Thursday, June 28, 2012

Changing the Weather at Apollo

Every student in every school can achieve success. At Apollo Middle School in Tucson, Arizona, they went from being labeled "Underperforming Year II" in 2006 to barely under "Highly Performing" by 2009. Our students need us to understand them and to believe in them. This video demonstrates the impact on our children when we do.  

What High School Students Aren't Learning

Guest post by Melissa Miller
What high school students aren't learning - a guest post by Melissa Miller

First, a confession: although I did spend thirteen whole years in the field, I'm no professional when it comes to K-12.

The only level of education I've been on both sides of was college. In fact, I just finished teaching freshman composition for three years at a large, urban public university in the South. Though I felt strongly for my students and believe in them wholeheartedly as individuals, I think it's fair to admit that the lack of preparedness they evinced was often shocking.

I won't concentrate on the nitty-gritty mechanics of student writing here, although there was always a lot to be desired in that department. Rather, I want to talk broadly applicable abilities I often wished the high school experience had inculcated more in order to prepare my students for college.

The first is making fine distinctions. A lot of the papers I received showed an inability to deal with shades of gray (there are many more than fifty, incidentally). Some of this ability comes with age, of course: when we're young, we're more idealistic and everything is simpler in our heads than it really is, as we soon find out. But some of it can be taught, and this ability to "wallow in complexity," as our textbook put it, is one of the most priceless gifts of a lifestyle that makes enough space for reading and writing.

My students, especially when confronted with "issue"-centered arguments, all too often had crippling difficulties with stepping outside a black and white view of a problem. This can be laid at the feet of our Manichean political culture, to be sure. But the only way to repair this epidemic of simplistic, reactive worldviews is to encourage critical thinking from a young age.

Another major problem I saw was a failure to recognize the raised stakes. One of the saddest aspects of my experience was the prevalence of plagiarism. I remember well the culture of widespread cheating at my own high school, and I'm not going to pretend I was always pure myself in this regard, but as Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

College students are adults, and not only responsible for their own actions, but accountable. There's a reason we (generally) don't try minors as adults. I tried to be frank about cheating, and explain that, while it was merely naughty in childhood, it would cause them serious problems now. I still had to throw the book at a few kids though, and while it was truly painful for me, it will haunt them with practical ramifications. I wish they hadn't needed to learn that the hard way. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Melissa Miller is a cheerleader for online associate degree programs. Not literally, of course (since online schools don't have varsity football), but in the sense that her writings will encourage you to "B-E aggressive" about your education. Throw your questions to

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Architects of “Student-Based” Classrooms to Speak at Summit

The architects of Detroit and Kansas City student-based classrooms will speak at the Innovation Summit.
John Covington, the newly anointed Education Achievement Authority Chancellor, and Mary Esselman, the chief officer for accountability, equity and innovation, will present their “student-based’ classrooms at the School Improvement Innovation Summit.

Covington reportedly says, “We owe it to our young people. We need to bring hope to children whom the vast majority of people, in many cases, our country, have long-since given up on.”

A student-based classroom, according to Covington and Esselman’s model, is stripped of grade levels. Instead of determining that all students of one age must learn at the same rate on the same topics, Detroit’s new chancellor is implementing a skills-based classroom. In a student-based classroom, students demonstrate proficiency in certain skills before moving on to the next classroom.

“Student-based classrooms are fundamentally changing the way we think about learning and education,” says Curtis Linton, vice president of School Improvement Network and presenter at this summer’s Innovation Summit. “Students can personalize their own classroom experience.” When asked if he thought the move toward this model is too bold or difficult to implement, Linton said that the idea is “bold, and absolutely worth it.”

Detroit is not the first city to receive this new classroom model. Covington and Esselman began implementing this classroom model in Kansas City—but some say they didn’t finish.

Covington and Esselman had battled for years to implement the student-based classroom, and they left a framework behind for the new administration to follow. But for some, it was too much too fast. However, Steve Green, the new Kansas City superintendent, says, “I’m not letting loose of the notion. It’s still in the strategic plan.”

Covington and Esselman are not the first to implement the student-based classroom, but they are numbered among the few. Every district that has implemented this new classroom model has had success, though the road has often been difficult.

Difficult or not, however, educators say that they owe their best efforts to the students.

“The kids can do it if we expect them to do it,” she said. “We need to assume that they can learn, rather than that they can’t even though some of them come with unbelievable challenges.”


Join us at the School Improvement Innovation Summit and Common Core Institute July 16-19. Register 3 or more people for both events and save $100! Visit for more information.

