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Welcome to the NE Basecamp blog!

The NE Basecamp blog is a place to share ideas, share our struggles with the, oftentimes, grey and complicated areas of education policy and practice, and celebrate student and parent voices.

No matter what the topic, our blog will always come back to one truth: It’s All About the Kids.

Pairing Summit with your Evaluation Year

By Julie Maruska, NE Basecamp Personalized Learning Coach

If you are a teacher in an evaluation year, you may be experiencing some anxiety.  You are not alone.  You may not realize this but implementing Summit Learning in your classroom aligns perfectly to the evaluation rubric.  Last year many of my colleagues and I were not only being evaluated but we were using Summit for the first time, just like many of you.  Don’t worry – I’ve put together some helpful tips that will seamlessly merge your use of Summit with your observations, PGG, and SLOs.

Lesson planning & observations: Many people hold the belief that if your evaluator walks into the room for an observation and sees students sitting at computers that they will not get high scores.  This is simply not true – the look-fors in a Summit classroom completely and totally align with the evaluation rubric.  Rather than thinking that the “I do – we do – you do” lesson cycle is the only one that evaluators want to see – think instead about the workshop model.  In this model, you begin with a class opening, move to work time, and end with a class closure.  The work time can involve students working independently or in small groups as well as teachers providing partial group workshops.  Check out this video of the workshop model in action (note that it’s not a direct Summit example).  You can also check out this screenplay of a Summit classroom during Project TIme (or this one for a Concept Unit during Math).  These screenplays are based on expert level look-fors in a Summit classroom – as many of you are just starting out with Summit – try to set up just a few strong aspects that you read in the screenplay – such as flexible groupings aka partial group workshops based on either where students are pacing in a project, their current rubric level score for a cognitive skill, or their interests.

Professional Growth Goal: Your PGG can be centered around expanding your abilities to use “personalized learning” in the classroom.   What steps can you document to attain this goal?  You can read a few books (my top suggestion is Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind by Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda or Personalized Learning Playbook by Anthony Kim).  You can engage in non-evaluative planning/observation/debrief cycles with a NE Basecamp coach (yes, that’s a plug to reach out to us!) or a peer teacher.  You can also plan school and/or classrooms visits to sites where Summit is more established.  NE Basecamp can connect you with other cohort schools; you could even join us on a Learning Tour.

Student Learning Outcomes: It’s my understanding that Math and English teachers typically use STAR or other interim assessment data to drive the creation of their SLOs.  If your school is continuing to use such assessments, then go for it.  However, Summit Learning does some pretty fantastic data collection of its own, which can work for ALL content area teachers.  I have seen people pick a cognitive skill (or two – one for each SLO) and use the rubric built into Summit as a means of assessment.  You have to get to know, use, and love the rubric anyways – so why not kill two birds with one stone?  (I hate that analogy, sorry birds!)

A few SLO tips:

  • Ensure that the cognitive skills you choose are ones highly connected to your content and that you care deeply about them as you will spend a lot of time teaching and giving feedback about them.
  • Make sure the cognitive skills you choose make sense within the Summit projects you will be using this year.  They might already be a skill assessed in a project, or maybe you can easily see where it could be added.  For example, one of the cognitive skills I used was Making Connections and Inferences.  Originally it was only present in two of the projects I used with my 8th graders, however, it was simple to insert additional work as part of each Final Product so that I ended up being able to assess the cog skill for all five projects.
  • Many students will not complete their first project prior to the date that you will need BOY data, which is an issue because you won’t have cognitive skill data in Summit.  If this is the case for you, consider adding a checkpoint early within the first project prior to teaching the cognitive skill to serve as your pre-assessment.  You could also just print a pre-assessment.  Give students a score using the rubric, and track their scores in a format other than Summit.  For your MOY you can use the score from their second or third project, and for your EOY you can use their scores from one of their last projects.  Just make sure that your project due dates are soon enough before your MOY/EOY evaluation due dates.
  • As with any SLO you may have created in the past, it’s helpful to break your students into buckets and create goals that move many students to at least the next rubric score (scores increase by 0.5).  For example, “60% of students scoring between a 2 and 2.5 on the rubric will obtain at least a 3.”  Remember, if you end up moving more or even ALL of your students to the next level, or even to higher levels, that’s okay – you will just score higher on your evaluation at the end of the year!

