Personalizing High Schools

I recently attended ASCD Spring Conference in Philadelphia.  My session was the two day Pre-Conference on Personalizing High School put on by Joe Di Martino author of Personalizing the high school experience for each student, ASCD, 2008.  He has also just released a second book, The personalized high school – making learning count for adolescents, ASCD, 2012.  Joe is the founder and president of the Centre for Secondary School Redesign (CSSR)  This is a particularly good site for those seeking direction with school reform.

At the outset, each of the participants was given the profile of a student to consider.  In my case, the student was an immigrant, very bright, limited language (ELL), quite out going.  I was asked to consider a student from my context at home and to put this student at the centre of all of my conversations over the course of the two days.  This was a powerful way for me to think of the unique circumstances of my student as I considered ways to personalize his learning experience.  I chose a student from Abbotsford Collegiate as my model.  He is a senior student, an international student, quite out going and very bright.

The session began with a hilarious look at a Saturday Night Live clip by Father Guido Sarducci and the 5 Minute University.  You won’t want to miss this one.  It’s a great reminder of what we take away from school when all we do is memorize content and regurgitate afterwards; and, it sets the stage nicely for a conversation about creating learning experiences and environments that personalize and engage learners.

The presentation focused on the what of personalizing as well as the how.  I sat with a superintendent from New York State, a principal from Stetler, Alberta and 3 teachers from a middle school in Maine.  Over the two days we shared many insights on our journeys.  For the most part, the table partners were starting the journey towards personalizing their schools.  We all shared various challenges with change in our work places.  Those in non or less unionized environments were able to tell stories about changes they had made or were contemplating.  Those in less flexible environments told of difficulties moving forward with even the simplest of initiatives.  However, the overall tone of the conversations was one of optimism given the commitment to learn more about creating even better learning places for kids.

Transforming high school culture.  We worked through models of change in school structure and culture: from a Traditional industrial model of schooling; to a Transitional, teacher-centred model to a Transformational, student-centred model for schools.  In order to create more flexible and responsive teaching and learning environments.  This impacts every aspect of how we organized schools:

A.  Stucture:  Untracking schools, creating flexible block schedules, anytime anywhere learning, advisories.

B.  Ownership for Learning and Development:  advocating for the whole child, community focus, self-direction, student-led goverance, student exhibitions, teacher learning teams, collaborative inquiry among teachers, parents as partners, community collaboration.

C.  Pedagogy: learning designed for each student, learner profiles, inquiry based instruction, performance assessments, teacher as advisor/coach/facilitator, technology assisted learning.

D. Assessment:  to facilitate learning, assessment as learning, personalized performances, reports as descriptions of proficiency and multiple pathways to graduation.

E.  Leadership:  common compelling vision, focus on student achievement, admin as servant leaders / models of accountability, leadership development opportunities, collaboration with staff and students, union as partners.

Our task was to consider our progress in each area of the continua towards personalizing our schools.  Not surprisingly, many of us were at the beginning of our journeys.  I was pleasantly surprised by the work being done at William E. Hay Composite High School in Stetler Alberta.  The princpal, Nobert Baharally, and his team have been working with Joe at CSSR for a few years.  His staff has visited successful sites to examine best practices around North America. Norbert explained how he had empowered his staff to learn about the changes that would transform the school for kids and teachers and how the teachers had made it their own.  The school is doing some really great work with advisories, flex time, block scheduling, assessment by outcomes, ZAP (zeroes not permitted), student voice, student choice, extended learning opportunities and more.  It is worth a visit to the school webpage.  Norbert also quantifies the research associated with each initiative to give substance and credibility to the work of the school.  It was both refreshing and encouraging to learn of the good work being done by a passionate leader.

The road ahead is bumpy one.  There are a million and one obstacles or hurdles that might set us back.  But the road to personalizing our secondary schools is the right one.  In my own district I see many examples of schools that in small ways are taking on the challenge.  At WJ Mouat Secondary School in Abbotsford, BC, the school has embarked on character education not as a program, but as a philosophy.  Next year, the school wants to pilot new locally developed curriculum on character education  with the grade 9’s.  What a great place to start!!  In a previous post, I gave my vision for grade 9 largely in response to the work of Charles Leadbeater in his 21st Century Schools document.  The grade 9 year is a transition year in so many ways and where better to focus your energy than in engaging the most vulnerable age group in the school. 

In closing, I want to share one last resource I came across this week.  A fellow Tweeter, Karen Steffensen mentioned my blog in her own blog site ‘Spaces for Innovations’.  It was here I came across another good site where the school is 100% personalized. Check out Big Picture Learning and discover the 10 tenets of Big Picture Learning in alternative education sites.  This is a movement that has truly transformed the learning for each and every student.

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This entry was posted in 21st Century Learning, Assessment, Best Practice, Personalizing High School, Teaching and Learning and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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