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This Is Personalized PD

As far as PD options go, I love my podcasts and Edcamps. I always find great opportunities to learn from conventions and the menu of PD options we have at a building level every Thursday afternoon. But the most influential PD for me are site visits.

Today, I was able to visit Verona Area High School to get some insight into how they are deploying the personalized learning framework to such great effect.  But, this opportunity for my PD doesn't just happen. It requires great support from key stakeholders.

The first is the leadership in my district. The leadership in the Elmbrook School District has always been supportive of my PD “asks” when they start with a reasonable “why”. My building principal Brett Greutzmacher understands that reflection is an essential and powerful tool for improving practice. Brett knows that mirrors are great, but he believes that windows to the great educational landscape are what lead innovation. His support in allowing me the time to do this today is “yuge”!

A second important player today was the staff at Verona Area High School. Rita Mortenson approached me at the Personalized Learning Convening in the fall of 2015 about sitting down with some teachers from her district and discussing our practice of personalized learning. It took me until after AP testing to get back to her, but she was quick to respond and set up a great experience for me. And after hearing Rita and on the i am ME. podcast, I was even more stoked to learn from her work.

Finally, I owe my students for this opportunity. Many teachers are afraid to leave their class for fear that they will “lose a day”. My students always impress me by showing that I am not the constant of the classroom. The learning is. They recognize that when I am gone, I am probably learning something useful for our classroom. I don't resent the fact that they may miss a class for a field trip, athletic, or arts event as these have the potential to be rich learning experiences for them.

I started out the day with an introduction to the district’s implementation of the PL framework by Betty Wottreng, District Technology Director and District Personalized Learning Coach.  She outlined the path of their personalized learning journey.  In 2013, their board drafted belief statements to guide the personalized learning mission.  The impetus for this change in instruction was to help close some of the large achievement gaps affecting populations within the district.  In the fall of 2014, classrooms began implementing models of personalized learning. Below, you will see their district wide personalized learning plan.

The district has three different levels of training for all staff to learn the district vision for personalized learning.  I was impressed to learn that the first was designed using the resources of Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey’s 5 W’s of Personalized Learning Course.  The district got the rights to transform the course from an online version to a face-to-face instructional format for their district staff using the online resources. At the end of this instruction, it is not intended that educators implement an instructional model that is 100% personalized for every students.  The goal is for educators to look at the stages of personalize learning and determine an area in stage 1 they would like to start and determine what supports they need.

Like any change, there are resistors.  Betty was open and honest in discussing how she thinks communication with the community could have been handled better at the outset of implementation.  Also, they are still on a journey. Students and teachers are still trying to see exactly how they fit into the personalized learning framework.  But, the school is creating short video exemplars from classrooms at Verona High incorporating components of the PL framework.  These videos are being used to show teachers who are going through the training modules how this is happening at their school.  It is giving them examples of “how” this personalized learning fits in their world.  

Then, LMC director Teresa  Voss gave me a wonderful tour of the huge campus and an overview of the A+ program.  This is the district’s first year in a block schedule.  As a part of the schedule, students have a 30 minute advisory block called A+.  During that time, students have a variety of options of what they would like to participate in.  This could be enrichment, instructional, or a study hall.  They have some great opportunities for students who want a chance to try cultivate a new skill, get in a workout, even join a tea and book discussion.  On Mondays, students meet with their home base during A+ time to go over their proposed advisory schedule for the week.  The teacher looks at the student's current grades and can override selections if that student might need some more time with a class teacher to improve his/her grades.  I was impressed to see all the options available and wowed to see what they have put together in just the first year.

My next visit was with Mary Hardin and Mindy Grant who are English instructors.  As a representative of our school, it was great to see examples of personalizing learning outside of my content area and how there are elements which are transferable across curricular areas.   Mindy and Mary shared so much goodness that I can only scratch the surface of the conversation in this space.  So, I’ll focus on their URX Project.  URX is basically “You Are the Expert”.  Students choose an essential question that they are passionate about. It needs to be something that will motivate them as this is something they will be working with for a while. This question becomes the content through which they will demonstrate common core writing skills such as fiction and nonfiction writing.  It also incorporates reading standards in that students will read a book of their choice on the topic (fiction or nonfiction).  At the end of the project, students present their learning in a poster fair.  Now they don’t make physical posters.  They create websites to showcase their learning. Then, community members and parents are invited to the fair and visit students who give an overview of their project while displaying their digital poster. Mary and Mindy expressed the importance of this public showcase.  Students had worked so long and put so much effort into the project that to not share these would devalue the learning the students did.

They also do great things with large group and mini-group seminars.  But, I think I’ll steal that idea for next year and explain it then. Any English teacher looking to find concrete solutions to personalize their course, should seek them out.

Then, I went to science to learn from Matt Austin.  Matt is a Biology teacher and the science department head.  Matt is a true pioneer of PL.  Listen to his episode of the I am ME. podcast to learn more about his story.  Matt and I had a great time talking about the move from a traditional classroom to one that tries to personalize aspects of learning.  We discussed that there is no single model.  Teachers and students have to be willing to take steps together, fail together, and learn together.  Matt is so brave and honest in his failures.  Through his failures, though, he has created an amazing model of instruction.  He frames his instruction through a UDL lens.  In his class, students have many options of how they can access information.  He uses Canvas LMS to present a variety of different modes for students to learn the same concepts.  This doesn’t mean there isn’t large group instruction.  But in this instructional time, it’s not simply him at the center. And at the end of the unit, students don’t have to take a paper and pencil test.  They are asked to express their understanding through a project which can take many forms.

One great thing that Matt does is focus on student growth.  In each of his projects, Matt uses a similar rubric.  In that rubric, though, the last two lines are blank.  It is up to the student to choose 2 areas in which they are looking to grow and be evaluated.  Over the course of the year, the rubrics add more and more blank rows.  So by the end of the course, a large portion of the project points are dedicated to areas in which the student is looking to grow.  For a teacher who has heard of students designing their own rubrics for projects but didn’t get it, this makes sense.

I rounded out the day with Annelies Howell, Science Instructor (Physics) and and Learning Resource Coordinator.  We talked about the challenges of applying the personalized learning framework to a rigid curriculum like AP Physics.  We also discussed some great science tech tools and resources.  It was a lot of physics specific talk, so I’ll save it for another day.

Rita Mortenson, High School Technology Coordinator and District Personalized Learning Coach rounded out my day.  Rita planned a wonderful data of great experiences for me.  She closed the day out by showing me how her district has begun to incorporate Epiphany Learning to manage multiple aspect of their personal learning model. I was really impressed to get a quick overview of the dynamic model and the potential for its use at the high school level.  They are still in the beginning stages of getting into the power of the tool.  But, Rita was able to show me how students are able to create a rich learner profile which includes strengths, challenges, and a measure of learner preferences.  Students are able to go into their profile and make changes as they feel they are growing with ease.  Learners are guided through the process of designing personal SMART goals and tracking those goals over time.  Also, students can store evidence tied to demonstration of standards.  The teacher navigation is very fluid and looked easy to navigate.  The program also integrates nicely with their online gradebook.

Well, that’s a lot for one day.  I’m sure a follow up post will be due someday.  But, I wanted to get out some initial impressions first.  Simply put, an experience like this is invaluable.  But, it doesn’t have to be a day trip to a far off district.  I’ve had great experiences over my prep visiting TEAM Togetherness at Swanson Elementary School in which I’ve learned great strategies that I could bring to my AP classes. It’s up to my to take the initiative and make your PD personal.

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