Tag: middle school

Redesigning the Syllabus to Reflect the Learning Journey

October 9, 2017 by

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This post originally appeared at EdSurge on September 10, 2017.

Personalized learning is still in its infancy—as are the curricular tools and resources available to support teachers in implementing it.

Currently, there is no shortage of articles offering a high-level look at how and why personalized learning will impact student growth, and conference sessions where teachers are encouraged to change the way they teach, but not given the tools to modify their instructional practices. There are plenty of resources with step-by-step guides and blueprints designed to walk teachers through a process to personalize learning. Additionally, there is a growing number of online platforms and prepackaged curricular products (both free and at cost)—not to mention the new stamp on existing tools—you know, the sticker that says “personalize learning with (insert product name.)”

But, for personalized learning to be personal—it must be less formal and formulaic. We need to design student-centered learning experiences and that takes time, practice and support.

The Syllabus Gets a Facelift

If we think about learning as a journey that gets compartmentalized in formal education, then the first experience for middle and high school students is often the syllabus. In many ways, the traditional syllabus places restrictions on when, what and how students will learn. It sets expectations for how growth will be measured and what penalties will be enforced for late work or missing class. Most syllabi lack flexibility and aren’t very engaging; which contradicts everything we know about high quality teaching and learning.

I currently work at Allen Academy in Bryan, Texas, as the Head of Middle and Upper School and I teach one 8th grade geography class. Back in 2011, I was getting my feet wet with blended learning and experimenting with new pedagogical practices in my geography class. As a result of my recent transition to a blended learning environment and my desire to turn control of learning over to my students, I decided the traditional syllabus needed to be turned on its head.

Redesigning the Syllabus Starting With Student Experience

Conventional syllabi are developed from the perspective of the teacher—designed to present what he or she plans to include in a course. I wanted to develop an alternative version that looked through the lens of the student, and my vision was to tailor each one to reflect what a particular learner would be doing every step of the way throughout the course. This was not simply a more visually appealing version of a classic syllabus, it was a radical overhaul of the student experience with the primary goal of changing their perception of their role as a learner.

This drastic class redesign demanded that I ask myself some big questions: what content was required, what elements of learning could students control and what traditional and new measures I could use to gauge progress? Almost every question led to another. How much control could I give students over their modalities of learning, what would the challenges and successes of self-paced learning be, and if students had more control over how they demonstrated mastery, then what would rubrics look like?

Seven years ago, that first course redesign was a big shift for me. I had been teaching eighth grade geography for four years at that point, and historically, I had used a textbook and pacing chart to cover the curriculum. I used traditional grading practices, assessing student progress through quizzes, tests, project, midterms and finals each year. I was confident that students were learning and their grades supported that. There was little urgency for change—certainly not from my administration or peers. But I had this nagging feeling that my students deserved better. I knew they could make more progress if they had more flexibility to make decisions—but that couldn’t happen within the rigid structure that existed.

The heaviest lift for that first redesign was figuring out how to parcel out the course in a way that would give students more flexibility and choice. Abandoning traditional units and chapters and coming up with new potential segments of learning was a strenuous process. For that first one, I divided my class into three segments: Foundation, Content and Skills, and Assessment. I worked tirelessly to gather old and new resources, align them to each segment, and upload them to a website so that my students could access them at their own pace. (more…)

Thompson School District: Student-Driven Learning at Work!

September 28, 2017 by

This post is part of an ongoing series on Colorado schools. Read about D51, DSISD, and Westminster Public Schools for more insights. 

Conrad Ball Middle School sits on an unremarkable street in Loveland, Colorado. Other than its claim to fame as the nation’s “Sweetheart City,” Loveland is similar in many ways to other small- to medium-sized cities across the nation. However, across this school district, something truly different is happening inside its classrooms.

Conrad Ball Middle School (or “Con Ball” as it is referred to by district staff) is one of several schools that are leading implementation of Thompson’s vision for personalized, competency-based learning. Thompson’s vision for competency based learning is described this way.

