroom Instruction of Skills and Dispositions

April 7, 2016 by

ClassroomThis is the third in a series of articles specific to the developing understanding of skills and dispositions of educators working with students in a competency-based educational system. There has been increased recognition nationally of the importance of skills and dispositions and how these are intertwined within the overall growth and College and Career Readiness of learners. The skills and dispositions are referred to in a number of ways (Non-cognitive skills, Habits of Learners, Work Habits, General Learning Outcomes, “soft skills,” etc.) Our school has been delving into skills and dispositions for the past few years, but we have found that there are limited resources to support our work, and, at times, this has caused frustration. We are very excited about the opportunity to work with the recently released Essential Skills and Dispositions Frameworks (Lench, S., Fukuda, E., & Anderson, R. (2015)) this upcoming school year to support our continued learning in this area. For the purposes of this series of articles, we will be using the term the State of New Hampshire recognizes, Work Study Practices, for skills and dispositions. Locally, we have aligned the Responsive Classroom’s CARES to our State of New Hampshire’s Work Study Practices, which are referenced in this series of articles.

To read the first article in this series, please click on the following link: Our School’s Developing Understanding of Skills and Dispositions. The second article may be accessed by clicking here: Collecting a Body of Evidence.

Memorial School is a Pre-K to Grade 5 elementary school in southeastern New Hampshire, part of the Sanborn Regional School District. As we have made our transition to a competency-based educational model, our recognition of the importance of skills and dispositions has evolved significantly. This evolution in understanding has progressed from our very early days in our journey when we realized that academics and academic behaviors MUST be separated. Today, our teachers recognize the importance of providing time for students to reflect on their own strengths as well as areas for growth within these skills and dispositions. And our growth will continue to evolve, as teachers have begun developing lessons and opportunities for learning for students within their classrooms within these important competencies.

Growth in these areas, for our elementary students, will not happen all by itself. It is imperative that teachers willingly and mindfully plan lessons that will help students to make connections and assist them along in their learning journey. It is also imperative to debrief, reflect, and provide meaningful and timely feedback, just as it is within any type of formative assessment that is happening within a classroom.

The insight of two of our teachers below outlines their work with their students specific to the instruction of these invaluable competencies within not only their classrooms but outside of their classrooms and in the greater world itself. Their reflections provide a glimpse into the world of both a first grade classroom and a fifth grade classroom, and describe how students’ increased self-awareness and understanding of the CARES (Cooperation, Assertion, Responsibility, Empathy, and Self-regulation) within their own learning are having a tremendous impact on not only the individual learner, but the entire classroom community as a whole. (more…)

10 Simple Lesson Plans for Scaffolding Student-Led Projects

March 10, 2016 by

laptop-studentsThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on January 17, 2016. 

When working with my high school students on implementing their own student-led projects, I adapted much of my project-based learning (PBL) curriculum from a guide titled Youth Engaged in Leadership in Learning (YELL), created by Stanford University’s John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Families.

Adapted from the YELL Curriculum Guide (I specifically used Unit 3; Unit 1 is on Communication and Unit 2 is on Leadership- both have great ideas), this was my (shortened) version of my 10 lesson plan for scaffolding student-led projects in my classroom.

Getting Started with Student-Led Projects

  • Assess. Decide how you will access the project and student grade(s) ahead of time and communicate that at the start. I suggest some sort of electronic portfolio (I used Google Docs) where assignments and formative assessments exist at the end of each lesson. At the end, there I had a performance-based assessment with a rubric. There was also a final reflection paper due at the end of the project.
  • Adapt. Flex this up or down according to grade level and skills.
  • Relate to Content. This will work in middle and/or high school advisory, social studies, language arts, or other project-based block.
  • Plan. This can happen in 2 weeks or 6 weeks (or longer). You could also massively extend lessons, especially lessons 6, 7 and 8 and this could become a 6+ week unit. Use your creativity and know what will work best for your students. You are on your way to building successful student-led projects.
  • Involve. Involve other adults in the building, and let parents know this is happening. Line up adult mentors who could come in to the building and help students on particular projects that line up with their expertise, or use online tools to connect students to mentors/adult experts.

Lesson 1 – The World is Ours. What Do You Care About?

