Saturday, February 10, 2018

Our Work is Worth It!

Today’s post is brought to you by Kevin Hunt, middle level generalist at
Williston Central School and PLP Pathways contributor.

It seems  whenever there is a paradigm shift in education it is always accompanied by the response “give it a few years and this will pass too.” I haven’t been in the field long enough to confirm this, but I have been in plenty of meetings and have attended several conferences where I’ve heard veteran teachers mutter these disparaging words. I’ve always done my best to remain optimistic and look at change in education as something exciting and refreshing, but at the same time, I often try to empathize with those with decades more experience than I have and think to myself, would I be saying this too if I’ve lived through so much change that felt meaningless?

I’ve recently been reflecting on this and thinking about what an appropriate response would be to those who are skeptical about personalization, PLPs, negotiated curriculum etc.  I believe it’s important to stop and think about why we make the changes we make, and when we are hearing those uncertain voices, how do we remain positive, and where do we start? It’s not always easy going against the grain, and it’s even harder when you feel like you are alone in embracing change. One of the most common questions I hear from educators around the state is “How do I start?” The buzz around Act 77, PLPs, personalization, PIPs, negotiated curriculum, PBL-- and every other acronym that is trending right now-- can seem foreboding and overwhelming, but if we are doing these things for the right reasons, the payoff (in the form of student engagement and love for learning) is completely worth it.

In addressing the ‘how do I start’ question, I began to look at Swift House’s structure and its beginnings over 25 years ago. I found that when a paradigm shift happens for the right reasons, with students’ best interests at its core, then it will not merely go away over years, but rather evolve into a system that best serves the learner.

I unearthed some of the original documents from Swift House’s inaugural year and in reading these documents, I felt as though I was like looking into the past and seeing the present. So many of the ideas, compromises, and non-negotiables that Swift’s founding members decided on over 25 years ago still ring absolutely true to this day and show how a student-centered culture can be sustained.

Here is a link to the meeting notes from 1990, which outlines the teachers’ visions, philosophies, non-negotiables from creating this type of learning environment; along with noting ideas about goal setting, student-led conferences, project based learning, and negotiated curriculum. These ideas that started Swift House are still at its foundation today.

Julie Longchamp, one of the original Swift House facilitators,  recently conducted a survey of former Swift students who are now all out of college. Here are some things they had to say about their experiences on Swift and the lasting impact it left on their lives:

“Lastly, I remember reflection time. I had hated writing and grammar rules, and Bernie gave me the freedom to write however I'd like in my reflections. I've loved writing since then.”

“The most outstanding element of Swift House was placing the majority of the responsibility on the students. We were treated as adults; we needed to take projects and complete them as products of our personal investment.... In this manner, we were able to start creating and identifying learning habits before we got to high school... The mentality of respecting kids as adult individuals is the reason for this beneficial quality.”

“This was crucial for my success. I didn't believe in grades, and still do not. I never got any satisfaction from grades, nor did I understand what they meant. The personal plan gave me specific things to work on, and then give feedback on how I had been performing. It was a very positive experience. I think it was crucial that the parents accepted the personal plan however, else I think I may have had a different opinion of it.”

“This was way ahead of its time and it was good preparation for performance reviews at work and planning projects in general. I wish high school and college had used this type of evaluation that allowed each student to have his/her tailored goals reflective of his/her challenges and strengths. And I knew what a "scholar" meant versus "novice" because it was clearly explained, unlike an "A" versus "D" grade.”

In closing, if you are in a position of trying to figure out how to start or where to begin, the worst thing you can do is nothing at all. Start small and establish your own non-negotiables and philosophies. Think of the students first and don’t be afraid to try something new! Encourage colleagues to take part and push one another’s ideas. Be okay with failure and make adjustments whenever you can. Include students in the process- get feedback and ideas from them and try them out!

It’s okay to go against the grain and not side with the loud and intimidating voices, as long as what you are doing will truly benefit students. We owe it to them to give it our all, even if it requires changing our own philosophies or practices. The structure that the founding Swift House members made in 1991 is evidence that the work we do today will not go unnoticed or be wasted if we are doing it for the right reasons and are willing to stay the course.

