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Personalization and Project-Based Learning

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December 01, 2014 02:00 pm

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The following blog post comes from Erin Frew, principal of New Tech West High School in Cleveland, OH. Frew is part of the Alliance’s Project 24 Team of Experts, a team of nationally recognized leaders who have a demonstrated record of success effectively using technology to help advance the goals of college and career readiness.


New Tech West had seen its data trend steeply upward prior to the 2013-2014 school year.   As a small high school located in Cleveland, Ohio, we had taken the Project Based Learning principles of the New Tech Network and implemented them with fidelity, seeing great success.  Last year, our population shifted significantly, seeing an increase in both Special Needs students and English Language Learners.

We continued to implement PBL with fidelity, but we neglected to focus on the appropriate scaffolds needed to take students who read at below a 5th grade level to success.  When we got our data back, we were not surprised, but still disappointed.  We needed to make changes in how we supported our students without losing our PBL focus.  In looking at the Project 24’s gears, I recognized that we could needed to change how we utilized our time and curriculum to scaffold our students to success.

As a staff, we realized we had an advantage over many urban schools in that we were already in a one-to-one environment.  We realized we could personalize scaffolding for our students while still exposing them to grade level curriculum through their projects if we properly used the technology.  We began by identifying each student’s starting point, and then developed road maps for each of them to reach grade level in reading and math.

The ninth grade team has taken the lead in this area.  After administering NWEA’s MAP testing in Reading, Math, and Science, the teachers created groupings for student support.  For example, our World Studies team (English 9 and World History taught in tandem) developed a project called Please Sir, May I Have Some More?  At the beginning of the project, students were given the task to develop a script proposal and a story board that would demonstrate their understanding of the life a typical British citizen during the Industrial Revolution.  As students reviewed the impact of the Industrial Revolution on modern society, they read Oliver Twist along with primary sources.  Students reading at or above grade level read Dickens’ original Oliver Twist closely with some teacher support.

Students that struggled a bit more were given excerpts of the original text to read, plus access to audio version of the book.  Our lowest readers read the book with the teacher.  They were given access to the text through READ&WRITE for Google, which allowed them to read the text, highlight the words, and hear it all at the same time. With these supports in place, all students were able to fully participate in the project.  The kids loved reading Oliver Twist…something that truly surprised to me!

In math, we have nearly as much variation in levels as we do in reading.  Again, we wanted to stay true to our vision of PBL for all students, but the extreme difference in student level was a cause for consternation among faculty. It was a more difficult puzzle for us to solve than the reading issue.  We realized we needed to accelerate, not remediate.  Again using our MAP data, we determined where our students had gaps, looked at the problems or projects we were giving them, and came up with a plan to accelerate them to grade level.

We teach Algebra I with Physical Science, so we utilize the real world problems posed by Newton’s Laws to ground our instruction.   We found that understanding the relationship between division and fractions is a weakness for almost all of our students.  Because so much of Algebra I relies on mastery of that concept, we assigned students, depending on their level, lessons in Study Island to help bolster these skills.  The teacher worked with small groups to further support them in their grade level work.  Bridging the gap to grade-level instruction is a constant struggle, but we are making steady progress in getting every student there.

As we move towards PARCC testing this spring, I am gaining confidence in our ability to utilize technology, PBL and personalized instruction to engage students in truly deep learning.

Erin Frew is the principal of New Tech West High School in Cleveland, OH

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