Your principal, team leader, colleagues, or your NE Basecamp coach can be a great resource for you as you write your SLOs and prepare for your evaluation.  Invite any one of them into your classroom for an informal observation to gather their feedback.

So take a deep breath, pick some cognitive skills, learn the rubric, and get started!  I was in your place last year and I promise, combining your evaluation year with Summit Learning is not only possible, but actually more aligned that you might think!

Notes from the Classroom: Critical Thinking In our Schools The Power of Why?

By Dr. Shayna Fox-Norwitz, Associate Director of Personalized Learning, RIMA, October 22, 2016

I visited one of our Summit personalized learning cohort schools the other day and came across a student sitting by herself in the hallway with her Chromebook and notebook in her lap. I sat down next to her and asked her what she was doing out in the hallway, all by herself. She replied that she had already taken the content assessment for her geography class a few times and didn’t pass. She thought that the change of scenery might help her to study her notes and try again.

I asked if I could see her notes, and she proceeded to open her notebook. Her notes were divided by topic objective, in a beautiful, bubbly handwriting. Notes that were related were grouped by a colored scalloped circle. These were not the notes of a student who failed assessments; these were the notes of your straight A student, the one that volunteered in class and brought you gifts before winter break.

She was clearly unaccustomed to failing, and I was momentarily confused at how she could have faltered, until I started asking questions. One note that she had put a star next to read “most humans live by water, the great civilizations and great empires were usually close to the ocean.” I pointed to the beautifully written line in her notebook and asked, “Why?”

She paused for a second to give me the “you’re insane” look (you know, the one that only middle school girls have perfected) and simply replied, “fish.” I lifted an eyebrow and scrunched my nose, feigning confusion. She bought it-hook, line, and sinker. “Well,” she sighed, “I guess it’s not so much the fish but the fact that the ocean is another source of food. People have to eat, so if you are by an ocean, you can have fisherman out on boats catching food.”

“That’s interesting,” I coyly stated, “Why would boats be important?”

“Well, boats are important to get places…” And that’s how it happened, three more “Why’s” in a row, and she eventually concluded, “Civilizations and nations were successful by providing their people with all the resources necessary to live. These resources weren’t always in the same area as the nation, but the nation’s access to the ocean allowed them to send ships to other parts of the world to purchase the needed resources. This trade allowed nations to make money from selling the resources it had naturally or made. The more trade they did, the more relationships that were developed with other nations, making it so that more people want to help you out when you go to war.”

She smiled at me, as though surprised by herself, “I wrote that stuff in my notes, I just didn’t really think about it like that before I guess.” I felt victorious too. I’d be willing to bet that with a little more studying, she’d pass her content assessment with flying colors! In the Summit model of personalized learning, the role of the teacher shifts to a mentor-teacher role, one in which the teacher is a facilitator of students becoming self-directed learners. After many years of experiencing a traditional teacher role, this student wasn’t accustomed to this type of exchange but came away with a better understanding of how to dig a little deeper into her critical thinking thought process.

Now, maybe it is in my nature that my brain is always questioning things, trying to find connections between different bits of information that I encounter. However, I don’t think that I’m unique in my curiosity nor in my incessant analysis and evaluation of my world. Look at very young children, who constantly ask “Why?” Sometimes they ask it so many times in a row that parents finally annoyed, answer, “because I said so.”

Imagine if all parents and educators, instead of being irked, posed the inquiry back on the child, “Why do you think?… How do you know that?” This initial redirection and simple follow-up could help to develop a well-cultivated critical thinker.

Many children outgrow this constant questioning of the world around them and begin to accept all information as fact; I never did. Because my parents didn’t know the answers to all of my questions and didn’t want us to rely solely on adults for the answers, they bought my sister and I three complete sets of Encyclopedias. Needless to say, having to figure out how to find the answers we were looking for was more difficult than it is today. I confess, when at home, I simply ask Siri or my virtual assistant, Alexa. Having Encyclopedias did not deter my sister and me from having questions, but it did encourage us to deeply consider the problem. While some may think that critical thinking is merely problem solving, it is much more than just finding a solution.

One reason that so many employers today are looking for “bright young talent” who are “problem solvers” and “critical thinkers” is because in order to actually find solutions for the complex problems of 21st Century private industry, you have to reason and make logical connections between a variety of issues that eventually will lead to the root cause and genuine problem. We can say that asking the right questions to find the underlying problem is now a critical skill for career success.