Novelty: Enhancing Student Curiosity

Personalized Learning in the Common Core Standards

By Amy Esselman

Novelties in the classroom make the Common Core Standards and topic matter far more interesting for any learner.
There are certain things that have been done the same way forever. No one seems to question the process—it just is. Things are the way they’ve always been and everyone seems to be just fine with that.

You drink milk with cookies, pair salt with pepper, and put ketchup on your hotdog.

But, do you remember when green Ketchup was introduced? It caused a stir. Kids couldn’t get enough of it. But why?

Personally, I’m not a fan of green condiments. I was never particularly interested in squeezing green paste on my food, and yet I was intrigued. Just like every other kid around me, I begged my parents to buy it so we could all experience how cool and new it was. Red ketchup was out, Green was a million times more exciting.

Now I know hotdogs and ketchup don’t have anything to do with school, but it does apply to kids.

The reason why the ketchup got so popular was that it was novel. It was new, exciting and different. It spiced up the kitchen. It got kids excited to help set the table, prepare food, and even help serve – or better yet share.

How does that apply to the classroom? You can use any number of examples.

The same books, lessons, problems, scenarios and stories get old. There is nothing novel about working on the same exact thing as the rest of your class. There is nothing exciting about a step by step guide to solving a problem. As the Common Core starts being implemented in more and more schools, classrooms will become even more skill based. The Common Core will personalize the process students to become both college and career ready. It’s just about content—it’s about the journey students take to understand it. We can’t afford to bore students with the same old stuff, in the same old way.

By incorporating personalized plans, and a little bit of “green ketchup” into classrooms, students are able to get excited. Not everyone learns the same way so finding new ways to spice up learning is absolutely crucial. When you introduce a new project, or new flexible learning guidelines—ones which are adaptable to individual needs and interests, you light a spark of innovation and intrigue. Students start thinking “I can do it my way? Really?”

Imagine how curious students would be to discover their own roadmap to success. Not everyone wants to do the same thing over and over. Some students don’t want to work on the same projects in the same order and same style as their classmates—it’s all just red ketchup to them.

Where’s the color? Where’s the fun?

Sometimes making learning appear “new” is as simple as putting a new spin on a lesson, or asking for student input. Give students the freedom to find solutions their way, to share in the discovery of success. They won’t be able to get enough of it.

Monday, June 25, 2012

UNVEILED: Teacher Effectiveness System to Be Presented at 2012 Innovation Summit

Teacher Effectiveness System by School Improvement Network

The Teacher Effectiveness System by School Improvement Network will be unveiled at the School Improvement Innovation Summit 2012 in Salt Lake City.
The ultimate measure of teacher effectiveness is each student being prepared for college and career. Teacher effectiveness is more important now than it has ever been. Students in U.S. schools have been falling and failing and we have to help them. It may be impossible to pinpoint what isn’t working in our school systems and how to fix it, but the worst thing we can do is to do nothing.

Simply blaming teachers for the poor academic results of our students is a little ridiculous, but recognizing that we may not be giving teachers the support they need to be effective isn’t. Every teacher can better the learning experience for every student and guide them to college and career readiness, but success doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a process. The Teacher Effectiveness System (TES) contains that process.

TES by School Improvement Network compiles essential learning elements into a systematic teacher effectiveness framework that encompasses every facet of education. The Teacher Effectiveness System is the support that teachers need to be more effective in the classroom and to help 100% of students become college and career ready.

At the 2012 School Improvement Innovation Summit, School Improvement Network will be officially releasing the Teacher Effectiveness System and leading discussions about the process within the system, benefits, and the specific tools used to improve teacher effectiveness. The Summit will also feature innovative keynotes, educational experts, and a highly collaborative environment for leaders in education to gain strategic frameworks and actionable tools they can implement in their local school systems.

In addition to the dynamic speakers and sessions at the Summit, School Improvement Network implementation specialists, trainers, and customer support personnel will be on hand to work with attendees and answer any questions they have on PD 360, Observation 360, Common Core 360, TES, and more.

Innovation Summit Topics include:
  • Innovative Leadership that leads to 100% College and Career Readiness
  • Innovations in On-Demand Professional Development
  • Successful implementation of the Common Core Standards
  • Equity tied to practice that works for all students
  • Take-aways offering innovative approaches to vision and direction
Teacher effectiveness makes all the difference for students. Learn more about how to improve teacher effectiveness to help 100% of students be college and career ready at the School Improvement Innovation Summit by visiting

Defining Effectiveness

School Improvement Network's Teacher Effectiveness System Prepares All Educators to Get 100% of Students College and Career Ready

By Amy Esselman

The Teacher Effectiveness System by School Improvement Network supports teachers--and students--like nothing else available.
It took me a long time to figure out what defines an “effective teacher.”

