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Personal Learning Plans Meet Individual Needs

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by Andrew O’Connor

During this summer’s interlude, work on the family farm was hardly the story of any of the increasing number of local students and scholar who have given up rakes and hoes for another tyup of tool – the keyboard and computer.

More and more such keyboards and computers are being employed in our local classrooms to engage students in their education as their focus moves toward individualized goals bolstered by personal growth and reflection.

Act 77, signed into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin in June 2013 addresses a new approach to education called the “Flexible Pathways Initiative. One component of the bill calls for the implementation of personalized learning plans. And this fall, the State of Vermont requires that Vermont school district have a personalized learning plan process in place.

In preparation for the implementation the Flexible Pathways Initiative, for the last two years, Don Taylor and Amy Kimball, co-teachers at Main Street Middle School, have participated in a pilot project with an emphasis on getting student ready to identify their personal and academic goals.

“The kids are responding very favorably,” Taylor said. She said that this new focus is encouraging students to connect their learning to the real world and to think about ways of achieving their personal goals.

An important aspect of Flexible Pathways includes teaching kids transferrable skills — communication, problem solving and critical thinking — that cover all content areas. Many school districts have incorporated them into school standards and goals for the plans.

“These are pretty standard things you’ll need in the real world,” said James Nagle, associate professor at St. Michael’s College and co-director of the Middle Grades Collaborative.

Working with Team Summit, Nagle has collected data from students’ use of various Google sites. By creating their own websites, Nagle said, students are able to use their creativity and ingenuity. Over the years, the result will be an archive of their learning experience, he added.

Kimball thinks this will help students navigate their course through Flexible Pathways in high school. And the digital presence they’re creating will go with them as they ready for college. It could aid in writing college essays, or in filling out a common application with links from their work and performances embedded. That, coupled with test scores, would provide “a much more diverse indication of the individual student,” Nagle said.

Though at this stage in their cognitive development, middle schoolers don’t understand the difference between long- and short-term goals, Nagle said. That’s why the personalized learning plan is designed to get them thinking, with the guidance of teachers, about the opportunities that will get them there.

This year Team Summit did an activity with Google Maps, both for training in digital citizenship and to locate summer camps related to their interests. It’s a chance to explore careers they like, and move on to other ideas if they don’t, Nagle said.

“Herein lies the opportunity for growth and reflection,” he added.

Education is evolving from the classic model where students were aligned in rows, theoretically developing the skills needed for assembly line work in a factory, to what is now one-to-one computing. Everything now becomes centered around the student rather than the content or the course, Nagle said.

All this changes the role of teachers in the classroom. “Teachers become less a disseminator of information and more a facilitator of the student learning,” Nagle said.

This transition coincides with opportunities for students to learn in many settings — school, home and summer camps —then communicate that knowledge on their website.

According to the Vermont State Board of Education, other indicators — Next Generation Science Standards, Education Quality Standards and personalized learning plans — are used in conjunction with standardized testing to determine proficiency.

In the main, the board of education has resolved to make education reflect the character and opportunities of each state — as seen in Flexible Pathways. To that end, they requested that the United States Congress and Administration amend the No Child Left Behind Act in a statement issued in March 2015.

Shaping kids into “literate and informed citizens,” both digitally and in the civic realm, has its challenges. Kimball pointed out that, “With all that is happening in the real world,” the question is, “How to keep kids optimistic and hopeful?”

Personalization is geared towards that end. The key is: “keep them having experiences where they realize they can make a difference,” Kimball said.

The author is a freelance writer who lives in Graniteville.

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