No CEO looks to hire someone who can consistently put out surface fires; CEO’s want an employee that proactively eliminates the spark from ever existing. Sakichi Toyoda(Founder of Toyota Industries Co.) and Taiichi Ohno (inventor of the Toyota Production System) developed the 5 Whys technique that allows one to explore the cause-effect relationship of a problem. The technique is simple in design, first the problem is stated and “Why?” is asked, the response becomes the basis for the next “Why?” question. The ultimate goal is to expose the underlying cause of the problem, which has been commonly noted to be discovered by the 5th interrogation. If we are to encourage students to be critical thinkers, we must unequivocally use logic, analysis and evaluation to make our own judgements. I know one day when I’m aging and my life is in the hands of my doctors, I would want them to be critical thinkers because “Shoddy thinking is costly…” (The Foundation for Critical Thinking)  More broadly, there is no greater evidence of this than the current lack of substantive civil discourse in our current political climate. It is telling that discussions of education have not gotten a seat at the table of national political debates that presumably exist to determine the future direction of our country. We might all reflect on this alarming state of affairs and find the courage to ask the simple, but powerful question, “Why?”

A Middle School English Teacher’s Personalized Learning Journey by Cassandra Charles

Wendy Espinoza Cotta, Change Management, Teacher Development, March 20, 2017

When my principal first approached me about making a shift to personalized learning, I was very excited.  Usually, I am in support of anything that will make our students successful. I wondered if the Summit Learning Platform would provide the opportunities that my students needed to push through the barriers that society, unfortunately, has built for them.  After traveling to San Francisco for a quick 3 day visit and listening to all of the testimonials from principals, faculty, and students utilizing this platform, my mindset was truly transformed and I knew this would be a golden opportunity.

Fast forward to the summer of 2016 when our Summit team arrived in San Francisco for our full week of Basecamp training.  The beginning of the week consisted of an overview of the program and how all of the components work together to ensure success.  Taking all of this information in was extremely overwhelming. I needed to step back from what I was hearing and take a few deep breaths. I remember the most challenging moment.  It was in the middle of the week when I was told that everything I was used to doing in my classroom, I wouldn’t be doing anymore.  Just then, I felt like one of those characters in a movie when they suddenly realize something and everything around them fades in the back and all you are left with is the character in the center of the screen with a look of total shock on his or her face.  I broke down crying because I felt as though I was being told that I couldn’t be me in my own classroom.  It wasn’t until another teacher (from Rhode Island) and trainer pulled me aside and told me that she felt the exact same way the year before.  She said, “If anything, the platform lets you be more of yourself because you have the ability to enhance the playlists and projects with things you know will be helpful to the students.  Just wait…you will love it once you get into it.”  That was it; I needed to get in my classroom and make it happen.  At the end of the week, I left San Francisco and Basecamp training with a wealth of knowledge ready to begin the school year.

Thinking back, it took me a good month and a half when all of the elements of personalized learning “clicked” for me.  I remember the day when everything began to flow; just before Thanksgiving.  All my Check for Understandings (CFUs) had been printed and copied for students to use if they needed to.  Each day of the week, my sixth grade students knew when their mentoring session would be and came to the table with things they wanted to discuss.  Project time became class periods where the students, having immersed themselves in the self-directed learning cycle, knew exactly what they needed to do and I became a facilitator of their learning rather than forcing concepts and ideas on to them.  Checkpoints and activities became formative assessments that helped me personalize the students’ learning even more in order to make their educational experience more meaningful.

The Summit Personalized Learning platform has allowed me to become a much more purposeful educator and because of this, students have illustrated all the elements of self-direction and come to school with a purpose for learning.  Even further, this model has also afforded me the opportunity to create special bonds with my colleagues that were really never there before.  During the week of training and throughout this first year of implementation, we have learned so much about each other that it has come to the point that we feel like a family.  Before this, the curriculum I was teaching lent itself to somewhat of a “closed door” policy in which I just taught my subject area.  Now I am truly co-teaching with the Social Studies teacher on my team, and it has been an absolutely wonderful experience.  I would be lying if I said that after everything clicked it has been an easy ride because it has not. However, with the support and embedded coaching of New England Basecamp, each day and each project has allowed me to see the transformation not only in my teaching, but most importantly, in my students.  They are flourishing!

People ask me what my advice would be for any teacher starting this journey, and I would say to accept this opportunity with open arms.  Grab the reins and hold on tight because the first year of implementing the Summit Learning model will be the most exciting, inspiring, and rewarding experience of your educational career.