Have students brainstorm ideas, problems and concerns. In my classroom, we did this in groups and the list was LONG. It filled two butcher paper sheets long. Students can brainstorm. There are no wrong answers. Examples include: drug abuse, lack of internet at home, more access to video games (this will get listed as an injustice), too many stray dogs in your neighborhood, alcoholism, homelessness. Debrief. (more…)

Reflections on Learning

February 11, 2016 by

Marie Watson, principal of Red Bank Elementary School in Lexington, South Carolina just sent me a photo of a student’s reflection on her learning in preparation for sending our report cards. (To learn more about Red Bank, click here.)

reflections 1                   reflections 2

Victoria writes on her second nine week reflection:

In Reading I learned, how to apply strategies for passages. I can site evidence to support my answers. I quote text accurately to make inferences. I can also use key details to make strong sumaries. I feel good about making summaries and applying my strategies. I need work on finding evidence in the text. (more…)

Collecting a “Body of Evidence”

January 28, 2016 by

StudyThis is the second in a series of articles specific to the developing understanding of skills and dispositions of educators working with students in a competency-based educational system. There has been increased recognition nationally of the importance of skills and dispositions and how these are entwined within the overall growth and College and Career Readiness of learners. The skills and dispositions are referred to in a number of ways (Non-cognitive skills, Habits of Learners, Work Habits, General Learning Outcomes, “soft skills,” etc.). Our school has been delving into skills and dispositions for the past few years, but we have found that there are limited resources to support our work, and at times, this has caused frustration. We are very excited about the opportunity to work with the recently released Essential Skills and Dispositions Frameworks (Lench, S., Fukuda, E., & Anderson, R. (2015)) this upcoming school year to support our continued learning in this area. For the purposes of this series of articles, we will be using the term the State of New Hampshire recognizes, Work Study Practices. Locally, we have aligned the Responsive Classroom’s CARES to our State of New Hampshire’s Work Study Practices, which are referenced in this series of articles.

The first article in this series, Our School’s Developing Understanding of Skills and Dispositions, may be found here.

During our school’s transition to a competency-based educational system, our understanding of the importance of Work Study Practices has evolved significantly. One of the major shifts in our understanding has been relative to the importance of building a body of evidence specific to a child’s demonstration of Work Study Practices. During the initial stages of this transition, teachers may have only put one grade per marking period related to skills and dispositions. This began to change as teachers began to question why we wouldn’t be assessing work study practices on a more formative, ongoing basis as we did with our academic competencies. The resulting grade would be far less subjective than a “one-time” assessment at the end of the marking period.

Teachers also began to question how the resulting information was reported. Traditionally, it had not mattered that there was only one grade in a system because that was all that would be reported anyway. But now, with a body of evidence for each child, the information was averaging. We knew from our experience that this wasn’t a fair or accurate indicator of reporting either. We had moved away from “averaging” as part of our transition to a competency-based system. We knew that the most recent, consistent data was most relevant. It gave us information on where a student was on that DAY, not a compilation of the data over the course of six, ten, or even twelve weeks. This resulted in our district turning on the “trend-line” to report Work Study Practices, as we were doing for our academic competencies.

Building a body of evidence for our students’ CARES (Work Study Practices) has allowed us to truly follow a child’s growth, help them progress in specific areas, and provide the child and his/her parents with relevant and timely information related to where he/she currently is in his/her progression.

The insight of two of our teachers below describes their growth in understanding as we began the shift to a competency-based educational system. Their reflections within this particular article are specific to their developing understanding of the importance of Work Study Practices within their classrooms, and how the assessment of Work Study Practices is no longer considered just once at the end of a marking period. This change in mindset has proven to have an impact on not only how we assess WSP, but how integral it is to the learning process itself. (more…)

The Overwhelming Act of Assessing Writing in a CBE School

January 22, 2016 by

CB1If you’ve ever been an English teacher, you know what it’s like to teach writing to 95 students who all hold different skill sets in writing.

You know what it’s like to helplessly stare at a pile of 95 essays, knowing that your students need immediate, detailed feedback to guide their revision process.

You also know the frustration of grading those 95 essays, feeling hopeless and disappointed when students are still making the same mistakes as they were on the last essay, even though you went over it hundreds of times during class.

And then revision, arguably the most important piece of the writing process, never happens, because you ran out of time and they had to do it on their own.

And the cycle repeats on the next essay. You cry. You emotionally eat lots of cheese and chocolate.

But because you believe in a competency-based system, and you know that students need to continually practice their writing skills to get better at it, you figure out a better way to teach it. (more…)

The Power of Choice: Increasing Novel Reading From 21 Percent to 87 Percent

December 16, 2015 by
Crystal Francis

Crystal Bonin

For those of us who have always taught with an end-goal in mind, competency-based education isn’t that big of a shift. We’ve always thought about assessment and the way we’d bring our students to success. In my opinion, the biggest difference between competency-based education and traditional education is that our focus is less on content and recall, and more on differentiation and application.