Growing up I had lots of teachers that I loved. I still remember by kindergarten teacher. She was the best! Not only did she help me start to read, but she let me stay up during nap time. She wasn’t giving me special treatment; she just knew that I didn’t like naps. Turning the lights off and having me lay down on my Barney mat would have done very little to get to actually rest, let alone go to sleep.

In my mind, she was an effective teacher. She knew my strengths, and skills. She gave me room to grow in the classroom, and the flexibility to do things I enjoyed. She encouraged me to find positives in the activities that I disliked. For example, I didn’t like trying to sound out words; I preferred to make them up. She taught me that imagination is a great thing, but I still have to read the words on the page—that’s how I would understand the story.

Now I may not remember every lesson from elementary school, but somehow that one stuck with me—a little kid who could barely read learned that words were important. She was effective in preparing me for the next level. She didn’t help me just in the moment. She helped me for the long run.

Now think past kindergarten. The ultimate test of teacher effectiveness is each student being prepared for college or their career. It will take hard work, dedication, and time. Effectiveness is something you can’t gain overnight. It’s a combination of preparation, research, practice and passion.

But realistically, it’s hard to find the time.

Sure, there are resources out there. You can find them online, or at the library or through your school. But training takes time, books have to be read. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. Collectively, any number of resources could help you achieve teaching effectiveness, but it doesn’t seem all that practical.

The School Improvement Network has over 20 years of experience and research in teacher effectiveness and has created a systematic approach that will ease the burden and confusion of figuring out where to start.

The Teacher Effectiveness system incorporates tools, resources and applications to help achieve effectiveness at every level. All in one place, ready when you are. The ultimate goal of the system is get prepare all educators to get 100% of students college and career ready.

It seems like a lofty goal, but it really isn’t. There are schools all over the country who have met the 100% mark with their students. It’s a combination of hard work, the right tools, and learning to be flexible. In order to prepare students for college and careers, you can’t just pass them. You can’t just make them nap or read. You have to work with them; try to understand them and how they work.

Students remember the teachers who helped them grow, achieve and get ready to move forward—the ones that were effective. (It’s just an added bonus if they let you stay up during nap time!)

Flipped Classrooms and the Common Core Standards

Personalized Learning in the Common Core Standards

By Amy Esseleman
Flipped classrooms help teachers prepare students to master the skills outlined in the Common Core Standards

Like most kids, I pretended the little “homework” section in my agenda was more of a suggestion than an expectation. Plus, homework was hard. It never seemed like what we learned that day. Surely someone changed something! How come I couldn’t remember how to work the problems? Why did the book I was reading suddenly appear to be written in another language?

I’ve never understood why the explanation portion of learning was taught in class and the application portion—the part most kids need the help on—occurs outside of class.

The majority of the time it’s not the lesson that students struggle with—it’s replicating and applying it.

Students everywhere can start to rejoice. There is a growing trend filtering through schools, secondary and college level institutions alike, to “flip” the traditional classroom and try something new.

There are teachers who have essentially ditched spending the entire class period explaining and assigning material, and replaced it with discussion, group work, and “in-class” homework. This isn’t a new concept, but it’s finally catching on.

Instructions, reading, background information, and pre-work can all be done before or at the beginning of class. Teachers no longer have to send students home with mountains of worksheets and to-do lists.

We have personalized learning to thank.

The concept of personalized learning is having a huge influence on the way teachers are thinking about their classrooms. They are no longer seeing students as one and the same. They are individuals, all with different needs and skills. Now everything you used to teach to the whole class can fall, at least partially, into the hands of students. Discussion and application as the main focus in a class will allow for assignments to better relate to and interest students. Once they gain a background of a subject or lesson they are free to explore, ask questions and tackle learning objectives.

Here’s something to consider.

In addition to personalized learning making its way into the classroom, the Common Core Standards are making a flipped classroom more feasible. The skills based Standards are one more reason to support the idea of flipping the classroom structure. Now is not the time to send kids home with all sorts of skills to master—students need to work on them in the classroom. When they need help, you’re right there.

Students won’t be home alone tearing their hair out because they get stuck. When you flip the classroom—have the teacher and learning resources available during school instead of after, you spend more time evaluating, analyzing and understanding.

Homework has always been about what answer you got. Now it can be about how you got there—the process. Students everywhere will one day rejoice.

