Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Project Based Learning and the Three Pillars

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Project Based Learning and the Three Pillars of Personalized Learning

This blog post is from from Kevin Hunt, a contributor to PLP Pathways and teacher in the Swift House, Williston Central School.

We’re officially over halfway through the school year and teachers and staff at WCS are fully immersed in the PLP process and Proficiency Based Learning. These have been two huge initiatives that been met head on in our district (as well as state wide) and I think it is fair to say that most feel much more confident at the halfway mark than they did at the onset of the school year.

I strongly believe that a specific pedagogical practice and philosophy has eased the transition for many teachers: learner- centered project based learning. Project based learning is certainly not a new buzz phrase or huge paradigm shift. Three years ago, Debbie Donnelly, a current Swift House teacher and Julie Longchamp, a retired Swift House teacher (who was also a founding member of Swift House and taught on Swift for over 25 years) co-authored an article, published in AMLE, about Swift House’s approach to project based learning and its place with the Common Core State Standards, which were relatively new at the time.

As I now read the article through the lens of the three pillars of personalized learning, I am struck by the themes and connections that were written about over three years ago and how relevant they are in today’s shift in education. Themes such as student choice, engagement, authentic learning, relationships, collaboration, and flexibility, are all at the forefront of this article.

As teachers, we are bound by time and curriculum expectations. Whenever the question comes up about what teachers need more of, it is always time. When are we going to have time to do this program? How will I have enough time to work in PLPs when I have to get through all of these books in my math program? Should I commit more time to planning for lessons or assessing student work? I’m certain that we’ve all felt and heard at least some variation of these.

This seems to be the show-stopping question of any new initiative in education, yet regardless of the lackluster answer that teachers receive to these questions, they still hunker down and do their very best work for one reason: the students. We know, as frustrating as days may be, that the work we do is making a difference. One day, we may have a lesser impact on a student, but the next, we may be opening a door for another student and providing a lasting impact that will influence the rest of that child’s life.

It’s no surprise that students engage more in their work when they feel that they are valued and feel a personal connection to what they are learning. Project based learning provides an opportunity for authentic engagement, personalization, and flexible pathways to demonstrate mastery of a skill.

In their article, Debbie and Julie explain, “We have district curriculum expectations, a stipulated math program, and district-wide common assessments, but how we structure our learning experiences to address the curriculum is left up to the teams of teachers.” We are fortunate in WCS to have such trust from our administration as professionals that allows us to structure our learning experiences to best meet the needs of the students as well as the curriculum.

This allows us to partake in many team wide project based experiences including:
  • Independent projects- students choose a topic, complete thorough research and present out to community members at an open house.

  • Swiftville-a team wide economics simulation that involves students writing business plans, learning about tax, balancing a checking account, and ultimately creating a live and functioning business in which they make and sell tangible goods to younger students using “Swiftie” money.
  • Rube Goldberg project- students work in small groups to complete a working Rube Goldberg machine with at least ten steps with the end result of popping a balloon, or dropping a mento into a cup of cola.

  • Theater unit-completely student led- students direct, act, work the light and sound board and make props/sets for two plays, one of which is a Shakespearean comedy every year.

There are countless content-based projects that occur throughout the school year as well that give students an opportunity to have a voice and authentic audience. As I stated above, project based learning isn’t a brand new concept and the majority of teachers are utilizing project based ideas in their classrooms every day. I was blown away at the most recent MGI conference in Burlington as I listened to a plethora of teachers from schools throughout the state discuss different ways that they are engaging their students with personalization and flexible pathways through the use of engaging projects. Now, in the age of Act 77, it’s important that we recognize the best teaching practices that we already do and draw connections to the three pillars of personalized learning.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the late Al Myers, who was also a founding member of Swift House. I believe that his words about his vision for our team will both resonate with and apply to educators worldwide:

“It is my hope that public schools will be places where children learn who they are as learners, to celebrate difference and uniqueness, to develop skills in challenging settings and in accordance with the best research on how the human brain learns, and where interpersonal problem solving and understanding is as central to the learning process as is personalized intellectual development.”

