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.

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Second Pillar: Proficiency Based Learning

Today's blog is from PLP Pathways contributor Kevin Hunt. Kevin teaches grades 5 - 8 on the Swift House at Williston Central School. He can be reached @kmphunt22 on Twitter.

Recently, at a faculty meeting, the topic of discussion was proficiency based learning. We watched a comprehensive video called “What’s the Deal with Proficiency Based Learning” and chatted with colleagues about some of the big take- aways and implications for our teaching.

While I was listening to the conversation, I couldn’t help but to think about our last PLP Pathways webinar and the discussion we had about proficiencies and their place within the PLP structure. Between the video and insights I heard from my colleagues, four main points of connection stood out: growth mindset, evidence of work toward mastery, personalization, and transferable skills.

Growth Mindset

Proficiency, as it is explained in the video, is a combination of knowledge and skill. In order to demonstrate that you are proficient at something, you need to know and understand the various details associated with that activity, and you need to demonstrate that knowledge and understanding by applying it to a specific task.

Becoming proficient takes practice and assumes that mistakes are going to be made before mastery is reached. Take riding a bike for an example. You can learn about where the pedals are, how the gears work, how to apply the brake, understand where and when you should be biking...and so on.

When you go to actually apply that knowledge the first time, you may wobble around and even fall over. That doesn’t mean you stop, but rather keep practicing and build from your mistakes until you become proficient. The belief that you can achieve something with practice and learn grow from mistakes is at the core of having a growth mindset.

When we encourage students to practice and we put more emphasis on communicating their growth toward a proficiency versus giving them a score on their progress, we are building a culture that is grounded in growth mindset. Imagine getting a grade when you were first learning to ride a bike. Every time you fell off, D, F...would you continue to get up and try?

Evidence Based

Another shift that we have seen across the state is the development of the PLP and the structures around creating PLPs. Many schools have been using tools such as Google Sites and Protean as a medium for the PLP. This portfolio model allows students to create goals, provide evidence of growth, and reflect on their progress, all on the same platform.

As the video linked above says, “grading does not tell the whole story,” but rather various pieces of evidence linked to a skill, target, or standard will give you a wholesome look at a student’s progress towards mastery.

On Swift House, we have students create a goal for each of the transferable skill categories and collect evidence of growth on these goals throughout the trimester. We ask that students find at least four pieces of evidence for each goal and indicate how the evidence connects to their goals. This ongoing collection of evidence allows students to not only see their progress, but it also reminds them that this process isn’t all or nothing.

It is okay to fail and make mistakes along the way. They aren’t being assessed based on an average of grades they receive; instead they are compiling evidence from various work or activities they have done, inside or outside of school, that shows they are putting the effort in and working toward achieving a goal. This model is directly related to academic proficiencies in the classroom. We use formative assessments as communication of their work toward a learning target throughout a unit and students are able to see their growth and learn from their mistakes as they work toward proficiency.


The end goal of proficiency is to demonstrate mastery. This is definitely a big shift for many educators as there needs to be a level of flexibility with student work and how they are demonstrating mastery. Students will have the ability to use various digital media, communication, and visual evidence to show they understand and have knowledge of the content. Unless you are specifically assessing the medium, such as writing, there is no longer a requirement for a standard essay or multiple choice quiz. That’s not to say these can’t be options, but if the end goal is for students to demonstrate mastery, then there needs to be flexibility and choice for the students to do just that.

Transferable Skills

In one of the last segments of the proficiency based learning videos, they discuss the link to transferable skills and how colleges are using proficiencies to evaluate prospective students. These transferable skills are often at the core of schools proficiency based grade requirements (PBGRs) and include: communication, creative and practical problem solving, integrative thinking, self-direction, and citizenship. These skills are present inside and outside of the classroom and the development of these skills will assist students throughout their lives.

One worry for many families, especially at the high school level, is how the move to proficiency based learning will affect their college enrollment. The fact of the matter is many colleges have been looking at proficiency-based reports for some years. Having a proficiency based report will not undermine your chances of  getting into a college, but rather it will show the college or university the various content and skills that you have become proficient in. The colleges and universities will be able to see specific mastery for a variety of content, rather than an arbitrary grade.

