Sunday, March 10, 2013

Learners Assessing their Own Work

Sarah Downing-Ford's Journey to Personalize Learning

7th grade middle school teacher at Massabesic Middle School in Waterboro, Maine. We recently interviewed Sarah after viewing the video of her class where her learners assess their own work.

"For so many years, students would receive grades and not know where they came from, what assignments led up to them, how they would be assessed. Now they're involved in not only creating the units and deciding how they will assess themselves, but also how they will assess each other."

1. What does Personalized Learning mean to you? 
Personalized learning, especially in larger schools systems, can be tricky. If a middle school ELA teacher has 90 students and 28 measurement topics (with about 5 levels for each) ...doing the math equals = unmanageable. For a teacher to manage all learning might drive them to the nut house after one trimester. However, if students are given the tools and understanding of how to navigate the measurement topics and learning goals independently (and with assistance), the task becomes less daunting. This is not to say that all students are ready for this shift AND that there is not direct instruction. Personalized learning does not mean eliminating the teacher. There are some students that don't want to, and are not ready to, manage their own learning; they "want" to be told how to meet the targets. Others may be eager to charge through the targets and ascend levels like rungs on a ladder. The balance on the beam is determining if students are driven by intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. 
The expression, "You can lead a horse to water..." is an understatement when it comes to personalized learning. The key for teachers is to: lay a framework, create a community of students who don't throw in the towel when they are stuck and to make classroom expectations clear.
2. How do you and your students understand how they learn best? 
At the beginning of the year, a pivotal time to get to know your students as learners and human beings, my classes take a number of learning style inventories. We explore how we understand information (auditory, visual, kinesthetic and a combination of all). We also examine how we "attack" a project or task. 

Do I make a mess and clean it up later or do I follow guidelines step by step? How we learn is important, but it is equally important to tap into our interests and strengths. Together, we create a list of all of our in-house experts. We have experts in making people smile, cooking, taking care of farm animals, and whining. While it is important for me to know how students learn best, it is more important for students to become their own advocates. Creating a climate where a student can say, "Mrs. X, can you please give me written directions in addition to repeating them?" is my ultimate goal.

3. Describe the personalized learning environment in your classroom and the first steps you took to create it. 
As teachers know, every year brings with it curriculum changes, staff shifts and new crop of 
students. Hopefully, student needs drive our instruction. RSU 57 is in transition from traditional education to a standards based learning system and my students have had varied exposure to personalized learning. Due to this, we tackle new learning as a whole group. If students are willing and able to move faster, they may. If students need to slow down, look from a different point of view, practice, they may. Again, with this paradigm shift comes the change in tools to access learning and progress. Currently, students do not have access to the online grading system in order to track their progress. This is a sticky situation. While we want students to be independent, the online grading system can not be accessed. Currently, students refer to progress charts posted in my room as a visual reminder of what they have completed and what they have not. Also, each student has a “check-list” of measurement topics and levels upon which they track their progress.

4. What have you learned and what changes have you made from your initial steps? 
It seems like a life-time ago that I attended my first conference about Standards Based Education/ Performance Based Education/Personalized Learning, etc. Sometimes keeping up with the changes in verbiage is a task in itself. I have learned a lot in the past four years. Here is a top ten  of what I have learned:
10. Don’t underestimate the abilities/flexibility of students.
9.  Never assume the abilities/flexibility of students.
8.  Share struggles, successes, questions with colleagues and students.
7.  Don’t scrap the old stuff; as long as it meets a target, it is worthy.
6.  Communicate with parents and students a lot, you can not communicate too much.
5.  Find ways to create a bridge between the old system and the new system.
4.  Stay organized.
3.  Work with your team of teachers to create interdisciplinary units.
2.  Nothing works as a canned program, modify as needed.
1.  Have fun!

5. Share the story of your learners' personal journeys along with any photos, videos, reflections, and any links to projects or evidence of learning.
If you asked my student three years ago what our 5th grade class looked like in September and compared it to what it looked like in June, they would probably say that is transformed from organized chaos to unorganized responsibility. I have been involved in many trainings helping teachers with the steps to a PBE model and I bring with me an awkward video of my fifth graders.

They recount the beginning of the year as confusing, not understanding why we were doing what we were and feeling lost. Luckily, as the year progressed, they started to see, and own, their education in a way that they hadn’t before. They started to understand how assignments tied to a learning target and how the learning target tied to the report card. As teachers, understandably, we get bogged down with what we are going to teach, the best way to teach it to our group(s), meeting everyones’ needs, following IEPs, changing curriculum, meeting taxonomy, etc. The list goes on and on. When we start to give some of these pieces to students, many things can happen. 

Students start to understand what we are trying to do behind the big curtain. They can see the  linear growth of learning targets and what needs to be accomplished. The desired effect is a buy-in to their own education. In my 7th grade ELA classroom, students track their progress on a corkboard. Assignments and assessments are logged, and checked off when all targets assigned to it have been met. Students also track their progress through all of the 28 measurement topics (by  level) on individual charts. They can see where there have been gaps in their learning and the  areas they need to work on. These tools, process and language are still new to the majority of  students and each year brings with it another learning curve. 

6. Include your own journey, small photo of you, your bio and contact information so our readers can get to know you. 
My mother is still surprised that I am a teacher because I hated school; I would often fake sickness often to avoid it. Now, sixteen years into my career, I wouldn’t choose to do anything else. I walk into school thinking about what I will teach and I leave thinking about what I have learned. My students are my world. That sounds so PollyAnna, but it is true. Around October of each year, my mother asks if this group is as wonderful as last year’s crop and they are! I have taught fifth grade to high school, ELA, social studies and music appreciation. When I lived in Colorado, my first full time assignment was as an interventionist where I designed individual instruction for 6, 7, and 8th grade students in a pull-out program. Every position that I have held has taught me volumes about myself and teaching as an art. Five years ago, I became a Teacher Consultant with the Southern Maine Writing Project and I continue to serve on their leadership team. I direct summer writing camps for Southern Maine and I am very involved in training teachers using the PBE model in my, and neighboring, districts. One of my students interviewed me this year for her research project on “How people learn”. She asked for a piece of advice to a college student studying to be a teacher. 
"I affirm to be true to yourself, be true to your students and don’t listen to the negativity that the public says about our profession. We do changes lives one student at a time." 
I currently teach 7th grade ELA at Massabesic Middle School in Waterboro, Maine. I can be reached at

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