Monday, February 20, 2017

5 Steps To Re-Energize Personal Learning in Your Classroom

This post is from PLP Pathways contributor Maura Kelly, teacher at Peoples Academy Middle Level in
Morrisville, VT.

Walking through the halls at school it is clear we are in the thick of it. We are past the start of the school year marathon to the holidays and are settled into our classroom routines, working hard to keep our students focused as we look toward spring. Here are five tips to re-inspire and engage your students with the PLPs:

  1. Give them an Authentic Audience - This is a great time of year to connect with other classes or across teams within your school and have students share their goals and growth to give feedback. This gives an additional audience for your students and creates opportunities for student to student partnerships and feedback around goals and growth.  Think about creating a regular meeting between the partnerships and give them a structure to reflect together.

  1. Keep Parents in the Loop -  At Peoples Academy we have our second round of parent teacher conferences in early March. This is a great time for students to show their growth over the course of the school year on their portfolio. We have them showcase their academic growth towards meeting the proficiencies and also their growth towards meeting their goals. At this point we have students adjust and set new goals for the remainder of the year. If you don’t have parent conferences now, think about how you can create opportunities where students are communicating with parents. At the Edge Academy they have students write Friday letters to share their learning and growth over the week.

  1. Genius Hour - It can feel like February is the month where you say the word goals around middle level students and they instantly tune you out. Try to get students involved in a personal interest project. This can be a way to build a relationship with students while also having them work on their growth and collection of evidence towards the transferable skills. It can be a fun way to break up the time between February and April breaks.

  1. Encourage Students to Branch Out - By February we have a good understanding of our student’s strengths and goals. This is a perfect time to try and connect students with the next challenge. For example, I have a student who had been working on goal learning how to make origami. I connected them with the director of the afterschool program and they are now leading a class teaching other students this new skill. It is also a great time to connect students with community partners or teachers in the building who may be able to mentor your student and help them reach their goals.

  1. Start Thinking About Next Year - This is a time to start thinking about the transition to next year. Can you find a time for students to sit with their teachers they will have next year to share their portfolios? Can you hook in the guidance counselors from the high school to view the portfolios?

These are just a few ideas to re-energize your personal learning activities and to get students focused on goals, growth, and reflection. Try some of these ideas to keep the learning environment fun, flexible, and productive.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Practitioner Perspective: Weaving Goals, Reflection, and Transferable Skills into the Curriculum

This week's blog post is from regular contributor Lindsey Halman, founder and teacher on the Edge Academy Team in Essex.

Each Monday on the Edge Academy Team at Essex Middle School, we have a full team meeting, called Gathering Meeting.  This meeting serves a number of purposes - it builds community, it provides opportunities for youth leadership, it’s fun, and most importantly it is the opportunity to share the Edge Goals for the week.  These goals guide our work and provide our learners with a clear vision of what they can expect for the week.  

In order to ensure we support our learners in understanding what it means to have self-direction and communicate clearly and effectively, we ask that they share their weekly goals with a parent/guardian or trusted adult on Monday (see Link to Goals Memo Template) and write a reflective email to that same adult(s) on Friday (see Link to Weekly Reflection/Letter Template).  These opportunities allow us to ensure that there is clear communication between home and school and that our students are taking responsibility for their learning.


Examples from Students:

VT Transferrable Skills:
Self Direction: Take initiative in, and responsibility for, learning.
Clear + Effective Communication: Demonstrate Organized and Purposeful Communication.