“The teachers and staff in TSD are dedicated to working with students and families to design a personal learning pathway for each student based on their passions, strengths and needs. We care about students having more meaningful learning that is not based on seat time and gives students more choices in what they want to explore at a deeper level. Teachers are committed to providing specific feedback to help students transfer and apply the skills they gain during their learning to foster growth and inspire students to excel. We are committed to ensuring that every student is prepared for success and is college, career and community ready.”

Thompson’s competency-based structure is founded upon four core areas of teaching and learning:

1. Competency-Based Instruction is designed to:

  • provide flexibility to students in demonstrating proficiency within personalized learning/personalized learning pathways,
  • ensure acquisition of knowledge and skills essential for success in higher education, careers, and adult life (state standards),
  • afford equitable access to education,
  • support communication that helps students learn more effectively through better feedback, and
  • foster ownership of the standard and the scores accessed through open gradebook.

2. Competency-Based Scoring: Students, parents, and teachers build understanding of what each scoring level looks like for each standard in each content area.

3. Competency-Based Assessment: Formative and summative assessments that are identified prior to the learning, aligned to standards, criterion referenced, and authentic to student learning.

4. Competency-Based Reporting: Consists of quarterly progress monitoring reports that are designed to be links within a year-long chain of evidence toward end-of-year expectations, and one final report card at end-of-year.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about classes at Conrad Ball is how actively students are leading their classroom experience. Walk into Mrs. Steele’s eighth grade math class, and students are leading discussions at each of the tables scattered around the room. Student groups are re-distributed daily rather than remain fixed in static ability groups. Mrs. Steele rotates around the groups to offer guidance, answer questions and check in on progress. Meanwhile, any student can go at any time to the “Help Table” where other students sit doing their own work, but ready to be interrupted at any time to help fellow students. Outside of class, Mrs. Steele uses an online platform to review student work, provide individual feedback and make adjustments for students. (more…)

Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Supporting Learners with Common Language

February 17, 2017 by

This post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on January 20, 2017. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

Have you ever visited a classroom, or a team, or a school, and felt like there was some kind of secret code the members all shared? Perhaps the learners and teachers were using hand signals, or using specific words and phrases which clearly had a meaning that was understood by all the learning community members. The communication took very little effort, and happened quickly and smoothly. Classrooms and schools that have successfully shared and sustained a common language are special places with an environment prime for powerful learning.

Without a doubt, shared language contributes to a positive culture. When a group has special words and gestures that mean something to them, it binds the group together. The benefits of using a common language across classrooms and grades extends beyond culture, into academic learning as well. Common language removes barriers to learning, allowing learners to move between physical spaces without having to move between too many mental spaces. This in turn increases transference of skills and knowledge between contents and disciplines.

For example, a middle school team decided to work on the idea of problem solving with their learners. They had notices that the learners were waiting for the adults to give them solutions in a variety of situations ranging from a broken pencil to deciding what to write about for a story. Rather than have a different process in each classroom, the team decided to use a common set of steps for solving problems. The team also agreed to use the same language and explicitly make the connection between the problem solving steps and their content.

CB1

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PASA Forges Ahead with Competency-Based Expanded Learning Opportunities

May 24, 2016 by
PASA

Photo from the Providence After School Alliance (PASA) Website

“It’s hard to design a competency-based afterschool program when none of us have had any experience in our own lives of learning through a competency-based approach.”

So started the conversation with Alex Molina, Brittany Sandbergen, and Ann Durham of the Providence After School Alliance (PASA).

“We have an idea of how afterschool and expanded learning programming can be better aligned with student interests and their schooling through competencies, but we aren’t there yet,” explained Deputy Director Molina. “Competency-based learning can help clarify how students move from point A to point B in an afterschool experience. It can help improve the learning experience to be very clear about what we want students to be able to learn and also become a way of providing feedback to them. The one thing that is clear is that it starts by changing the way adults think about learning.”