As we all continue this transition to proficiency based learning, it is so important to realize that there is a network of educators who are going through the same transitions. We should continue to learn from and collaborate with each other as we embrace this shift. Even having a face to face discussion with colleagues at a faculty meeting, whom I don't regularly get to see, was so valuable in that we were able to have a conversation about worries and concerns and brainstorm different solutions and ideas together. I strongly believe that this work, at the core, is going to have a drastic and positive effect on student learning and engagement.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Personalization, Proficiencies and Flexible Pathways: Through the Lens of Education for Sustainability (EFS)

This post is from PLP Pathways contributor Lindsey Halman, teacher and founder of The Edge Academy, Essex Middle School.

What if it was possible to unite Vermont schools around the mission of creating sustainable futures for its youth, its community, the global population beyond our local and national borders, and the planet? Envision a community engaged in learning beyond conventional school hours and walls, committed to creating a socially and economically just and sustainable society.

Education for sustainability (EFS), along with the tenets of Act 77,  lends itself to learning with deep meaning embedded in it so that youth, and their adult partners, care about making change for the better. A sustainable future depends on humans figuring out how to live with one another, themselves, and the planet in a more sustainable way. Youth need access to a practice with these ideas from a very young age. What better way to practice and to develop a sense of meaning or purpose in schools than working toward answers to local and global issues, while expanding the network of youth working toward solutions toward these issue and concerns.

On September 21, 2016, partners from around the state gathered at the Coach Barn at Shelburne Farms to begin formulating questions together that will guide a year of exploration. Together, the hope is to cultivate authentic youth-adult partnerships engaged in learning toward a sustainable future. The vision for this work is for it to continue as ongoing, annually so that schools can work beyond their walls and youth can practice proficiencies in multiple settings, with diverse audiences, with real world problems driving their learning. Now is the time to leverage the excitement and focus on the opportunities personalized learning and flexible pathways provide in our communities.

This is how Cultivating Pathways to Sustainability came about and the following blog post captures the essence of this work:
Shelburne Farms Blog Post

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Change Is In The Air

Maura Kelly is a humanities teacher at Peoples Academy Middle Level in Morrisville, Vermont and co-director of PLP Pathways. She has a passion for working with young adolescents and believes in the power of a strong middle level program in developing students to be ready to face the challenges in our world today. When Maura is not teaching you can find her out skiing and biking around the state of Vermont.

Here at Peoples Academy Middle Level, as the air is becoming more cool and crisp, leaves are not the only changes that we are noticing around our school. This year the theme of our work is “practice and play” within the context of personalized learning and a proficiency based system.

We have undergone major systematic changes within our school since last year to shift towards a model we hope will allow us to reflect the three pillars of personalized learning. PAML has moved from being configured with four straight grade teams to multi-age teams where teachers will loop with students to developing stronger relationships with our students and families. We also now have Teacher Advisory everyday using the Developmental Designs Circle of Power and Respect to start out day followed by a 25 minute Academic Time every morning. This Academic Time or AT is where students can be scheduled to meet with teachers across the building based on individual needs. We are also using a web based scheduling program called Enriching Students, where we can schedule students for extra support or expansion within a content area to help our show mastery within a proficiency based learning context.

Another exciting change is the development of what we are calling Opportunity Time at the end of the every day. This is a 40 minute block where students collaborate with academic advisors to work on personal goals and projects based around our negotiated curriculum theme. The hope is this time develops into true personalized learning for all students in grades 5-8. Despite all of these changes, some things have remained the same, the importance of building a strong team identity, fostering a positive school culture and building relationships with our students. I want to highlight a few things that we have done with our students at the start of the year that help to build these youth adult partnerships.

It Begins Day One

We knew going into the start of this school year we wanted one of our key focuses to be students forming relationships within our house and developing a strong culture. This started the very first day of school starting our morning with the Circle of Power and Respect or C.P.R. building relationships, sharing, and having fun with our students. In the afternoon on the first day of school we took all of our students out onto our expansive nature tail and asked each student to find a rock that spoke to them. One that made them stop and think and one that they could carry with them.

Once back in the classroom we had all students come up with a brainstorm list of characteristics and scholarly habits that would help them to be successful this year. We then gave students the prompt: “This year I want to (be)...” and think about one characteristic or trait that they could have as a focus this school year and write it on their rock.

Finally we went around the circle in our TA and had every student share out that characteristic or trait they wanted to work on and have the collection of rocks in our classroom. It is a nice reminder to have students go back and take their rock out of our collection and carry it with them for the day as a reminder of what they are working on.

Every Team Needs a Name: Our is Apollo!

