This post is part of the series Competency Education Takes Root in South Carolina. This is the third in the series on Red Bank Elementary in Lexington School District. Begin with the first on five big takeaways and follow along with: #2 teaching students instead of standards, #3 teacher perspectives, #4 student perspectives, and #5 parent perspectives.
Throughout my visit to Red Bank, I had the opportunity to speak with educators. They were so very insightful that I did my best to capture the conversation in detail. Thanks to Marie Watson, principal; Jennifer Carnagey, literacy coach; Jamee Childs, technology specialist and instructional coach; Dawn Harden, assistant principal; and all the teachers, including Lauren Vann, Jennifer Denny, Susan Jennings, Sally Kathryn Deason, Tammy Ricard, and Jamie Sox.
How did you get started?
Principal Marie Watson explained that they used their summer retreats (they are voluntary) to begin to understand what is wrong with the traditional system. “You have to look at what is broken and own up to it. Teachers have to understand how the traditional system is impacting their teaching and their students. It becomes a felt need.”
The Red Bank team had book studies that used On Common Ground about professional learning communities, Larry Ainsworth’s work on formative common assessment, and Delivering the Promise. In a later conversation with teachers, they all agreed that Delivering on the Promise opened their eyes to what was possible.
“Once the majority of the teachers felt we needed to do something different, we organized training with Reinventing Schools Coalition,” continued Watson. “Teachers received training on the protocols and practices of designing a personalized classroom. Some teachers can take that and fly.” Others need more support and step-by-step instructions.
Jennifer Carnagey, literacy coach, explained that she was more hesitant, recounting her experience with, “It scared me at first. I’m not a risk taker. It felt like it was a huge ambiguous task, and I wanted to be told what to do. I kept thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t know if I’m doing it right,’ so I would keep on doing things the old way so I wouldn’t mess up. I finally learned that I needed to identify a few places where I did feel ready to jump in.”
Since that time, Carnagey has grown a lot. “I’m proud of the things I’ve done and learned to do,” she said. “What I’ve learned is that when you begin to see the vision of what personalized, competency-based education is, it doesn’t mean that it has to be that way immediately.” Her recommendation to teachers is to “just try something.”
Assistant Principal Dawn Harden emphasized this point with, “Teachers need to understand it is a progression. It’s just like learning for kids is a progression.”
Of course, understanding logical progressions was different for the teachers because they were learning as they were going. Watson stated that it was important for them to slow the process down. “We had to learn to support those who are global thinkers who then move toward sequential learning as well as those who want to start with a few small things and build up sequentially until a global understanding is developed,” she said. “We asked, ‘Can you pick one thing such as unpacking standards? If you do that, what else has to change?’” Childs agreed with, “There is so much learning taking place. Collaboration is important. Don’t work in isolation or it might feel overwhelming.”
They also had a strong culture of professional trust when they started. “It is really important that teachers do not feel judged,” Watson said. “In addition, we found that reflection is an important part of creating the professional culture of learning.” Childs added to this with, “One of the big changes is that we started thinking about the kids as our kids, not just mine or yours.”
What has been the impact on your teaching?
Jennifer Denny opened the conversation with teachers by exclaiming, “I love it. Teaching is a very different experience when the kids get to take over their learning.”
Kids taking over their own learning was a common theme throughout the discussion. Lauren Vann built on the topic with, “I didn’t understand what student ownership meant. It’s such a buzz word. I thought my kids did have ownership until we started down this path. Now they really take responsibility and think hard about the choices they are making. It’s hard work to make this transition, but the reward is definitely worth it.”
“I learned to trust kids,” Denny added. “It was really scary at first, but I decided, ‘I’m just going to go for it – I’m all in.’ Then my students started coming up to me, asking, ‘Can I show you that I learned it?’ It is totally mind-blowing. I saw so much more growth in my students, and they were becoming confident learners.” Tammy Ricard added, “I have a daughter who is really creative in Lauren’s math class. And I know that she is having opportunities that aren’t measured on the tests.”
While listening to the teachers, I realized we are developing capacities in students that are not going to be picked up by state accountability tests. What they were describing are developmental skills that may have more impact as students accumulate greater maturity and skills.