How Expanded Learning Opportunities are Constructed

PASA has created very dynamic afterschool programming with the AfterZone (middle school) and the Hub (high school). The Hub organizes Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) that provide high school credit (.5 of an elective credit) to students for learning they do outside of the school day. Some samples of ELOs include mechanical fabrication, Android app design and development, Model UN, and environmental science.

While the AfterZone is designed for younger students to explore and try out lots of different experiences, the Hub was created for more in-depth experiences for high school students. It is organized to provide a central system for young people to access learning opportunities not currently available within their schools or to learn about content within applied, real-world experiences. The Hub’s ELOs provide a wide range of experiences, including: Young Voices (leadership development); Chrysalis-App Design (computer science for young women); Improv (acting and storytelling); Rocketry (engineering flying machines and then teaching middle students to do it); iPhone App and Game Design; Model UN; Art+Design Lab in partnership with RI School of Design Museum; and Take CoMMAnd (martial arts). (more…)

10 Simple Lesson Plans for Scaffolding Student-Led Projects

March 10, 2016 by

laptop-studentsThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on January 17, 2016. 

When working with my high school students on implementing their own student-led projects, I adapted much of my project-based learning (PBL) curriculum from a guide titled Youth Engaged in Leadership in Learning (YELL), created by Stanford University’s John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Families.

Adapted from the YELL Curriculum Guide (I specifically used Unit 3; Unit 1 is on Communication and Unit 2 is on Leadership- both have great ideas), this was my (shortened) version of my 10 lesson plan for scaffolding student-led projects in my classroom.

Getting Started with Student-Led Projects

  • Assess. Decide how you will access the project and student grade(s) ahead of time and communicate that at the start. I suggest some sort of electronic portfolio (I used Google Docs) where assignments and formative assessments exist at the end of each lesson. At the end, there I had a performance-based assessment with a rubric. There was also a final reflection paper due at the end of the project.
  • Adapt. Flex this up or down according to grade level and skills.
  • Relate to Content. This will work in middle and/or high school advisory, social studies, language arts, or other project-based block.
  • Plan. This can happen in 2 weeks or 6 weeks (or longer). You could also massively extend lessons, especially lessons 6, 7 and 8 and this could become a 6+ week unit. Use your creativity and know what will work best for your students. You are on your way to building successful student-led projects.
  • Involve. Involve other adults in the building, and let parents know this is happening. Line up adult mentors who could come in to the building and help students on particular projects that line up with their expertise, or use online tools to connect students to mentors/adult experts.

Lesson 1 – The World is Ours. What Do You Care About?

Have students brainstorm ideas, problems and concerns. In my classroom, we did this in groups and the list was LONG. It filled two butcher paper sheets long. Students can brainstorm. There are no wrong answers. Examples include: drug abuse, lack of internet at home, more access to video games (this will get listed as an injustice), too many stray dogs in your neighborhood, alcoholism, homelessness. Debrief. (more…)

Lake County Schools: Windy Hill Middle School

February 19, 2016 by

WolvesThis post is the fifth in a five-part series on Lake County Schools in Florida. Begin with the district overview and follow along at these schools: South Lake High, Lost Lake Elementary, Sawgrass Bay Elementary, and Lake Windy Hill Middle

Kathy Halbig, Coordinator of Personalized Learning at Lake County Schools (LCS), described Windy Hill Middle School as “a high performing middle school with a strong level of trust. The staff are confident in their ability to manage change and take risks.” Yet, the team at Windy Hill knew they still weren’t reaching every student, which is why they decided to make the transition to personalized learning with implementation beginning the fall of 2015.

We had a rich conversation with Assistant Principal Abby Crosby and Personalized Learning Facilitator Mary Ellen Barger. Here are the highlights:

Building a Common Understanding of Personalized Learning: The journey to personalization at Windy Hill started by engaging everyone, including the school advisory committee, business community, teachers, and parents.