As we have restructured it gave us the unique opportunity to partner with students to create name our new teams. As a school we had thoughts that it could have been much easier for the office, families and the teachers if we had simply assigned names to the teams over the summer and crossed that item off the list. However, we recognized that for many of our students, after their grade being split between houses and possibly looping with some of the teachers from the previous year, they needed to feel some ownership and belonging to this newly assigned team so we gave the important task of naming the teams to the students. To have a small amount of continuity across the school we decided that names should fall under the theme of adventure and travel.  

Within our team we had students individually brainstorm a list of names that they liked that they felt fit under this theme. Next, we had students work in groups and negotiate with each other on what theme they felt would best represent the culture of our team with the understanding that these names will stay in the school even after they have moved on from PAML. Once student groups settled on a name, we had them create a logo for their name and create a pitch for the other students on team.

In order to make a final selection each TA had their students give their pitches and vote on the name that they felt best identified the culture of our team. Finally, during one of our weekly team town meetings with all of the students on our team, we had the names from the three TAs give their pitches to the whole team, explaining to students why we should choose their team name idea and how it helped to define our team culture.

On our team we had many really strong name ideas, however in the end the students selected Apollo to be our new team name.

Looking Ahead to Personalization

Looking back over the past month of school there are so many changes that as a school we have been trying to navigate with our students. I feel that we have worked hard to incorporate voice and choice into the decisions that we can make with our students and have been partnering with them as we are all on this journey together.

We have rolled out our PLP for the year starting with our identity work. We have has students working on a personal expression project and a bio poem that will be showcased on their “Who Am I?” page of their portfolio. I have really been making an effort to talk with students and get feedback on what they felt went well last year and changes that they would like to make with their PLPs.

Looking ahead we have also started our work using the Negotiated Curriculum Framework that is also used at the Edge Academy. Last year, after being inspired by the work at The Edge, we used this framework for the first time and found it to be the best part of the year for both teachers and students. When talking with students about their PLPs, our theme work from last year kept  coming up again and again regarding what students want their portfolios to be about. I am excited to partner with students in the development of our negotiated curriculum theme over the next few weeks and watch the changes of this year unfold.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

PLPs in the 9th Grade

This week we will be featuring a post authored by Alison Gauthier, a PLP Pathways contributing author, participating PLP Pathways webinar moderator,  and Science teacher at U-32 Middle and High School in East Montpelier.

Here at U-32 Middle and High School in East Montpelier, I feel that I started this new academic year as an extension from last year. In the spring of 2015, the Administrative Team asked for volunteers to form a Ninth Grade Team of Teachers (Social Studies, Math, Science and English) who would model Proficiency-Based Learning (PBL) as our incoming Class of 2020-ers graduate from 8th grade. As a team, we met several times in the summer to discuss consistencies across the core subjects as well as wrap our minds around PBL. I feel that we hold a responsibility as a team for rolling-out PBL effectively and being flexible to shifting mindsets in education. For Science, the two of us worked EXTENSIVELY to put our best foot forward in terms of what PBL should look like for Science and how we can differentiate process and product for our learners.

Three weeks into the academic year, I will honestly admit that personalization has not been on the forefront. There is a high level of anxiety (among teachers, learners and parents alike) related to PBL, and I feel that we need to put out PBL “fires” before being able to personalize instruction. That seems contrary, I admit, to the mission of PLP Pathways and personalization taking the forefront from which PBL can be achieved. But this is where we are as a school and community. As of Thursday, September 15th, our ninth grade learners have the PLP/SLO Portfolio site on their chromebooks. This site is a place to hold their Personalized Learning Plans as well as the artifacts they collect related to the Student Learning Outcomes (Content Standards and Transferable Skills they will need to demonstrate proficiency in in order to earn their HS diploma). The mission for the next few weeks is to work as a team to help learners document their IDENTITY through their interests, needs, strengths, learning styles, and values.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Personalization, proficiencies, flexible pathways - the Three Pillars!

This week we will be featuring a post authored by Lindsey Halman, a PLP Pathways contributing author, participating PLP Pathways webinar moderator,  teacher, and founder of The Edge Academy, Essex Middle School.

Personalization, proficiencies, flexible pathways - the Three Pillars!  

As another school year launches, I am reminded of how truly fortunate we are to be educators in VT. I am also reminded that in order to create a learning environment that supports the Three Pillars, we must spend time intentionally creating community, building relationships and creating the norms that will allow all learners to thrive in this world of Act 77.  

