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.  

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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.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Building a Learning Community

Over the next few weeks, we'll be featuring teachers throughout Vermont as they implement personal learning in their classrooms. Today's post is by Don Taylor of Main Street Middle School in Montpelier.

Across the state, teachers and students have spent the first few days of school establishing norms, getting to know their new students and creating positive learning communities. Working with the guidelines provided by Act 77, educators are venturing into new territory on three fronts: personalized learning, proficiency-based learning, and flexible pathways. The Middle Grades Collaborative and Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education have created a model for understanding these pillars of personalized learning in support of educators and students (see graphic).
Courtesy of the Middle Grades Collaborative

Team Summit at Main Street Middle School in Montpelier has focused the first few days of school developing scaffolded instruction aligned with the Personal Learning Framework. Students entering the Team Summit learning environment spent time framing their identity as individuals, students, and citizens (in real time and in the digital world) of the Team Summit community. This initial brainstorming will serve as the basis for the Identity section of student personal learning plans.

In a new development, Summit students were then asked to translate Vermont’s transferable skills into student-friendly language. Students ranked the skills in order of importance and in small groups, identified the ten most important behaviors reflected in those standards. Subsequently, students will vote on the top ten transferable skills and dispositions required for success on Team Summit. Those student-selected dispositions will then become our Team Summit Constitution.

As students continue to work through the Identity stage of the Personal Learning Framework, their understanding of the transferable skills will help them to develop initial goals. This scaffolding will allow us to begin the Growth and Reflection phase earlier than in years past. Additionally, working with the transferable skills in kid-friendly language facilitates the use of common language that can be used across personal and proficiency-based learning.

Student translation of transferable skills
Furthermore, by incorporating elements of personal learning and the PLP into the development of the learning community, teachers and students can begin building relationships based on student strengths, challenges, and goals. Building these relationships early can be a key factor in student and team success.