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…)

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