Monday, June 26, 2017

Power, Purpose, and Partnership @ the 2017 P2 Summit

This post was written by Tevye Kelman of UP for Learning and originally appeared on the Center for Collaborative Education blog. Posted with permission.

In a recent post on the Center for Collaborative Education blog, Diana Lebeaux argues that personalization doesn’t automatically equate to meaningful student-centered learning.  That requires giving young people real power to determine the course of their inquiry and to shape the structures and environments in which they learn through “critical thinking opportunities, a questioning of history, and processes by which to ensure equitable participation.”  Because student agency is essential to the success of school redesign, Lebeaux contends, “we must be brave enough, after we have facilitated learning as rigorously as possible, to let students dismantle the very systems on which we stand, if they so choose.”

This year’s Power Squared: Youth and Adults Shaping Vermont Education Together (P2  for short) Summit at the Lake Morey Inn in Fairlee, Vermont offered a vision, or rather several visions, of agency in practice.  The conference—hosted by UP for Learning, Shelburne Farms, Partnership for Change, Big Picture Learning and the School Project Foundation, with support from the Bay & Paul Foundations-- brought student-adult teams from sixteen Vermont schools to talk, and showcase, student agency.

In her opening remarks, conference co-facilitator Clara Lew-Smith, a junior at Hazen Union High School, defined agency as “the ability to make intentional choices about and take an active role in the course of one’s life and on behalf of the lives of others” and suggested it has three key ingredients.

Personal power,” she said, is “your belief in your own ability to shape your life with intention and have control over the direction.  Partnership is multiple people taking that power and bringing it together, collaborating and deciding on mutual goals and directions, leading to something greater than sum of its parts.  And purpose is taking that power and partnership and spreading it outward, saying ‘Now that we have this within ourselves, how are we going to use this to affect the environment around us?’”

Answers to that question were plentiful in the morning sharing sessions, during which school teams presented their work and discussed their youth-adult partnership initiatives.  In one room, a team from the Burlington High School School Innovation Seminar shared successes and challenges from their ongoing student consultancy work, in which students help teachers solve authentic professional problems like “Does self-assessment work as an assessment strategy?” or “How do students perceive the obstacles and barriers to speaking out about bullying and harassment?”   

In another, three 9th graders from BFA Fairfax spoke eloquently about their experiences teaching a new course about metacognition for their peers, as well as running workshops in faculty meetings about the concepts of fixed and growth mindset.  One presenter noted, “at the beginning, teachers were just trying to adapt, but by the end they were really participating, and used that in classes… I think it was just realizing when they were having a fixed mindset or negative self-talk and having them switch.”

Down the hall, a team from Randolph Union High School described a new project-based learning class in Restorative Justice.  Junior Lukina Andreyev explained how grounding their work in research about Vermont’s school-to-prison pipeline gave a sense of relevance and urgency.  Because inequities in the justice system are rooted in the separation caused by punitive discipline at school, she said, training students and adults in their school to take part in restorative justice circles helps “heal that separation when there’s some kind of conflict.  Our goal is to grow a community full of trust and respect among everybody, so it’s less likely for students to feel like they need to leave the community.”

In all of these sessions, partnership and purpose were clearly evident, as students and adults collaborated to solve problems affecting their shared work and experience.  But what was most striking was the degree to which each of these teams, in different ways, was given real power to effect change in domains traditionally off-limits to students: classroom practice, curriculum planning, even disciplinary action.  These were powerful learning experiences not simply because students got to make choices or study subjects outside the “core curriculum,” but because they did so in a context where their learning and choices had visible impact on things they cared about.

Accessing that kind of power can be hard, says Manny Dodson, a Burlington High School sophomore. “Not even personal power, but power to make a change.  It can be hard going through all the stages that are required to do something meaningful within the school.”  But he believes having that kind of power makes the difference between students seeing personalized learning as a forced choice among unappealing options, and seeing it as meaningful.  “In a system where a kid is going to school because they have to and don’t feel connected to their teachers or the subjects, they feel like they have less power… being able to choose what you want and being able to advocate for it:  that’s power. In a system where you’re allowed to have choice and voice, you’d actually be motivated to be in school.”

Choice and voice: both are key.  Focusing too narrowly on choice in the conversation about redesigning schools risks missing opportunities to realize the transformative potential of efforts like Personalized Learning or Vermont’s Act 77: Flexible Pathways legislation.  To be successful, such efforts must elevate the notion of voice beyond superficial and limited student input, and find ways to rethink the roles and distribution of power in our education system to one of authentic partnership in learning and school redesign.  

Note: This post originally appeared on the Center for Collaborative Education blog

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Project Based Learning: Engineering Edition

This blog post is from U-32 science teacher and PLP Pathways contributor Alison Gauthier.

On the Global Studies end, learners focused on various countries and policies in place to combat climate change. They learned about how the GDP of specific affected countries influences the policies people in the country are able to carry out. Learners also researched countries in the Global North versus the Global South and looked at the disparities in GDP between countries CAUSING the climate change and the countries BEING affected.