“The glue that kept the Swift House system from falling apart was how much the teachers cared about and believe in the system. Their passion for teaching was never lost on us Swifties. We fed off it, were inspired by it, and are undoubtedly better people today because of it.

Thank you, Julie, Gary, Al, and Bernie, for being a part of my formative years.” -Sam 1996 Swift House graduate

Friday, February 2, 2018

Middle Grades Conference Highlights Excellence in Practice

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.

On January 27th the Middle Grades Collaborative hosted the 11th annual Middle Grades Conference at the University of Vermont. Educators from across the state, many who had attended the June 2017 Middle Grades Institute at Champlain College, reconvened to share their teacher action research which they conducted during the past fall semester in their classrooms and schools.

Throughout the day, educators presented their work, findings, data, and implications for middle level practice. The pedagogical expertise and collaborative discussions on display were stunning. From my point of view and those I talked with, the overall quality of presentations was superb. Teachers and students (yes, students presented too) from all corners of the state demonstrated why Vermont is such an innovative and forward-thinking educational community. A sampling of projects included: building reading engagement through personalized skill development; integrating ethnography to document change in the Mad River Valley, and developing instructional supports for elementary students moving into a more personalized learning environment. The research, leadership, and dedication demonstrated by these teachers was deeply inspiring. At this time of year, when educators tend to burrow more deeply in their classrooms and experience the “grind”, the Middle Grades Conference was particularly motivating.

In addition to presentations, the Middle Grades Collaborative used a discussion protocol to gather educator and student feedback on how the policy document Middle School is Not a Building could be adapted for today’s changing landscape. Again, these discussions revealed the deep commitment to middle level education that occurs throughout Vermont’s schools and communities.

In closing, we’d like to recognize the Middle Grades Collaborative for their continued support of this outstanding work, the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education as a major factor in the evolution of technology and innovation in education, and Erin Wertlieb of the University of Vermont for her strategic management of the conference. For those educators seeking to participate in Middle Grades Collaborative work, check out the Middle Grades Institute.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Building Learning Relationships through Goals, Feedback and Reflection

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.

In our last blog entry, we discussed a variety of opportunities to personalize learning communities through reflection and feedback, goal-setting, and the use of personal learning plans. In particular we addressed the idea that the incorporation of feedback and reflection into existing learning opportunities can help teachers develop a better sense of student understanding and learning  dispositions. We wrote:

By employing Google Forms, Blogger, Kahoot surveys, or simply asking for student feedback on exit tickets, teachers can monitor student growth and learning. More importantly, through the development of thoughtful reflection prompts and activities, teachers can help students develop the skills necessary to monitor and evaluate their own learning. To take reflection one step further, teachers can use reflection or feedback data as discussion points for curriculum modification, to build classroom norms, and to promote democratic decision making.

Since writing this, I’ve been thinking more deeply about how teachers might consider integrating these exercises into real-time learning opportunities in order to build stronger relationships with students and to provide more effective instruction.

Integrated Goals and Reflection

Just as we monitor student understanding through the use of formative assessments, exit tickets, and reflections, teachers may also want to consider integrating student-goal setting and reflection on a daily basis within the learning context. Through the monitoring of this goal setting and reflection, teachers can use the acquired information to directly support students in real time and through that process, build stronger collaborative relationships with students.

For example, students in my classroom are currently working on collaborative projects that require a wide range of literacy and transferable skills. At the beginning of the project, students reviewed the standards for proficiency in writing, collaboration, and habits of learning. Students were asked to set short-term, project-based goals based on those proficiencies. Every few days throughout the project, students monitor their project-based goals and then spend a few minutes reflecting on their performance at the conclusion of learning activities.

In the adjacent example, you can see the proficiency rubric designed in collaboration with students.

As students move through the learning activities, they self-identify areas of proficiency, skills that need work, and areas of success. For example, this student identified two specific areas of proficiency (highlighted in yellow).

They then commented on how they exceeded the proficiency standard. This process can lead to rich learning experiences that are extremely beneficial for developing teaching practices. In particular, this practice can feed into reflection activities, goal-setting, and the collection of evidence for the student’s personal learning plans.

