Authenticity: One Key To Success

This post is from PLP Pathways contributor Maura Kelly, teacher at Peoples Academy Middle Level in

Morrisville, VT.

“Why do we have to do this?”

“Ugh...Reflections? Didn’t we reflect last week?”

“What is the point of this?

A few years ago, these would be common phrases heard in our teacher advisory when asking students to work on their PLPs. The challenge: we did not give students authentic, self-directed learning space within our schedule to work on their PLP and personal goals. We had 20 minutes, twice a week, dedicated to our social emotional curriculum and to having students set goals, reflect and put evidence on their portfolio sites. I can vividly recall the challenges that I would face week after week asking some of my students to reflect on personal goal progress and time after time, the student not having evidence to support or demonstrate their work toward that goal.

PLP work time was in place of student recess and it felt like there were always other school events competing for time and attention. One of the big challenges with our use of dedicated PLP time last year was that we were asking students to set personal and academic goals around the transferable skills, and then not providing, or honoring, a space and a framework for them to build these skills and accomplish their goals outside of the content areas. This created an unfair situation for our students by not providing necessary supports for students. It made it especially difficult for students who were already struggling with self direction and those who lacked the involvement of parents to keep the student on track to meet goals outside of school.

Old Schedule

New Schedule

8:00-9:20 Humanities

9:20-10:00 Literacy Intervention Block

10:00-10:20 Teacher Advisory

10:20-11:20 Science

11:20-12:20 Math

12:20-1:00 Lunch/Recess

1:00-2:00 Exposition (Unified Arts)

2:00-2:45 Expert class or Math Intervention (Teacher facilitated elective class)

8:00-8:20 Teacher Advisory Morning Meeting

8:20-8:45 Academic Time (small group intervention call back time)

8:45-9:40 Exposition (Unified Arts)

9:40-10:35 Humanities

10:35-11:30 Math

11:30-11:50 Recess

11:50-12:25 Literacy Intervention

12:25-12:50 Lunch

12:50-1:10 Humanities part 2

1:10-2:05 Science

2:05-2:45 Opportunity Time

Now, with our new flexible schedule, every student gets 45 minutes of self-directed, supported learning Opportunity Time every day. We have students participating in a wide range of activities including: taking online high school courses, developing choreography and teaching a dance class for younger students, and starting a Geography Bee.

By providing students with intentional opportunities and experiences, as well as the support to collect evidence and reflect on growth, our PLP time has been transformed. Now, I have students who are most engaged in school at Opportunity Time, partnering with teachers, working on meaningful self-directed projects, feeling empowered, and providing evidence of achieving their personal goals.
We honor their time and although some students are on their 4th or 5th personal goal or project, we are giving time and space for them to truly personalize and take ownership of their learning. Now, when we reflect with students, we know that we have honored this authentic learning need and all students can reflect on their growth every week.

One student's evidence of working on their goal around drawing and shading during Opportunity Time with guidance from the Art teacher

As we have shifted to proficiency based learning, we have moved our practice to incorporate student's reflection on their learning progress before, during and after building the skills to meet the learning target in their class. We have been intentional about giving students time while learning to reflect and archiving their reflections on both Blogger and Schoology to capture their thinking and curate their work.
We use this as a way to get feedback from the students and also develop space for us to give feedback around the student’s growth towards the learning target. This renewed focus on reflection has become a critical part of the learning process. We also take time in class to have students put evidence of their learning on their portfolios and thereby capture the growth narrative growth behind the proficiencies.

Another focus on authenticity this year has been giving the portfolio an authentic audience. Just last week we had an upper house portfolio showcase where we had the whole upper house, all 7th and 8th grade students at Peoples Academy Middle Level, set up their portfolios and present to other members of our learning community. We had students receive feedback on their Opportunity Time projects and goals in an effort to help refocus the learning and to serve as a meaningful place to showcase their growth.
We also invited high school teachers and administrators to come and view the portfolios in order to start building relationships with our current 8th grade students, who, in a few short months, will be entering high school. We were able to utilize our flexibility within our schedule this year to support student preparation in three key areas. First, in preparation for for the portfolio showcase, students were provided the aforementioned Opportunity Time to gather evidence for their portfolio. Second, during teacher advisory time, students were able to receive feedback from advisory partners. Finally, academic time was utilized to support proficiency-based reflection writing.

We have spent time this year sharing student portfolios within our team, but I am always reminded by students of the importance of sharing beyond our team. All of the students really focused and worked hard trying to get their portfolios ready knowing that our 5th - 8th grade students and teachers, as well as high school teachers, would be the authentic viewing audience bringing meaning and purpose to their work.

Students viewing giving feedback at the portfolio showcase

Looking toward the end of the year we have been seeking additional authentic audiences for our students to share. In a few weeks we will have several students from all the Peoples Academy Middle Level teams join with middle level students from Stowe to collaborate on their portfolios. The hope is that we start a partnership between the students that we can carry over for multiple years, creating opportunities for them to work together in person, and also to collaborate digitally, fostering the collaborative spirit between both teachers and students within our supervisory union around the shifts in practice implementing Act 77.