Monday, October 5, 2015

Every Child, Every Day, For a Better Tomorrow through Personalized Learning

by Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools Personalized Learning Department
pl logo.png
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) is a large urban district with 168 schools that serves  147,000 students. CMS, by many metrics, is a good school district. We outperform most large urban districts in reading and math on NAEP, and we have increased graduation rates in all subgroups, with an overall grad rate of 88%. In our 2018 strategic plan, we set a bold path for even higher student achievement, aiming to move from a good district to a great one. Information and resources are at CMS website: and Personalized Learning:

CMS completed an intensive strategic planning process in 2012 garnering wide input from hundreds of educators, students, parents, business and civic leaders. The planning process included actively engaging all stakeholders in the community through 22 task force groups, surveys and town hall convenings. From this, Strategic Plan 2018 was built with goal number one to maximize academic achievement in a personalized 21st century learning environment for every child to graduate college and career ready.

In 2013,  CMS received a Next Generation Innovation grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to take a deeper dive into CMS’s Strategic Plan 2018. We created a system design team that consisted of many different stakeholders. The system design team completed a needs assessment and researched what personalized learning looked like in other districts through visitations and interviews, along with looking at the best practices that researchers were discussing. Through this research, CMS charted a path to foster an instructional shift.

Based on the needs assessment and focus groups, it was clear the instructional shift would be hard for CMS. The personalized learning model  evolved toward a shift in the classroom to a teacher facilitated and student ownership model. There we needed to be a purposeful roll out so it was not viewed as “another thing”. The Personalized Learning team created an implementation, change management and a resource plan.

In moving forward on the implementation plan, schools were invited to participate in this hard work, without a clear definition of what Personalized Learning would look like.  In order to create a cohort of pilot schools, it was important that schools were willing as well as able. A five phase screening process was developed to vet schools and ensure they were prepared for an instructional shift.

  • Phase 1: An invitation was sent to all schools within the district asking who would be interested the Personalized Learning Initiative.
  • Phase 2: A triangulation of screening criteria was gathered by Personalized Learning team to verify which schools demonstrated readiness.  
  • Phase 3: Each school submitted an application which was scored by multiple readers based on a comprehensive rubric.
  • Phase 4: Learning Community Superintendents approved each school’s participation.
  • Phase 5: School visits and interviews were conducted and scored based on a rubric.

*All rubrics were created and vetted by a cross-functional steering committee which included members of Academics, Technology Services, Accountability, Exceptional Children, and Learning Communities.
Once selected, each school created a design team comprised  of 10 educators from their school along with the principal.  The first cohort of schools attended a Personalized Learning Institute in July 2014, in which they organically created the definition of what personalized learning would look like in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.  All the training offered during the institute was created by teacher leaders using only one outside resource, the keynote. All professional development is active model learning verse traditional PD. Also during this Institute, each school created an action plan which included a risk management reflection and a professional development plan with their personalized learning design teams.

As a result of the Personalized Learning Institute 2014, the following definition was created: 

Personalized Learning in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools aims to develop the whole child and empower them to take ownership of their learning by providing them with multiple pathways to demonstrate mastery learning in order to be successful and productive 21st century citizens in an ever-changing world.

Not only are CMS teachers adjusting to the instructional shift in the classroom,  so are students. The students’ role changes from being consumers of knowledge to driving their own learning, which helps to build habits of mind.  Adapted from Art Costa and Bena Kallick’s Habits of Mind, educators from the first cohort of schools created ten Personalized Learning Learner Profiles that are now embraced daily in Personalized Learning classrooms.  
Coaching and professional development support is important for successful implementation and sustainability, which is provided for every Personalized Learning school throughout the year based on their needs. Each quarter, Personalized Learning schools come together as a cohort and review individual and group Glows (what is working) and Grows (what is not) in order to learn and continue to move forward.

CMS is excited to be in our in the second year of scaling Personalized Learning with cohort two. The Personalized Learning Institute is now part of the onboarding process utilized for teachers, principals and support staff.  Through actively learning together about personalized learning schools, customize the design for their school based on definition and foundation cornerstones.  Each school through this design process has the autonomy to develop an implementation plan based on their students’ needs.

