Want to personalize learning? Try personalizing PD first

At a special Blended Learning Summit, Connecticut’s Meriden Public Schools shared its keys to ed-tech success. One of these is to tailor staff development to individual teachers’ needs.

learning-PDIn Meriden, Conn., school district leaders are rethinking traditional approaches to instruction.

For the past five years, the district has had a “no zero” grading policy to encourage the completion of all student work. Middle school students can take online courses for high school credit, and high school students can design their own studies with the help of a faculty advisor.

“We put students at the center of everything we do,” said Superintendent Mark Benigni.

He added: “We’re giving students more of a voice and a choice in their education. We’re doing everything we can to motivate and engage them.”

At a special Blended Learning Summit hosted by the Meriden Public Schools on March 17, Benigni and his staff described how they have implemented systemic changes to support blended and personalized learning throughout the district. They also shared several keys to their success.

Next page: Keys to the district’s ed-tech success

When Benigni arrived as superintendent five years ago, Meriden had very few student devices. He and other district leaders believed that if every student had a digital device, this would open up countless educational opportunities for students.

Their first step toward this goal was to upgrade the district’s infrastructure and allow students to bring their own devices to school for learning. Meriden also began investing in more laptops and tablets, and now students at both high schools have full one-to-one access to devices they can take home.

The district is in its second year of a four-year plan to redesign the learning spaces in its high schools, so that “students and teachers can work in a variety of configurations, depending on their learning needs,” said Barbara Haeffner, director of curriculum and instructional technology.

What’s more, district leaders have shifted their spending from printed textbooks to online content. This shift from print to digital has helped extend learning beyond the school day and is fueling more personalized learning for Meriden students.

Elementary and middle school students are reading more frequently outside school using a personalized digital literacy platform called myON, which gives them access to more than 8,000 titles. They’re practicing their math skills and getting valuable feedback using ST Math, an online program from the nonprofit MIND Institute.

Digital textbooks from Discovery Education allow Meriden students to learn science and social studies in a more engaging format that better meets their needs, with supports that include text-to-speech functionality and pop-up dictionaries.

Middle school students can earn high school credit by taking online courses from Odysseyware, and high school students can choose from among 18 Advanced Placement courses. Odysseyware also supports credit recovery within the district, as well as an innovative program in which high school students can pursue an individual course of study—as long as they submit a cohesive plan that indicates how they will demonstrate mastery.

“We have had a fantastic response to this program,” said Susan Moore, blended learning supervisor. Students have been able to earn credit for paid internships, Moore said; in one example, a nearby hotel hired a student to be “green technology” coach and lead its recycling efforts.

In addition, several Meriden teachers have begun flipping their classrooms by posting videos for students to watch from home, so when they come to class, they get richer, more personalized instruction that takes these concepts to a deeper level.

Underlying all of these efforts is a comprehensive system of staff development and support, without which none of Meriden’s success would be possible.

“We know it’s about more than just preparing students,” Benigni explained: Educators, too, must be prepared to teach in these new environments.
By thinking creatively about the school schedule and providing substitute teachers to cover teachers’ classes, Meriden has set aside time for staff to plan and collaborate with each other.

The district also has a peer-to-peer coaching system, where teachers spend a day to watch and learn from each other, with time at the end of the day to reflect on what they’ve learned.

What kind of training and support do teachers receive? “Just like with our students, it’s varied,” Moore said. “But we’ve set up a system where we can meet them at their need.”

For instance, when district leaders introduced the idea of flipped learning, “we had some teachers who could not wait to begin making videos,” she noted. For those teachers, the professional development focused on how to embed assessment within their videos, to check for students’ understanding.

For others who were more reticent, “we were able to find entry points for them as well,” Moore said—such as making their lecture notes available to students online through Google Classroom. “There is something that every single one of our teachers can do,” she declared.

With instructional technologists helping each teacher progress from a different starting point, “teachers don’t feel like they’re in it alone,” Moore said. “If they get stuck, they know who they can turn to. The fact that our teachers now feel supported is empowering them to do more for their students.”

She concluded: “If we personalize and differentiate the learning for our teachers, they are better able to personalize and differentiate the learning for their students.”

The former Editor in Chief of eSchool News, Dennis Pierce is now a freelance writer covering education and technology. He has been following the ed-tech space for more than 17 years. Dennis can be reached at denniswpierce@gmail.com.

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