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…)

In Real Life: Who Gets to Decide Which Student Outcomes Matter?

January 21, 2019 by

Dianne Kelly, Superintendent, Revere Public Schools

This article is the second 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.

One tell-tale feature that sets a competency-based education (CBE) system apart from a traditional school system is the naming of competencies – specific sets of knowledge, skills, and abilities – that each and every student must master in order to move from one stage to the next. Inherently, this feature can also be one of the most controversial.

At first glance, the idea may not appear unique. Every school system in America has education standards, adopted in part by states and added to by districts and schools, to help ensure consistency in what students are learning. Standards shape lessons and tests, and students must do well enough to pass their classes and receive a diploma. We are all familiar with this traditional notion of standards.

In CBE systems, competencies often represent bigger-picture ideas when compared to traditional standards, and they often differ in one other important way: every student is required to master all of them. Because the competencies are designed to represent sets of knowledge and skills that are essential for postsecondary and lifelong success, insisting on mastery is one way CBE systems ensure that every student graduates ready for the next phase.

It is this insistence on mastery that has tremendous implications for how the competencies themselves are defined, and in particular, for the process through which the competencies are decided. Who gets to say what knowledge and skills are so important that every single kid must master them? Whose opinions are consulted? Are these decisions being made by parents and local communities through democratic processes, or are the competencies determined by outsiders with little input from local communities?

To better understand how competency-based school systems reckon with these fundamental issues, I sat down with several practitioners including Dr. Dianne Kelly, Superintendent of Revere Public Schools in Massachusetts.

(more…)

What’s New: What’s Happening in State Policy

April 18, 2018 by

This article reviews some of the new state policy resources and highlights the types of discussion and initiatives taking place in the individual states. Nevada is joining the group of states that are supporting innovative districts, and Mississippi is supporting an innovation network. The most important thing to pay attention to is the discussion and debate in Maine as they decide whether they are going to continue to believe that their students and educators can learn to high standards and will keep learning how to support students in doing so…or if they modify expectations. Fingers crossed that the discussion moves from what’s wrong to what we need to make sure all of our students learn!

State Policy Resources

Across the country, state policymakers have been engaged in thinking through how they can strengthen their policies and infrastructures to better (more…)

Hiring: The Very First Step to a Flourishing School Culture (Part 3 of 3)

July 20, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at Students at the Center Hub on June 22, 2017. It is the third of a three-part series. Read parts one and two.

MY ADVICE TO THOSE SEEKING TO ESTABLISH A THRIVING CULTURE IN THEIR SCHOOLS AT THE SAME TIME THAT THEY PROMOTE HIGH ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT FOR OUR MOST UNDERSERVED STUDENTS: HIRE WELL.

Transforming the adult learning community isn’t all that difficult when you hire adults who aren’t afraid to be human with youth, and when you create working conditions that nurture collaboration, creativity, trust, and respect.

That may sound obvious, but when you put “connection” and “sincerity” at the top of your criteria, you read resumes differently. Hiring at BDEA involves two steps.

First, the interview team (different for each position) conducts a 30-minute meeting with each of the top 10 candidates. The interview is an opportunity to make sure all parties see this match as a good fit. In this initial meeting, we’re determining whether a candidate is philosophically aligned with our mission, and the extent to which he or she knows the content. This process usually yields three to five really great candidates, such that picking one over the others is close to impossible. So we’ve added a second step.

Step two requires each candidate teach a 15-minute demonstration lesson, followed by Q & A, to a small group of BDEA students. We think this is the ultimate, foolproof step for hiring the right person for the position. No matter how crunched for time, we never skip this step, because it’s here that we can assess perhaps the most important quality: a candidate’s ability to connect with students and colleagues.

(more…)

Creating a School Culture Where Students and Teachers Both Flourish (Part 2 of 3)

July 19, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at Students at the Center Hub on June 20, 2017. It is the second of a three-part series. Read part one here.