Organize to Learn

By Shayna Fox-Norwitz, Student Voices, What Works, February 23, 2017

As educators, we all have experienced asking a student for an assignment and proceeded to watch them dig through their backpack, unfolding crumpled papers, and dumping out folders in what appears to be a haphazard archeological dig. If you’re lucky, twenty minutes later they eventually stumble across the buried treasure you were inquiring. If Lady Luck was not on your side, the search expands to the locker, which we all know (though scientists have not yet confirmed) is a black hole. What if students had a treasure map of sorts, that would allow them to expeditiously find their academic valuables at the exact moment of need? The hunt would be eliminated, and time in the classroom could be better spent.

Spending some time upfront helping students to develop the executive functioning skills that they need to be self-directed learners can pay off in dividends.

Executive functioning skills are the self-regulating skills that are used everyday and help with planning, organizing, decision making, shifting between tasks or situations, controlling our feelings and learning from past errors. Students with poor executive functioning skills may be disorganized, become overwhelmed, have difficulty managing time, lose materials, and take a long time to do everyday activities. Some students are, by nature, organized, others can be successful if they can put a routine or system into place to help them. Modeling and explicitly teaching students how to organize their work in a binder or how to set up their notes can break down these executive functioning barriers and set them up for success.

How can we help students to develop their organizational skills?

We must first be organized ourselves.

    • Students learn how to be organized through modeling. The more organized the adults are in a student’s life, the more they can see the benefits of organization.
    • An organized classroom environment allows students to focus on the learning and task at hand, rather than trying to find where the rulers are.

Establishing a Routine

    • Routines, over time, allow students to develop good habits.
    • The routine of ending class 5 minutes early to have students put away their materials and to write their homework in their planner sets them up to develop the habit of scheduling and writing “To Do” lists as they transition from one situation to another.
    • Visual reminders can be helpful to get students into a routine.

Sorting Through the Clutter

    • Sometimes there is just not enough time to organize everything in the moment. Students need to understand that if something prevented you from organizing in the moment,  it doesn’t mean you give up on organizing it, you just organize it later.
    • Having students regularly sort through their back packs and organize the material they find can get them into the habit of doing it on their own later on.
      • Dump everything out and make two piles “Keep” and “Throw out”
      • Sort the “Keep” pile into subject areas including an “Other” pile

Establishing a System

    • A system for keeping school work organized is important to success. If students do not know how to do it themselves, having them set up their binders or notebooks in the beginning of the school year (or semester) with a teacher established system.
    • Students should have separate sections or notebooks for each course they are taking, inclusive of a folder or other method for keeping loose papers.
    • Color coding items related to the same course can be helpful, providing a quick classification of an item at a glance.
    • Systems for taking notes like two column notes or interactive notebooks allows students to organize their notes not only with dates, and titles but with their metacognitive notations as well.

Explore Different ways of Learning

    • We know that all students learn in various ways, or have different learning styles: visual/spatial, kinesthetic, auditory, linguistic, logical, social, solitary, or a combination of thereof.
    • Allowing students flexibility in learning techniques that they use, can play on their strengths.

Spell out the Rationale

    • When students are learning a new skill, they must understand the reasoning behind it. If students do not understand the reason behind developing a new skill, it will feel like a waste of time and energy.

The older the student is, the more important this may be because they are already set in their ways, making it more difficult for them to understand why they might have to make an adjustment. “They’ll say, ‘This is what works for me,’ even if their method really isn’t working,” says Dr. Matt Cruger, Director of the Child Mind Institute Learning and Development Center in New York City. Explaining the rationale behind a particular strategy makes a child much more likely to commit to doing it.




ADDitude Editors. “School Organization 101: Clutter-Free Backpacks and Bedrooms.” ADDitude Magazine. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.

Bear, TC. “Tips for Classroom Organization – Teacher Created Tips.” Teacher Created Tips. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.

Ehmke, Rachel. “Help for Executive Functions.” Child Mind Institute. Web.19 Feb. 2017.

Hayck-Merlin, Maia. “The Together Student, Part 1: Good Binders Make Good Students.”The Together Teacher., 03 Feb. 2014. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.

“Overview of Learning Styles.” Overview of Learning Styles. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.

