Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Moving from Islands of Innovation to a District of Distinction in Personalized Learning (Part Two)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Eastern Carver County Schools

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

carverThis is the second post in a two-part series from Eastern Carver County Schools. Read the first here.

Simplifying and expanding
The strategic planning process from 2012 to 2014 laid the foundation for the development in 2015 of Eastern Carver County’s five-point personalized learning star. This addressed the uncertainty and variability we experienced in the earlier planning process. The visual aid tied together all of the pieces of work. The star includes key questions for school teams to answer.

  • Purposeful Learning: How do learners find relevancy and make connections between themselves and their learning?
  • Engagement with Learning Tools: How do learners purposefully select tools to support their learning?
  • Collaborative Environment: How do learners leverage their environment to maximize their learning?
  • Learner Voice and Choice: How do learners design and take ownership of their learning?
  • Purposeful Instruction, Assessment and Feedback: How do learners leverage relevant learning targets and authentic learning opportunities that meet their needs? How do learners use evidence and feedback to further their learning?

The district developed a website, to provide resources and support to teachers, parents, and the community.

Using these five points, questions were posed to building level administrators at a monthly district leadership meeting. It was the last question — how do learners leverage relevant learning targets and authentic learning opportunities that meet their needs? — that was the most tantalizing and seemed to be the lever that propelled buildings toward full-scale implementation of personalized learning. The change in culture encourage educators to think differently about our work motivated many buildings to deepen their engagement in this work. Buildings sought out their pioneers and met this innovation mindset challenge by asking these same questions of staff. In one building, staff collaborated to integrate curriculum and standards around learning themes and tie their curriculum to these themes. Language around content changed to language around learning. By linking the learning together, teachers became facilitators of learning rather than teachers of content. Classrooms and hallways were transformed to create learning spaces with specific purposes and learners were consulted on what environment they needed for different learning opportunities. Bell schedules were tossed out in favor of student-driven schedules based on their needs. Teacher desks were moved to storage so classrooms could be transformed into learning environments each with unique purposes to support student learning. Time became more flexible with opportunities for learners to flex their time where they need for their learning. Teachers embraced informal learning time for student support and conferencing. Every nook and cranny in buildings became prime learning real estate. Is a student done with her learning in math, great! Now, flex out to open space to collaborate with other learners on science, or flex into a lesson with your world language teacher for more guidance. In one high school, teachers needing to be absent could opt out of a substitute teacher and use that time for tutoring, independent learning or group work. Bottom line: do what you need to do for your learning.

School Board support has been essential. As representatives of the community, and often parents of students in classrooms, board members need to understand what work is being done and most importantly why. The board can be a great sounding board for how this implementation will be received by the public. Personalized learning, and the instructional changes embedded in the process, are very different than what school was like for most of us. There will be push back. Common questions were “why do we need this change?” and “who else is doing personalized learning?” An informed board is critical in providing funding, resources, and community building to keep the work moving forward. Board members have annual invitations to visit classrooms and see personalized learning up close. Regular updates on the progress of personalized learning are presented at board meetings. We knew the School Board had embraced the vision when the key question moved from “how are you doing this?” to “what can you do to move this into our system more quickly?” Board policy has also changed to champion our mission of “Exceptional, Personalized Learning.” The board has asked for dashboard indicators to define, measure, and implement this in all buildings. They want assurances that it’s working, and want to hear what can be brought to scale at all levels.

Harnessing technology
When personalized learning is used as a buzzword, it is sometimes a proxy for classroom technology. We knew from the beginning that personalized learning was about changing teaching and learning. Technology would make it easier and more efficient, but a learning tool should not be the driver of change. A 2013 referendum provided resources for a five-year plan to rollout Chromebooks. Due to favorable pricing, we were able to accelerate this rollout to three years. The five-year model included specific and targeted teacher support and curriculum development. This has not changed even though we were able to speed up the rollout. One of the changes we adopted in 2013 was to enhance the coaching model in which teachers could receive ongoing, job embedded professional development. Teachers have access to Digital Learning Coaches who are not tech support, but who help teachers adapt lessons to their classroom technology. The learning goals dictates the tools needed, whether Google Docs, interactive whiteboard, videos or an app. Teacher and student training with Chromebooks used a gamification model with a series of lessons that had to be accomplished. With each successful lesson, teachers and students would receive a badge on a virtual scoreboard. The badge wall helped teachers and students to understand where they were at and teacher coaches could cater learning plans to those needs. A complete badge wall meant the teacher or student were fully competent with the tool. This model of personalized, professional development has changed the way we spent collaboration time at all levels.

The focus on pedagogy first, rather than technology, is changing our belief system about how students today learn best. A common misconception is that personalized learning is putting students in front of a device and “turning them loose.” This is not effective practice. We have also heard that technology is used because it “makes it easier for the teacher.” The opposite is true. Teachers implementing personalized learning have expressed, in various ways, “this work is exhausting, but exhilarating”. The devices support access to learning 24/7 and improve the speed and quality of teacher feedback. Students can also collaborate in Google Classroom during the school day and through their homework. We also needed a system to organize and manage information on learning. The district selected Empower from 3Shapes to track students not by courses, but by standards. In order to truly personalize for each student, we must be clear on where they are in their learning and what comes next.

