Iteration in Action: The Urban Assembly Maker Academy

August 28, 2017 by

This post and all pictures first appeared at Springpoint on February 6, 2017. This is the fourth in a series on iteration in school design. 

On a recent afternoon at The Urban Assembly Maker Academy, a group of students constructs a miniature car out of a shoebox and detached racecar wheels. The car holds an egg as it rolls down a ramp and two students watch their egg fly out of its cotton-ball harness; another group’s egg is crushed when it hits the bottom. The activity measures students’ mastery of key concepts in physics, like speed and velocity. Using a teacher-designed data tracking form, each group records how effectively their car ferried the egg. Some immediately begin redrafting their designs, taking their cars apart and tweaking the configuration of the components.

This is just one example of the kind of student collaboration that permeates Maker’s section of the Murry Bergtraum campus in Manhattan’s financial district. In nearly every class, you’ll find students huddled over clusters of desks solving problems in small groups. Teachers serve as facilitators, setting the boundaries of projects and guiding students along individualized paths to completion.

By spring of their first year at Maker, some students had already completed several projects to demonstrate mastery of core competencies. They had written their own series of blog posts to narrate their experience in a science project; designed and constructed Braille signage for the hallways; and participated in a “design jam” to brainstorm solutions to community problems. When asked why they chose Maker, students agreed that the opportunity to learn about STEM-based content through projects was what sold them.

Systems to Support Mastery-based Learning

Underpinning each project is a rigorous mastery-based crediting system, designed by Principal Luke Bauer and Assistant Principal Madeline Hackett. The system requires students to demonstrate mastery at least three times before they move on to the next standard or group of standards. Each demonstration of mastery is an “at bat,” and only the three most recent “at bats” count toward a student’s credit attainment. Students must perform at 80% or above on a given “at bat” to earn mastery. Since mastery only depends on a student’s last three “at bats,” a student can “lose mastery” of a given set of standards if they perform poorly on recent assessments. The system pushes students to hone their skills from the beginning to the end of each semester while sending the message that skills and knowledge are never permanently attained. UA Maker explains their approach in this series of videos.

The system took a few iterations to become what it is today. Originally, students had to complete five “at bats” to achieve mastery. When that proved too cumbersome, Bauer and his team trimmed it to three. Additionally, when ready-made tech products UA Maker launched with did not seamlessly accommodate the mastery system, Bauer’s team had to awkwardly adapt those systems to make them function properly. A few months into their first year, school leadership opted to ditch the ready-made tech solutions for a DIY combination of Google docs and hard copy records. Eventually, UA Maker hired a developer to build their own tech system, which allows students and staff to quickly access a snapshot of where any student stands on their mastery journey at a given time.

Much of Maker’s early professional development, as Bauer describes it, focused on developing open communication between students and teachers around what students know and what their “at bat” scores mean. One teacher, with Bauer’s support, has been coaching students to take ownership of their collective mastery of standards. Students are encouraged to say to themselves and each other, “Hey, as a class, we don’t know this. We’re not clear on “X” content piece, so let’s figure this out by the end of class.” This kind of self-awareness and collective accountability can only happen in an environment of transparency and rapid feedback. As Bauer describes it, “the narrative of a course” must be clear to everyone, from teachers to families. (more…)

Mastery Collaborative Resources

February 18, 2017 by

Mastery CollaborativeThe NYC Department of Education’s Mastery Collaborative is making their online sessions available for all of us to learn from. The links to recording and slides are below and I’ve added links to the schools CompetencyWorks has visited.

Thanks to the Mastery Collaborative for their leadership and their generosity

 

Carroll Gardens School for Innovation—Aligning outcomes across grades/departments

CGSI Session Recording // CGSI Slides

Article on Carroll Gardens School for Innovation

 

Flushing International HS—Designing outcomes that drive learning

Flushing International Session Recording // Flushing International Slides

Article on Flushing International HS

 

Frank McCourt HS—Developing, norming, and using mastery-based rubrics

FMHS Session Recording TBD // FMHS Slides

 

Harvest Collegiate HS—Building a school-wide philosophy of mastery

Harvest Collegiate HS Recording // Harvest Slides

(more…)

Put Us In the Room Where It Happens: Teacher-Driven Shifts To Mastery

February 13, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Center for Collaborative Education blog on January 4, 2017. 

I wanna be in the room where it happens.

This line from the Broadway hit Hamilton is one I refer to often when thinking about how we can effectively bring students and teachers in to create honest and equitable systems of assessment.