The teachers also explained that how they spend their time is shifting as students take on leadership roles and responsibilities. Examples included kids knowing what they need to do when they come into class, asking other kids for help if they are confused, greeting visitors, and even doing the lunch count. Teachers are spending more time doing formative assessments to understand what is going on with kids, working individually or in small groups with students who are struggling, collaborating, and planning.
Jamie Sox explained, “I’ve learned so much. I know more now than I ever knew before. I really understand the topics. I understand progressions and I’m always thinking about how one step leads to another. I’m learning how to break down the big broad standards in a way that allows me to see how students have to master one thing to be able to do another. I can see gaps in my own instruction where I need to add things as stepping stones. I’ve learned that it takes more planning up front.”
Sox also noted that the walls started coming down between classrooms. “We visited each other’s classrooms and started trying things we learned from other teachers.” Denny agreed with, “I feel so much more connected to the people in the school. And I feel that I know the kids so much better. It feels like a community.”
“You can’t underestimate what this means for students,” Denny added. “One of my kids said recently, ‘This is so much fun.’ She was working on turning her initial draft into a second draft. She was taking pride in her work.”
“It makes a huge difference when the kids put the indicators (sub-standards) into kid-friendly language,” said Susan Jennings. “They are their learning goals.”
The shift has also changed the way the teachers look at student effort. Sally Kathryn Deason put it best with, “I’ve really learned the difference between learning and effort. I was good at doing my homework when I was growing up. I thought that doing the work was the same as how you were doing in the class. Now I understand that effort is important to the process of learning, but it isn’t the same as learning.”
At times, the conversation turned to issues of equity and the difference it makes to teach students where they are rather than grade level. Denny explained, “We don’t blink if you are at the second grade level when you are in the fourth grade. If teachers really understand the standards and the progressions that are needed to help students move, then we can bridge the gaps. We don’t pretend anymore that students can do higher level work if they don’t have the pre-requisites. It makes teaching much more complex as we are teaching students, not just going through a curriculum.” Another teacher noted, “The awareness of where kids are and how everyone doing is a determining factor for teachers. It shapes everything we do.”
What have you learned as made the transition from a traditional to personalized, competency-based systems?
Everyone laughed when Denny said, “It’s never finished. We are always learning.” Jennings added, “I used to teach August through June. Now I look forward to the summer as there are workshops and our retreat. We never stop learning.”
Like most teachers, Denny came from the traditional system. “I knew my lesson cycles and had strong lesson places,” she said. “My kids did well in benchmarks and state tests. I thought I was a good teacher. Then someone asked me what it means if a kid gets an ‘F’ on a test. I started thinking, what do kids know or not know if they get a ‘B’ or a ‘C’? I realized I didn’t really know where my kids were or what they knew.”
Sox added, “Goal setting is such an important step to the process. When students learn to set achievable goals, it changes the nature of the classroom. They are taking responsibility for their learning. It’s our job to help them learn how to set meaningful goals. It’s fun when the kids help me to meet my goals, too. For example, I set a goal of giving three leadership cards each day. But I always forgot. The kids would celebrate when I remembered and met my goal.”
There were several things the coaches mentioned they had initially undervalued and found later to be very important to the efforts to help students take more ownership and create transparent expectations in the classroom.
- Exemplars: “I didn’t understand the importance of exemplars. Students have to learn how to show evidence of what they know and can do. When I provide an exemplar of what a well-constructed response looks like, they begin to understand what is expected of them. Students learn how to give complete answers, and this has really helped teachers quickly understand what students know and can do.”
- Formative Assessments: One teacher noted, “I’m giving formative assessments every day. I ask for an exit slip. The kids don’t think of it as a test. It is just part of the process for them. For me, it is incredibly meaningful data on how I can better help students the next day.” Another explained that you can’t really tell where a student is at from a worksheet. She sometimes asks for them to make a video of themselves thinking through a problem so she can understand the process they are using and where they might be getting in trouble.
- Peer Review: Peer review definitely can help students learn and improve the products they submit for demonstrating their work. John Paul Sellars, one of the fifth grade teachers, has made it a game to have students look at each other’s work. If you can add something to your work or someone else’s, you can earn points.