Another critical technology component to personalizing learning for our district was the development of an online flexible scheduler. It integrates with our student information system and gives students the ability to choose what and where they will be learning for a particular period or block of time during the day. For example, each morning a student may determine whether they go first to English, science, or to an independent study time. The student is making the choices on how to spend his or her day. Or the flex scheduler is used in narrow ways like for an enrichment/intervention period. Students can choose to get additional support for geometry, for example, or they may choose to meet with members of their robotics club. They are taught to self-advocate and get support for their learning right now. This is part of the norms that teachers set at the beginning of the school year. When students are adept at learning in the “sit and get” model, teachers have to repeat the expectations until students realize that they themselves really are in charge. The flex scheduler also allows teachers to override students choices if the student needs an intervention session based on what the teacher has seen in class. Technology tools have added support, structures, and depth to personalized learning that were not available even five years ago.

Building capacity at all levels
Due to the financial support of the referendum in 2013, we shifted resources to build a stronger model of teacher support. We implemented three different levels of teacher coaches.

  • Digital Learning Coaches who support integration of technology into teacher lessons
  • Personalized Learning Coaches who support our teachers with growth mindset and personalized professional development along with aiding special populations like gifted education;
  • Instructional Coaches who support teachers with instructional best practices and reflection on classroom instruction.

Another need that surfaced was for administrator professional development. District leaders wanted to ensure school leaders were prepared to lead the work. We began monthly hour-long workshops that helped administrators collaborate on the work they were doing in their buildings. We turned to an outside expert, Dr. Jim Rickabaugh, who worked with our building-level leadership teams. His expertise was at part professional development for our school leaders and also problem-solving with cohorts of school leadership teams as they advanced personalized learning in their buildings.

Starting small with a larger end in mind has been essential to build capacity. Leaders repeatedly have to recount the reasons why we are doing this — sometimes the audience is teachers, sometimes students and parents and sometimes School Board members. Continuing to remind our staff that learning is different in the 21st century and personalized learning makes it more relevant and engaging to students. We also found that we have to go slow, sometimes, in order to go fast. Indeed, we have heard feedback from some teachers that it was “too much, too fast.” Reassessing the strategic plan and simplifying it came out of those conversations. It didn’t change the work, but rather how it was presented and divided into manageable chunks. The five-point star shows what is needed in order truly personalize the classroom. Supporting staff and meeting them where they are — essentially, personalized learning for adults — helps build the connections with how we support our learners. Consistent collaboration around this innovation is essential; “what are you doing for learners” and “how is that working” need to be embedded in the leadership culture.

“It’s fun to be on the cutting edge of teaching and learning,” said Chaska Elementary School third-grade teacher Courtney Jacobs. “More and more I teach with questions: ‘What do you think? Who can you ask that would know that?’ It’s more valuable to me that students know how to learn than simply telling them the answers.”

See also:

Brian Beresford serves the Schools of Eastern Carver County, a western suburban school district of Minneapolis as the Elementary Supervisor for Teaching & Learning. During Brian’s 24 year tenure in the district he has also served as an elementary educator and instructional technology coordinator. Brian has strong passions and convictions about reimagining “school” and ensuring the learning experiences of students and staff better align to an evolved, globally-connected community. Brian draws energy from the compelling work of the district around personalized learning. He feels this is the most exciting time to be in education.

Twitter: @BeresfordBrian

Clint Christopher currently serves as the Associate Superintendent for Eastern Carver County School District 112, a southwest suburb of the Twin Cities. With 20 years of experience in education, he has also served in roles as an elementary teacher, elementary principal, director of curriculum and technology, assistant superintendent for instruction and assessment. With a belief that all learning is personal, and capacity for growth in every individual, he focuses efforts on what’s best for all learners.

Twitter: @cchristo74

During her 14 year tenure at Eastern Carver County Schools, Dana Kauzlarich Miller has served as a counselor, assistant high school and middle school principal, middle school principal and is currently the Standards Based Learning Coordinator in the Teaching and Learning department. Prior to ECCS, Dana served as a traditional and alternative classroom social studies/English teacher and counselor and as a Coordinator of Alternative Education in Iowa and Minnesota districts. Through her involvement with alternative education and student counseling, Dana’s commitment to personalizing the learning experience for all learners grew. She is passionate about embedding learner driven philosophy into traditional systems and is committed to this change.

Twitter: @millerkauzdana

Brenda Vogds has 16 years of experiences in educational roles including beginning her career as a Business and Marketing Educator, an Instructor in the College of Education at UW-Whitewater, K- 12 Technology Coordinator and an Elementary Principal. She currently works in the Eastern Carver County School District as their Secondary Teaching and Learning Supervisor. Brenda believes in the collaborative approach to this work and maintains we will continue to march forward, because we believe in creating a better future with our students.

Twitter: @teachinb