Real and Lasting Positive School Change

By Donna Stone, District-Charter Partnership, Personalized Learning, January 21, 2017

Raising the bar and expectations for our students falls on the shoulders of our teachers.  Encouraging, developing, and supporting teachers as they shift the teacher-learner paradigm is built upon a foundation of strong leadership provided by empowered, and empowering, school leaders.


There are a couple of catch phrases that seem to creep into my conversations on nearly a daily basis. One is- This is hard work, but good work.  No truer words could be spoken when you reflect on those of our profession who make a dedicated and concerted effort to improve teaching and learning in their schools and classrooms.  The second frequent catchphrase is- Changing teaching and learning does not come with a magic wand.  For Christmas, I actually was gifted a magic wand. Though I love it, it still won’t change school practices with a flick of the wrist.

The magic comes from the hard work and dedication of our teachers who have joined our efforts to bring personalized learning to our classrooms.  Again the catchphrase- this is hard work, but good work surfaces.  Hard work.  No magic wand.  Because changing teaching and learning requires open mindedness, steadfastness, dedication and most importantly, support.

Raising the bar and expectations for our students falls on the shoulders of our teachers.  Encouraging, developing, and supporting teachers as they shift the teacher-learner paradigm is built upon a foundation of strong leadership provided by empowered, and empowering, school leaders.

School transformation is truly an all or nothing deal.  If we genuinely want to change teaching and learning in our classrooms, if we want to offer the best educational path for our students via a 21st Century learning environment, and we honestly believe that we can make a difference, then it has to be ALL IN-teachers, school leaders, and district leaders digging into to this work together. It is not about throwing money at a problem. It is not about adding bells and whistles to our instruction. And it is most certainly not about chasing the next-best shiny new initiative. It is about district leaders who empower school leaders to bring innovative practices to their schools. It is about empowered school leaders who understand and embrace the hard working teachers who stand up and say, “I will do this work.”  “I will engage in professional development.” “ I will plan with my team.” “I will share my best practices.” “I will invite those who can support and help me improve my practices into my classroom.”

What does school transformation look like?  It is so easy to type into a blog post declarative statements like, “District leadership needs to empower school leaders so that in turn, they can support and empower their teachers.”  The tough part comes when you reconstruct that sentence into a question and ponder the answer, “What are the conditions school districts can create that make it possible to empower school leaders to be more effective in leading real, lasting positive change in practices in their schools?”

In my experience, districts need to have an unwavering vision and a set of policies that send a clear message of the expectations they have for their schools, leaders, teachers, and students.  Students’ high school experiences too often fail to prepare them for postsecondary education or for the rigors of work in an information-based economy (National High School Center, 2008). Wishing to graduate more students from high school prepared for college and career requires a rigorous educational environment. Raise the bar.  Close the gap.  Graduate students with the soft skills they need for success in life and work in the 21st century.

Say what you mean, and mean what you say.  After the ramping up efforts have been put into place, the next phase of implementation is to re-engineer the learning infrastructure (Sturgis, 2016).    Districts need to develop a strategic plan that manifests their vision.  They need to create the conditions necessary for school and teacher leaders to become empowered catalysts for school reform. They need to remove the barriers to innovation- red-tape bureaucracy, top-down decision making, one size fits all professional development, limiting stakeholder involvement, blanket initiatives.  This is not easy to do, nor can it be done overnight.  

The great news in all this, is that it IS happening.  We are seeing districts of all types and sizes making the changes needed to alter the path of their schools and trajectory of their students’ lives.

When district leaders have set change in motion, when their vision and expectations are clear, and when school level supports are in place, then the principal and teachers can begin to engage in the actions needed to implement practices that result in real, lasting positive change for their school and students.  In our cohort schools, empowered school leaders and teachers have implemented a personalized learning model of instruction that demonstrates effective practices that include relevant, rigorous, hands-on learning activities, practices that ensure that every student is connected with short and long-term goals, and an educator who serves as his or her mentor to champion their students in meeting those goals.

Will this all result in the real, lasting positive change we need for our students?  It is too early to tell, but building a system of change on evidence of a strong foundation is a promising sign.  The magic wand is just not included.



National High School Center. (2008, August). Preparing High School Students for Successful Transitions to Postsecondary Education and Employment. Retrieved January 10, 2017, from

Sturgis, C. (2016, December 19). Investing in Student Agency. Retrieved January 15, 2017, from

Supporting Self-Directed Learners

By Wendy Espinoza Cotta, Student Voices, December 8, 2016

In my work supporting the implementation of the Summit model of personalized learning in various public schools, I reflect on how we can empower students to find their own voice in learning and become self-directed learners. Personalized learning, student-centered learning, individualized learning, differentiated instruction…so many words are passed around in this dizzying transitional age. It is helpful when thought leaders (such as David Warlik) delve into teasing out the nuances of some of these abstract, jargon-rich educational concepts.

