Guest Post by Bryan Bronn, Principal, Branson Junior High, Missouri
At Branson Junior High, our amazing team of teachers and principals, along with the encouraging support of our school district superintendents to be innovative with a purpose, are on a journey to personalize learning for every child.
We are starting small, but dreaming big and have already experienced some momentous transformations in our school culture. At this school year’s kick-off orientation event for parents and learners, we built on the familiar analogy of a go-kart track to communicate the vision of personalized learning at BJH (Branson, MO is a big tourist destination in mid-America).
Most junior high/middle school aged kids would be excited to hear their parents say they were going to the go-kart track for a night out of family fun. However, if when they arrived at the track the parent asked the attendant for a two-seater go-kart and then directed their son/daughter to climb in the passenger seat, the child’s excitement level would immediately deflate. You can easily picture in your mind’s eye the typical response a child would have to their parent’s action: “I thought we were here to have fun?! Can’t we each have our own go-kart to drive?”
Likewise, if we desire fully engaged and responsible learners, then we must provide them the opportunities to drive their own go-kart. Just like a go-kart track, we set-up safe boundaries, provide some initial guidance, but then let the learner buckle-up and drive!
Our journey to personalized learning began in 2011 and 2012, at successive annual school spring leadership retreats, where every staff member has the opportunity to participate in a half-day, off-campus, interactive and focused professional learning conversation. Our teachers embraced moving from a culture of compliant students to a culture of passionate and engaged learners. Time spent collaborating around concepts in Angela Maiers, The Passion Driven Classroom, Carol Dweck’s, Mindset, and Daniel Pink’s, Drive, ignited a fire in our team to build upon our solid history of creating student success by taking learning to a whole new level.
As a community committed to learning (Branson School's Mission Statement), we made collective commitments to research and learn how to create an intentional school environment where learners could become more ready, respectful and responsible as developing adolescents because of their time spent with us on campus. We didn’t know for sure where we were headed, but the journey had begun!
As teacher teams began researching and learning, we discovered pockets of innovation where educators were changing the role of the student from merely a passive recipient of pre-packaged curriculum, to one of a passionate, self-motivated and self-directed learner. We had the wonderful opportunity of taking two trips to the greater Milwaukee, Wisconsin area during the 2013-2014 school year to see personalized learning in action in several schools and classrooms.
Seeing some working models really helped our team of teachers to develop our own vision and roadmap for how personalized learning would emerge at BJH. The collaborative conversations in the school district's suburbans during the to and from 10-hour Missouri-Wisconsin drives were some of the best brainstorming, thought clarifying and vision developing discussions we’ve ever held. There is something special about a team of educators collaborating in a vehicle together to dream and design a preferred future for their school!
After our second team of teachers returned from their school sites visit trip to Wisconsin, we came upon the Personalize Learning website and made connection with two leading ladies in the forefront of personalized learning. Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey led a small team of our teacher leaders through a school personalized learning readiness audit and then we committed to participate in a 5 W’s of Personalized Learning eCourse with Barbara and Kathleen in the spring of 2014. They aided us tremendously in developing a common language and understanding for personalizing our learning environments. On our journey, we have definitely stood on the shoulders of others in our professional learning network (PLN), acting interdependently for the benefit of our own learners.
Simultaneous to these developments, I created a ScoopIt! digital curation site, Personalized Learning, to continue stimulating our teaching and learning team’s commitment to learn about personalized learning.
The bottom line of our journey has been to move the conversation back to asking learners, “what do you want to be when you grow up as a contributing member of society?” and subsequently, “what will you need to learn and be able to know and do along your way to becoming a doctor, entrepreneur, mechanic, entertainer, pharmacist, teacher, small business owner, etc.?”; instead of “we need you to score Proficient or Advanced on the state assessment so our school and district can meet accountability standards” or “so Missouri can be in the top ten of all states in achievement and college & career readiness measures by the year 2020,” or even just “so you can acquire the necessary credits to be promoted to the next grade level and eventually to graduate.” Moving the conversation back to being about the learner and learning is our goal.
Fortunately, many of our learners are embracing the challenge and opportunity of personalized learning. My favorite holiday season gift from a learner this school year was from a 7th grade girl named Chloe. Chloe deeply impacted me when she walked up in the car drop-off line and handed me the following homemade craft sign. Chloe, among many others, gets it!
Chloe’s gift giving is a testament to her character and thoughtfulness, but also to one of our primary beliefs at Branson Junior High. At our school, relationships come first. Relationships between school staff, learners and their families, as well as with our larger community, are what school should be all about. We believe no significant learning occurs without significant relationships (James Comer).
Chloe’s gift also bears evidence of her ownership of another of our school’s primary beliefs; in rigor, having the high expectation of herself as a learner that she has what it takes to be successful, and will take responsibility to do so. We believe in developing a growth mindset in our learners, viewing challenging work as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Lastly, Chloe’s gift reveals our teaching and learning team’s belief in relevance, personalizing the learning environment so learners can follow their passion and find their purpose. We believe in helping learners discover and understand how they best access (get) information, engage (learn) with content, and express (show) what they know and understand (Barbara Bray, Kathleen McClaskey, Judi Easdon, Lacie Reinsch).
Building robust educator capacity for personalizing the learning environment of a classroom, a teaching team or an entire school, requires empowering your teaching and learning team to experience the richness of personalized learning themselves. If you expect your team to facilitate personalized learning experiences for their learners, you must allow them to build their own island of success with personalized learning. Your school’s model will have common characteristics with other models of personalized learning from around the country and world; however it will also be unique if you allow your team to truly personalize your journey. We encourage you to go create your own island of success with personalized learning!
Bryan Bronn is part of the passionate team of educators at Branson Junior High, with an enrollment of 725 seventh and eighth graders, serving in his sixth year as principal. Bryan facilitated a personalized learning environment with his learners in the classroom through American History and Geography courses before moving into school administration. Bryan is a native Nebraskan, but has taught and led youth in Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, as well as Nebraska, to follow their passion and find their purpose. Bryan has earned advanced degrees in education and has served as the middle level representative for the Missouri Association of Secondary School Principals.
You can follow Bryan on Twitter @bronnb and Branson Junior High @BransonJH
Bryan is married to Paula (26 years), who is an elementary teacher of the Gifted and is a father of three, Josh (23), Caleb (21) and Hope (18).