Creating Community. What is place?  

This was the question that launched our year together on the Edge Academy Team at Essex Middle School.  As our 7th and 8th grade learners worked to define this word, they came to realize that place is much more than the physical space.  It’s mostly about our relationships - with one another, with ourself and with the space itself.  Learners identified that when they think of place, they feel safe, supported and respected for their individuality.  We wanted to ensure that the learners on our team understood that “school” is not a physical space, but rather, learning can occur anywhere as long as one feels supported to ask questions and take creative risks.  With this in mind, we spent a large portion of our first day back at Essex Middle School outdoors and unplugged.  In small groups, we explored the ideas of diversity and perspective using a hula hoop outside on a field.  Careful observations were taken of everything found within the hula hoop.  We also asked learners to imagine what they would see if they dug one foot down and how their observations would change.  These observations were shared around a fire, as we discussed the ideas of diversity and perspective.  Marshmallows were roasted as we reflected on what kind of community we wanted to create this year.  Further activities on observation, perspective and diversity connected us to the book Zoom by Istvan Banyai.  This is a fantastic book to use for a variety of lessons on perspective!

Building Relationships.

Each morning, we meet as an advisory in our Circle of Power and Respect (CPR).  This is a given, every day you will walk into your advisory and the circle will always be there to start your day.  We use our (CPR) as a way to connect with one another, share, learn and strengthen our community.   Each learner found an object in nature that had some qualities that represented who they are as an individual.  

“There are three sides to every story: yours, theirs, and the truth.” - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This object and the qualities were shared during our circle and a mobile, or centerpiece for our circle, was created with all of our individual objects.  The mobile is an important part of our CPR. It represents everyone in the circle as individuals and together, the power of our community.  It also serves as a place for focus for students when conversations become tough.   

Sharing Stories, Sharing Pancakes?

During the first month of school we focus intensely on exploring our identity.  We began our exploration of self by watching a TEDTalk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on how she “found her authentic cultural voice. [She] warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding”.  This important message was enjoyed while eating homemade pancakes and our very own Edge Team maple syrup that we produced last spring in our sugarhouse.  This is one way to highlight past projects and the dynamics of our project-based learning model on our team.  

There are so many layers to our identities and in stories, we see ourselves, learn about our world and learn how to make our way in it.  Learners crafted the story of their names, as well as created identity maps.   We also have begun to explore the art of interviewing and listening.  Learners have been conducting interviews to capture the stories of September 11, 2001, from a trusted adult.  Through these experiences, they are developing the critical skills that will be necessary for their project work this year.  

Pushing Personalization Further.

This year the students on the Edge Team, as well as other students at Essex Middle School will pilot Protean as our platform for their PLP.  We are excited to explore the potential of this dynamic platform.  Learners will use Protean to share who they are, what their goals are, and demonstrate proficiency with the Transferrable Skills in a truly personalized manner.  Within both traditional groups (classes) and non-traditional groups, learners will track their progress toward proficiency, document their learning and reflect on it.  We will share more as the year unfolds, but currently, learners have created their avatars and have started to create their bios and tag their passions.  

Screen Shot 2016-09-20 at 6.29.19 PM.png

Self Questions.jpgFlexible Pathways: Start with the questions!   We are always excited to try something new to push our work with our young adolescents further.  But, one thing that always remains at the heart of our team is our Negotiated Curriculum process.  Learners have been working on developing questions/concerns they have about themselves and the world.  In small groups, they are seeking commonalities and from there, extracting a possible theme for the year.  This year we will add a further dimension to our project work and challenge our learners to link their theme and their projects to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Getting the Ball Rolling with Personalization and Proficiencies

This week we will be featuring a post authored by Kevin Hunt, a PLP Pathways contributing author, participating PLP Pathways webinar moderator,  and teacher in the Swift House, Williston Central School.

The school year is officially under way and we are in full swing! As in previous years, Swift House has front loaded the beginning of the school year with team building and identity work for our PLPs. Our new 5th grade students on our 5th-8th grade team have already done some great thinking about who they are as learners. We established five transferable skill goals with each of our new students and they had an opportunity to ask questions and receive some insider tips from their 7th and 8th grade mentors during our annual mentor/mentee breakfast before the start of the school year. It always strikes me how poised and articulate 7th and 8th graders can be when I hear them explain some of the finer nuances of our various systems on Swift House.