Our little school in Queens, New York, has worked tirelessly to create and maintain a teacher-created system of mastery-based grading. I’m thirteen years into my middle and high school English teaching career, but the school I have had the privilege of being a part of for the past six years is The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria. Our school is grades 6-12, public, all-girls, and Title I.  On average, 98% of our graduates are accepted to and attend college, and we have been a mastery-based school for the past seven years.

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Christy conducting a coaching session.

Our mastery work began when our founding principal shared a paper with her then-staff, “Removing Structural Barriers to Academic Achievement in High Schools: An Innovative Model” by Camille A. Farrington and Margaret H. Small.  The gist of the paper addressed the dropout rate as a “structural problem” connected to traditional systems of determining final grades and course credit. It was a call to action honoring “differential learning rates”. For our founding teachers, this was an issue of social justice-being able to provide multiple opportunities for students to achieve mastery of skills over time was simply more equitable. Our through line was, and remains, educational equity.

(more…)

Mastery Motivates Students: “No Way” vs. “Not Yet”

December 15, 2016 by
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FIHS Science Teacher Jordan Wolf with Students

This post originally appeared at Mastery Collaborative on October 21, 2016.

Can a mastery-based school culture give students a useful way to track their own progress and achievements? A visit to Flushing International High School (FIHS), one of eight Mastery Collaborative Living Lab schools, provided some insight into this issue.

During the visit, school leadership, faculty, and students discussed with guests how a focus on mastery has changed the outlook of school departments, individual teachers, and especially students. Rather than looking at grades only as a final score, students now track their progress toward mastery throughout the year, on a group of subject-specific goals. Goals are assessed multiple times over the year, allowing students to see which specific goals they need to focus on to improve their mastery of key skills and knowledge.

Switching to a Mastery-Based Model

This method of grading is of recent vintage at FIHS. Five years ago, the leadership and staff began to discuss concerns about the role of assessments. “We were not communicating our grading and assessment policies clearly enough,” explained Principal Lara Evangelista.

To address the problem, teachers began creating homemade report cards with many personalized comments to indicate how well students were meeting specific standards. At the end of marking periods, students were able to see how they could improve in specific terms. Then, the staff came up with an even better idea, said Evangelista: “Why don’t we tell [students] at the beginning what we are looking for?”

Over the course of the next four years, school leadership, faculty and students integrated clearly stated learning goals into everything from lesson plans, to the online grading system, to teacher-student advisories. (more…)

Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC Tour

September 15, 2016 by
mastery collaborative

The Mastery Collaborative

I returned to NYC to see what was happening and was deeply impressed by what I saw and the conversations I had with educators. NYC’s Mastery Collaborative is truly catalytic in engaging forty schools (nearly 10 percent of the NYC high schools) in making the transition to mastery-based learning.

You can follow the entire journey here:

The Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC Tour

Part 1 – NYC Big Takeaways

Part 2 – Catalyzing Mastery-Based Learning: NYC’s Mastery Collaborative

Part 3 – The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria

Part 4 – Flushing International’s Three Learning Outcomes: Habits, Language, and Academic Skills

Part 5 – KAPPA International: The Story of Angelica

Part 6 – North Queens Community High School: Blooming the Outcomes

Part 7 – High Expectations at EPIC North

Part 8 – Anchoring the Learning: A Discussion with Joel Rose at New Classrooms

Part 9 – Talking Equity with John Duval

And here are the schools I visited and lessons learned from my first trip to NYC:

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Talking Equity with John Duval

August 11, 2016 by
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John Duval

This is the ninth post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. Start with the first post on NYC Big Takeaways and then read about NYC’s Mastery CollaborativeThe Young Woman’s Leadership School of Astoria, Flushing International, KAPPA International, North Queens Community High School, EPIC North, and New Classrooms

“Mastery-based learning can reopen a conversation about equity.”

With just these few words, John Duval launched us into a dynamic conversation. Duval leads the Model Redesign Team in the Office of Postsecondary Readiness, which houses a number of initiatives related to high school innovation around areas of whole school design, competency-based education (including the Mastery Collaborative), culturally relevant pedagogy, and effective uses of school time. Previously, Duval led the launch of the New York City Department of Education’s Expanding Success Initiative (ESI). This initiative, dedicated to improving education for African-American and Latino young men, launched the EPIC model, which will have four schools in both district and charter variations this coming September. Here are a few highlights of the conversation:

The Intersection of Culturally Responsive Education and Competency-Based Education

ESI designed the EPIC model with four core concepts, including competency-based education (CBE) and culturally responsive education (CRE), or the belief that “achievement is anchored not just in building from one’s existing strengths but in full engagement of one’s self and lived experience.” (See the EPIC Playbook for more information.) Duval explained how the intersection of these two concepts transforms the classroom and school dynamics. “Let’s start with the idea that mastery-based learning is a better way to do school,” he said. “When you focus on competencies, you are focusing on the ability to transfer skills and you are focusing on the important higher orders skills. In CBE, this is real shift for the teaching force in two ways. First, from a design perspective, it requires creating more complex learning arcs for young people. This is very difficult, especially if you’ve never been trained this way. Second, it creates more transparency and accountability for everyone involved. Once a student – especially an African American or Latino one – knows what skills he or she is supposed to develop, he or she can pinpoint what a teacher is or is not doing to help them.”