Four (Overlapping) Steps to Personalized Learning: The Windy Hill scale up strategy has four components that are not entirely sequential. First, invest in the culture of personalization, including growth mindset. Second, go with the teachers who are ready, willing, and able. Third, build capacity through a train-the-trainer model so Windy Hill teachers can train others in the personalized learning classroom design and delivery skills. Fourth, build the capacity for writing units that take into consideration that students are starting at different points and using a variety of multiple assessments. (more…)

Kids in the Pipeline During Transition to Proficiency-Based Systems

January 12, 2016 by

PipelineI have made the case for “turning the switch” to a proficiency-based model versus “phasing in” a new approach to educating our youth. I have discussed the preparations that I believe are necessary to successfully implement a proficiency-based system. How could I have missed this!? I expected our proficiency-based model to be so much better for our students than the traditional approach, yet many of our learners are struggling. What’s going on and why? What can be done? With hindsight being 20/20, what should we have done differently with our implementation?

What’s Going On and Why?

The jump to expecting students to demonstrate proficiency on clearly identified targets based on national standards is a step up for all, perhaps a bigger step for others. The expectation that students demonstrate proficiency on all standards assigned to a course is a significant change from a traditional system where a student need only score 70 percent (or less) to achieve credit and move on. Of course, we can look at this issue from a different view and state that students have been allowed to move on without 30 to 40 percent of the knowledge, concepts, and skills necessary for success at the next level. Many of us refer to this as the “Swiss Cheese Effect” of what our traditional high school model has allowed for…generations.

Now that we have made the transition to our proficiency-based model, we have students in high school whose clock is ticking toward graduating with their class. They are the kids in the pipeline without the foundational skills required to be able to demonstrate proficiency in required topics. We need to remember that students come to the system with eight to eleven years of “Swiss cheese.” The pressure on learners and our learning facilitators to fill holes in learning and complete graduation requirements is extraordinary. This, to use Chris Sturgis’ analogy, is one of the “elephants in the room” that needs our attention…in a hurry.

What Can be Done?

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RSU2: Continuous Improvement at Richmond Middle and High School

January 7, 2016 by

pumpkinThis post is part of the Maine Road Trip series. This is the second post on my conversations at RSU2 in Maine. The first post is on lessons learned.

During my visit to RSU, we stopped off at Richmond Middle and High School. It was a glorious fall day, perfect for the middle school students to do a bit of pumpkin pitching with the catapults to culminate their study of Newton’s Laws and simple machines.

Richmond serves 260 students in grades sixth through twelfth, of which 40 percent are FRL. The size of the school means each academic department is approximately two people. This allows for ease in collaboration. For example, ELA and social studies are starting to explore how they can be integrated.

As we stood out on the field watching pumpkins soaring over our heads, Steve Lavoie, Principal of Richmond, emphasized that the induction process is vital to the success of the school. In the summer, he brings new hires together for a full day to talk about the philosophy of personalized, proficiency-based learning. During the school year, he meets with the new teachers every other Wednesday. Lavoie explained, “I bring an agenda item and the new teachers bring agenda items that feel pressing to them. We look at issues in the context of their work. As they become comfortable with work in a proficiency-based school, we begin to have meetings as needed.” When there is only one new teacher, other teachers join in this process so the new teachers always have a cohort of support.

Lavoie has noticed that students are talking more about their GPA and going to college. “The conversation about what it means to be academically successful has lifted the expectations that students hold for themselves.” At some schools I’ve visited, the competitiveness surrounding the GPA has created an environment in which students want to re-assess to get higher scores. Lavoie explained that hasn’t been a problem at Richmond. “We stay focused on helping students reach proficiency and always do their best. Students can go back and finish things they didn’t get done. They can go back to things they didn’t learn well to strengthen their skills. But wanting to increase the scores on the GPA is not a reason for re-assessments. We want them to do their personal best the first time around.”

