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By Lena Deskins

In November, I traveled to Atlanta for the PLearn Southeast 2019 Conference with a goal in mind—systemic change. How do we make a shift within an entire district to meet a strategic plan goal created by our superintendent to ensure of 100 percent of teachers are using technology to support personalized learning by 2023? It is one thing to say something is going to happen, but when you are facing a daunting, district wide shift in thinking it is not quite that easy. I wanted to hear from a district that had experience making a shift to be able to analyze better where we are in Durham and what our next steps should be. What does this change mean as we implement it district wide?

I began the trip by getting there a day early, as a school visit began bright and early at 7 a.m.. This was great, because it gave me a chance to personalize my own learning with lots of walking around the city—23,562 steps to be exact. My one must do was the Aquarium. If you have never been, it is such a treat.  Standing there at this giant window into an enormous aquarium, I was awestruck by the whale shark looming. It reminded me of the goal from the strategic plan—this big undertaking looming over us. How are we to tackle this? 

Monday morning, I headed out to Henry County for a site visit to Locust Grove High School and Luella Middle School. At the high school we learned about the idea of passion projects, in which every student engages on topics they want to research and study in depth. It was clear that these topics varied, but what really grasped me was the commitment you could hear as students shared about their work.  It was obvious that they were passionate about their research.

We then checked out a special time of the day. There was a block of an hour where students had designated places to go but could get passes to go to areas that met their needs. For example, a student may report to a social studies teacher but could get a pass to go to a math class in which they were struggling. There were also a series of clubs offered at that time. To be able to attend a club, students had to have their grades up to an expected level, which they found to be great motivation. We visited Grooming at the Grove, where community members brought in their dogs and students groomed them. I could imagine a ton of kids who would be so motivated to do well just to spend some time caring for dogs. We saw Partner PE where the volleyball team got together and created lessons to teach the EC students their physical education standards. There was Guitar Club where students were scattered throughout the room working in various phases of guitar lessons as a group at the front of the room practiced for an upcoming gig. Then we went back to our initial room for lunch. The lunch was prepared and served to us by a student, who shared that her passion project focused on the service industry. She shared that she was a struggling student who just did not care about school until she began this study. She became motivated to do well in all her classes to be able to be a part of the catering club. We got to see her put her talents to work for us.

At Luella Middle School we got to see What I Need Monday, a program where for a portion of the day the students had the option to go where they need. Students filled out an online form with options so that a schedule could be created for students and teachers could plan for the numbers they would have at that time. As we went in rooms there were groups working on different things, with a group often with the teachers. I heard many teachers reinforce the question, “Why are you here?”  And students would respond with, “I am in this group because I had difficulty converting from fractions to decimals to percent,“  or “I was struggling to understand the story we were reading in class so this group discussion helps me better understand.” I could tell it was more a school culture thing rather than just because we were there observing.    

Throughout the conference I heard from multiple districts about the practice of personalized learning. Many themes seem to surface over and over. Most districts talked about the need to take implementation slowly. It should start with a select group of igniters, then a larger group, and then district wide implementation.  As they talked about the process, I just kept imagining a fire beginning to spread.  Personalized learning can look differently depending on how you define it. Henry County staff members said it was not clearly defined in the beginning, and each school had their own take on it, which I liked. West Shore School District said they knew the furniture was outdated in their schools and needed to be replaced, so as a part of their implementation teachers received training and within a few weeks they also received a new furniture package for their room in their chosen color scheme. Imagine that—what is different looks different. They went from desks in rows to flexible seating. I loved that idea, but the money needed to make that happen in a large district is astronomical.

As an extension of the conference, I got to visit some more Henry County Schools to conclude my experience. I visited Dutchtown Elementary, Unity Grove Elementary and Impact Academy.  These visits gave me a set of colleagues with which to collaborate as they were all ready to share resources created, lessons learned along the way and ideas galore.  I also had a greater repertoire to bring the vision back to colleagues in the district. 

Sheila Thurmon took me on a tour of Dutchtown Elementary, where we talked about a media festival the district does each year. I began thinking about how this type a festival could be used by our district to help identify igniters that we may not realize are out there. She also shared how their school does a news broadcast that I found quite exciting. We concluded the visit looking at data from students and staff over the years of implementation that drove what they choose to do. It reinforced the idea of listening to the students and how you may be surprised by what they have to say.

Erin Pringle shared Unity Grove Elementary with me, where they have a racing theme tied to their personalized learning initiative. They train their students on how they can personalize their learning and all the routines and procedures to make the style successful. Students then receive their License to Learn. It is an engaging way to get students ready for the flexible learning environment. I wanted my very own License to Learn. 

My final experience was an environment that took me by surprise. Impact Academy’s principal, Steve Thompson, introduced me to the idea of a blended learning model for middle and high school students. All students at his academy spend days learning at home each week and days in the classroom. They have flexible days that allow them to invite students who need more support to come in for interventions. He engaged me in a conversation about how we could turn the schedule and organization on its head by switching the thought of grade level teams. Most elementary schools have grade-level “teams.” All the classes in a certain grade have specials classes together that allows them to meet as a professional learning community. For my district, Steve proposed the idea of teams of multi-grade levels, like a third, fourth and fifth grade teacher. They would need to be in rooms beside one another on the hall, and students would have specials at the same time. They would also share the same schedule. They could work together to personalize the students’ learning. If the third grade teacher has a student who is well advanced in math (or even a specific area of math), they could go to the fourth grade teacher’s room. This would be helpful as well for students who struggle in reverse. We spend so much time in grade level groups and only come together as vertical planning teams just once or twice a year. This perspective on teams being vertical was an idea I found exciting. It is a big change to the school cultures and routines. It would certainly send the message that we are doing something different.

PLearn2019 gave me so very much to process in the personalized learning adventure. I gained insight from many different districts across the nation, each of them in their own developmental stage.  The experience left me prepared to share a vision with others on the direction best for our situation. It sparked a series of conversations about change, growth, and adventure.  It left me seeking the voices of those who are often not at the table—the students.