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.

Models

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.

Feedback

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.


Conclusions


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.

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