Waukesha STEM Academy: Personalizing Instruction and Learning Experiences (Part 2)

November 13, 2017 by

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the second in a four-part series on Waukesha STEM Academy. Start the entire series here or read the first part on Waukesha. 

Many people describe WSA as a STEM school or as a project-based learning school. Murray quickly pointed out, “I couldn’t really make a blanket statement that we are a project-based school or not. It really depends on the student and how they learn best. For some students, hands-on learning and projects all day work great; for others, not so well. We organize the instruction and learning around what works for students.” He continued, “We started out as a project-based school until we discovered that not every student is ready to do hands-on learning the day they walk through our doors. We failed forward and learned by doing and not doing. Now we ask and discover through conversations with our students what the best fit is for them and roll from there. What does the student need? What type of environment do they like? What type of modality fits their learning habits best? What type of seat do they like, even! Maybe their best fit is direct instruction from a teacher, possibly a slide-show or presentation, maybe it is to watch a video so they have some control and can re-watch, or maybe what they need to do is create a video to teach other students.”

Instruction

The shared pedagogical philosophy at WSA begins with making learning visible. This starts with an agreed-upon workflow process that has students able to access ‘playlists’ or the resources they need for the unit or progression of skills, followed by students planning for and engaging in learning. The next stages are skill building and practice tasks and experiences with formative feedback, which is then followed by summative work where students submit artifacts that demonstrate their proficiency for a specific level of skill and demonstrating mastery. Finally, the learner continuum is used to monitor and share student progress to help support a competency-based learning system. And the cycle begins again.

As emphasized above, the specific instructional strategies vary based on a combination of student needs and the teacher’s professional judgment about what will be most effective delivery and modality for students. There are different instructional modalities, including direct instruction, complementary and adaptive educational software, Socratic seminars, problem-based learning, and project-based learning. There is an emphasis on students applying their learning through the design process, innovating and creating things, capstones projects followed by gallery walks, and project-based learning. Murray explained, “It really feels unique and pretty real when you walk down the hallways and into learning spaces here, because you don’t see just STEM at WSA, you actually have to step over it.”

WSA knows that teachers need time for planning. Given the high degree of interdependence of math skills, with students needing to access prerequisite concepts and processes, the math team has 80 minutes [together] every day for planning and strategizing for providing support to all students. “When we sat back and reflected on our schedule for about the hundredth time in Year 3,” Murray laughs, “we recognized that we truly needed to be responsive to our teacher’s needs and not just our students’, or burnout was sure to follow.  Similar to how a teacher would ask a student how they learn best, I asked our staff how they would work best, and they gave some amazing feedback and a vision. This vision blended with our students’ needs and brought upon our new daily and weekly framework, which is quite fluid to support needs of all learners in the school.” Feedback was then gathered from students, staff, and parents to continue to grow the best possible framework for optimal learning and teaching conditions.

Mix of Courses and Educational Experiences

Before WSA made the transition to personalized, proficiency-based education, there were eight core courses and transitions a day. “With that many transitions and classes came that much less time to learn and time wasted moving between classes,” Murray says. “What if we didn’t have bells, reduced the amount of transitions between classes, and built up the amount of time that students were able to spend on experiments, projects, and collaboration? What if we just gave students more time to apply their learning and opened up the pacing a little bit?” It seemed to be the switch that needed to be flipped, because engagement and performance skyrocketed, and WSA currently organizes their day into four main COREs, as they’re called. Murray insists that the day isn’t a block-schedule and there is evidence to prove it. “When we visited other schools or teams come to visit us, they quickly ask if our schedule is a block schedule when they see it and I show them the past two, three, and four weeks that we have just experienced. Every single week this year has been different for the most part, based on what took place each week – which trips were built in, which mentors and partnerships came to visit, when Advisory took place, and when we felt the need to build in a FLEXible afternoon, where students created their own schedule for half of the day. Folks aren’t sure how to take that, but it excites them when they see that it’s possible.” Murray shared that at WSA, they even run mornings and half days where the students are able to visit Passion-Project Seminars based on their own interests and, at times, the students are the ones who are running the seminars. (more…)

Creating a Learner-Driven System in Waukesha (Part 1)

November 8, 2017 by

This article is part of a series on personalized, proficiency-based education in Wisconsin and the first in a four-part series on Waukesha STEM Academy. Start with this look at what’s happening state-wide. 

