Today’s post is brought to you by Don Taylor, language arts and social studies teacher at Main Street Middle School in Montpelier and co-director of PLP Pathways.
As Act 77 matures, many different elements of personalized learning, PLPs, and flexible pathways are being explored by educators across the state. These developments are provoking innovative discussions, new approaches to curriculum development and enhanced learning opportunities for students. Last month, in our PLP Pathways webinar, we focused on how the development of flexible pathways, in conjunction with community partners, can result in programming that would otherwise be out of reach for our students and teachers. Today I’d like to reflect on that conversation but also identify key factors that teachers should consider as they begin exploring the different flexible pathways that may be available in their communities, through partnerships with community organizations, or linked to existing curriculum.
According to the Agency of Education, “The Flexible Pathways Initiative, created by Act 77 of 2013 ……..encourages and supports the creativity of school districts as they develop and expand high-quality educational experiences that are an integral part of secondary education in the evolving 21st-century classroom. Flexible pathways also promote opportunities for Vermont students to achieve postsecondary readiness through high-quality educational experiences that acknowledge individual goals, learning styles, and abilities; and increase the rates of secondary school completion and postsecondary continuation in Vermont.”1
As a middle school teacher, I take this to mean any project-based, community-based, or service learning project that provides students with the opportunity to apply their curriculum-based and transferable skills to solve real-world problems for authentic audiences. It also sounds like a lot of work. For interested teachers, developing these opportunities can feel overwhelming. Where do we start?
Building Time in the Schedule
As part of our integration of Act 77, my team at Main Street Middle School developed a specific program to allow students the opportunity to explore learning opportunities around central themes of environmental awareness and sustainability. Called The Green Team, this portion of the curriculum takes place every Monday afternoon. Students have selected committees within which they address specific sustainability issues. Committees include Classroom Composting, Green Team News, and the Drive Committee to name a few. I consider these “flexible pathways” to learning as they provide students the opportunity to work on real-world issues and develop evidence of their growth and learning relative to the transferable skills.
Bringing the Community Into the Classroom
One of the key factors in creating The Green Team was our desire to expose students to critical issues in an equitable way. That is, we wanted to make sure that all students had the opportunity to experience these opportunities rather than relying on family support, access to resources, or existing relationships. In order to achieve that, we reached out to community partners. This is a key factor. Across the state of Vermont, there are numerous organizations who are willing, able, and ready to deliver outstanding educational opportunities to Vermont students.
Three organizations that have been instrumental to our developing flexible pathways include: the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District, the Vermont Energy Education Program and the UVM 4-H Teen and Leadership Program through the University of Vermont Extension. These organizations have presented to our class, organized learning activities, and provided logistical support for both school-based flexible pathways and extended learning opportunities in the community. In the process, they have exposed students to a wide range of important issues, educational opportunities, and essential connections between the community and schools.
Case Study: TRY for the Environment
So what might this look like in the classroom? A key example is the Teens Reaching Youth program developed and offered by Lauren Traister, the 4-H Teen & Leadership Program Coordinator for the aforementioned University of Vermont Extension based in Morrisville, Vermont. Our conversation in the last PLP Pathways webinar touched on many of the critical benefits that organizations can provide for students.
In the case of the TRY program, interested students first go through a fairly rigorous application process. If accepted, they receive a full day of training and education about the requirements for project completion. Once trained, teams of students are responsible for finding partner classrooms of elementary students. The TRY team then provides those elementary classrooms with 6-8 weeks of educational lessons based on one of five sustainability topics.
Our team has had students in the TRY program for the past 5 years and the experience has been outstanding. Students utilize personal responsibility, time management, collaboration and communication skills to achieve success. Afterwards, they are evaluated by the cooperating teacher and receive critical feedback on their performance. This type of real-world educational experience is a dynamic flexible pathway/learning opportunity that would not be possible without essential community partnerships. Moreover, by bringing the opportunity into the classroom, we are able to give a wider range of students the chance to participate.
A key component that is critical for the success of flexible pathways is the use of proficiency-based learning and assessment. When teachers can clearly define levels of proficiency and the criteria to meet those proficiencies, students can provide a wide range of evidence that demonstrates their success. Rather than tied to specific, curriculum related activities, proficiencies allow students to meet proficiencies through a variety of activities that, in the case of flexible pathways, may be dependent on their experience rather than one directed by teachers. For example, students in the TRY program, striving to meet standards for speaking and listening, can upload video of participant led class discussions from their TRY experience as evidence of their meeting the proficiency. Teachers and districts set the criteria, but the flexible pathways opportunities allow students to meet those proficiencies in a wide range of relevant, engaging and rigorous learning opportunities.
A second key component that makes flexible pathways successful is the existence of a strong PLP program. As students move into a variety of flexible pathway learning activities, the PLP serves as a platform to collect evidence of growth and learning, to connect the flexible pathways experience to key curriculum standards and skills, to set goals, and for students to reflect on their progress. Mastery of proficiencies can be demonstrated through the documentation and collection of evidence related to the flexible pathways experience. Without the PLP, tracking student growth and learning can be more challenging. Finally, the PLP also allows for a wide range of proficiency-based evidence to be included in the student’s body of work. Photographs, videos, testimonials from community partners and similar evidence can be integrated into the PLP in order to demonstrate student proficiency.
Developing relationships with community partners, engaging those partners within the classroom, and using proficiencies and PLPs to collect evidence of student growth and learning combine to establish flexible pathways as a powerful and innovative educational opportunity. Vermont has a bountiful selection of outstanding organizations willing to partner with students, teachers, and schools to make learning real, relevant, and applicable to our young people. Moving forward, consider developing the community partnerships and flexible pathways that will provide students with equitable, rigorous, and meaningful learning opportunities.
"Flexible Pathways | Agency Of Education." Education.vermont.gov. N. p., 2018. Web. 11 Mar. 2018.