ENCOURAGE AND PRACTICE BEING HUMAN WITH ALL OF YOUR STAFF

Simple, right? Maybe not at first, but we’re all human, in this work for a reason, and it’s worth examining our hearts and minds at the beginning of each day to make sure our students’ interests, equity, and a healthy community are our priorities.

To accomplish this, I offer the following prescriptions:

  • Be humble, acknowledge when you make a mistake, publicly reflect, and practice conflict resolution: colleague to colleague, adult to student, student to student.
  • Be empathetic. Take the time to learn more about your staff, what motivates and energizes them. Don’t make assumptions. Try to learn what might be behind a student or staff’s behavior or inconsistent performance. In most cases, they are struggling with bigger issues outside of the workplace.
  • Create structured time and flexible protocols that foster collaboration, communication, and accountability. Encourage staff to share best practices and new ideas. Create unstructured time for them to take care of their professional responsibilities.
  • Create a culture that celebrates diversity, student success, staff accomplishments, and birthdays. Encourage whole-school field trips where students and staff are put together on teams and can engage with one another in playful ways.
  • As leaders—and staff—listen more, talk less.

In my next post, I’ll describe the very first step toward attaining these goals:
hiring the right people.

See also:

About the Author

Alison Hramiec Alison Hramiec has spent the last 15 years re-defining what school looks like for Boston’s most at risk high school population. Her tenure at Boston Day and Evening Academy began in 2004 as one of the founding science teachers for the Day program. In 2008 after completing her principal training and being mentored by the BDEA leadership team she was hired as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction. Through her leadership, she has helped bring clarity to the school’s competency-based program methodology, helping it become known nationwide. Alison is the lead designer of BDEA’s summer institute, REAL (Responsive Education Alternative Lab), which provides educators from around the country the tools to transform student learning to ‘student-centered’ learning. As of July 1st 2015, she is BDEA’s new Head of School.

The Crucial Factor in School Success is School Culture (Part 1 of 3)

July 18, 2017 by

Alison Hramiec, Head of School, Boston Day and Evening Academy

This post originally appeared at Students at the Center Hub on June 16, 2017. It is the first of a three-part series. 

School reform is more than incorporating tech tools, being competency-based, or implementing student-centered practices. It’s more than opening the walls or focusing on core competencies. School reform starts by transforming school culture, and reforms flourish when we allow adults to be creative and compassionate human beings.

At Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA), we’re lucky to have a regular flow of visitors interested in learning about our unique student-centered, competency-based, trauma-sensitive learning model, and are eager to share their own best practices with us. While it’s our model that initially intrigues visitors, the conversations inevitably shift to what they see and hear in the building. They remark first on how happy the students appear to be, then on how calm the learning environment is, and finally on the respect adults and students convey to one another.

Visitors also know these are not your traditional motivated, happy, independent learners. Our students often have a lifetime of reasons to be angry, depressed, and disengaged. Before enrolling at BDEA, 97 percent of our students had already dropped out of high school or were at risk of doing so. Almost all are living in an ecosystem of poverty, food and housing insecurity, mental and physical health challenges, and suffer from various forms of violence, abuse, anxiety, and other traumas. Seventy percent of our students were suspended at least once in their previous schools. It’s no surprise, then, that many struggle to build healthy relationships, bridge gaps in their learning, and make healthy life choices that lead toward graduation and adult opportunities. But once at BDEA, students tell visitors they feel safe, respected, and free to be exactly who they are without judgment.

SO WHAT’S GOING ON HERE? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? WHY ARE THE STUDENTS HAPPY AND LEARNING?

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Guiding Students in Reflection: The Gateway Process at Parker

February 28, 2017 by

notesThis post originally appeared at the Center for Collaborative Education on November 30, 2016.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

― Søren Kierkegaard

When we take the time to reflect, we take a moment to stop and critically think about what has come to pass. Without an understanding of why things unfolded the way they did, we rarely feel empowered to change the status quo. However, we often focus on the “living forwards” instead of “understanding backwards” – reflection.

Quite often, the time for reflection is the first agenda item to be compromised in a course or meeting. After powering through a class, educators often leave reflection as an afterthought, a final half-hearted question. After a couple students share out their brief, underdeveloped thoughts, educators often consider the subject complete and ready for assessment. Eventually the student receives a grade and moves on to the next task.