As the instructor, I visit with students, discuss their project-based goals using the PLP platform,  and discuss the self-evaluation process. More importantly, I can use this information to review and develop educational supports I can provide to help them reach proficiencies. These discussions may evolve into brief mini-lessons with small groups or, as happened earlier this week, large group instruction to review critical literacy skills.

The essential understanding is that by having kids set short term goals within the learning activities or unit, reflecting on their performance, and through informal teacher monitoring, teachers can develop a more granular understanding of student needs and dispositions. Essentially, reviewing student progress towards goals informs my teaching practice which subsequently leads directly to the introduction or modification of learning activities that lead students to proficiency and creates stronger learning relationships.

When students recognize and realize that their goal-setting, reflection, and feedback is helping to shape the learning community, it is my experience that they become more active and engaged participants in the learning community.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Elements of Personalization -- Moving Step by Step

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.

Personalized learning can be a nebulous term with all sorts of connotations. Teachers, schools, and learning communities often have different ideas regarding the concepts, implementation, and desired outcomes for personalization and personalized learning.

For the sake of today’s post, let’s adopt the Vermont Agency of Education’s definition: “Personalization is “a learning process in which schools help students assess their own talents and aspirations, plan a pathway toward their own purposes, work cooperatively with others in challenging tasks, maintain a record of explorations, and demonstrate their learning against clear standards in a wide variety of media, all with the close support of adult mentors and guides.” (National Association of Secondary School Principals)¹

As with so many initiatives, personalized learning can be overwhelming for today’s educator. How can teachers start with small, manageable, activities that build personalized learning into their learning environment? Here are four suggestions that are easy to implement, relatively low-risk, and can build student engagement and self-direction.

Students Assess Their Own Talents = Regular Reflection

Incorporating regular student-reflection into existing curriculum activities can be an invaluable source of student feedback, curriculum development, and an essential building block for developing strong relationships in the classroom.

By employing Google Forms, Blogger, Kahoot surveys, or simply asking for student feedback on exit tickets, teachers can monitor student growth and learning. More importantly, through the development of thoughtful reflection prompts and activities, teachers can help students develop the skills necessary to monitor and evaluate their own learning.

Including reflection activities as a regular classroom feature can also help teachers monitor the learning dispositions of individual students and the learning community as a whole. To take reflection one step further, teachers can use reflection or feedback data as discussion points for curriculum modification, to build classroom norms, and to promote democratic decision making.

Plan A Pathway Forward = Setting Goals

Whether they be single class session, weekly, or quarterly, encouraging students to set, monitor, and achieve goals is another straightforward strategy that adds personalization to the learning environment. Setting goals can be simple: ask students to make a list of the things they want to accomplish during the class period. Setting goals can also be complex: ask students to review their principles and values, the transferable skills, and their aspirations and set specific goals for the semester. Regardless of the scope, encouraging students to set goals on a regular basis can help students develop this valuable skill.

What’s most important about goals, according to students themselves, is that the goals be revisited regularly and that they be based on what’s important to the student. Intrinsic goals are the most powerful and when students see that those can be practiced in the classroom, they tend to be more engaged. Furthermore, as students are enabled and allowed to set goals independently, their learning experience, within the context of the classroom, becomes more personal.

Maintain A Record of Explorations = Personal Learning Plans

As Act 77 has matured, schools and districts have implemented personal learning plans into their programs. While these have taken a variety of forms and formats, the basic personal learning plan platform provides a golden opportunity for personalization. In order to keep track of student growth and learning, teachers and students can collaborate on the accumulation of evidence in the personal learning plan. This evidence can be used to set goals, self-assess progress, and as material for the development of reflective and metacognitive thinking. Depending on the platform, students can also begin designing and formatting their learning plan using concepts of graphic design and presentation that fits their aesthetic values. Again, the insertion of evidence into the personal learning plan or regularly scheduled time to work on the plan, can provide the opportunity for increased personalization in the classroom.

