Mitchell Middle School looks at pilot program if parents show interestMass customized learning is different from the traditional teaching methods because it relies less on direct teacher lectures and more on teacher involvement with individual students.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
Mitchell Middle School parents recently got a glimpse of mass customized learning, a new instruction model that looks a lot like a one-room schoolhouse on steroids.
MCL creates individualized learning programs for multi-age groups of students using the state’s common core curriculum standards in math, science, social studies and English. The program is student-centered and designed to help students master learning tasks at their own pace.
If enough Mitchell Middle School parents choose to sign up their children, about 100 students in grades six through eight will take part in an MCL pilot program in the fall, MMS Principal Brad Berens said.
A high school program is in the planning stages for the following year and an elementary school plan also is being considered.
MCL is different from the traditional teaching methods because it relies less on direct teacher lectures and more on teacher involvement with individual students. MMS language arts teacher Tina Board said there’s time set aside for lecture and class discussions, but with MCL she also has more one-on-one time with her students. Instead of sending students to the middle school’s Intensive Care Unit for remedial work, for instance, “intervention” periods can be scheduled to help a student during regular class time.
For decades, Berens said, teachers taught the same programs from year to year, or until there was a curriculum review.
“With mass customized learning, that’s just not going to happen,” said Berens. “You can’t just take the same material and lay it in front of the kids time after time. You’re going to have to ask ‘What is a better resource than what I used before?’ ”
The pilot program at MMS will be directed by a team that includes a teacher from each of the common core subject areas, a tentative instructional lineup that includes: Board, language arts; Kate Kramer, social studies; Ashley Schreurs, science; and Diane Way, math.
Unlike the traditional one-room schoolhouse, however, MCL students won’t be crammed into a single classroom, but would share classes designed to meet state learning standards.
“We wouldn’t put 100 middle school students in one room unless we wanted to kill the program,” joked Berens, who has been intimately involved in MCL’s development since its beginning.
Just how many students will be part of the program’s start-up will depend on the response of student and parents, he said.
Parents interested in the program will be able to apply on the school district website. (See related sidebar).
“With MCL, the teachers set the outline and the learners set their own goals within that outline,” Kate Kramer explained at recent introductory teacher meeting at MMS.
“The kids aren’t out there freewheeling,” she said. “They will have to stay within the common core standards.”
There will, however, be plenty of room to pursue personal interests and projects within those standards, she said.
As they would in a one-room schoolhouse, older kids can help younger students and occasionally younger, and more academically agile, students can also assist struggling upper classmates.
Board was among a group of middle- and high-school teachers who toured schools in Maine last month to see MCL in action.
“What we’re doing is not revolutionary. It’s been around for a long time,” said Board, a 10-year teaching veteran. “But it takes time to implement.”
It also takes considerable class preparation time, which was a concern to some MMS teachers who heard Board and other teachers explain the program. Board, at first, also was fearful about the amount of work the program takes, but she believes it’s worth the extra time.
Preparing for MCL means that teachers will have to map out lessons and learning expectations in advance. Board said she is already using MCL concepts in her classes and she won’t go back.
She said she uses a “capacity matrix,” or planning grid, with her students.
“They can see all the lessons, and see the goals that need to be met by the end of the year, by the end of the quarter, and by the end of the unit,” she said.
Board told fellow teachers that she had become increasing frustrated with conventional teaching methods and felt she wasn’t meeting the needs of her students. The field trip to Maine was an eyeopener, she said.
In September, Mitchell teachers and administrators visited schools in Maine where MCL is currently in use.
The schools included Gray-New Gloucester Middle School, in Gray, Maine; Hall-Dale Middle School, Farmingdale, Maine; Messalonskee Middle School, Oakland, Maine; and Massabesic Middle School, in Waterboro, Maine.
Virgel Hammonds, superintendent of the Hall-Dale School District, said his district took the learner-centered plunge at one time in grades K-12. The district uses MCL with conventional grade-level classes as well as multiage classes.
“We’ve been working on it for three years and the results have been phenomenal,” he said.
He said Maine has been one of the first states to develop a proficiency diploma that certifies that students have mastered a determined set of learning standards. Colleges are accepting the performance-based transcripts, he said.
The standards-based evaluation system, it should be noted, has also had its critics who say the new grading system still needs fine-tuning.
Under the MCL plan, kids who are struggling academically aren’t forced to repeat an entire course the following year. “They simply start where they left off the year before,” Hammonds said.
“We believe that kids develop at different levels,” he said. “And we’re OK with that.”
Board said she was “definitely impressed.” She added, “I feel MCL is going to bring relevance in to the classroom based on the common core standards.”
Berens was equally taken with his Maine experience.
“It just made sense that students and teachers collaborated for better learning,” he said. Maine students seemed to have a better sense of where their learning was headed, he said.
“In a traditional school setting, the teacher knows the standards — where the road is going — but in this model the teacher and the students both know the standards, so they all know where the road is going,” he said.
When MCL is implemented at the middle school, teachers will have to work with students to “unpack” the state’s common core standards so they will understand what’s expected of them, he said.
In the broadest sense, MCL is student-centered and teacherdirected.
In MCL classes, students move at their own pace when learning a topic. They cannot move ahead until they exhibit mastery of subject matter, determined by testing. Advanced students, on the other hand, also will be able to move ahead more quickly under the new program.
That means the MCL curriculum will constantly be evolving to meet the needs of students, Berens said.
In Maine, Board said she saw students taking more responsibility, “and taking charge of their own learning.”
Parents who attended recent MCL introductory meetings at the middle school were enthusiastic, but cautious.
Michelle Studer attended a meeting to see if the program will meet the needs of her two children.
“I think the idea that children can work at their own pace is positive,” she said.
Kevin Yeo, who works as a Mitchell police officer, liked what he saw, but he said it’s crucial for the pilot program to have a representative cross-section of the MMS student body to give the program a real-life test.
“If you cherry-pick participants you can make any program look good,” Yeo said.
Berens agreed and said his school will work hard to make the first MCL class be an accurate cross-section of student life at MMS.