As a child of a bilingual household and a former public high school Spanish teacher, I am keenly interested in the role of vocabulary and the purpose and tone of new words as they are applied to our everyday lives. Vocabulary frames thought, and it is clear that our current educational vocabulary is inadequate to meet the direction that we must head in. The challenge and opportunity with all of these educational words is that they are abstract, aspirational and ill-defined.

The gap between educational theory and practice is a wide chasm. The students that enter classrooms every single day defy these abstract theories that deconstruct their school experience and challenge our philosophies. Real teaching and learning is a dynamic tapestry of experience with an endless variety of variables, as diverse as the complex social human beings that we all know we are. Emerging models of educational best practices, such as implementing the Summit model of personalized learning, are being built as we go. As such, I am drawn to the phenomenon of peer learning and the relationships and interactions in a classroom to reveal what makes learning personalized and how it impacts social-emotional development, student engagement, empowerment and outcomes.screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-12-08-37-pm

The Summit model of personalized learning is made up of four elements, three of which I will highlight: classroom project-based learning where students apply content knowledge, personalized learning time (PLT) where students choose online learning pathways to master content focus areas, and mentoring time where mentor-teachers meet with students one-on-one to help students develop habits of success and become self-directed learners.


Part of the self-directed learning cycle is to set goals, develop action steps, provide evidence of learning, reflect on learning, and develop self-awareness and self-management daily routines. Elements of self-directed learning include the behaviors of challenge seeking, persistence, strategy-shifting, response to setbacks and appropriate help-seeking.


In his groundbreaking book, Drive, author Daniel Pink emphasizes that we all need to feel mastery, purpose and passion in our everyday lives to sustain our intrinsic motivation in being the best that we can be. Similarly, Carol Dweck has dedicated her researcher’s life to investigating the role of growth mindset, as the key to unlocking a student’s potential. In Ethic of Excellence, educator and author Ron Berger sensitively frames learning as a craft that is mastery-based.  Three years ago, dearly departed lifelong educator Rita Pierson most powerfully and emphatically declared that every child needs a champion. I must concede that the Summit model of personalized learning and its focus on guiding students to become self-directed learners is predicated on unpacking what “self” truly means and contingent upon a student fully knowing themselves as a path to becoming their own best advocate. In the Summit model, a teacher’s role shifts to that of mentor-teacher to help students unpack what “self” truly means.

As I shift my professional career to better align with my personal values, I find myself sensitive to my own ongoing journey of self-awareness and the impact of the formal and informal mentors who have guided, challenged and nurtured me along the way. For every pivot point in my own journey, I can identify a person who made a crucial difference. As such, the role of a mentor, who will challenge, support, and sometimes cajole you to reach greater levels of self-awareness greatly supports students in becoming self-directed learners. Through dialogue – true dialogue-  in which both parties listen to understand, question to probe and speak to influence, the boundaries of our thinking emerge. Our values, emotions and aspirations converge and diverge, most especially in the presence of another human being who is committed to caring and witnessing our everyday decisions. For this reason, I find that self-directed learning is accelerated and refined with mentorship, as well as embracing peer learning in a classroom- critical components to the Summit model of personalized learning. Here is a useful resource on how self-directed learning can look at different developmental milestones.

As a new educational lexicon emerges and we forge our way to the top of this educational Tower of Babel, I look for those moments where, in spite of the specific words we use, we reach out to connect with each other and find the pathways of learning that acknowledge and celebrate our unique passions, interests and skills. Due to the increasing complexity of modern life and a future career landscape that is as yet undefined, I am confident that there will be a day when self-directed learning is an essential part of our educational system and the everyday educational experience of all children. Today, all assumptions are challenged by the “new normal” of increasing social pressure for flexibility, adaptability and relevance. There are few big social roles or social institutions that are not in a state of some kind of collective reexamination. In education, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will push public schools to a deeper level of self-examination of what they do and how they do it.

Ultimately, transformational learning IS personal and we often have no idea how important something we might say to a child is to help guide, provoke, prompt, push and pull them through the trials of gaining self-awareness and self-management. Words and how we say them matter.  How humbling to contemplate that whatever you say to a child and how you say it, may be the pivot point on their journey to becoming a self-directed learner.