Demonstrate Their Learning in A Wide Variety of Media = Multiple Modes of Expression

With the infusion of technology into 21st century classrooms, teachers and students have access to a wide range of methods, applications, and platforms to demonstrate student learning. Giving students a choice of standards-based options to express their understanding can be another opportunity for personalization in the classroom. Podcasts, slideshows, screencasts, and online storyboard programs are all examples of media that students can use to demonstrate their understanding of class and curriculum concepts. These options can also foster the innovation, creativity, and skill-building that lead to a dynamic learning environment.


Integrating concepts of personalized learning into the classroom can be a progression that occurs incrementally. It’s important for teachers to understand that incorporating concepts of personalization does not mean the complete overhaul of educational programming. Instead, using these four activities, teachers can begin building a step-by-step foundation for personalized learning.

1. Personalized Learning | Agency of Education. (2017). Retrieved 15 November 2017,

Monday, October 23, 2017

This post is from PLP Pathways contributor Maura Wieler, Proficiency Based Learning and Technology Integration Coach at Lamoille South Supervisory Union.

A Smarter Take on Goal Setting?

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a conference called Grading Exceptional and Struggling Learners with Lee Ann Jung. If your school is in the process of transitioning to a proficiency-based grading and reporting system, chances are you have read an article or an excerpt from a book authored by Jung or her colleague Thomas Guskey.

Screen Shot 2017-10-23 at 9.13.30 PM.pngDuring her presentation she discussed a process to support struggling and exceptional learners through the development of a growth plan. The growth plan helps the student set goals and track progress towards meeting those goals using a process called goal-attainment scaling.  The focus of the presentation was around teacher created goals. However, my gears started turning when considering how to use this process with students to build their goals for the school year.

How does Goal-Attainment Scaling Work?

Goal attainment scaling is a method of tracking progress that was initially developed in the health field to track medical rehabilitation. It is now being used in special education to develop goals and communicate student progress towards meeting those learning growth  goals.

As Jung was talking about the process of special education case managers using this process to develop goals, I started to think about the power of using the structure of goal attainment scaling to empower students in the goal setting process. Goal-attainment scaling relies on the creation of a specific goal using the following format, very similar to a Mad Libs activity:

In [settings], I will [skill and behavior] [preposition], [acquisition criterion] [preposition] [fluency criterion]


In Language Arts and Social Studies class I will stay organized and write down my assignments every class with a strategy that works for me for a full week.

I would encourage a teacher to use language that students are familiar with to build a classroom specific goal setting sentence that would support the learners in their classroom. Once the student creates the goal, the next step is to  make their scale. The goal sits at the top of the scale.

In Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies class I will stay organized and write down my assignments every class with a strategy that works for me for a full week.

In Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies class I will stay organized and write down my assignments with a strategy that works for me three nights in a row.

In Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies class I will stay organized and write down my assignments with a strategy that works for me three nights in a row.

In Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies I will stay organized and write down my assignments for one night using an organizational strategy.

Baseline - this is where a student would describe what they can currently do.

The scale has four descriptive statements, with the ultimate goal at the top and then three statements underneath. The other criteria parts of the scale are left blank, allowing for more growth and reflection.

I could imagine students using emojis, instead of numbers at the “score” or create a 1-8 scale instead of half points. The key is that students would be identifying three steps describing what progress would look like between where they are currently performing and their goal.

I can also imagine a student drawing four images to capture the four performance levels between where they currently are and what it will look like when they achieve their goal.

How will these goals support student reflection?

Writing a student goal using a goal-attainment scale helps a student to visualize what progress would look like at four different steps in their growth. Students would match their reflection with what part of the scale they are currently performing, and then would be able to use a reflective tool to help communicate their next steps and supports that they need. The numerical side of the scale helps the student articulate their current stage and measure their progress.

It is also important in this process to honor that when we are building new skills, we will slide up and down the scale. It is common to make some growth, and then find that our progress may have regressed back down the scale. This is all a part of the process of working towards reaching goals.

My Students Already Set Goals, Are We Too Late?

For me, the process of goal attainment scaling has the potential for students to identify specific benchmarks for themselves as stepping stones to help identify progress and also develop a path towards meeting their goal. The piece around the scale helps a student to quickly identify and reflect on where they are in the process of reaching their goal in a clear and specific way.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Building Identity Units Through the Personal Learning Framework

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.