On the Earth Science end, learners engaged in scientific concepts around types of radiation received from the sun, the greenhouse effect, and the specific mechanism at play to increase the temperature of the planet.

After learning (and demonstrating understanding) about the general (and minor specific details) related to the greenhouse effect, learners were put in small groups of two or three persons. Each group was a country the learners had been exposed to during the Global Studies portion of the unit. Each country/group was awarded the GDP stated for that country. Each group had to research the specific climate change problems affecting their country, and brainstorm various solutions to each problem. Ultimately, each country chose one problem to focus on, and were charged with finding one feasible solution that they could model. T

he goal was that this model would show how that particular solution would lessen the effects of that problem. Each country had "their GDP" to use to buy materials to model their solution. Materials at the back of the room in the "supplies corner" each had an associated price. Costs of the materials were inflated to better represent the cost to make that sort of model on a larger scale. As examples, paper was $100 a sheet, a paperclip was $20, and glass beakers were $1,000 each.

Go to this site to learn more about the Earth Science unit plan and science concepts within the unit.

The solutions that learners came up with were of a great variety. Each solution had to be testable; that is, the solution had to produce a set of data. This set of data was analyzed and used by the countries to ultimately "show" that their solution produced favorable data. When countries tested a solution, they were able to determine if that specific solution did in fact produce data. If the solution wasn't data producing, or the data didn't support the expected or hoped hypothesis, the group revised the solution and re-attempted the trials to see if the revisions were favorable for the solution.

As a specific example, one country/group was assigned Bangladesh. Bangladesh's GDP is small so they sent representatives from the group to speak with USA and Germany to get outside funding. Once a donation amount was determined, it was approved by me if both parties were present and able to shake on the transfer of funds. Bangladesh's problem (as one of the results of climate change) was flooding. The solution the country chose was to make the "ideal home" to combat that problem. They designed a home on stilts that had certain unique features that would secure the stilts in to the ground and collect rain water into the home. They designed specific measurements for the home based on demographic information they collected about the people of Bangladesh. They added up the costs to make their model, and once they realized that the fundraiser enabled the construction, they built the home on stilts. They tested the home with two conditions; soil in the base and rocks in the base in order to determine the efficacy of their solution.

Here is an image of the "ideal home" for Bangladesh that they constructed to mitigate the effects of climate change that are specific to that country:

During the testing process:

Countries were given guidance as the process continued. In most groups, there was a natural delegation of responsibility based on each learner's abilities and interests.

In one group of three, for example, the group decided that one person was ultimately responsible for the design and construction, one person was responsible for the finances and data, and the third participant was responsible for pulling all items together into the presentation. In other groups, facilitation by the teacher was required to enable the ninth grade learners to each have a significant role in the project and outcomes.

Class-wide check-ins occurred at the beginning of class (75 minutes long), and then groups were free to work on their design, construction, testing and revisions as they pleased. Here is the engineering process diagram that the countries and I often referred to when discussing the progress of the solution and steps moving forward:

Each class, I would conference/check-in with groups individually. After approximately a month of group-led class time, each country presented to the class. The presentations themselves did not contribute to their overall proficiency scores for the unit (or weren't required I could say), but some students were actually able to demonstrate their proficiency on one or more of the scales through the presentation. Other learners demonstrated their proficiency to me DURING the actual group work and process. Other learners didn't yield evidence during the country process or during the presentation; those learners met with me or re-performed in a more traditional manner. Here is the cover sheet from this unit. The proficiency scales used to give learners feedback on their progress are within the cover sheet.

Following the presentations, learners received SUMMATIVE feedback on their learning up to that point in the unit. They were able to ask questions about the feedback and make plans to move forward. At that time as well, they added one or two products to their Personalized Learning Sites (PLSs) and reflected on their progress over the unit. They were allowed to choose any "products" to embed in the site. Some embedded images of their solution/design that they tested; others put a link to a Google sheet where they managed and analyzed all the data from their solution.

While learners worked on their sites, I met with students individually to conference about their learning during the unit and make steps moving forward for the students who needed to reperform. Prior to this unit, I would simply hand back summative feedback. When doing this, I would find that there was often confusion or questions that individuals would have for me. By discussing the feedback during a conference, learners felt more comfortable to ask questions and make an action plan moving forward (either for reperformance within that unit or goals for the next time they worked in a group or with a similar set of skills).

I was curious if the conferences was a more meaningful way to receive feedback, so I polled my three ninth-grade sections of Earth Science. These are the quantitative results from the polls. After each quantitative-yielding question, a qualitative question was asked.The qualitative information from the students included ideas going forward and why they preferred the student-led conferences or not.

Overall, the feedback was in favor of student-led conferences as the way to receive summative feedback following a unit. The conversations during the conferences were rich; in fact, some learners were able to quickly demonstrate that they knew something during the conference that hadn't been expressed during the group presentation or group work.