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Make learning personal at GBR

Sarah Fosness' third-graders are spread across the room, working in groups. As the class studies fractions, some students work on a smartboard; others sit with a notepad and pencil, quietly studying a banana bread recipe. Still other tables work ...

At left, Macey Linke shows Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School Principal Vicki Harmdierks her assignment, which teaches fractions through a recipe, last week at G.B. Rogers. Partially obscured at far right is Alexa Chapman. (Candy DenOuden/Republic)
At left, Macey Linke shows Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School Principal Vicki Harmdierks her assignment, which teaches fractions through a recipe, last week at G.B. Rogers. Partially obscured at far right is Alexa Chapman. (Candy DenOuden/Republic)

Sarah Fosness' third-graders are spread across the room, working in groups.

As the class studies fractions, some students work on a smartboard; others sit with a notepad and pencil, quietly studying a banana bread recipe. Still other tables work with foam blocks of sorts to build different fractions. The largest group sits with Fosness, as she explains part of the lesson.

As they complete their tasks, the students bring their work to their teacher, who checks it with either a nod or instructions on what is missing. Periodically, they rotate stations.

It's a glimpse into the future of what the Personalized Learning Community will look like at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School, according to school Principal Vicki Harmdierks.

"She's already doing great differentiating in the classroom, but this will give the ability to do that even more," Harmdierks said of Fosness. "Right now what we're doing is working great, we have a great school. But this is going to be right beside it as another opportunity."

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G.B. Rogers' Personalized Learning Community, a mass-customized learning program, will start in the 2016-17 school year. Harmdierks said there are about 60 students signed up for the first year of the personalized learning classroom, out of a total student population of 426. Fosness and two others will be the teachers for the program, Kacee Kopfmann and Meghan Moody. While teachers already try to provide individualized instruction for their students, Fosness said the new program will expand on that idea.

"It's already happening in most of the classrooms, this will just be another opportunity. Because what works for some doesn't work for others," she said.

Harmdierks said those signed up for the program are a variety of students, from special education to "high flyers." She said students will be in the blended classroom for their interdisciplinary courses, but will rejoin their grade-level peers for "specials," like music, lunch, art and physical education.

It's the latest addition to the Mitchell School District's alternative learning opportunities beyond the traditional classroom setting, and Harmdierks said it's meant to bridge the gap between elementary and middle school in customized learning options. Mitchell Middle School has Mass Customized Learning, and the high school has advanced-course options like Advanced Placement and dual-credit enrollment. By creating a Personalized Learning Community at G.B. Rogers, Harmdierks said students will be able to earn grade credit for mastering standards in advanced grade levels.

"We want to be able to build that bridge, we want them to be able to move on and take those higher-level classes," Harmdierks said.

She noted that students will advance academically through the curriculum, but will physically stay in the elementary school building.

"We don't want to send a third-grader over to the middle school," she said. "But we will have curriculum for that."

Meeting the standard

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The standards students must master to advance are the Common Core standards, which set a common goal from kindergarten through eighth grade, then add different levels of mastery for each grade. For language arts, for example, one of the overall standards that starts in kindergarten and remains through eighth grade is for students to "Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking." How students master that, however, differs and advances throughout the grade levels. In second grade, for example, students achieve mastery by using collective nouns, adjectives and adverbs. Fourth-graders, however, must achieve mastery through a more advanced set of criteria-things like correctly using "frequently confused words" like "to," "too" and "two" or "their," "there" "they're."

"In our school system, we do have the standards that we have to teach ... but the students might not be ready for that, or they might be past that," Harmdierks said.

In age-specific classrooms, Moody said everyone must work at relatively the same pace, and their progress is based on their grade-specific standards. In a personalized learning community, she said teachers will have a variety of students working across all of the standards. So, if a fourth-grader is still mastering second-grade math standards, they can do that at their own pace, Moody said.

"It's not a new concept, it's just expanding the concept," Kopfmann added.

In the new program, students will take a learning portfolio or profile to determine their interests and what they want to learn. Fosness said students will also take a placement assessment, to judge where they are in reading and math proficiencies, and where they're at socially. Then, teachers will create a "playlist" for each student, an individualized lesson based on that student's personal interests and academic needs. That playlist can be managed electronically or through a hard-copy system, Moody said. If a student is interested in dinosaurs, for example, that could be woven into their core academic studies-like measuring a dinosaur footprint, or reading a book about dinosaur history.

"Our goal is they will actually be meeting these standards with the interest level that they want to learn about," Harmdierks said. "We believe if they are learning what they want to learn more about, that they will take more ownership in it."

Real-world application is an important component of the lesson plans, too, educators say. Moody gave an example of a playlist with seashells, where students count the sea shells and divide them up to learn about fractions. They then have to create a business plan on how to sell those seashells.

"So it's all that critical thinking that goes along with authentic activities, but still touching on the Common Core standards," Moody said.

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Kopfmann agreed, saying students are "much more motivated if they can apply it."

She and the other teachers involved are excited at the prospect, calling it a positive opportunity for students and parents. They stressed that it's not a replacement of the traditional classroom model, and might not be the best option for all students or learning styles. But, Moody said the time and research that has gone into planning the personalized learning community has changed her as an educator.

"It has made me look at how education could be different, and may work differently for some kids," Moody said. "We still find value in the traditional classroom, it's just another option we are giving to parents."

Macey Linke works on an assignment that uses a recipe to teach fractions last week at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School in Mitchell. (Candy DenOuden/Republic)
Macey Linke works on an assignment that uses a recipe to teach fractions last week at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School in Mitchell. (Candy DenOuden/Republic)

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