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.