Category: School Processes and Practice

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…)

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…)

In Real Life: How do CBE systems manage differences in pace?

February 11, 2019 by

Mallory Haar, English as a New Language Teacher, Casco Bay High School, ME.

This article is the sixth 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.

Competency-based education (CBE) systems meet students where they are and support them to master a pre-defined set of learning targets at their own pace. Managing a group of learners who are at different places in their learning might seem doable if their paces are similar, but what about students who deviate widely from the class norm or “teacher pace”? Are there limits to how quickly or slowly students are allowed to move through the system?

To better understand how competency-based systems reckon with these questions, I sat down with Mallory Haar, who teaches English as a New Language and English Literature at Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine.

(more…)

In Real Life: How feedback loops and student supports help ensure learning is deep, ongoing, and integrated.

February 6, 2019 by

Elizabeth Cardine, Lead Teacher and Advisor, MC2 Schools, NH

This article is the fifth 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.

Competency-based education (CBE) systems define competencies and learning progressions to make learning expectations more transparent and accessible to students; but such transparency can be prone to the unintended consequence of creating a “check the box” mentality that compromises depth and relevance.

To better understand how competency-based systems balance the desire for transparency with the need for depth, I sat down with Elizabeth Cardine, Lead Teacher and Advisor at Making Community Connections (MC2) Charter Schools in New Hampshire.

(more…)

In Real Life: How can CBE systems ensure learning is deep, ongoing, and integrated?

January 30, 2019 by

This article is the fourth 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.

Long before she had GPS on her mobile phone, my mother would navigate for our family road trips using turn-by-turn directions printed out from the American Automobile Association. While my father drove, she would call out the next set of turns so that he always knew where he was headed and what to do when he got there.

In much the same way, growing numbers of educators across the country are building competency-based systems designed to help students navigate the learning journey ahead. Such systems define learning targets or competencies that serve as guideposts for what students should know and be able to do as they progress through their learning. Many systems also sequence competencies (although not always linearly) into instructional learning progressions and utilize technology to display students’ progress in real time.

The goal is transparency: students need not wonder what is expected of them, but instead have a clear roadmap for the knowledge, skills, and mindsets they are expected to master next.

At the same time, some question whether such transparency has a downside of reducing learning to a shallow check-list of tasks that students race through to complete. After all, if we improve highway visibility, won’t cars be prone to speeding? (more…)

Competency-Based Education: The Break from Tradition that Our Schools Need

October 22, 2018 by

At this year’s iNACOL 2018 Symposium, I will have two opportunities to share my thoughts and experiences after spending a decade leading a New Hampshire high school through a transformation from a traditional to a competency-based system. The first will be in a Sunday morning pre-conference session entitled “Learning from School-Based Practitioners: Building a Successful Competency-Based Education System in your District/School.” There, my colleague Jonathan Vander Els and I will share resources and tools from our 2017 Solution Tree book entitled Breaking With Tradition, the Shift to Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work. On Tuesday morning, Jonathan and I will join our good friends: competency educational specialist Rose Colby and Ace Parsi of the National Center for Learning Disabilities for a breakout session entitled “Leveraging Competency Education to Promote Equity for ALL Students by Prioritizing Academic and Personal Competencies Supported by Effective Leadership, Personalization, and PLCs.” (more…)

WordPress SEO fine-tune by Meta SEO Pack from Poradnik Webmastera