Notes on Goals
Steps to Completion for the Due Date
Clear and Effective Communication
  • Share notes about goals with parents by end of Monday.
  • Filling out table.
  • Friday email home due Friday.
  • Share doc with parents on Monday.
  • Sharing follow up due Friday.
Future Projects
  • Develop two driving questions that will guide project work and research.
  • Share evidence on Protean
  • Due date: Friday 1/13
  • Listen in class about driving questions.
  • Develop quality driving questions.
  • Post evidence on Protean.
  • Due FRIDAY!
Civic and Social Responsibility
  • Field Trip on 1/13  Friday  (Patin Libre)
  • Watch video by 1/10 Tuesday be prepared for Humanities.
  • Flynn Teaching Artist on Thursday
  • Bring layers for Friday
  • Watch video about Patin Libre on own time before Tuesday afternoon.
  • Bring layers on Friday.
  • Possibly sign up to lead future gathering meetings.
  • Post evidence on Protean about one or more goals
  • Post on Protean 2 Humanities Goals.
  • Post 2 Driving Questions
  • Create a reflection
  • Post the evidence about the various goals.
  • Write a reflection
  • Unit planning and Goal Setting Google Form DUE TUESDAY
  • Launch new unit
  • Choose new book groups
  • Flynn teaching artist
  • Fill out Google Form
  • Submission DUE TUESDAY
  • Prepare for performance on FRIDAY
  • Windmill packet DUE FRIDAY
  • Detailed response paragraphs typed up on Google Docs
  • Fill out packet in math class.
  • Type up detailed response paragraphs.

****This week is PROJECT’S WEEK****
In order to meet my goals this week, I will….
Work hard, have perseverance, and  put in 100% effort
I might need support with…
Driving questions
Thanks for looking over my notes and I will inform you of my progress on Friday!

Examples of Friday Reflections - Weekly Letters Home

Dear Mom and Dad,

This week has been a successful week for me because I completed all of my weekly goals. For the Edge weekly goals, I completed everything except the posting of evidence to Protean (Which I am about to do as soon as I finish this letter.) I created my two driving questions for my yearly project this week. My project goal for next week is to really get into the research and take a lot of notes. In Physical Education, we got split into two groups : Basketball and Weightlifting. I, fortunately, got put in the group that starts with weightlifting. One highlight from the week was the fact that we started a new unit in Humanities and we are going to have book groups. I am really excited to know which book I will be reading. One goal for next week is to get a good grade on my algebra midterms.

Dear family,
                    This week has been a fun week for me. We finished our windmill task which was great to learn the engineering design process and how to build things on Tuesday we heard a speech from a teacher that went to Cuba she told us about the way they live and how it is very hard to try to make it to america and how different are schools are. In projects we are creating driving questions for our future projects. My highlight of the week was today we went to go see Le Patin Libre, they are a ice dancing group that defies ice dancing stereotype this show was very unique and I'm glad that I got to experience it. My goal for next week is to learn something I never knew before.

 Sincerely, Natasha

Dear Mom and Dad,

This week has been pretty busy, with Paige and I making our flan and going to Micaela's to work on projects. This week we also worked on writing our driving questions to help lead our project research. After finishing those, Micaela and I used a directory of LGBTQ staff at UVM (given to us by someone who visited the Edge team named Erin) to find some possible people to interview for our book. We can hopefully start drafting next week. Something else we'd like to do is meet up after school on as many Wednesdays as possible to get some extra work done.

In DTE, we've finally finished constructing our car and we've timed it on the track. It made it to the other end in about 10 seconds, and we're working to make it go faster.

In Spanish, our flan went great! Some people found it too sweet for their liking, but Senora Psaros said it was perfect. I also feel like the presentation in itself went well.

Ms. Wager (she does lessons for the woodwinds) gathered everyone in districts to practice yesterday.

One highlight from this week was making the flan with Paige. That was fun.

One goal for next week is to set up some meeting dates to interview at least one of the people that responded to the emails Micaela and I set up. We'd have to get some help from Phil and Lindsey to do that, though, and we'd also have to create some questions.

See you later!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Teaching Through A Lens of Personalization

Today's post is by Don Taylor of Main Street Middle School in Montpelier.

