Category: Insights into Implementation

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…)

District-wide Transformation in Harrisburg, South Dakota

May 22, 2019 by

Harrisburg Girls WorkingThis is the first post in a series about the Harrisburg School District. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

The Harrisburg School District has made major shifts toward competency-based education in several schools in recent years. With 2,000 visitors from 10 states over the past two years, it’s clear that their successful implementation has made them a model for districts around the country that want to observe and discuss strong competency-based practices.

The district’s goal is to deepen personalized learning (their name for the initiative) over time across the high school, two middle schools, and six elementary schools in the district, which is located in Sioux Falls and Harrisburg. This article focuses on district-wide implementation; a subsequent post will focus on how personalized learning is carried out within individual schools.

Launching Personalized Learning in Multiple Schools

The transformation to personalized learning was driven by school and district personnel who saw the need for change, but parent choice has also played a key role. Harrisburg’s first elementary school to make the shift, Freedom Elementary, kept one cohort of students in a traditional model while phasing in two personalized cohorts in two years. The district kept a traditional cohort to accommodate parents who didn’t want their children to switch to personalized learning. In the third year, the district surveyed the remaining parents, and 94% wanted their child to join the personalized model, so the school eliminated the traditional cohort. Two other schools in the district, Journey Elementary School and South Middle School, are using a similar approach—starting with both personalized and traditional cohorts.

Harrisburg Work ChartWhen Harrisburg began its transformation, seven years ago, they started with the high school. The district’s Innovative Programs Director, Travis Lape, says “We had a group of educators and building leaders at the high school willing to be bold and think differently. Along their journey, we learned a lot, but we know without them being bold we would not be where we are today.”

One of the lessons they learned in that first year is that “after eight years of being told what to do all the time, the learners needed more scaffolding. They weren’t prepared enough for getting organized and managing their time, and they started falling behind.” In subsequent years, the schools have provided more scaffolding. (more…)

Active Learning through Expeditions and Internships at Four Rivers

May 14, 2019 by

This is the final post in a series about Four Rivers Charter Public School, an EL Education school in western Massachusetts. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

Busy Classroom, Lots of Activity

Four Rivers invests great energy and creativity in developing active learning activities, which are central to the EL education model and an essential strategy for building student motivation and engagement. In their Core Practices document, EL Education explains, “Our approach to curriculum makes standards come alive for students by connecting learning to real-world issues and needs. Academically rigorous learning expeditions, case studies, projects, fieldwork, and service learning inspire students to think and work as professionals do, contributing high-quality work to authentic audiences beyond the classroom.” Expeditions also include working with peers and making positive changes in the students’ communities.

Consistent with the goals of competency-based education, these activities often emphasize application and creation of knowledge, along with developing college and career success skills. They are also well-suited to meaningful, varied, and often performance-based assessments.

Learning Expeditions

Expeditions are key curricular structures in EL schools and can bring in all of the active learning strategies just mentioned, although not every expedition uses every strategy. An expedition on addiction and brain sciences was an innovative collaboration between the 10th-grade biology teacher and the school’s health and wellness teacher. Some of the expedition’s biology standards included “I can explain the functions of the different parts of the brain” and “I can explain the connection between neurotransmitters and feelings of happiness and depression.” The wellness standards included “I can discuss the role of community and human connection in relation to my wellness.”

These and other standards led to a wide range of activities such as a lab on the effects of caffeine consumption on the circulatory and nervous systems; expert talks from people who have struggled with addition, a psychotherapist, and a local physician and addictions expert; and participating in a high ropes course on the campus of a community college that borders Four Rivers. (more…)

Empowering Teachers as School Leaders at Four Rivers

May 7, 2019 by

This is the second post in a series about Four Rivers Charter Public School, an EL Education school in western Massachusetts. Links to the other posts are at the end of this article.

Four Rivers is making a deliberate shift toward distributed leadership, with teachers taking greater responsibility for leadership at the school level, not just in their own classrooms. Both teachers and administrators are enthusiastic about the initial results.

Four Rivers StaffIn traditional schools, authority is hierarchical. This can produce a culture of compliance that works against teachers taking initiative for school-level improvements. Distributing leadership helps to manage the complexity of competency-based schools, promotes leadership opportunities for educators, and builds structures and culture for collaboration, as explained in Moving Toward Mastery: Growing, Developing, and Sustaining Educators for Competency-Based Education. Cultivating empowering and distributed leadership is also one of the quality principles for competency-based education.