Friday, June 22, 2012

What Can You Learn in One-on-One Training with Heidi Hayes Jacobs?

Get one-on-one curriculum mapping training with Heidi Hayes Jacobs on July 18 - 19.
Since the adoption of The Common Core Standards Initiative, school systems across the U.S. have been searching for quality resources to guide them through effective implementation. Books, websites, and webinars all help, but each is missing something that makes a significant difference—actual one-on-one instruction and collaboration with an expert to guide them through the details of the curriculum mapping process.

At the Common Core Institute on July 18-19 in Salt Lake City, Heidi Hayes Jacobs and her colleagues at Curriculum21, will be hosting engaging hands-on sessions to guide district leaders through the difficult-but-necessary process of Common Core implementation. This is not just an expert on a stage presenting his or her own research. Heidi and her team will work with participants to tailor the participants’ curriculum maps to the needs of their 21st century students and learn how to best construct curriculum maps that align to the Common Core Standards for student success.

And those who attend the Institute will not leave empty handed. Each attendee will receive free access to Mapping to the Core and Mapping to the Core: LivePlanner (a $210 value)—Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ innovative LiveBooks available on the LiveBook platform from School Improvement Network. With automatic author updates, user comments, and peer-note sharing, mapping curriculum to the Common Core Standards becomes more than a task to be completed; it becomes an entirely new learning experience.

Common Core implementation won’t necessarily be easy or “natural” for every school or district, but how many things that are “worth it” are easy? It’s essential that administrators and teachers find a way to successfully implement the Standards in order to provide every student a better shot at success beyond their K-12 experience. The training with Dr. Jacobs is a guiding step for successful implementation, and it’s just the beginning. Register for the Institute and get the one-on-one instruction you’ve been looking for.

Learning without Talking Is Like Writing with Your Hands Tied Behind Your Back

Personalized Learning in the Common Core Standards

By Amy Esselman
Personalized learning cannot happen in classrooms where silence is required.

In school there were lessons I loved, and others I zoned out on. Well actually, thinking back on it, there were a lot I zoned out on. It’s not that I didn’t want to learn. I did. I just wasn’t engaged. I know I wasn’t alone. In fact, right now there are students everywhere feeling the same way—waiting for something to peak their interest. But instead, they just watch the teacher talk. How many are listening?

Enter : Personalized learning.

Personalized learning refocuses the classroom attention back on students instead of teachers. Well sure, you say learning has always been “student centered”, that’s the whole point. But for too long the unique needs of individual students have gone unnoticed. Not every student learns the same, and certainly not at the same speed.

The verdict came in a long time ago: Teaching one way is out.

The same areas rarely motivate students in the same way. I speak from experience when I say that some class sessions certainly didn’t have me throwing my hand in the air eager to participate.

While some students are able to learn through lectures, they are few and far between. Teachers can talk the talk, all day in some cases. But can they walk the walk? Could they sit where the students are and learn the same way? Teachers are mentors, tour guides on the journey of student discovery. You aren’t teaching a lesson, you are guiding a student. That means paths change. Techniques get altered.

There is a high level of autonomy built into the concept of personalized learning. Everything can be adapted to accommodate the needs of all your students. They can all learn the way that makes the most sense to them. That’s huge!

Teachers don’t have to pull teeth trying to engage students in a “one size fits all” lesson. It didn’t work before, and it doesn’t have to now. Teachers will help steer and encourage students, but they won’t be doing all the talking.

Students will talk. They will talk to the teacher, to their peers, to their friends, their parents, maybe even to themselves!

If fact, the classroom goal should be more talking. My friends and I always got in trouble for talking, but maybe we were on to something. Here’s a challenge: Talk Less. Explain less. Instead, encourage students to make sense of it in their own way—in a way that they choose and understand.

Advise, guide, encourage, and listen. Let students do the talking and take their place at the front of the classroom—you’ll both be glad you did.

Blame It On Your Birthday

Personalized Learning in the Common Core Standards

Personalized learning is often impeded by one simple roadblock: your birthdate.
By Amy Esselman

Do you ever think back to your grade school days? I do.

I liked where I sat. I liked the kids I went to recess with. I liked the kids in my class—did I mention we were all the same age, or at least close?

Sure, we all learned at different speeds, but it didn’t matter. We had birthdays that fell in a certain spot, and as a result we were put into a certain class.

In fact, it may not surprise you, but most of us made friends based on who was in our class—friends that stretch far beyond the walls of K-12 education. Was it chance, luck, or a coincidence that we made those bonds?

No. No. Nope. You have your birthday to thank.