He continued, “Just knowing that grading is more objective based on progress toward standards rather than the highly variable, subjective conventional grading can bring a huge change in the student experience. Then when the practices are in place for students to have more agency and responsibility for their education, there can be a tremendous cultural shift in the school. There is more respect for students. And there is the expectation that when there is tension or conflict between a student and teacher, listening to each other and understanding each other’s perspective is the avenue for resolving it, not taking the student out of the classroom or the school. The practice of exclusion inhibits learning on the part of students and adults.” (more…)

Anchoring the Learning: A Discussion with Joel Rose at New Classrooms

August 9, 2016 by

AnchorThis is the eighth post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. Start with the first post on NYC Big Takeaways and then read about NYC’s Mastery CollaborativeThe Young Woman’s Leadership School of Astoria, Flushing International, KAPPA International, North Queens Community High School, and EPIC North

Joel Rose and Sue Fine of New Classrooms introduced me to the concept of anchor weights and tethering. I had sought out their insights into how we can better engage and teach students who are missing pre-requisite skills needed for grade level curriculum. (Truly, we need to figure out a shorthand phrase for this phenomena.)

New Classrooms has invested heavily in research and development to create an instructional model that “reimagines the classroom around each student.” Their framework is based on personalized pathways, competency-based learning, valuing relationships, and regrouping based on common needs. It’s a blended model with a combination of live and online instruction. At this point, they have focused solely on math, although they are considering developing the model for other academic domains as well. (Their video on personalizing education is great).

Math is why I wanted to talk to Rose and Fine. I have heard too many educators say that a student who doesn’t understand numeracy, fractions, and a host of other skills is going to have a difficult time – impossible, even – to learn and apply algebra. So why are we having students take algebra over and over? Are they building their pre-requisite skills, or is this some form of torture to take the same class over without any hope of learning it? The challenge facing competency-based school as well as any type of school is how to help student learn the grade level skills and learn the pre-requisite skills so that they begin to backfill all the skills they are going to need for higher and higher level work. (more…)

High Expectations at EPIC North

August 4, 2016 by
Rites of Passage

Students in EPIC North’s Rights of Passage program meet to support each other academically, socially, and personally.

This is the seventh post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. Start with the first post on NYC Big Takeaways and then read about NYC’s Mastery CollaborativeThe Young Woman’s Leadership School of Astoria, Flushing International, KAPPA International, and North Queens Community High School.

As with my first visit to EPIC North, the conversation started with students. I was thrilled to have the chance to talk with sophomores who now had a year and a half under their belts in a mastery-based school. In this post, I’ll review some of the main elements of the EPIC design – cultural relevance, project-based learning, competencies and attainments, and high expectations – while drawing upon the insights of students. (Check out the Epic Playbook for more information.)

Cultural Relevance

Competency-based or mastery-based education can be a powerful enabling force upon which to build cultural relevance. Cultural relevance, one of Epic Schools’ core elements, was a concept developed in the 1990s that “recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning.” Mastery-based education allows for students to co-design projects or have choice in how they demonstrate their learning. This is what personalizing education is all about.

However, cultural relevance reminds us that adults may not have the same life or cultural experiences as their students. Adults might not understand what is particularly meaningful or particularly demoralizing without first creating a way to have dialogue. This is particularly true when the race and ethnicity of the teachers are different than the student population. Cultural relevance requires us to go beyond the “golden rule” toward the “platinum rule” of seeking out what is important to other people rather than using our own culture and priorities as a starting point. Essentially this is what building relationships with students is all about – finding out what is important to them. (See the report Culturally Relevant Education (CRE) and the Framework for Great Schools, produced by the Expanding Success Initiative at the NYC DOE, for examples of culturally relevant practices drawn from schools.)