District-Charter Collaboration and Personalized Learning in Rhode Island

Donna Stone, District-Charter Partnership, Personalized Learning, September 17, 2016

Far away from the political noise that is never too far away from education policy, three Rhode Island schools—both district and charter—are working together tirelessly to pilot a personalized learning program. And despite fear, wariness, and even some resistance, the verdict so far from those doing the work is that this model is helping their students.

Pawtucket Learning Academy (PLA), Blackstone Valley Prep High School (BVP) and Pleasant View Elementary in Providence make up the first cohort of schools who have signed up to participate in our personalized learning pilot program at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies. In this program, the lessons are digital and the teacher is more of a facilitator, able to help and support while students progress at their own pace as they engage in real-life learning through projects.

“Two years ago we could never have imagined that Pawtucket teachers would be driving to Blackstone Valley Prep High School for professional development and now, no one is batting an eye,” says Donna Stone, Executive Director at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies. “It doesn’t feel like anyone is saying one is good and one is bad; it’s two groups of people piloting the same model and enduring the same struggles in the hope of improving student learning.”

“Two years ago we could never have imagined that Pawtucket teachers would be driving to Blackstone Valley Prep High School for professional development and now, no one is batting an eye,” says Donna Stone, our director of personalized learning at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies. “It doesn’t feel like anyone is saying one is good and one is bad; it’s two groups of people piloting the same model and enduring the same struggles in the hope of improving student learning.”

Educators from all three schools spent two weeks in California over the summer being trained in this personalized learning model developed by Summit Public Schools. The Rhode Island team is now working off what they learned from Summit to create their own distinct version of a personalized learning model.


Tom Anderson of the PLA is a 17-year math teacher who was understandably wary of the switch to personalized learning but has already come to see it as invaluable for his students. He calls it a “humbling experience” and describes feeling like a first-year teacher all over again.

“If I’m not open to change, the kids aren’t going to get what they need. Education needs to change. We’ve been doing the same thing for decades and if we don’t become more adaptive to what the students need, we are hurting them.”

“If I’m not open to change, the kids aren’t going to get what they need. Education needs to change. We’ve been doing the same thing for decades and if we don’t become more adaptive to what the students need, we are hurting them.”

In some ways, the teachers become more important even though they are no longer at the front of the room delivering content. Instead, they serve as coaches, leaders, mentors and project designers. Their time is freed up to interact with students individually and in small groups. Students can get the help they need without having to raise their hand in front of a whole class and say, “I don’t get this.”

Benjamin Masse, a third-year history teacher at the PLA, also said he’s been humbled by the experience.

“It’s knowing that I don’t need to be that ‘be all, end all’ in the classroom and I can focus more on cognitive skills instead of content, not only helping the kids become good students, but also good citizens. We are collaborating with BVP but we are also collaborating better with one another. While the students are becoming better students, we are becoming better teachers. And kids are learning how to learn.”


Several students indicated that there seem to be fewer behavior problems and class disruptions with this model because they don’t have to sit and listen to a teacher for long periods of time and can track their own learning. One student said he used to act up if he already got the lesson and was ready to move on; now he can move on when he’s ready.

“I like that it moves at my own pace but in college we need to work at professor’s pace so the projects have deadlines,” said BVP sophomore Edy Pineda. “It’s both self-paced and teacher-paced. The teachers help a lot, and if I don’t understand something, they are more free to help me.”

“I like that it moves at my own pace but in college we need to work at professor’s pace so the projects have deadlines,” said BVP sophomore Edy Pineda. “It’s both self-paced and teacher-paced. The teachers help a lot, and if I don’t understand something, they are more free to help me.”

Malenyah Vicente, also a sophomore, said she isn’t as keen on the new way of learning—she feels like she’s on the computer too much. However, she likes that the program helps her set academic goals and track her own progress.


Next year we’re looking to double the size of the first cohort and plan to include both district and charter schools again. Not only is it an opportunity to serve kids in new and more personalized ways but it is also an opportunity to continue to break down some of the artificially manufactured walls that arise between district schools and charter schools.

Slowly but surely, these walls are being replaced by the belief that the best way to serve our students is to work together—across schools and discipline—to adapt their learning to the world of today.

District-charter collaboration around personalized learning will be an important lever in getting our kids where they deserve to be.

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