Friendships aside, did it make sense to group us by age and not skill level? I say, No. Don’t get me wrong. I already said I liked my classmates, that’s not the issue. Year in school is often dictated by year in age. You’re 5, so you start kindergarten. Who made that rule?

Imagine if we tweaked this tradition. Imagine if we took a closer look at each student—making a conscious effort to assign and track skill level, not age. Just because I was 10 didn’t mean I knew everything a 5th grader should know. Just because I turned 12 didn’t mean that everything in 7th suddenly made sense.

Skills, not age, define readiness.

I’m not saying abandon grade levels in schools all together, but I am asking you to look beyond them.

When we personalize learning, and standardize skill expectations in the classroom we give all students a chance to excel based on what they know, not how old they are. That’s a pretty cool concept.

Quite frankly, I think it relieves a lot of student stress and worry. Too often students feel pressured to know everything because that’s what their “age” says they should know. We all learn differently—at different speeds, in different ways. We need to embrace that idea. It doesn’t mean letting kids take years to complete a level, it means letting students figure out a comfortable pace to master and understand skills, moving faster and slower as they see fit.

I’m in my twenties and I still feel like there are areas I could have understood better. Just because I’m older doesn’t mean everything suddenly becomes clear. If we feel this way, imagine how struggling students feel. Age is just a number; it doesn’t have to determine our grade.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Alexi's Story: Behrman Charter Elementary

Who says teachers just teach? Little Alexi is one of many students who lost everything in the aftermath of one of the country's worst natural disasters in history. This video details how Alexi finds love and security at Martin Behrman Charter School following the trauma of Hurricane Katrina.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Perks of Personalizing: 3 Reasons to Personalize Learning

Personalized Learning in the Common Core Standards

By Amy Esselman

personalized learning in the common core standards - 3 reasons to personalize learning in your classroom.
Students are all different. It’s obvious. You could have kids in your class who are more methodical, or ones who would prefer to take risks and get creative.

There is no surefire way to categorize or standardize students. Besides, why would you want to? We all learn differently. We should continue to embrace that. Instead of telling students how to learn, we need to teach them to take charge, blaze their own path. Personalized learning is a huge part of that lesson.

Here are the top 3 reasons to personalize learning in your classroom:

1. You're Teaching a Student, Not a Lesson

Personalizing a student’s education means taking an interest in their skills, abilities, likes and dislikes. When you personalize how and what a student learns it gives them the very best possibility of improving and actually taking that knowledge along with them.

When I was in the early stages of school, there wasn’t much personalization going on in classrooms. The lessons were defined and we all got there using the same path. Personalizing the experience would have meant acknowledging the multiple roads that exist to arrive at the same solution. Instead of full class lessons, students can do any number of alternatives: individual projects, peer-to-peer learning, research, presentations—the list goes on!

 2. Common Core Standards Make It Easier

The Common Core is almost perfectly aligned with the concept of personalized learning. The Standards will make the skills students should know consistent across the board. It won’t be a guessing game as to what skills students will need—they’re all laid out. It doesn’t matter how they learn them, but just that they do. This type of flexibility within education means that teachers can approach these skills in ways that interest, inspire and motivate the kids in their class. They don’t all need to be doing the same thing, yet in the end they will each have reached the same level.

The Common Core is not just another set of standards to implement because someone said so. They could be truly instrumental in changing the future of education and ensuring that all students receive the necessary support to succeed.

3. You Give the Student a Voice

Personalized education gives students a voice and an opportunity to take an active role in their education. When we recognize that students can’t all be treated the same we are setting them up for success—saying “you are all capable of learning this, how would you like to approach this?”

I would have loved to customize my time in the classroom. I think back and wonder if the areas I struggled in would make more sense if they were tailored to my interests and skills. I stumbled through because that’s what you had to do, but would it have helped to have to set my own goals and approach them in my own way, at my own pace? Absolutely.

Personalized Learning: The Art of Trying Again

Personalized Learning in the Common Core Standards

By Amy Esselman

The unit test fails to address the personalized learning needs of all students in the Common Core Standards
If all of my schooling was based on test scores, I wouldn’t be a very happy camper. In school I always disliked how there was one unit test, or one end-of-chapter exam. That was it. That was all you got. You did well or you didn’t, and regardless of the outcome the class moved on.

A unit test was your one chance to demonstrate that you understood a topic and if for some reason you did poorly, it was too late to go back and change it.

As a current student, I don’t agree with this method.

Mastery of a topic of subject matter comes over time. It can’t be timed or forced. Every time I received a bad test score, or a disappointing grade, I wanted to redo it. But, I couldn’t. I wasn’t allowed to; the class was already on to the next subject.