I arrived early at Waukesha’s STEM Academy – Saratoga Campus (WSA). Entering the front door, one immediately steps into a relatively open space carved into smaller areas by bookshelves, desks, and a variety of seating options. The place was humming. Students streaming in, unpacking backpacks, clustered in corners talking, some wrapping themselves in chairs with a book or a computer. A film crew from a local station was set up in another area to interview two young women who were winners in a regional Toy and Game competition. (See for yourself in A Day in the Life or virtual tour videos.)

I hadn’t had my coffee yet and was having difficulties taking it all in. Especially the five-foot-long Ball Python in principal James Murray’s office, which luckily hadn’t had his coffee either and lay there peacefully. (I later learned that a parent, who was ready to pass on the snake to the next caretaker, had dropped it off at the school.)

WSA serves over 300 students in a middle school, all of whom are selected through a random lottery and without any criterion to enter. Jokingly, Murray points out the irony in the lottery process, because even though the school is a one-to-one technology school, full of 3D printers, laser engravers, CNC routers, saws, drills, and a flurry of digital learning platforms and 55” TV’s lining the walls like posters, the lottery is conducted through a process that uses an old-school Bingo hopper. “We want all students, “Murray points out. “We don’t want to go out and hand pick our students…we want students…period.” He shares that, “we have the 1st through the 99th percentile in academic readiness and the 1st through the 99th percentile in behaviors when they come through our doors. After Day 1, it’s a whole new ball game, and we help foster caring, compassionate citizens who end up becoming great students. One is the byproduct of the other, and I honestly don’t feel that these can be grown in isolation, nor should they be.”

He also quickly disposed of the idea that middle school simply means grades six through eight. “On paper, this campus is grades six through eight. That’s about where that antiquated theory ends, though. Students enter our school with skills that stretch from second grade and extend beyond tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade. Basically, we’ve eliminated grades based on your age… here is no born-on date for progress and success. We help students own the fact that when they arrive here, they are on a 540-day journey, with each student entering at a different place and moving at a different pace. We are, simply put, a competency-based school.” Although we at CompetencyWorks have anticipated schools thinking this way, to date it is few and far between. I didn’t even need my coffee anymore. I was alert to make sure I didn’t miss any of the details about how WSA had developed.

Theory of Action

WSA has a clear theory of action that drives how the school is organized and the culture of the school. (more…)

Blair Elementary School

November 6, 2017 by

This is the third post in a series on my visit to Wisconsin. Start with this look at what’s happening state-wide. 

After my tour of Flight Academy in the school district of Waukesha, I was able to swing by for a quick conversation with Aida Cruz-Farin, principal at Blair Elementary School. Cruz-Farin’s career had taken her to the Milwaukee office of New Leaders for New Schools, but she missed the daily interaction with children. She was attracted to Blair because it was a school struggling to meet the needs of its students, of which 90 percent are FRL. Another way to think about Blair is as a beautifully multicultural school with 70 percent Hispanic students and fifteen spoken languages. But one thing was for sure: Expectations were low. Ten percent of students were proficient in reading and 12 percent in math. There was more pity for the students than expectations. There was only one place to go, and that was up. In less than four years, the school went from low-performing based on Wisconsin’s accountability system to exceeding expectations.

Blair’s Mission

To educate all students in a loving environment while maintaining high standards for academic excellence and character. We are committed to equity, diversity, bi-literacy, innovation and collaboration. Five key practices make our success possible: college focus; team teaching; innovation and diversity; maximizing instructional time; and communication with families and community partners.

