Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Validating the Learner and Nurturing their Passion for Learning

Guest Post: Liberty Elem. Personalized Learning Team, Liberty Elem. School, RUSD, CA

Liberty Elementary’s vision is to become a landmark school that provides personalization while fostering every learner’s highest potential. Their mission was developed by all teachers:

“Liberty exists to nurture and facilitate innovators’ individual passion for learning. Through voice, choice, pace and path, learners will contribute to mankind’s digitally connected world.”
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In 2013, Riverside Unified School District (RUSD) was selected for a philanthropist grant for the implementation of Personalized Learning (PL). RUSD selected two elementary school to begin the pilot process of implementing PL in a small scale. This grant gave Liberty the opportunity for a small pilot team of teachers to attend conferences, workshops, site trainings and the 5W's web-based training on Personalized Learning.
The small pilot team is composed of three classroom teachers, one resource teacher, a literacy coach, and the principal. Our pilot group adopted and made a commitment to learn RUSD’s Five Elements of Personalized Learning, which have guided our learning and our learner centered instructional program. The five elements are:
  1. Personal Learner Profiles - knowing all about each learner
  2. Personal Learning Plans - details plans that are developed by learners, teachers and parents 
  3. Flexible Learning Environments - having options to learn in various ways 
  4. Competency-Based Progressions - showing mastery before moving on 
  5. Socially-Engaged Contributors - finding ways to interact and contribute to community both local and globally

Liberty Elementary is a neighborhood school located in a low-income community, with 93% of learners receiving free or reduced lunch. The community and school face several obstacles, including having Juvenile Hall next to their school. Liberty shares a fence with this institution. However, they belong to the No Excuses University (NEU) network and work under the No Excuses belief that “All students have the right to be educated in a way that will prepare them for a college education. Whether they attend or not should be their choice.”

Liberty created a Culture of Universal Achievement as we worked on believing in each and every child through NEU’s Belief Systems. In adopting the six Belief Systems, we banned the excuses we made. We no longer blame students, parents, our community or district when students do not learn. We no longer say “students will learn only if they spoke English or their parents were educated.” Under NEU’s Beliefs, we understand that we have full control of student learning and achievement. Our NEU made it easier to learn and implement Personalized Learning at Liberty because both have a strong focus on the child. Under our No Excuses model, we work hard to thrive amidst limitations and challenges that are very present in our community, and which learners face on a daily basis.

The relationships built between learners and teachers are important to all involved and builds culture and the common language around personalized learning so everyone is on board. It starts with conversations between learners and teachers to develop an understanding of who the learner is and to use that information to co-design learning goals based on our state standards. Learners advance, at their own pace, based on demonstrated mastery of the standards. They are socially engaged contributors that share their learning with others.

“Common Core is the What and Personalized Learning is the How”
Esther Garcia, Principal of Liberty Elementary

To meet the needs of our 21st century learners, flexible learning environments are provided, along with multiple instructional delivery approaches. From Maker Stations, Agricultural Center, and Green Screen room, to Coding and Chess Club, Liberty offers something to engage every kind of learner. To create these environments, we realized we need to know each learner and why it is important to validate them as a learner.

Personal Learner Profile

Our pilot team researched different questionnaires for the Learner Profile. Since we are also an AVID school, we first based it on learning styles used by this program. At ISTE 2014, we met Barbara and Kathleen and learned more about Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The district grant was for three pilot teachers and 100 learners. The pilot PL team, and other teachers interested in learning about PL, attended the 5W’s of Personalized Learning eCourse to learn more about the process. We adapted the Learner Profile and developed questions that started the conversations that allowed us to know each learner. Developing our Learner Profile and Personalized Learning Plan (PLP) started with a conversation.


The conversations became very emotional for teachers and learners because the cultural and religious beliefs students shared were very personal and opened our eyes to their lives at home. This was the first time they were able to express that they are children trying to learn in a culture with hidden rules they do not know or understand. This was also the beginning of building lasting relationships between the teacher and child as the following story shows:
One third grader shared that she missed her grandfather and how they spent time together gardening back in Mexico where she cannot go back and see him again. He taught her how to garden and they would tend to the garden together almost everyday. The teacher let the coordinator know and they invited her to join the garden club. She is now very excited to be a part of the garden club.

The Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) is one of the assessments we use to help us understand the big picture of the child from the academic side along with how each learner accesses information, engages with content, and expresses what they know.

This year (2015-2016), we modified the Learner Profile to include a word bank that describes each learner. At the end we added this prompt: “Something about what I want my teacher to know is…” This statement can go either way and could open doors to very private information. Understanding the child and their needs, socially and academically, is very important to us.

Personalized Learning Plan

The Personalized Learning Plan (PLP) has evolved a lot and is still evolving based on what kids can and cannot do, the profile and how they demonstrate mastery. We also see where they stand as readers, writers and mathematicians. As we create the whole child, if they cannot read, their plan includes goals for meeting reading standards. The Personalized Learning Plan includes the teacher and learner working together as co-authors as they work on the plan, monitor progress on what the learner can and cannot do, and then reflect and show if the learner mastered competencies. Then their profile gets updated to show changes or add new areas to their plan. They have a voice and choice on knowing who they are as a learner.

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Personalized Learning Cycle

The Personalized Learning Elements implemented by Riverside Unified School District are interconnected and cyclical scheduled without real time and dates because they are dictated by the learner. The Learner Profile is in the middle of the element’s cycle with a picture of the learner in cap and gown to remind us of the No Excuses belief: “All students have the right to be educated in a way that will prepare them for a college education. Whether they attend or not should be their choice.”


All five elements work in harmony. The two elements that are more evident, and were fun to implement are:
  • Flexible learning environments play a role where kids want to learn and what types of resources they want to use. There could be a screencasting of the teacher or kids, a physical space in the class, and a makerspace for more in-depth creativity and innovation.
  • Socially-engaged contributor is where learners and teachers are sharing learning through social media and learner-led conferences where learners own and drive the conversations around their learning. They also use Periscope for live streaming of learning happening when it happens. Teachers create YouTube videos and share everything.

Our Progress in Personalizing Learning

We have made good progress in the implementation of Passion Projects to meet the specific learning interests of students. Student interests were learned through the Learning Profiles. Some of the projects include: Coding, Chess, Origami, MakerSpaces, Green Screen and Take Apart. Our Passion Projects are ageless, gradeless. The MakerStation creates opportunities to build, tinker, and “make” projects that build upon interests in design and engineering. Participants document their findings and share their work with each others via tools such as Google Drive and YouTube channel.

Learners dove into computer science last year using Google CS First to learn basic coding skills that included game design, music and sound, and storytelling forms. The positive energy from students being invited to take a more hands-on approach to their own learning is already deeply felt on the school campus. Read more….

We are excited about our journey and plan to keep sharing the stories and what we learn.

“What excites me the most is being able to motivate learners and help them
believe in themselves. They will do great things when they are having fun as they learn.”
Norma Rodriguez

The Liberty Elementary Personalized Learning Team includes

Norma Rodriguez, Literacy Coach @NEULiberty
Tuesday Ramunni, Personalized Learning Program Manager @RamunniT
Kristina Forsythe, Personalized Learning Instructional Coach @TechyTwinMom
Kristin Karrow, 4th Grade Teacher @KarrowsWarriors
Mindie Driskel, 6th Grade Teacher @jmdriskel
Esther Garcia, Principal @neuesther