In my mind, that means I didn’t master what I wanted to, and potentially I’m not ready for what comes next. I know I’m not alone. Kids don’t want to be defined by tests scores. They want to show that they can a) improve from where they were, and b) that they really do understand the lesson. So why in the world are traditional tests a “one-and-done” deal? The phrase “if at first you don’t succeed, try again” comes to mind. When did we stop hanging that poster up in schools? Tests and homework are ways to evaluate where a student is to a teacher, but they are also proof to a student that they understand. If they didn’t get it the first time, they should be able to go back as many times as they feel necessary to relearn, retry and improve—all without penalty or lowering of their “grade”.

Personalized learning addresses some of this concern. Personalized learning is student-centered. It’s driven by the student and their specific goals and skills. When paired with the Common Core Standards, personalized learning focuses specifically on what each student needs to succeed. If a student doesn’t feel satisfied with their evidence for a certain standard or skill, there is nothing stopping them from trying it again. They can try a million times. Or they don’t have to.

It’s up to them, and that’s the way it should be.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Teacher as a Resource

Personalized Learning in the Common Core

By Amy Esselman

When classrooms have personalized learning, the teacher becomes a resource rather than the sole source of knowledge.
When I think about classrooms--classrooms in which I had been taught years ago or the college classes where I find myself lately, there seems to be a reoccurring pattern:

Desks in a row. White board at the front. Teacher talking.

But, as I’m sure some of you are already aware, classrooms don’t look like this anymore. The old model is out, and we are on to bigger and better things.

When I was in elementary school and then high school, teachers were at the center of any learning. They told the class which lessons we were learning and helped lay the framework for our objectives. Essentially, teachers held the key to classroom. In my mind, it made sense—that’s why they stood at the front of the room, right? But now, the keeper of the keys has changed.

Personalized learning, switching from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered classrooms, is on the rise. With the Common Core Standards finally being implemented into schools, it’s time to imagine what more and more classrooms are starting to look like. The scenery is changing and students and teachers alike like what they see.

The autonomy of the Common Core Standards means that teachers will have a greater flexibility of how to teach and how to help students improve in certain skill areas. The Standards only call for certain skills to be learned, instead of the specifics of how to learn them, and that’s a good thing. Now, with the help of the Standards and the dedication of teachers, education can—finally—be tailored to the unique needs of students. Teachers will become even more of a resource. Instead of standing at the front of the room all the time, the teachers will become mentors, helping steer students in the right direction on their course of learning.

Imagine more small groups, innovative individual projects, increased peer-to-peer conferences, exploratory research with technology and new applications, outside experiments, portfolio construction, blog assignments, enhanced computer usage integrated with lessons, one-on-one instruction—the list goes on. Until now these things have existed, but not altogether, and they were not regularly utilized.

A “special” project was a once in a while occurrence, or a breath of fresh air from regular instruction. These concepts are a reality and they are happening right now in classrooms all over the country. Personalized learning combines the interests and skill levels of individual students and lets them have an active role in how they approach learning objectives. Students will have more time to work with teachers on how to understand concepts that they may have missed in a regular class setting.

More learning can take place when you explore the possibility of trying something new. The kids that weren’t motivated by group learning might flourish. The students who weren’t challenged can create projects and test themselves. I don’t know about you, but that’s something I would have craved in school—the chance to showcase my strengths and think outside the box. I would have given anything to integrate what I loved with what I was learning.

When we give students, and not the teacher, the key to achievement and success, the stakes change. Classrooms will never look the same, but maybe that’s a good thing.

What You Wish For Your Students

students and the common core
Recently, curriculum expert Steven Weber shared his thoughts on the impact of a bucket list for K-12 students. While the education system has previously focused on teaching students to solve math problems, write quality five-paragraph essays, and learn about the history of the U.S. and the world, some might wonder if there is more they should know when they leave high school. 

Of course math, English, history, and other subjects are important and a foundation for what is to come in students’ lives, but are we teaching them enough of the other skills they will need to know—time management, communication, financial skills, interview skills, etc.? Those are just some of the skills Weber lists in his personal bucket list for K-12 students.

Unfortunately, time isn’t on the side of teachers as they struggle to teach differentiated, personalized lessons to classrooms of over thirty students. To these teachers, a bucket list sounds like a dream or maybe a “nice idea.” But what if it were more than a nice idea? Weber explains

“If educators would commit to a bucket list for students, then there would be an intentional effort to see that more students are 'the total package.' Some students will still possess better reading skills and some students will have a deeper understanding of digital literacy. Some of the seniors will still go to Harvard and Stanford, while a majority will not qualify…Student success should not be left to the decision students make when they come to a fork in the road. Students will make choices for the remainder of their lives and those choices should be based on a solid foundation.”