I recently sat in on a conversation between my cousin and my aunt about a low test grade. My aunt attempted to guide my cousin in reflecting about why he received his grade, her final statement being:

 “At the end of the day, I don’t care about your score as long as you understand what you got wrong and go back and learn those concepts well.” 

His response:

 “Are you kidding me?! You don’t care about the score?! That’s all that matters!” 

There are many reasons for my cousin’s response, but I would argue that one is that his learning does not intentionally incorporate reflection; he hasn’t discovered who he is as a learner.
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Massachusetts: Home of the Early Innovators

February 14, 2017 by

This is the twelfth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

We were evolving, with a greater range of learning opportunities for students. The question was how could we further institutionalize so that we offered a cohesive and consistent set of educational experiences that also allowed for personalized learning experiences? We think competency-based education is the answer.
– CYNDY TAYMORE , SUPERINTENDENT, MELROSE PUBLIC SCHOOL, MASSACHUSETTS

 

massachusettsThe Commonwealth of Massachusetts is the only state in New England that has not taken proactive steps toward introducing or advancing competency education statewide despite there being no significant policy obstacles beyond the end-of-year grade level accountability exams. Massachusetts has deployed a state exit examination as its high-leverage strategy to improve student achievement and ensure proficiency. Currently, students must score at a passing level on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System in English, math, and science.

As in other states, however, individual schools and districts often move ahead of the state leadership in building new approaches and working collaboratively around challenging issues. Massachusetts is home to two of the early models of competency-based education: Diploma Plus and Boston Day and Evening Academy. There are also a number of other schools across the state using rich, personalized learning strategies to engage students in their learning. For example, in Chelsea High School, a number of practices such as performance-based assessments and inquiry-based learning have deepened the learning opportunities. Plymouth high schools are creating more personalized approaches, including authentic assessments and involving students in leadership and decision-making. (more…)

On Scaling Competency Education: Equity, Quality, and Sustainability

February 1, 2017 by

This is the tenth post in the series Reaching the Tipping Point: Insights on Advancing Competency Education in New England.

The early lesson from New England is that the scaling strategies for competency-based education require a combination of schools and districts that have the courageous leadership to convert to competency education and state leadership willing to commit to goal-oriented policies supported by long-term capacity-building strategies. Again, over time and as more states move forward, we are likely to learn about where there might be additional issues that need to be addressed. In particular, districts and states need to consider equity, quality, and sustainability.

Equity

amy-allen-quoteEven though equity resides at the very heart of competency-based education, it still requires an unrelenting commitment to challenge institutional patterns, individual bias that creates lower expectations, and strong management practices that can lead to much greater responsiveness. The focus on equity should be found in the accountability designs within school, district, and state systems and processes as well as the schoolwide instructional philosophies and strategies.

Although states are trying to increase responsiveness through embedding expectations that schools and educators respond to student needs, conversations with educators across New England suggest that courageous leadership is still needed. Under the pressure of the end-of-year accountability exams, too many schools and educators, even in the most developed competency-based districts, are still providing grade-level curriculum to students even if they have already learned the content or are lacking the prerequisite skills. In addition to leadership, we will need to engage a broad range of expertise, both practitioner and leadership, to identify the best ways to help students fill skill gaps without falling back into the trap of tracking.

Quality

The field is currently challenged by not having enough research and evaluation on the quality indicators for competency-based districts and schools to determine the elements that will lead to a high-quality model or effective implementation. This task is further complicated by what might be called waves of innovation that take place once districts become competency-based: As educators and schools become more intentional about what they want students to know and be able to do, there are efforts to build assessment literacy; build the capacity for performance assessments to support the development of higher order skills; develop stronger instructional strategies based on learning progressions; introduce practices that support student agency, voice, and choice; integrate more personalized learning practices; and introduce digital tools and online learning. Thus, schools and districts are taking different paths with different sequencing as they build the full range of capacities needed to operate a high-quality competency-based system. (more…)

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