Like many competency-based schools, Richmond has moved from an honors track to honors performance. Any students with 3.75 are designated as honors. Lavoie emphasized, “We want to reward students for performance.” Another example is that if a student in an AP course gets a 3.25 in class and a 4 on the AP test, their final performance score will be a 4.

In an exciting new partnership, University of Maine Presque Isle (UMPI) is sending new teachers to Richmond to understand the personalized, proficiency-based system. Seven student teachers visited RSU2 in the fall. The first day was focused on gaining an overall perspective on proficiency-based learning; the second day, teachers were fully immersed in the classroom. The partnership is also opening up experiences for students, as well. Last year, thirteen students took an online course offered by UMPI. College-going confidence skyrocketed when students realized they were doing as well or better than some of the college students. (more…)

RSU2: Entering a New Stage in Building a High Quality Proficiency-Based District

January 5, 2016 by

poss pic for rsu2_oneThis post is part of the Maine Road Trip series. This is the first post on my conversations at RSU2 in Maine. 

RSU2 is a district that has been staying the course, even through two superintendent changes (Don Siviski is now at Center for Center for Secondary School Redesign; Virgel Hammonds is now at KnowledgeWorks; and Bill Zima, previously the principal at Mt. Ararat Middle School, is now the superintendent). This says a lot about the school board’s commitment to having each and every student be prepared for college and careers. If we had a CompetencyWorks award for school board leadership, RSU2 would definitely get one.

Given that they are one of the districts with the most experience with competency education (Chugach has the most experience, followed by Lindsay), my visit to RSU2 was much more focused on conversations with the district leadership team, principals, and teachers rather than classroom visits. My objective in visiting RSU2 was to reflect with them upon their lessons learned.

It takes a load of leadership and extra effort to transform a traditional district to personalized, proficiency-based learning. It’s a steep learning curve to tackle – growth mindset, learning to design and manage personalized classrooms, learning how to enable and support students as they build habits of work and agency, designing and aligning instruction and assessment around measurable objectives and learning targets, calibration and assessment literacy, organizing schedules so teachers have time for working together and to provide just-in-time support to students, building up instructional skills, new grading policies, new information management systems to track progress – and districts have to help every teacher make the transition. I wanted to find out what they might have done differently, what has been particularly challenging, and what they see as their next steps.

I began my day at RSU2 in Maine with a conversation with Zima (a frequent contributor to CompetencyWorks); principals from all nine schools; Matt Shea, Coordinator of Student Achievement; and John Armentrout, Director of Information Technology. I opened the conversation with the question, “What do you know now that you wished you knew when you started?”

Tips for Implementation

Armentrout summarized a number of insights about implementation: (more…)

Preparing to “Turn the Switch” to a Proficiency-Based Learning System

November 3, 2015 by

SwitchIn an earlier blog, I discussed the implementation of a Proficiency Based Learning System via a “phase in” approach and the unintended consequences of such a plan. Although I referred to the alternative approach as “overnight,” clearly much work happens prior to turning the switch from a traditional to a proficiency-based system. However, it does avoid the pitfalls of a phasing in approach. When you turn the switch:

  • There are no guinea pigs. All stakeholders transition at the same time; no one group is left facing change year after year.
  • The this will go away syndrome disappears because the change is here, now. It’s not going away. Our work then turns to a cycle of continuous improvement of the system.
  • The pilot doesn’t exist. By making the change across the board, the message is sent that “we are confident this is the direction to take” and it will succeed.
  • Apples to oranges, the comparing of proficiency-based and traditional grades, is a natural part of the transition. However, it does not happen via the structure of the implementation.

Preparing to ‘Turn the Switch”

So what are steps that experience teaches us need to be taken prior to making such a significant change? Make no mistake about it, this is second order change. It is not the “band aid” approach to school reform that has been happening for decades. Well-meaning tweaks to a failed system can only take us so far. This change goes well beyond what has been happening within our schools. (more…)

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