This is how school used to work: Teachers stand at the front of the class, lecturing and leading lessons.
But on 15 of the 164 campuses in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the dynamic has shifted. Students choose how they’ll learn the material and work at their own pace. You’re more likely to see the teacher at a small table with a student than at the whiteboard.
The style, known as personalized learning, is one of the school district’s latest experiments in building a more modern classroom. The theory is that having options will engage students and make them more eager to learn. CMS leaders expect more schools will adopt its practices after this year’s pilot program.
Critics say personalized learning can rely too much on technology – think hours of videos on iPads – and be lenient in grading. The system significantly adds to teacher workloads, and there has been little evidence that the style gets results.
Championed and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the federal “ Race to the Top” program, it’s also gaining favor at large districts across the country. Iredell-Statesville Schools is embarking on a similar initiative.
“We cannot have one teacher in one classroom teaching everyone the exact same way,” said Kevin Sudimack, principal at Kennedy Middle School. “That’s not how school can happen anymore.”
At Sudimack’s school in Charlotte, teachers give students the option to pick a certain number of activities they’d like to do. Assignments are tailored to the kids’ interests and learning styles.
In Mary Bloom’s sixth-grade math class, one group used a newspaper grocery circular to add prices on a shopping list. Another group multiplied decimals on paper and used an iPad to scan a bar code to check their work. A third group cut dominoes out of paper and matched the dots to correct answers to math problems.
Personalized learning was championed by former Superintendent Heath Morrison, who wanted it in all CMS schools in the next four years. The district received a $200,000 grant from the Gates Foundation to develop a plan on how to put it into practice.
Each school involved in this year’s pilot program received a stipend of $5,000. Principals had the option to use the money for more equipment, such as iPads, or on professional development for teachers.
The major factor in expansion will be getting buy-in from schools already juggling numerous programs, school board members said.
Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark has pledged her support for the 2018 strategic plan devised under Morrison, and told the Observer that personalized learning remains on track. It’s unclear whether a new superintendent would back the effort.
CMS is currently taking applications from schools that want to be in a second group to implement personalized learning for 2015-16, but it’s not clear how many will be added. They’ll be selected in April.
“We want teachers to know this isn’t going to go away,” said Sonya McInnis, principal of Renaissance School of Arts and Technology at Olympic High. “This is the way it should be.”
In the classroom
Teachers regularly use quizzes after lessons to gauge strengths and weaknesses on the material. And they swap lesson plans for different tracks students can take through the curriculum.
At the start of the week, Natalie Matthews gives each of her kindergarten students at Newell Elementary a list of letters to work on over the next five days and some activities to help accomplish that: whether it’s cutting the letter out of a magazine or doing a matching game on a smartboard.
“They’re much more engaged and willing to do their best because it matters to them,” Matthews said. “It’s just amazing how much ownership they have, even at age 5.”
In Heather Klinger’s fifth-grade class, students were assigned to present information on early explorers of America. One group chose to produce a video in iMovie on Hernando Cortés, another a poster on Jacques Cartier, and a third a PowerPoint presentation on John Cabot.
“Kids want to be successful, and they want to get better, and they want to learn,” said Lisa Allred, a dean at Newell Elementary. “Students are empowered by choice, so they are engaged. Before, teachers put together a lesson plan following the calendar. Now they find out what students’ needs are.”
Similarly, Raha Obaei gave her sixth-graders at Kennedy Middle a choice in how they’d learn about early Christianity. One group listened to a mini-lecture about why an emperor would execute Christians. Another group worked in pairs, timing each other to see how quickly they could write definitions of words like “persecution.”
Tracey Renfro has created different pathways for her fifth-grade class at Hawk Ridge Elementary that allow students to advance through the curriculum at their own pace. Students can spend time in a small group with a teacher, or watch a Khan Academy video. The popular, free website includes hundreds of short videos teaching lessons in math, science, economics and computer programming.
“Last year, everybody was working at the same pace, no matter what,” Renfro said. Now, some students are already completing sixth-grade work.
“I like it,” said Jonah Dennis, 11, a fifth-grader at Hawk Ridge. “You don’t have to sit in desks and just listen to the lecture. You can go at your own pace. You don’t have to wait around for everybody.”
Only one high school, Olympic, is trying out personalized learning this year. It’s more challenging to launch the program in high schools because they’re more competitive, and advanced classes have national requirements.
Ninth-grade math teacher Baria Jordan gives her students a list of mandatory and optional activities, with options such as watching a music video about solving systems of equations.
Rae Legrone lets students in her digital photography class choose what assignments they’ll do to demonstrate different techniques, rather than assign everyone to shoot a sunset.
“I say yes to everything if they can give me a reason,” Legrone said.
In more advanced and structured classes, McInnis, the Olympic High principal, said she is encouraging teachers to move away from lectures and toward more group work and projects. For example, an Advanced Placement calculus teacher is working with an art teacher on a project designing an eco-friendly house.
But the rollout hasn’t been rosy at all of the 15 schools.
Parents at Hawk Ridge Elementary in the Ballantyne area were irked when principal Troy Moore determined that the classrooms needed new tables and chairs that allowed for group work, instead of individual desks. CMS does not pay for that type of furniture, so the parent-teacher association launched an “adopt-a-classroom” fundraising drive to buy it.
Several parents, who asked not to be named for fear of harming relationships between the school and their children, have also complained that students can take advantage of teachers. The system relies on students to be diligent on their own.
Classrooms can also appear chaotic with students scattered about the room in different activities. And some parents said their children come home reporting they watched video after video on an iPad.
“For some, it’s working out great,” said Chris Egan, president of the PTO at Hawk Ridge Elementary. “For some, it’s such a big change that they’re having a hard time with it.”
She said that kids who are used to a rigid structure or a lot of parent help on assignments can struggle.
Other parents say they don’t understand what their child is doing in class anymore. Before, it was easy for a teacher to send an email describing what the class did that week. It’s much more difficult to describe four sets of activities.
“You still have old-school parents who don’t ever want change, and want it to be exactly the way it was in the past,” Egan said.
The teacher’s role
For teachers, personalized learning significantly changes their role. You likely won’t find them at the whiteboard going through a math problem. Instead, they’ll be meeting with students in small groups while the rest of the class works on an assignment or reads a book. Then, they rotate.
“Most of the questions we get are ‘What is your role? Are you not teaching?’ ” said Renfro, the Hawk Ridge teacher. “I say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m out of breath because I’m teaching so much.’ ”
Teachers also must track students and direct them to where they need help.
“The teacher is grouping and regrouping students to make sure every child is progressing as fast as they can,” said Valerie Truesdale, the CMS chief of technology, personalization and engagement.
Schools in the pilot program have been focusing on training teachers in best practices for personalized learning. Some have also given them extra time to develop the options for their class.
“To be honest, it is a lot of work. I definitely have to be really effective with how I manage my time,” said Obaei, the Kennedy Middle teacher.
Advocates say personalized learning can improve conversations between teachers and parents. Instead of just grades on assignments, teachers should know more specifically where a student is and what he or she needs to work on.
“Teachers can have a more tailored conversation on the phone with a parent about how their kids are doing,” said Melissa Thiel, a dean at Newell Elementary. “They know the students better.”