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.
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.