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Aurora Institute

Charleston: Pinehurst Elementary School

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

PinehurstThis is the sixth post in my site visit to Charleston County School District in South Carolina. Read the first post on building the CCSD framework, the second on implementation strategies, and schools Pepperhill Elementary, Stall HighGoodwin Elementary, and Pinehurst Elementary. 

My final stop of the whirlwind tour of Charleston County School District was Pinehurst Elementary, where I met Principal Dianne Benton and teachers James Tomasello (fourth grade), Lauren Gudger (third grade), and Jason Kraeger (fourth grade). Pinehurst serves 650 students in grades 2-5, 65 percent of whom are English Language Learners, 32 percent are African American, and 100 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch.

I’m always asked what competency education looks like in elementary schools and I do my very best to describe it. However, as I visited these three classrooms, I realized the difficulty in describing it is that it feels like a whirlwind of learning. Students are often doing a lot of different things; sitting quietly on the floor or at their desk working alone, sitting in pairs or triads talking about the topic, solving problems, working on a project, or working with devices in hand. In the corner or along the wall is a table, where the teacher is working with a small group of three to five students. The shoulders and heads form a circle as they stretch toward each other. When needed, the teacher might stand to do mini-lesson on the board. At some point in the class, the teacher will call everyone together for a meeting to make sure they understand the options for that day or the following day.

The walls are loaded with poster paper – shared visions, codes of cooperation, choice boards, resources related to the standards, and data walls for students to indicate their progress. In some rooms, there is a basket of Mardi Gras beads and little instruments for the class to use to celebrate learning when students have mastered a standard.

In one class at Pinehurst, the learning felt almost electric. The classroom literally felt like it was humming. Students were at collaborative tables, on pillows, standing, laying on the floor… Personalized Learning coach Kimberly Kascak explained it this way, “We want kids to be able to think about what type of environment they need for learning. They have choices – writing desks, single desks, on the ground, in front of the board. It’s about learning to make choices that work for you and your learning. They can use this outside the school as well.”

I walked over to talk to a group of students sitting on a couch. They were all looking at a whiteboard in front of them. What I discovered is that they were in the midst of a game of Kahoot and way too engaged to talk to me. As each new math problem came up, they would independently work on it and type in their answer. They were playing together but essentially playing against themselves. I couldn’t keep from thinking about what it means to have a school where everyone is doing their personal best…but at the pace that made sense for working in their zone of proximal development.

Personalizing Physical Education

One of the highlights was visiting the Physical Education (PE) class. I was told a story about two little boys who, in general, were friendly with one another but who got in a fight during PE. When asked why they responded that way, they said, “We don’t have a code of cooperation for PE.” Coach Taylor now has the walls covered with all the artifacts of personalized learning – shared vision, code of cooperation, the “unpacked” physical education standards, and tools for students to use to show mastery of PE standards – fifty rope jumps, twenty-five sit-ups, five minutes of hula hoop. As students meet the goal, they sign their name on the poster paper.

In fifth grade, they have created departments to be able to strengthen instruction to better prepare students for the transition to sixth grade. Pinehurst is doing their best to stop the practice of students moving on to middle school before they have become proficient in all of the elementary standards, however, it will take time for the whole system to transition. There will still be students who move on to middle school without proficiency in all fifth grade skills. After Empower (the LMS system) is implemented school wide, the middle schools teachers will know exactly where to start working with students rather than teaching them sixth grade curriculum and only finding the gaps after students start to fail.

Students Talk Personalized Learning

Five students, Marlena, Alejandra, Uriel, A’Naya, and Jamuri met with me to talk about their experience with Personalized Learning. There was agreement that Personalized Learning was much better than when the teacher teaches the whole group at the same time. Some were frustrated and felt lost when they had to wait for the other students to move on, and others hated the feeling of not understanding but having to move on. One student commented, “We aren’t all at the same place. We take the information the teacher gives us and then we learn to do it at our speed. Sometimes things take longer, and sometimes you go faster than other kids. ” Another student expanded on this with, “It takes longer sometimes because I ask for more practice so I can understand it.” Another student chimed in, “The best thing is that you can work at your own speed. You can catch up and not be so behind. When personalized learning is not in place, there is no way to catch up.”

One student recounted how they get started in the morning, “There is a board that tells you what to do. We go to Edmodo and check our schedule for the day. I might eat breakfast and then get an iPad. Then, I might do Lexia or Front Row Math. I also have a time set to conference with my teacher. When I’m ready for an assessment, I use the iPad.” The students also talked about how their learning plans individualize their instruction and enhance student ownership of learning.

Reflection: Over the years, I’ve heard a number of people share their concerns that competency-based education is going to result in too much individualization with students all working alone. The conversation with these students suggest just the opposite, that the practices used to empower students and build student agency also build a sense of belonging and community.

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