A shift toward teacher leadership at Four Rivers happened in late 2017 when Principal Peter Garbus and Assistant Principal Susan Durkee attended an EL Education leadership institute on this topic. Excited about implementing what they had learned, they recruited three teachers who had each been at Four Rivers for more than a decade to join them in forming an instructional leadership team. One teacher was from each of the school’s three grade-level tiers (7-8, 9-10, and 11-12). The team met last summer to make initial plans and then attended an EL Education leadership institute together in the winter to increase their understanding of effective strategies.

“Teachers should and need to be involved in leadership of the school, and that’s got to focus on students’ learning,” Garbus said. The teachers on the leadership team have played key roles in planning and leading the school’s professional development work, which began with creating the faculty work plan. This focused on enhancing curriculum and advancing three school-wide key learning outcomes developed collaboratively by the faculty—that students should become strong investigators, critical thinkers, and communicators; effective learners; and ethical people who contribute to a better world.­

The school’s focus this school year was to promote those key learning outcomes by enhancing the curriculum and deepening student engagement. Their first step was (more…)

Using Global Best Practices for School Self-Assessment and Action Planning at Monmouth Middle School

April 29, 2019 by

Cover of Global Best Practices ToolThis is the second post in a series about the Global Best Practices (GBP) tool from the Great Schools Partnership. It is an outstanding, free resource that offers a practical, step-by-step process for assessing schools to inform school improvement plans. It focuses on characteristics of high-performing schools and can help facilitate shifts toward high-quality competency-based practice.

The first post gives an overview of GBP. This article shares how GBP has been used by Monmouth Middle School in RSU2 in Monmouth, Maine. Their work advances several of the quality principles for competency-based education, such as developing processes for ongoing continuous improvement and organizational learning.

Developing a Self-Assessment and Action Plan

Principal Mel Barter explained that Monmouth, a school with grades 4–8, used Global Best Practices when they had a multi-year coaching and professional development contract with the Great Schools Partnership. She was a teacher on the school leadership team at the time, and they had a new principal who wanted to conduct GBP’s self-assessment and develop an action plan.

After recording their performance strategies and evidence for each GBP dimension, teachers scored the school on each dimension. The school’s leadership team used these scores to draft an action plan during the summer and presented it to the whole staff in the fall. Staff members volunteered to take leadership on the parts they were most interested in.

The Action Plan “got traction quickly. It made it so easy to talk about challenges and how we could make important changes,” Barter explained. “Having the Great Schools Partnership coaches was amazing. They did so much for us, and we still use their protocols.”

The full action plan for all GBP dimensions is available here. School culture was one priority area (more…)

Building a Powerful School Culture at Four Rivers

April 23, 2019 by

This is the first post in a series about Four Rivers Charter Public School in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Walking into the high school building recently at Four Rivers Charter Public School, an EL Education school where I used to teach, the first thing I saw was this sign:

Note on WallThe sign epitomized the thoughtfulness, caring, and powerful teaching around school culture and social-emotional learning that run deep at Four Rivers. It helped students understand the impact of actions that they might not have considered. Writing “Tina” rather than “the custodian” highlighted that everyone is an important member of the school community. The sign was visually appealing, consistent with the school’s strong culture of quality and aesthetics. Notably, it hadn’t been torn or defaced. The wording was polite, not authoritarian, surely a more productive approach for encouraging student reflection and ownership.

Four Rivers was founded in 2003 as an Expeditionary Learning (now called EL Education) school, a national model that strongly promotes competency-based practices. Located in Greenfield, Massachusetts, in the state’s rural northwestern corner, the school has 220 students in grades 7–12, drawn from Greenfield and many surrounding towns.

One of EL Education’s five core practices is “school culture and character,” a practice that Four Rivers focuses on intensively. Promoting a school culture of growth, empowerment, safety, and belonging is also essential for shifting to high-quality competency-based systems. The Four Rivers Student and Family Handbook says, “School culture is shaped by the accumulation of thousands of day-to-day interactions.  How students are with each other, how teachers are with students, how students are with teachers, and much more all contribute to creating culture.” Four Rivers has many strategies to build school culture and character; two of them—community meetings and restorative circles—are described in this article. (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…)

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