For many teachers, the move to proficiency-based assessment and personalized learning, as mandated by Act 77, has been cause for rethinking and revamping curriculum. One approach to renewing the curriculum is to consider taking on traditional subjects through the personalized learning perspective.
Recently, students in my classroom completed the novel Fever 1793. Integrated into a study of culture and the migration and movement of people, technology and disease, the novel provides an easy-to-access platform for literary analysis that most students enjoy.
More importantly, when viewed through our personal learning framework, which focuses on identity, growth and reflection, and transformation, the novel provides a great literary example of a young adolescent girl’s maturation from self-absorbed teen to responsible young woman. For our middle level students, the examination of the main character’s identity, in conjunction with her developing relationships, provides a parallel to the personalized learning work completed earlier in the year.

After reading the novel and in preparation for writing a short analysis piece, students were asked to create a relationship web for the main character Matilda “Mattie” Cook. Once created, classroom discussion focused on Matilda’s relationships that helped her survive the yellow fever epidemic raging through 1793 Philadelphia.
Students identified how Mattie’s relationships influenced her through different stages of her growth and the principles and values revealed through those relationships. These discussions, along with examination of themes, use of language, and relevant evidence from the novel, were the background information provided to students prior to writing. Based on this approach to the novel, writing prompts were adjusted to reflect these changes in the curriculum. Students were given the choice of addressing three different prompts:

Prompt #1
Select a character from the story who has had a significant impact on Mattie’s growth as a person. Explain the importance of this character and how Mattie’s relationship with this character helps Mattie grow into a responsible young adult.
  Prompt #2
Identify and explain the most important event of the story and how Mattie’s
actions (and reactions) during this time represent her growth and transformation.

  Prompt #3
Identify the most important principle or value that contributed to Mattie’s growth as a young woman. Describe how this principle or value helps Mattie survive the yellow fever epidemic and contribute to her community.

As we move through the writing process, I will be soliciting feedback from students as to whether this focus on the elements of personalized learning helped them to develop a deeper understanding of the main themes in the novel.
From the practitioner’s perspective, these changes in curriculum were relatively innocuous. That said, the ability to make connections through personalized learning, in conjunction with our understanding of the middle level experience, can make the language arts experience more relevant and motivating for students.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

PLP Pathways: Practitioner Perspective

Today's post was contributed by Don Taylor, language arts and social studies teacher at Main Street Middle School. Follow PLP Pathways on Twitter @PLPpathways.

Practitioner Perspective

Act 77: Flexible Pathways seeks to achieve a number of important outcomes. Among these, proficiency-based learning, personalization, and flexible pathways to graduation have primary importance. This we know. Additionally, all students are expected to have a personalized learning plan that demonstrates evidence of content area and transferable skill proficiencies as they progress through their learning program.

Screen Shot 2016-10-11 at 9.55.09 PM.pngOver the past few years, teachers across the state have devoted enormous amounts of attention, energy, professional development, and collaborative effort to merge these ideas into seamless, effective, and meaningful learning experiences for students.

Ongoing Questions

Thus far, how are we doing? What strides have been made towards moving schools, teachers, and programs towards proficiency-based assessment? Has personalization been achieved and to what level are students invested in their personal learning plans? How are teachers and students involving families? The community? Is access to opportunity equitable across schools, communities, and the state?

Finally, how are teachers, on a daily basis, integrating the three pillars of personalized learning: personal learning plans, proficiency-based assessment, and flexible pathways into curriculum planning and development?

These are huge questions and over the course of the next few months, the staff and contributing writers to PLP Pathways will attempt to address them in a cohesive and meaningful way.

As part of our mission, we hope to clarify and assist educators across the state of Vermont as they tackle these thorny topics, develop strategies and pedagogies that help students succeed, and test drive resources and technologies that we can then share out to collaborative contributors.

In The Classroom

As a classroom teacher, I’m continually working to balance personalization with proficiency-driven assessment and the demands of content and curriculum. Full disclosure: my experience with personalized learning and PLPs indicates that these platforms are more motivating and engaging for students. As a result, I’m seeking to integrate personalization and proficiency-based assessment into a project-based learning environment. I’d like the PLP to be the foundation for student engagement, to capture student growth and proficiency, and to be the driver of curriculum development.

