Bobbi-Ann Barnes isn’t shy about how she feels about worksheets.
“I have never cared for worksheets. They are not engaging and simply require rote memorization,” says Barnes, assistant superintendent in Deer Lakes School District in northern Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. “Does a kid go home and say, ‘I had a great time doing a worksheet’? There are so many other things that you can be doing creatively as a teacher.”
The key is helping teachers unlock that creativity. In Deer Lakes, that has meant shifting to a personalized student-centered learning environment supported by the district’s participation in the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (All4Ed’s) Future Ready Schools® (FRS) West Virginia and Pennsylvania collaborative. The collaborative project provided customized support to twenty-four school districts in southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia earlier this year as district leaders pursued the free FRS five-step planning process and developed individual plans for implementing student-centered learning, the heart of the Future Ready Framework.
“We were doing lots of things before, but this brought us together with more focus,” Barnes says of the district’s participation in the collaborative. “The self-assessment made us aware of what we need to work on.” The FRS self-assessment allows school districts to evaluate their readiness for implementing personalized student-centered learning within each of the seven “gears” of the Future Ready Framework. Deer Lakes, which serves 1,833 students in kindergarten through twelfth grade, began its transition to personalized learning during School Year (SY) 2015–16 when it installed the necessary infrastructure that would support Wi-Fi–enabled learning in all its schools. District leaders recognized that robust infrastructure, one of the gears of the Future Ready Framework, was foundational to shift the student learning experience. The process required installing network access points in every classroom as well as in the hallways and other strategic areas throughout each school to ensure that the wireless network could support a high number of devices. During SY 2016–17, the district piloted a one-to-one student-to-device initiative with three classes at Deer Lakes Middle School and then expanded the initiative schoolwide in SY 2017–18 to provide individual Chromebooks to all middle school students. That same year, under the guidance of the district technology director, the school also recruited a group of twenty students to serve as school-based technology helpers to provide technology support and hardware repairs to their fellow students.
Once each student had a personal device, leaders at the middle school began to rethink the school’s use of space and time, another gear within the Future Ready Framework. School leaders felt it was important to build time into the school day for student-directed learning, Barnes explains. So the school leadership team reconfigured the existing bell schedule (and even eliminated the use of bells to signal class changes) to provide a thirty-minute block of personalized learning time for each grade level. During the personalized learning block, students manage their time independently through FlexTime Manager software that allows them to select the activities and course work they want to pursue during that time and arrange meetings with their teachers for one-on-one instructional support.
After the early success at the middle school level, Deer Lakes administrators expanded the one-to-one initiative to its three other schools in SY 2018–19. All students in kindergarten through third grade now have individual iPads, while all students in fourth grade and above have personal Chromebooks. Elementary students use personalized learning programs like eSpark to complete differentiated instructional activities aligned with their individual learning needs while high schoolers learn to code in new computer science courses.
Now that all students have access to technology anytime and anywhere during the school day, Deer Lakes schools no longer need computer labs. Consequently, school leaders have redesigned the old computer labs and other unused or underutilized spaces into makerspaces to promote project-based learning experiences for students. For instance, the district converted the library at Deer Lakes Middle School into an innovation center that now offers all the benefits of a traditional school library along with multi-use open spaces and moveable furniture to foster student collaboration, white board walls for group brainstorming, and a makerspace for projects. Administrators at Deer Lakes Middle School also transformed an unused home economics classroom into a makerspace dedicated to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Both of the district’s elementary schools now have makerspaces as well outfitted with programable Bee-Bot and Ozobot robots as well as a Lego wall, pegboard, and plenty of glue guns, mixed media, and craft materials to promote exploratory learning. In addition, through a partnership with Oberg Industries, a precision manufacturing company based in Pennsylvania, Deer Lakes High School received $30,000 worth of free equipment that allows students to video conference with employees at the manufacturing plant. Students in the high school’s algebra and geometry classes use the technology to communicate with Oberg engineers to solve real-world math problems based on the company’s operations, an example of how the district leveraged the Future Ready gear of community partnerships to support student-centered learning.
“We wanted to give our kids opportunities to be engaged, to be creative,” Barnes says of the new makerspaces. “Sometimes in a classroom it’s hard to have all [the necessary materials], so by having everything in one space, teachers can go there and use all sorts of different things for making.”
Overall, the transition to student-centered learning has progressed smoothly for the district and most teachers have embraced the changes in instruction, Barnes says. Teachers’ levels of comfort and skills with incorporating technology, though, still vary across the district. Barnes observes teachers in their classrooms regularly to offer feedback and encourage innovative teaching approaches. She adds that the district also hopes to develop more opportunities for personalized professional learning, another Future Ready gear.
Recognizing that teachers need ongoing support to leverage digital learning strategies effectively, the district also created a new technology coach position last school year to work with teachers directly. (FRS empowers positions like this through its Future Ready Instructional Coaches™ leadership strand.)
“We identify our technology champions and we partner them with our technology coach to maximize our students’ learning experience,” Barnes says. “From there, our more seasoned teachers, who might otherwise be intimidated by new classroom technology, are more willing to incorporate these innovative new methods into their classrooms by working with the coach. That dynamic helps to create a more technology equitable experience from teacher to teacher, which obviously helps our students grow. When you do that often enough, it creates an incredible momentum throughout your entire school.”
Photos provided by Deer Lakes School District.
Kristen Loschert is editorial director at the Alliance for Excellent Education