Operating in the context of Wisconsin, where it seems that much of the strongest efforts around personalization have been in middle and upper income communities, Cruz-Farin brought a commitment to providing personalized learning to the students at Blair. Cruz-Farin said that the first stage of the transition process was creating a strong mission and vision with personalization at its core, establishing a high level of expectation, and building a culture to support the new vision.

Beliefs

The change at Blair Elementary School started with changing beliefs. Introducing a college-bound focus, every classroom adopts a college and learns about it. Students are referred to as scholars. Connections to college are constantly made throughout the school. The discussion about beliefs is transparent. The Blair team is instilling the values of believing in oneself as well as agency. Cruz-Farin explained, “We can open doors for students but they need to walk through them. We want them to understand that they are the ones who hold the keys to their future.”

Believe in yourself and you are halfway there – Theodore Roosevelt

(more…)

FLIGHT Academy: Magic Happens When Kids Come Together

October 30, 2017 by

This is the second post in a series on my visit to Wisconsin. Start with this look at what’s happening state-wide. 

The School District of Waukesha in Wisconsin sits about twenty-five miles west of Milwaukee. The district has created innovation space for schools to move toward personalized, proficiency-based learning. A district administrator explained this spirit of innovation as, “If you can say yes, then say yes.” The result is that there are at least three schools that are transforming themselves: Waukesha STEM Academy was the first to make the transition; then a school-within-a-school programmatic approach called Flight Academy at Horning Middle School took the plunge; and now Blair Elementary School has started the process.

Waukesha has not created a system-wide transition strategy, and it’s unlikely they will do so in the near future. They share a belief that the transition has to come from educators in the school. However, there are elements of their policies and operations that support personalized, proficiency-based education. For example, Gallup’s Hope survey is used to get a read on engagement and school climate. They are also working with the Institute for Personalized Learning (director Ryan Krohn was an assistant superintendent before he went to IPL) on developing a better understanding of agency, empathy, and perseverance. What do they look like? How do they develop? And what can schools do to support their development?

FLIGHT Academy

FLIGHT is actually an acronym: facilitating learning through integration, guidance, high expectations, and technology. They’ve made a video (found on this page) to explain the vision.

Developed by two teachers, Krista Krauter (a teacher at Horning for eighteen years) and Jeffrey Taege, FLIGHT is a program within Horning Middle School designed as a multi-age, personalized learning pathway that focuses on collaboration, technology integration, and 21st century skills. A student’s core classes (science, math, and humanities) take place within the academy as interdisciplinary seminars. All elective classes (music, art, technology education, business, foreign language, REAL, and phy.ed.) take place in the general Horning classes, with students in their age-based grade. Krauter explained, “When I had my own kids, I realized that we had to do something very different in schools. I didn’t want my kids sitting through school day after day just listening to a teacher. There had to be a better way of designing learning.”

FLIGHT Academy is now in its fifth year, with seven teachers and 160 learners. This is a similar student to teacher ratio as the rest of Horning. Below is a high level description of their program.

Focus

Flight Academy organizes the learning cycle around three questions:

  • What are you going to learn? Flight’s core courses are organized around state standards. The student learner profile has been designed to monitor progress.
  • How are you going to learn it? Students have choice and voice about how they are going to learn the standards. All core subjects are organized as interdisciplinary seminars which students schedule on a six-week rotating basis.
  • How will you show it? Students also have choice and voice about how they demonstrate their learning. Student-led conferences with teachers and parents are used to reflect on what they are learning, their progress, and pace.

Space

The FLIGHT academy team designed the space around personalization. There are multiple options for seating in one large community room with smaller rooms for studios, Socratic seminars, and conferences. There is also a lounge that is a designated quiet space. (more…)

Buzzing Toward Personalized Learning in Wisconsin

October 23, 2017 by

Click image to enlarge.

This is the first post in a series on my visit to Wisconsin.

We know there are different entry points to developing a personalized, competency-based system. But what we don’t know is whether they all get us to a high quality competency-based system, what the primary features of the system will be, and what the journey might look like. My visit to Wisconsin in the spring suggests that starting with a strong orientation to customized learning paths and proficiency-based progress may help us to leapfrog out of the age-based “covering the standards” approach that so many schools still find themselves in to a learning continuum that provides much more flexibility and the ability to meet students where they are.