Along the way, CMS has created many instructional resources that help teachers move across the continuum from teacher-centered to student-centered to student-driven. All Personalized Learning resources are in our toolkit. CMS offers tours to see Personalized Learning schools in action as each one is unique in their approach, but all have the same foundation. Each approach can be seen through school created vignettes from the first cohort.

Looking forward will continue to reflect on the process of change, find solutions to challenges, and continue to build capacity by adding Personalized Learning schools each year to reach the goal of CMS PL for all students by 2018.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Wildlands School Personalizes Learning…

Guest Post by Liz Seubert and Paul Tweed, Directors of Wildlands School, Wisconsin

It’s time people stop underestimating the power and intelligence of students. It’s time personalized learning is about the person, the learner, and all the possibilities within.

Most teachers would agree that they go into the profession wholeheartedly believing that students come first and every student deserves personalized learning. Yes! We agree. However, few seem to have an opportunity to put that philosophy into true action for one reason or another. Content, curriculum, state averages, standardized tests, school report cards, or whatever else government officials feel is important should not be driving education. But it seems to be.

Wildlands School (introductory video) has taken a stance and said, learners are at the top of the list.

Let’s be clear. We strongly believe personalized learning is not about checking off curriculum, content, standards, or anything that comes from a template. It is about a learning journey for young people, and getting out of their way. For the last 10 years, Wildlands has been continually redefining and elevating the implementation of personalized learning.

The outdated industrial format of school, which is still reflective of the time when it was invented in the late 1800’s, presents infinite challenges to truly make learning personalized. That’s why we blew up the old mold, restructured the school day, redefined relationships, and focused on the students. As told in our story, An Improbable School, the creation of a teacher-powered, student-centered, project-based learning environment with 60 students in grades seven through twelve was born.

Beginning in 2005, we, regular teachers from Wisconsin, were given the opportunity to develop a dream school from scratch. We were given the responsibility and freedom to create a school model that centers upon teacher autonomy. From the beginning our teacher team has been 100% in the driver’s seat regarding budget, administrative services, staffing selection, curriculum, school schedule, and support services. This has created a culture of school responsibility and autonomy necessary to completely shift the design of our school to students first and build a robust personalized learning system linked with projects-based learning.


Every ounce of our new learning model, and the purposeful differences from mainstream education we’ve embraced, has been by design. We know not all schools should be the same, and we also know students and parents need options for schools. At the beginning we wanted to create a learning environment that fit the needs, learning styles, and personalities of the students that attend. The top priority has always been to maintain a place where students want to come every day, because it is their school, and they should enjoy learning.


When it comes to personalized learning, Wildlands emphasizes personal relationships with individual students. We have learned it is more important to provide opportunities for students to be heard, be involved, be connected, find relevance, and play an important role in the school, than to tell them what we (or some far away committee) think they need to know. Honest conversations build relationships. Quality relationships build supportive and open learning environments where learners feel valued, connected, and are willing to take part.

Through conversations with students, we can look at personalized learning and projects in a multitude of ways. First, shifting the roles from teacher and student, to learner and guide, with the learner always being first. Initially this maybe uncomfortable for both, but over time the progression of the learner owning their journey will feel natural and authentic.

Our personalized learning journey with students has resulted in a wide variety of projects; some simple, some complex, but each of them owned by the students involved in them. (Just a few examples)

Being asked by local government to help preserve local conservation efforts by creating a documentary film

Learning information that is typically out of reach through a Weather Balloon project.

Learning about the local environment through projects that track walleye, mammals, and wolves.

Working with local professionals to create trail maps of a nature reserve.

Creating a healthier working environment for everyone by growing the Zahrada Project.

Teaming up with a local lake association and resource agency to Map a Lake.

Sometimes projects are based more on content areas, sometimes projects take students outside of our walls, and sometimes projects have a deep connection to a community need. Regardless of the project, our goal is for every student to have learning experiences that are meaningful, relevant, and authentic. It’s more than just a project. When given the opportunity to make their own choices, build on their own talents, and own their learning students understand that it’s not an assignment, it’s a contribution.

We do not rely on standardized tests, quizzes, or exit exams for information regarding our students understanding of content. Instead, we allow students to demonstrate their skills, knowledge, and abilities through real-world situations, involve them in meaningful projects, and present to authentic audiences. The results have been nothing less than phenomenal.

