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Supporting students where they are in their learning

Published on Wednesday, February 12, 2020

 Westview Elementary showed visitors what personalized learning is all about during a school tour on Feb. 12. Several students

BCSD photo / Monica Kreber

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At Westview Elementary it is normal to see students doing their work in places beyond their classroom.

Many can be found working solo or in groups in the hallways, sitting on the floor or at high-tops as they complete assignments and projects.

This sort of freedom allows students to choose how they learn, so every space is utilized as a learning space.

Students are also practicing competency-based education, also known as personalized learning, which allows more flexibility in how they are graded.

Personalized learning is a major practice at the school; Principal Shawn Wimmer stressed the concept’s importance.

“We need to reach all students where they are,” she said. “Every student is different, they learn differently, at different rates, and personalized learning supports students right where they are in their learning.”

Visitors with the State Department of Education, Dorchester District Two, and an education-improvement group called KnowledgeWorks visited Westview Elementary Wednesday morning to see this competency-based education in action.

The visit was called an Inquiry Lab.

“This is a visit for them to see personalized learning,” Wimmer said. “They’re going to interact with the kids and hear from teachers and students about the impact this has made on student learning.”

In May 2019, BCSD school board members approved promoting a continuation of personalized learning practices by signing off on the implementation of competency-based learning in a new grade level each year, for three years at each of the schools.  

“It supports our personalized learning that we’re doing for children, and we’re rolling that to fourth and to fifth grade over the next two years,” Wimmer said.

Along with personalized learning practices in place at the school, students are provided with a report card much different than the typical sheet of letter grades. Reports show where students align with specific skills. The reports are accompanied by teacher feedback. The language is student-friendly and detail exactly where a child is in their goal to master content. 

The report card does not show a number grade and instead shows ratings for immerging, developing, demonstrating and applying, and those ratings communicate to parents and students where they are at with their learning.

Wimmer said the pilot program is going well so far, and students are excited about it.

“They can articulate what they’re learning and why it’s important, and they’re not afraid to fail – they take risks…and they’re super excited about what we’re doing in school,” she said.

Westview Elementary staff and administrators spent the first part of the morning speaking with visitors about improvements they have seen in personalized learning. They also talked about how their referrals for evaluation of special education are down, while teacher retention is up. Wimmer said they talked about how the performance of their bottom 20 percent of students has increased.

“So we’re seeing a lot of really good initial data points that support what we’re doing here in school,” she said.

Sean Decatur, board member with KnowledgeWorks, said visitors got to see the competency-based learning as they visited classrooms.

“This has been one of the schools that has really been piloting some interesting programs and personalized learning, and so having a chance to get a(n)…up-close look at how it’s connecting with students,” he said.

Visitors toured classrooms and would engage with the students and their teachers to find out more about what they are learning in school – and how they are doing it.

“It’s impressive the ways in which the students actually track their own learning and are just aware of where they are, with respect to the overall standards, but…the individual goals they set for the day,” Decatur said.

After browsing the school, visitors also got to interact with a panel of students in the media center, followed by a panel of teachers. Wimmer and visitors asked them questions on what learning is like at Westview Elementary.

Students often ring a bell in the hallway of the school when they accomplish a goal – something fifth-grader Jason O’dell has enjoyed.

“I only rang it once – but I’ll ring it soon,” he promised.

Third-grader Peighton Stout gave this year high remarks.

“I like this year better because we can work at our own pace and don’t have to wait for other people who are behind, but we have to go back and help them,” she said.

Students also weighed in on the concept of being able to work in the hall.

“What I like about the hall is that not everybody’s talking to me so I can do my work,” third-grader Amya Hair said.

Fifth-grader Brayden Bowers gave similar remarks.

“Today I’ve gotten almost two of my columns done in (math) because I was working in the hall,” he said.

Wimmer asked the students to explain how their behavior works in the hall. Fifth-grader Teagan Moorcroft said there are expectations to follow.

“You should be working quietly in the hall and sometimes our teacher will come and monitor us a few times…I love the flexible seating in the hallway, it’s not all just chairs – it’s like couches and stools and tables,” she said.

Third-grader Lizzie McGowan and fourth-grader McKenna Murray also participated in the panel. When talking about their accomplishments this year Murray said she has gotten all A's and McGowan is proud of being able to move on to language math.

In the teacher panel, teachers doted on the school having a village-feel to it, and having students learn at their own pace.

Fourth-grade teacher Mindy Smith said she was worried about students feeling self-conscious about learning at different levels, but has found that is not the case – “and I think that’s because they’re feeling so much success, and they don’t often get to feel that success.”

Meanwhile, other students are able to move at a faster pace and are able to “dig a lot deeper”.

“I have students in my class…that are doing fifth-grade work within my class,” Smith said.

Monica Kreber