Identity work

The first few school days are loaded with cooperative games, ice breakers, and personal reflection. Between all of the chaos of seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and figuring out where the next class will be, we ask our students to take some time and reflect on who they are. We try to create a new activity for this every year to help engage all of our students. This year, we decided to create “Swiftagram” pages, since so many of our students are familiar--and somewhat obsessed-- with Instagram. We like to keep this first activity light and enjoyable. This is an opportunity for our students to think about the things that make them special and unique and also start exploring what they are most excited about for the coming school year.

We do our best to make sure all of our work has meaning, is relevant, and can help inform future decisions. The Swiftagram pages act as an informal gateway for our students to begin their identity work in our PLP framework. What may seem like a fun and somewhat trivial assignment of drawing pictures of things you like and commenting on what excites you about school, is actually an assignment that carries a great deal of weight; these middle school students begin to recognize and think about who they are as unique individuals and as learners. This work typically excites students and we harness this excitement for personalization as we move forward in the school year.

There is a seamless transition from the informal identity work of  Swiftagram pages to the work that ultimately is uploaded to the identity section of the PLP. We ask that students create a brief autobiography for their identity page. We present this work as a core (our lingo for homeroom) journal. We are intentional in instructing students to present this information in a format of their choosing. We’ve found that limiting students to a specific medium such as writing has a detrimental impact on their ability to produce a meaningful autobiography. There are so many tools and resources with technology that allow all students to let their voices be heard. We try to access and utilize these to create personalized opportunities whenever we can.


Communication and transparency are key ingredients for a good start to any school year. As educators, we commit hours over the summer and during professional development days to learn about and gain mastery in the newest initiatives that our state and districts have to offer. Now that ACT 77 is in full swing, the focus in our district has centered around proficiency based learning (PBL) and the nuts and bolts that come with it: assessment, reporting, and implementation. The teachers have gained insight and tools to ready themselves for the start of the school year. The next piece of this puzzle is to communicate this learning--and in some cases, paradigm shift--with parents and community members.

Swift House is in an interesting situation as it has been using a version of proficiency-based learning for some twenty-five years. We  started our school year with a similar approach to what we have done in the past: summer mailing  to new 5th grade families and returning 6th-8th grade families, hopes and dreams conferences, mentor/mentee breakfast, team building, and identity work for our PLPs. Since our returning students have already been exposed to our system with proficiencies and PLPs, we utilize this time before the start of the school year to not only make our new 5th grade students feel welcome, but also inform them and their families about our process.

During our hopes and dreams conferences, parents and students are asked to bring in a student profile sheet that we sent out in our summer mailing. This profile sheet outlines the student’s strengths and challenges within various transferable skills categories and most importantly, provides insight about the student’s likes, dislikes, hobbies, and interests. This is an important part of our process as the student is given a voice and opportunity to advocate for him or herself from the very first conference, which helps later on in the year with our student-led conferences. We use this opportunity to learn about the whole student and also engage them with the goal setting process, while introducing them to the transferable skills. We work together as a PLP team (student, teacher, guardian) to create meaningful goals for each of the transferable skill categories. This is often the time when parents will ask about our grading policies as well. We’ve found that taking the time in this first conference to talk face-to-face and explain our philosophy around proficiency-based learning has had a profound impact on how the rest of the year (and subsequent years) will go. Once parents and students are introduced to our system from that first meeting and understand our expectation and teaching philosophy, there are seldom any questions or complaints to follow.

Since our entire district has completely moved to PBL, there has been a greater volume of information going home to all parents about the shift, which in turn has brought up more questions about PBL than we have had in the past. Though we haven’t had to make any philosophical changes to our practice on Swift House, it has provided an opportunity for us to take a step back and reflect on not only how we are using PBL, but why we do it. On a professional level, this has also become inspiring work to both share with other educators and learn what others think about PBL and how they are implementing it. Just recently, we adopted a ‘crash course to PBL’ document that was created by a group of progressive teachers in Shelburne Community School. As the Swift House teachers revised the original document to fit our team, it sparked thoughtful and productive conversation amongst us, especially regarding communication and transparency with parents.

As the state continues to shift towards proficiency based grade requirements, it is so important that we are being as open with communication as we can with parents. Though there can be a sense of dissonance between this work and the traditional system that so many are used to, it’s important to keep in mind that payoff that this has for student learning and investment.