Second full disclosure: it doesn’t always work. I’m still striving to create a cohesive, student-driven curriculum that engages students while preparing them for the demands of the 21st century. This often requires a rethinking of what’s been done in the past, structured reflection, and collaborative discussions with colleagues that help solve problematic issues. Still, since working with personalization and proficiency-based assessment, I’ve started to develop some classroom survival strategies. Here are three.


PLP Template.pngIt’s been really important to have models available for curriculum and personal learning plan development. The adjacent template, the current model for our PLPs, was developed over two years of trial and error. It’s not perfect, and it might not work for every team and school, but having a consistent PLP model allows me to focus on coordinating themes in the curriculum.

Curriculum Example

Because our PLP model includes a page on citizenship, we’ve been able to take traditional units on the Constitution and government and tie that more closely to student ideas about rights and responsibilities. This year we hosted a mock election prior to the presidential election. Students were able to engage with ideas about participation and citizenship which were then posted to the PLP. By collecting evidence of citizenship on the PLP, we hope to build a strong community of interested, critically thinking members, who are involved in the community.

Furthermore, asking students to reflect on these events and topics using proficiency-based assessments (descriptive writing, research skills, geography, structures of government) seems more viable when students have a school-based citizenship activity to reference.

Having a strong PLP model allows us to capture student learning and evidence while at the same time emphasizing a personal learning experience.


Without constructive student feedback, current practices would not be nearly as developed. With the help of Google Forms, I am continually asking students for their honest and appropriate feedback regarding all aspects of personalized learning and curriculum development.

More importantly, I try to share the collected data with the students for constructive discussion.

Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 5.29.23 AM.pngFor example, after our most recent unit, students were asked about their freedom of choice within the academic offerings.

Their responses, adjacent, indicate that while they do feel they have some choice, it could certainly be improved.

This specific feedback is a great place to start discussions with students. It also helps to direct future curriculum development. Eventually, the hope is that rather than having students responding after the learning, they can help me develop choice ahead of the unit’s implementation. However, without this initial feedback, my teaching and thinking would not be as efficient.

Project Based Learning

At the middle level, the sooner I can get kids involved in engaging projects the better. Our district utilizes Understanding By Design principles and often, we attempt to have the essential questions reflected in project-based learning activities. Projects can be developed with student input and additionally, they can be structured to allow for student choice.

Once those projects are in place, students can be asked, or better yet, can choose, the different proficiencies and transferable skills that they would like to demonstrate. Those skills are then captured through the gathering of evidence on the student’s personal learning plan. Indeed, once students are engaged in project-based learning, students can be expected to be learning on several different fronts. First, they should be working on the proficiencies and skills required to be successful and second, they can be self-reflective decision-makers who can honestly evaluate the strengths and challenges of their learning experience. I view this as moving students from recipients of their education to active, engaged, independent learners.

Curriculum Example 2

Last year, after working with students to build background information about the Middle Ages, students were given the opportunity to work on a Middle Ages Independent Project. Given a choice of options regarding the demonstration of their learning, students utilized a wide range of technology platforms to present their developing proficiencies.

One student figured out how to use Google Sketch-Up to create a model of a medieval castle. Self-direction, self-discipline, ideas about audience and effective presentation all came into play. Moreover, that development and their continuous reflection was captured by the student’s PLP.


New initiatives such as Act 77 can have huge benefits for students and teachers. That said, they can also increase stress, cause confusion, and undermine teacher efforts to create cohesive, manageable learning experiences. Often, dialing back and reflecting on the foundation of one’s practice helps to put things in perspective. These three elements of my practice -- strong models, student feedback, and project-based learning -- are sustainable, will provide students with the opportunity for personalization and proficiency, and continue to areas of focus for my professional growth and learning.