So, if you could create a bucket list for what your students would know by the time they graduated high school, what would it include? What about a bucket list for the school year?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Debunking the Traditional Classroom

Personalized Learning in the Common Core

By Amy Esselman

Personalized learning has taken a new leap in the Common Core Standards that is rapidly debunking the idea of a traditional classroom.
By now we have all figured out that there is no such thing as a cookie cutter classroom. What works in one school for one teacher may not work in a school across the district. There is the proverbial give and take when it comes to how teachers need to adapt and make lessons work for everyone in the room. Personalized learning, in conjunction with the implementation of the Common Core, may be able to help. With all the differences in skill level, interests, and even personalities, it’s time to put to rest the idea of “traditional classrooms” when it comes to education and learning.

It’s true. Classrooms are becoming less traditional, but for all the right reasons.

What is traditional, anyway? If one classroom or student is considered traditional or typical, what does that make the rest of them? Even more pressing, are there specifications to be labeled traditional or certain benchmarks that a class needs to hit?

The last I checked, classrooms were filled with a variety of students—each with their own unique needs. If all students are different there is no way that they can be clumped together as one set. Besides, it would be impossible to define a classroom as “the norm,” or standard when there are so many factors that come into play.

Let’s set the scene. An English class needs to be assessed on their ability to understand a story plot, major characters, and motivations. The teacher prepares a multiple choice test to give to the class.

If it were me in the class, I would have mixed feelings about the format.

Personally, I’m not a fan of multiple choice tests. They don’t necessarily give all students an ample opportunity to demonstrate what they understand. They might get confused, or be hindered in how they can express what they know. I can never tell the difference between A, or C. What if they both sound similar, or could almost be right? They aren’t supposed to be unfair, but sometimes they feel like it. Students don’t like to be tricked, and teachers don’t like to trick them. So, there has to be another way.

Here lies the beauty of personalized learning and the Common Core. The Common Core lays out the necessary skills that students should obtain before leaving each grade. Less about content, the Common Core Standards allow teachers to focus on process and understanding objectives rather than press fixed methods or specific texts. It’s the opposite of traditional. It’s adaptable and flexible per student. Forget testing solely with multiple choice, or finding a way to measure all students in the same exact way. Now, if you want to assess certain skills—plot, major characters, you have more options. If I were in the English class I would use pictures and a map, or maybe create a chart. As long as students can provide sufficient evidence of understanding, there doesn’t have to be a “one-shot” mentality when it comes to assessing them.

Traditional is relative. Personalization in the classroom will help unlock doors for students to be active in the learning process. It doesn’t mean you have to abandon those techniques that worked well in your classroom; it just means adding to them. Teachers and students can work as a team to create a roadmap for their success. And whether in a traditional classroom or not, students will be working to master skills in a handful of ways—at their own pace, and in their own way.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Let’s Get Personal: Teaching Away from the Middle

Personalized Teaching in the Common Core

By Amy Esselman

When teachers focus on the average, students at either end of the spectrum are left out.

In school, I dreaded being the last to finish or “the one who didn’t understand.” It was risky raising your hand, because you weren’t sure if you’d be ridiculed for asking questions, or would possibly hold up the class. And yet I was afraid to stay silent if I didn’t understand something, just in case I got left to figure it out on my own.

Times may have changed, but I bet the same insecurities continue to exist for students. How many times do you think students in either the top of the class, or those on the lower end, feel neglected as a result of the teaching style? Too often teaching is viewed as a “one size fits all” operation. But, whether we like it or not, it’s far from the truth.

Gone are the days when you can teach one lesson, one way, and expect every student to catch on.

Of course teachers know that they need to differentiate education. A select few do it with aplomb, most of us are up to our eyes in everything else, and on the other end of the spectrum are the frustrated teachers who can do nothing more than throw their hands in the air. It’s a problem. But it is a problem with a solution.

The Common Core State Standards help to address part of the problem—you may have seen that line coming, but what you don’t know is how much the Common Core can actually help a teacher. The Standards help teachers focus on necessary skills that students should develop, rather than dictating exactly “how” students should learn them. As the Common Core Standards begin a more widely spread implementation phase, personalized learning has moved to the forefront of many classroom agendas.

