Sunday, November 27, 2016

The puzzle: Turning passions into careers

It made for a cool picture--Gabe pitching his hammock near a kettle hole on Mansfield Hollow Lake, while his classmates watched and learned. He had taken us all to his favorite camping spot to teach us how to set up a campsite and build a fire. He offered some really insightful tips. He talked about how peaceful it was, and how he practiced mindfulness out there, as he'd been learning to do during our "pick-me-up" lessons on Fridays.

The students tried out the hammock, we made pine needle tea, and on the way back, I'm pretty sure I heard another student ask if he could come along on one of his camping trips sometime. Gabe not only shared his passion and expertise, he inspired his classmates. He engaged them.

This kind of interest-based, student-driven learning is a big part of what we do at E. O. Smith High School's Depot Campus--it's what our internship program is all about, but it's not all.

We expend a lot of effort building relationships, not only through outings like Gabe's hike, but also through tough conversations, restorative practices, and simply working hard together.

The research is clear about the key role of teacher-student relationships, but it's just as clear about the need for explicit instruction. That's why we've recently ramped up the math here, and why our new "Project Block" is aimed at explicitly building independent learning skills.

So far, our average student is half-way through their math course, and most of our students have completed six out of the nine projects they need to move up to the next level and design their own learning projects.

Some of our students, like Kim, who is working on a fantasy novel, already have projects underway. Others, just plans. But our goal is that every one of them will graduate with some seriously cool projects under their belts--projects that will help them stand out in the college and career market.
The Depot has always focused on reading and reflective writing, and this year we are ramping that up as well by adding more explicit instruction in writing structured essays. So as Kim works through her novel, she will be able to apply new found skills in organization and structure, skills that will transfer to all of her communications in the future.

None of this is easy. It's a lot of change and a lot of work. But each piece of this puzzle is necessary. The finished picture will not just include young adults doing creative and engaging things they enjoy, but doing them well, and from a firm foundation of skills that will launch them into a future that no one can predict. It will be a picture of passions turned into careers.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Tracking student progress in a mastery-based system

"She won't be happy until her progress report is 100% green." That's what one of our teachers told me about one particularly driven student. She was talking about our new Google Drive-based progress report system.

One of the challenges of mastery-based learning is tracking and reporting student progress. Our new system allows students, parents, and teachers to see it all at a glance, so students can get the support they need, see their growth over time, and get quick feedback.

At The Depot, we measure student progress toward mastery of six competencies: Communication, Information, Media, and Technology, Career Skills, Life Skills, Critical Thinking, and Creativity and Innovation.

They work on these skills in various blocks during the school day: Pick-me-up, Advisory, Math Block, Book Teams, Project Block, and Fitness, and at their internships.

Teachers rate student performance on the six competencies using our Competency Rubric, and then enter the data in a spreadsheet like this:

A separate "progress report" spreadsheet for each student reports the data out to students, teachers, and parents, like this:

They see a graph of their progress toward each competency, plus a color-coded matrix that indicates their progress by subject area and block. It also reports attendance, credit issues and their accumulated "chips" (a new incentive system we are using this year). Red and orange squares indicate areas of concern. Yellow shows emerging growth, and green indicates competency.

The system also shows progress on a standard sequence of required tasks (the "non-negotiables"), their current credit status, and a worksheet that shows where their subject area credit is coming from this year. 

The system allows us to better identify students who need specific supports, and we are seeing increased use of the progress reports by parents and students. Our hope is that they will find it not only useful, but also motivating, as they see their growth over time. Our end goal, after all, is not only competency, but self-confidence.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Mastering (and loving) math at the Depot

We've made lots of big changes this year at the Depot, but this may be the most important one:

More math.

There's been a lot of talk lately about the importance of social skills for jobs, but jobs requiring a combination of math AND social skills have shown even more growth.

That's why we've ramped up the math.

But how do you ramp up math at a tiny school where the students are out of the building two days a week, and none of the teachers are certified in math?

It's called ALEKS, and I'm not the only one who likes it. I've had multiple students actually say to me, "I love ALEKS."

How can this happen? They used to say they hated math.

Well, maybe that's changing.

ALEKS is an online math learning system. We enroll students in courses, like Algebra and Geometry, they read tutorials, and then they practice the skills online two hours a week.

What's so cool about ALEKS is that it is a mastery based program. Students start by taking an initial assessment of their skills in each course. It tells them how many topics they have already mastered, and starts them THERE. They may start 20% or 30% of the way through the course, if they already know that much of the material!

ALEKS shows them their progress in a way that is rewarding and motivating, and they only move forward after they've mastered a topic. It gives them periodic "knowledge checks" along the way, and will send them back to relearn topics if necessary, even on their final assessment. There are no grades, because they don't finish until they have mastered 100% of the topics in the course.

If students are not progressing fast enough, we move them to an easier course. For example, a student who is hitting the wall in Algebra is moved to High School Preparation for Algebra, so she can get the skills she needs to go back and tackle Algebra 1 later in the year. If a student is moving quickly, they may get through more than one course in a single year--more credit, and more progress toward college and career!

Right now, our average progress on Geometry and Algebra 2 is 36%. Not bad for independent, online study!

All of this just confirms what I've been thinking lately: Kids don't hate school because it doesn't match their learning style, they hate it because they feel they're not good at it. 

Imagine if we could change that! Just imagine if every student left this place with a new confidence in their math skills?

Imagine the doors that would open for them, not only to college and careers, but to new ways of understanding the world?