Epic North has developed a weekly Rites of Passage to support young people as they reflect on their lives and develop the attainments that are more related to adolescent development. I was invited to sit in on one of the teams, Brothers for Life (Rites of Passage have been broken into gender specific teams). One of the young men led a call and response for the code of cooperation they had created as the opening activity: (more…)

North Queens Community High School: Blooming the Outcomes

August 2, 2016 by
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Principal Winston McCarthy, Chris Sturgis of Competency Works, Lew Gitelman of reDesign, and teacher Martin Howfield at North Queens Community High School

This is the sixth post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. Start with the first post on NYC Big Takeaways and then read about NYC’s Mastery CollaborativeThe Young Woman’s Leadership School of Astoria, Flushing International, and KAPPA International.

Imagine my surprise as Lew Gitelman greeted me when we arrived at North Queens Community High School. Pure delight. Twenty years ago, Lew Gitelman, co-founder of Diploma Plus, which has been replicated in many schools across the country, was the first person to patiently walk me through what competency-based education looked like in a school and classroom. After lots of hugs and ear-to-ear grins, we got down to talking about mastery-based education at North Queens, a transfer school serving students who are over-aged and under-credited.

Spanish teacher Martin Howfield opened the conversation with, “We don’t frame learning in terms of passing and failing. We do growth. So mastery-based grading makes sense for our school and our students.” After piloting in two classrooms in the Spring of 2011, they decided to take the whole school to mastery-based learning the next fall. Gitelman, Co-Director of reDesign, has been working with the team to create a system that is aligned to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Principal Winston McCarthy explained, “We use a trajectory of learning based on Bloom’s to move kids to HOTS – higher order thinking skills.”

Blooming the Standards

“You can Bloom the standards. You can Bloom the learning outcomes,” enthused McCarthy. Gitelman expanded on this. “If we want students to be thinking about big ideas and using HOTS, how do we operationalize it?” he asked. “Bloom’s Taxonomy captures the thinking skills students would need and a path to move from lower level to higher level skills. This isn’t just about meeting or exceeding a standard. We want our students to be able to understand the level of thinking they are applying to a problem.”

By aligning around Bloom’s Taxonomy, North Queens is prioritizing students’ development of skills and strategies to solve problems, rather than prioritizing content. The content in each discipline is integrated into skill-building. However, operating in the archaic Regents system that requires students to know about the Byzantine Empire in order to graduate means there are times this doesn’t lead to the voice and choice that is so helpful in motivating and engaging students. (Shame, shame on the New York Regents. It’s time they upgrade their high-stakes assessments to be aligned with learning sciences and adolescent development.) (more…)

KAPPA International: The Story of Angelica

July 28, 2016 by
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Principal Panorea Panagiosoulis and students at KAPPA International High School

This is the fifth post of my Mastering Mastery-Based Learning in NYC tour. Start with the first post on NYC Big Takeaways and then read about NYC’s Mastery CollaborativeThe Young Woman’s Leadership School of Astoria, and Flushing International.

Story of Angelica

Angelica was a model student at KAPPA International. She had a good attitude, did her homework, always went for the extra credit, participated in class, and had a 90 in all of her classes. But then she failed the Earth Science Regents Exam. Assistant Principal Andy Clayman said, “We had been lying to Angelica. Her good grades were giving her misinformation about how she was doing. She is the kind of student who would do anything we asked. She needed to be working on her gaps in knowledge. But we weren’t giving her the information or the opportunity she needed. It was a lightbulb moment for us.” (It’s worth watching this video to directly hear from Angelica and the team at KAPPA.)

So began KAPPA International’s journey to mastery-based learning.

It was a journey to a focus on learning, not requirements. Principal Panorea Panagiosoulis, who goes by Penny, explained, “Our students are very good at identifying what the state wants as far as minimum requirements. But we wanted to bring the focus back on learning. Instead of focusing on forty-four credits, we wanted students to be thinking about the skills and knowledge to be successful when they leave here.” Clayman expanded with, “It was a huge pedagogical shift to only focus on mastery in a student’s grade and to begin to work intentionally on building their work habits. We are seeking better and faster ways to help students develop their work habits because the connection between the habits and learning is so strong.”

Bridging the Gaps, Tightening the Curriculum

KAPPA has an interesting story. They launched in 2007 as an International Baccalaureate (IB) program because of the strong pedagogy and the dynamic role of assessment. Clayman explained, “AP exams focus on what the students don’t know as much as what they do know. But how much can you tell from an essay and multiple choice in a three-hour exam? The IB program gave students opportunities to show what they know and build the skills they would need to do well in college.” The curriculum of six academic areas, foreign language, and the arts – regardless of whether students passed and received the IB curriculum or the NYC diploma – would position students to compete for college admissions. (more…)

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