Deason noted one challenge, however. “Communicating can be a challenge with new teachers and teachers in other schools in the districts,” she said. “There are so many buzz words. If you don’t understand the underlying ideas or if you haven’t really spent time here, it may be hard to understand what is going on.”
What is your advice to teachers just starting down the path to personalized, competency-based education?
- Do not try to do everything once.
- Start by unpacking standards with the kids.
- Experiment with a few of the practices to empower kids. Try creating a code of cooperation or a standard operating procedure.
- Begin to do more formative assessment with your students. Find out what they know.
- Do flexible grouping.
- Stay open-minded.
- Try not to be afraid to fail.
- Trust your colleagues.
- Keep your conversations totally about kids.
How do you approach blended learning?
Childs explained that the efforts to introduce blended learning came after competency education. “I would definitely recommend staging blended after competency education,” she said. “You want the mindset in place and to choose the tools that work best for you. You don’t really know what you need until you’ve organized your school around students and where they are in their learning.”
Carnagey pointed out, “Online learning isn’t necessary for competency-based education. When we started, I was a second grade teacher in the immersion program. We developed new practices such as unpacking standards, learning to organize several ways for students to practice before they were assessed, and using data notebooks to track progress. The big change for me was to plan units so that there are several ways to practice, as some students are going to need more opportunities. It requires a lot of frontloading that was new to me. It took a bit to get used to having options rather than a set assignment. I think of them as learning menus now.”
While online learning helps teachers with resources meet every student’s learning needs, it is not essential to a competency-based system. It simply adds the process and gives students more options for how they learn. That’s the personalized piece.
She expanded on what is needed to manage a personalized classroom. “The shared vision and code of cooperation help create a sense of responsibility among students that this is their classroom,” she said. “In addition, you must have procedures for students working independently. It won’t work otherwise.”
Others noted that there are aspects of technological tools that can help, as well – online management system require teachers to become highly organized. They create a structure for teachers to organize their units and for students to be more self-directed. However, there was a common theme that without students having a sense of responsibility for their own education, they can just become dependent on the learning management system rather than being empowered.
“People also forget that blended learning is both face-to-face and online,” Carnagey warned. “Another teacher noted that “It is really helpful to get the summaries and quick updates from online products about how a student is progressing. What makes a difference for students is how teachers are making instructional decisions. Online programs and apps can help a lot. But if a student is having trouble, it’s the teacher’s expertise that is needed.”
What is your strategy for providing coaching?
The instructional coaching model they’ve developed takes the same principles of competency-based learning and applies it to teachers. (They’ve drawn on Student-Centered Coaching by Diane Sweeney.) It starts with where the teachers are.
Childs explained, “We have staff assigned as instructional coaches, not administration. It shouldn’t be the people who do the evaluations if you want to have a safe environment.”
“We start the coaching process by talking about our philosophy of education,” Carnagey said. “We ask teachers about their theory of teaching and motivation. We look for common ground and begin the conversations there.” She described a protocol for building a shared moral purpose. Each person does a “quick write” on what they think is important for students to learn and succeed in schools. Then they pass it to the other person and underline the statements they shared. Soon, there is a list of a shared system of beliefs about teaching and learning.
Childs added, “We have found that it is helpful to use the data folders about student learning. It keeps the attention on the students rather than teachers. Our strategy is to ask probing questions. Once the teachers make an observation, we then guide the conversation into the necessary next steps.”
Watson shared a concern that is felt by many districts I’ve visited. “I didn’t want competency-based learning to be a checklist,” she said. “We needed to make sure that it was more than teaching standards. So we did additional professional development on project-based and problem-based learning. We wanted to be able to identify problems that we could solve with students. They might be student or teacher designed, but they need to be authentic and constructed to draw in content and skills.”
Red Bank Elementary does what most successful competency-based schools do – they apply the same learning principles for adults that are good for students.
One of the challenges going forward for Lexington School District, as is the case for all districts, is to empower schools to develop different variations without expecting that there will be a cookie cutter approach to creating a personalized, competency-based model. Using the language of tight and loose, we accept that what needs to be held tight is monitoring student growth, calibrating determination of proficiency for academic levels and standards, and utilizing mechanisms for ensuring equitable access to deeper learning. This is a big challenge for districts across the nation – perhaps some cross-district conversations might spur more insights and creativity about how we can make this happen sooner than later.