The school year is in full swing and as we build our learning communities, developing an understanding of student identity and their strengths and challenges is a critical step for educators.  Most middle schools around the state have structures that work towards these goals. Specifically, teacher’s advisory, multiage teaming, and personal learning plans are all tools that can help teachers understand individual student needs, Using this knowledge to develop strong relationships with students and families can pay long-term dividends in student engagement and achievement.

PLF.pngAnother tool that PLP Pathways has been using for the past several years is the Personal Learning Framework. Through the identification of specific stages in the student learning process, the framework can help teachers develop personalized learning activities that support positive relationships, identify key student dispositions, and inform the construction of curriculum that is relevant, engaging, and appropriate.

Personalized Learning Activities

The first six weeks of our program is built around the Identity phase of the Personal Learning Framework. Rather than have students read, write, and think about esoteric topics that might miss the mark, students are asked to evaluate their strengths and challenges, to identify principles and values as reflected through their positive relationships, and to closely observe both their immediate learning environment and cultural norms of the school and community.  

Teachers around the state have developed innovative activities that also integrate standards-based proficiencies into these activities. Samples of these lessons can be found here. The result is that teachers are gaining better insight into their students’ skill sets, leveraging that understanding into the development of strong student-teacher-family relationships, and having students post identity-based evidence onto their PLP.

The benefits of integrating proficiency-based learning activities into an identity unit is clear. Teachers gain a deep understanding of students often leading to positive relationships. Second, adolescents are engaged when activities focus on their needs, skills, and potential. Furthermore, by systematically planning identity activities, teachers can develop personalized curriculum that supports student growth and learning. As you move forward, consider using the Personal Learning Framework as a lens to develop curriculum and activities that enrich and focus your understanding of students into effective teaching practice.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Welcome to the 2017-2018 School Year!

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.

Welcome to the 2017 - 2018 edition of PLP Pathways! Many of us have spent the summer reflecting, rejuvenating, and recharging for the start of the new school year. A casual review of tweets, posts, and feeds indicates that many Vermont educators have set high expectations and professional goals for the year; PLP Pathways welcomes the opportunity to support you on those educational journeys.

For those not familiar with our organization, PLP Pathways is a teacher-led professional development community created to support the implementation of the three pillars of personalized learning (personal learning plans, proficiency-based assessment, and flexible pathways) and the development of innovative curriculum for Vermont.

Like many collaboratives across the state, we’re trying to build relationships across schools, communities, and organizations. The difference is that our program has been created by teachers for teachers. We’ve developed a variety of grassroots resources, activities, and media to help you stay up to speed with Act 77, to be in touch with other educators across the state, and to share your successes and challenges. You can follow us on Twitter, join or view our webinars on YouTube, or access relevant resources through our website. If you’ve got information or material that you think would help kids, teachers, and communities, let us know and we’ll spotlight those resources.

As an example of how we try to build connections across and between learning communities, we’d like to share work being done by UP for Learning. “The organization provides training, resource development, and on-going support for a wide variety of initiatives that develop opportunities for young people to assume meaningful roles in shaping their learning and their lives.” UP for Learning seeks to “...increase youth engagement by developing youth-adult partnerships in learning to ensure that each and every young person has the skills, self-confidence, and opportunities to assume meaningful roles in shaping their learning and their lives.”
Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 5.06.06 PM.png
This year, UP for Learning has created a resource for partnering with students around proficiency-based learning. “Stories on the Road to Proficiency” is a compendium of video options to help spark dialogue and further understanding about the implementation of proficiency-based learning. It validates that this work has both challenges and rightful moments of celebration. It also provides compelling testimony that the destination is well worth the effort.

In addition to the videos, UP for Learning has created a dialogue guide to help build partnerships with students around proficiency based learning. You can find all of this material on the UP for Learning website.

Over the course of the year, PLP Pathways will be featuring similar programs, educators, resources, and media that we hope supports your work implementing Act 77. We look forward to reconnecting with familiar faces, exploring new learning communities, and having a great 2017-2018 school year. Good luck with the opening days of school and keep in touch!