As an eleventh-grade English teacher at Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire, I have three major competencies: reading, writing, and communications. My students don’t earn one grade for the course; they have to pass all of their competencies in order to pass the course.

Traditionally, students in English classes have always practiced these skills. English teachers have always used literature as a vehicle of instruction, have instructed writing, and have encouraged discussion.

Traditionally, students in English classes have also habitually fake-read novels, plagiarized writing, and sat silently during class discussions. (I know that I did.)

In my competency-based classroom, that kind of fake-reading just doesn’t happen anymore. How do we get there? It’s all about student choice. (more…)

Student Agency is What Counts

December 15, 2015 by
Keara Duggan

Keara Duggan

This post originally appeared in the Next Generation Learning Challenges Friday Focus Newsletter.

Over the past few months, NGLC has been pushing the field of next gen learning on questions of how we measure success. As Andy Calkins asked a few weeks ago in this column: How do we gauge students’ progress in developing those competencies required for the 21st century? This question resonated with me. I believe that without students understanding how they’re learning, what they’re learning, and how they’re progressing, it’s impossible to empower students to truly own their learning.

As a Senior Consultant at Education Elements, I have the opportunity to work with hundreds of schools and districts around the country to design and implement blended and personalized learning models. Three years ago when I started in this role, the national focus was on blended learning and the integration of digital content and tools. I’ve seen a dramatic shift over the past eighteen months as teachers and leaders think more deeply about how to develop student agency and student reflection as a core part of redesigning their classroom and school models. Student ownership, agency, and choice are all critical to the personalization process. (more…)

Our School’s Developing Understanding of Skills and Dispositions

November 4, 2015 by

Work Study Practices PictureThis is the first in a series of articles specific to the developing understanding of skills and dispositions of educators working with students in a competency-based educational system. There has been increased recognition nationally of the importance of skills and dispositions and how these are entwined within the overall growth and College and Career Readiness of learners. The skills and dispositions are referred to in a number of ways (Non-cognitive skills, Habits of Learners, Work Habits, General Learning Outcomes, “soft skills,” etc.) Our school has been delving into skills and dispositions for the past few years, but we have found that there are limited resources to support our work. We are very excited about the opportunity to work with the recently released Essential Skills and Dispositions Frameworks (Lench, S., Fukuda, E., & Anderson, R. (2015)) this upcoming school year to support our continued learning in this area. For the purposes of this series of articles, we will be using the term the State of New Hampshire recognizes, Work Study Practices. Locally, we have aligned the Responsive Classroom’s CARES to our State of New Hampshire’s Work Study Practices, which are referenced in the following article.

Article 1: Our School’s Developing Understanding of Skills and Dispositions.

Article 2: Collecting a Body of Evidence.

Article 3: Classroom Instruction of Skills and Dispositions

Article 4: Student Ownership of Non-Curricular Cognitive Competencies

 Jonathan G. Vander Els, Principal; Jill Lizier, 1st Grade Teacher; and Terry Bolduc, 5th Grade Teacher are all veteran educators at Memorial School, a Pre-K to 5 elementary school within the Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire.

Last year, I wrote an article discussing the importance of separating academics from behaviors in a competency-based educational system. Our experience, understanding, and knowledge related to Work Study Practices continue to evolve. We recognize as a system that these skills and dispositions are crucial to the continued progression, increased readiness, and overall success of our learners. Our teachers have worked to refine their practice within the classroom, both instructionally, how skills and dispositions are assessed, and by providing opportunities for increased ownership and engagement with for students as self-directed learners.

As I circulated throughout our building at the very beginning of this school year, I was struck by the depth and deliberate focus on WSP by our teachers. I observed the level of engagement of students within these discussions and activities, and the connections many of our students were making to their own learning. It was incredibly powerful to begin to see the impact and connection that students were making to their own learning needs and how this increased self-awareness was allowing them to better engage in their academics.

The insight of two of our teachers describes their growth in understanding as we began the shift to a competency-based educational system, and how this developed understanding informs their practice in the classroom to this day. Their reflections within this particular article are specific to the beginning stages of our work, and how they began to realize that the Work Study Practices needed to become an integral component of the learning process within their respective learning environments. (more…)

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