It’s taken me a very long time to write up my visits to Waukesha School District and Kettle-Moraine School District because of their orientation and approach…and because the way they are organizing their schools is substantially different than what I’ve seen before. I find that writing about the most innovative models takes me the longest because I don’t want to push them into the themes and boxes of my previous understanding. They need to be described in a way that captures their values, framing, and spirit.

The Institute for Personalized Learning, launched by CESA #1, has played a very influential role in introducing Wisconsin districts to the concepts of personalized learning. They define personalized learning as an approach to learning and instruction that is designed around the individual learner readiness, strengths, needs and interests. Their approach to school transformation, 27 Personalized Learning Elements, is fondly known as the honeycomb. Originally, proficiency-based learning was just one of 27 elements of personalized learning. Now it is one of the three core elements along with learner profiles and customized learning paths. Thanks to Jim Rickabaugh, the founding director of IPL and now a senior fellow, and Ryan Krohn, current director, for all their help in introducing me to their approach to personalized learning.

The Personalized Learning Honeycomb

Starting with 27 elements is a lot to make sense of, but IPL has organized it with four levels that you can use to get your head wrapped around it: (more…)

Learner Agency: The Missing Link

October 29, 2015 by

Student ControlThis post originally appeared at The Institute for Personalized Learning on September 14, 2015.

Defining Learner Agency
Learner agency often gets missed in conversations on transforming the educational system. We have a sense of ‘agency’ when we feel in control of things that happen around us; when we feel that we can influence events. This is an important sense for learners to develop. Learners must understand:

  • when they need new learning and how to learn what they need
  • when they need to unlearn what will no longer serve them
  • when they need to relearn what they need to be successful

They must develop the capacity to engage strategically in their learning without waiting to be directed. They must take ownership of and responsibility for their learning. And, they must possess the skills to learn independently, without heavy dependence on external structures and direction.

Why Learner Agency is Needed
There is a significant and growing demand for learners to be able to do more than receive instruction, follow a learning path designed by educators and complete problems and assignments presented to them by an adult. Learners need to develop the capacity to shape and manage their learning without over-reliance on the direction and control of others. Too often adults treat children as though they are incapable of making decisions or holding valid opinions. As children advance through the system, they develop a form of “learned helplessness” that keeps them from advocating for themselves. The process for learning and the role learners play must be different than most adults experienced. (more…)

True Voice and Choice at Kettle Moraine Perform

October 19, 2015 by

KMPerformCan you envision a high school without courses, semesters, or trimesters? A school where students build their schedules every four to six weeks, choosing seminars, workshops, internships, projects, and the like that are interesting to them?

A school where students are not moving through a schedule created for them nine months before the academic year even begins?

What if instead you take the competencies from math, science, reading, writing, and the like, and then put them together into interdisciplinary learning opportunities that students can choose?

What if students were so knowledgeable about their learning that they could add competencies to existing seminars so they were meeting their learning goals, or creating seminars to co-teach with school faculty so their fellow students can meet their learning goals?

Well, I have not only envisioned it but I finally got to see it in action last week when I visited Kettle Moraine Perform in Wales, Wisconsin, a 170 student performing arts high school inside the larger 1400 student legacy high school. (Click here for more on the model.)

Abby, our student tour guide, was a senior with enough credits gathered to graduate. But instead of leaving high school, she decided to stay to make herself more competitive for the college of her choice. This is a wonderful model of true voice and choice.

I look forward to going back.

See also:

About the Author

Bill Zima began his career as a zoo educator. Seeking something that was a bit more dynamic, he became a 7th grade science teacher. He is currently the superintendent at RSU2 in Maine. He is an original member of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, an organization of educators dedicated to the promotion of performance-based education systems in Maine. He is the author of "Learners Rule: Giving them a voice improves the culture of their classroom." You can follow him on Twitter (@zimaw) or reach him at zimaw (at) yahoo (dot) com.

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