We have learned in the last 10 years that personalized learning cannot be canned and planned, based on rubrics or worksheets, it is between people: the learners and their guides and advisors. Our book, An Improbable School details our rewarding journey.

Liz Seubert is an experienced project-based learning advisor and member of a teacher-powered school staff and is an innovator in the field of student-centered learning. As one of three founding staff member of Wildlands School she has led many expeditionary learning trips with students, developed community-based learning and service connections, and been a project-based teacher since 2005. She has consulted with Project Foundry to develop better PBL management strategies and tools, presented at numerous conferences, and developed and taught summer institutes for teachers in the areas of PBL, student-centered learning, and school culture. Liz also coaches and consults with schools to help them develop student-led project-based learning communities, teacher led (teacher-powered) schools, and relationship based learning cultures.

Paul Tweed is a visionary in areas of inquiry based science, active learning, project-based learning, and community-based science research for over 30 years. He founded Wildlands School in 2005 with two colleagues and was active in the science teaching community for 20 years before Wildlands. He has presented at conferences all over the country, taught at the secondary and university level, has been on textbook authoring teams, and consulted with school districts and state education departments in the areas of science, constructive and inquiry learning, project-based learning, and school culture change. Paul has been recognized for his efforts with awards such as Wisconsin Biology Teacher of the Year, The Wisconsin Presidential Award in Science, Genentech Access Excellence Fellowship, GTE GIFT Program Fellow, Kohl Teacher Fellowship, and Wisconsin Charter School Teacher of the Year, and more. He has worked closely with Project Foundry to develop more effective means for managing and assessing project-based learning. A founding and current board member of ISN he also coaches and consults with schools to help them develop student-led project-based learning communities, teacher led (teacher-powered) schools, and relationship based learning cultures.,,

Monday, September 28, 2015

Learners NOT Technology

Are you confused about what is Personalized Learning? It means different things to different people depending on where and how it is referenced. Some believe it is about promoting software programs or apps that personalize learning for you. Our focus is on the learner first.

So we decided to shake things up with a controversial topic about focusing on learners NOT technology. Some of the conversations started shifting to adaptive software and then back to learners connecting and discovering on their own.

Some amazing educators jumped in at different times and just blew us away with their comments and questions. Here's the questions we asked:

For your information, all of us on our team are educational technologists and have taught how to use the tools. After years and years of teaching the tools, we just saw the light. Kids could figure them out and could teach us how to use them. Yet, they were losing critical thinking skills and spending too much time memorizing what was going to be on the tests. We realized that changing the focus to the learner instead of the tools would give them more responsibility for their learning. They just needed to learn how to take control, self-direct their learning so they build agency. 

We discussed that sometimes we have to put in questions that stir up the discussions. The conversations were really jumping that we had trouble keeping up. So the conversations at this #plearnchat were very exciting for us. Here's a few of the tweets that stood out:

Angelo Truglio @a_truglio
"Learners shouldn't expect prescribed steps that can lead to desired goals. In real world, they need to feel capable and self-direct."

Tom Perran @tperran
"Give learners choice of topics, ensure that questions asked require them to dig deeper and seek outside input. "

Tsisana Palmer @TechTeacherCent
"I wonder if tech can put focus on anything? Would not it depend on those who use tech? Or those who design tasks?"

Mike Peck @EdTechPeck"
If you can Google it, wh
y teach it.. take the learning deeper.. more authentic."

Here are a few resources we shared in the chat:


Congratulations to Lisa Murray @LMurray_ who won our book, Make Learning Personal

Lisa Murray (@LMurray_) is a Technology Integration Specialist at Vermillion Local Schools in Ohio who is always looking for ways to improve teaching and learning. She leads the implementation of blended learning where she trains, coaches, and supports teachers responsible for blended learning instruction.

Lisa is also a teacher at Vermillion Elementary School and lead a group to adopt intervention program for struggling readers and served on the Universal Design for Learning team to implement principles in the classrooms. She received the Martha Holden Jennings Scholar to honor outstanding classroom educators.

Lisa's tweet from plearnchat: "Model expectations, procedures, routines. Take time to build the culture of the classroom. Build on successes."

Next #plearnchat is in 2 weeks on October 12th, 7pm ET 
Topic: Connected Learners, Connected Ed


Below is the archive of #plearnchat Learners NOT Technology