Category: School Processes and Practice

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…)

Developing Self-Directed Learners

December 22, 2016 by

gsmart3This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on December 6, 2016.

“I haven’t met many self-directed teenagers,” said a frustrated high school teacher during a recent presentation.

As we contemplate the vast problem of teenage disengagement and the apparent low level of self-direction, we have to ask, “Is it our kids or our schools?”

We’ve seen enough high engagement schools where most teens were self-directed to suggest that it may be the design of American secondary schools that’s the problem—not the kids.

For a century, the primary design meme of American schools has been compliant consumption. Students read, practice and regurgitate in small chunks in siloed classes in regimented environments. Low levels of self-direction shouldn’t be surprising—it is inherent in the traditional secondary school design.

High engagement schools start from a different conception—knowledge co-creation and active production. They design a very different learner experience and support it with a student-centered culture and opportunities to improve self-regulation, initiative and persistence—all key to self-directed learning.

Why Does Self-Direction Matter?

Growth of the freelance- and gig-economy makes self-direction an imperative, but it’s also increasingly important inside organizations. David Rattray of the LA Chamber said, “Employees need to change their disposition toward employers away from work for someone else to an attitude of working for myself—agency, self-discipline, initiative and risk-taking are all important on the job.” (more…)

How My Understanding of Competency-Based Education Has Changed Over the Years

December 8, 2015 by

StairsNext week, I am excited to be sharing the work that my team and I have done in New Hampshire on competency-based education with a group of South Carolina educators as part of the Transform SC institute on Meeting the Needs of Every Student With Competency Based Progression. My preparation for this institute has been an opportunity for me to reflect on what has now been a six-year journey with competency education with Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH. This past week, our school district was recognized for the second year in a row as a “leader in competency education” by Tom Vander Ark’s organization Getting Smart, noting that Sanborn was one of 30 School Districts Worth Visiting in 2015. (more…)

Support for Teachers in a Competency Education School

August 13, 2015 by

LockersAs a high school principal who has worked for the past six years through a transition from traditional to competency education, I am often asked how our school district has supported teachers both in the past through the transition process and also currently as we sustain our competency education model. Our teacher support system has many layers, each designed to support teachers at different points along our journey.

Professional Learning Communities

Perhaps the single biggest investment our school district made prior to implementing competency education was to establish the Professional Learning Community (PLC) model in each of our schools. I keep this quote from PLC architect Rick DuFour on my desk to remind me what role PLCs play in our school’s teacher support system: “A team is a group of people working interdependently to achieve a common goal for which members are mutually accountable.” PLC teams, when implemented correctly, focus their work around four essential questions:

What is it we want students to learn?

How will we know when they have learned it?

What will we do if they haven’t learned it?

What will we do if they already know it? (more…)

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