The Standards will integrate perfectly with the idea of personalized instruction. Sure, it’s easy to teach to the middle of the class, focus on what the “typical” student should understand. But, this presents a problem. It’s just not the reality. Some students are bored and unchallenged waiting for others to catch up. Then, there are the students struggling to keep their heads above water. Something has to give, and overtime, with the implementation of the Common Core, I think it will.

Teachers will work on ways to customize and hone in on individual student needs. Students who don’t feel challenged can work with their teacher to set different goals and vary their lessons. Students at the bottom of the class will be able to seek guidance and one-on-one time to improve. Teachers are spending time figuring out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to their students. But, is that enough?

Let’s get as far away from teaching to the middle as we can. If teaching styles and instruction become more aligned with the individual needs and interests of each student, we will see a shift in all areas of the classroom. Students will feel engaged and productive at every level and will work to improve at their own pace.

Personalized Learning: Opportunity for Innovation

Personalized Learning in the Common Core

By Amy Esselman

The Common Core Standards open up new opportunities for personalized learning.
For years classroom learning has focused on how teachers can best convey concepts and topics to their students. When we get down to the application, a “focus on concepts and topics” really just means that we prepare students for tests. This method works—sometimes—especially if students are “on par,” according to the latest standards or legislation.

What happens, however, if a student doesn’t understand, needs extra help, or falls behind?

With the implementation of the Common Core growing around the country, the idea of personalized learning has started to resonate with teachers. Personalized learning allows us as teachers to get creative with how we run our classrooms, and it helps us better attend to the unique needs, interests, and skill-sets of our students.

The Common Core Standards’ primary purpose—finally—is the same as your own: college and career readiness. They were created in an effort to help teachers ensure that all students are prepared for their future, whether it be for college or a career. The standards are unique in that they don’t tell schools how or what to teach, but rather set the stage for what skills students should walk away with after each grade.

That brings us to the link between the Standards and personalized learning. Personalized learning shifts the focus away from teacher- centered classrooms and instead move towards student- centered learning, allowing students to take an active role and choice in their education. The Common Core has built in autonomy for what to teach and how teachers can decide to implement the standards. Teachers now have the opportunity to let students participate in creating their own learning objectives and ways to understand a subject. There are no boundaries or roadblocks to how students can build and form the expected skills—that’s where the innovation within personalized learning comes into play.

By using personalized learning in their classrooms and incorporating it into their techniques, teachers can decide how they want to engage the students and how to best meet each of their students’ needs. Are their interests different, are the students motivated by different things? What skill level is each student on and how can I help them meet their learning goals? Find ways to incorporate the skills and interests of your students. By giving your students personalized attention, you allow them to take a more active role in how they want to learn. What works for one student, may not work for another. Now is the time to evaluate these differences.

With the implementation of the Common Core on the horizon, a window of opportunity for personalized learning and educational innovation has been created. How will you bring take advantage of the opening and shift from teaching to the test, to having the students define their own learning objectives? The options are endless.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Building a Complete Person

Antheil Elementary in Ewing, New Jersey is located in a blue collar district where school was not important, but sports and making money were. Antheil Elementary took a disjointed community and created an engaged school where children are taught according to their individual needs, parents are brought in and trained how to help their children, and teachers collaborate in effective ways. Antheil is making complete people, not just teaching children to read and write.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Fail: How Zeroes Affect Student Performance

You can’t parent every child the same. Almost every book on parenting will tell you that. The same is obviously true for teaching—you can’t teach every student in the same way because every child learns differently.

Yesterday, I read a blog post called, “Here’s what really happens when you give a zero.” Joe Bower, a teacher in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada explained, “The students who are the hardest to educate and the hardest to like, are the ones that already get a steady diet of zeroes, and yet they are the ones who need us the most.”

If educators are striving to differentiate learning, raise the level of understanding, and prepare students for college and career, where does giving zeroes for assignments play into those goals? Regardless of whether a child is the best or worst student in your class, zeroes don’t motivate students to learn or to improve.

Though there may be arguments that giving a student a zero prepares them for the consequences presented in the real world, Mr. Bower says:

“It is very likely that dropouts are the kids we have the most trouble with in the real world, and yet they are the ones who get the most zeroes. If giving zeroes helped prepare dropouts for the real world, why is that they are the ones who have the most trouble living in the real world?”

How do we help the students who already feel like failures? How do we help all of our students?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Who Says Schools Don't Work?

Fighting stereotypes and low expectations, a new principal was given the task to create a successful environment at her school. Now at Frankford Elementary in Frankford, Delaware, there are no longer any racial, gender, or socio-economic achievement gaps.