Spencer schools build personalized learning communities
SPENCER — The School District of Spencer is working to change the way its students learn.
“It’s all a change in how we’re doing things to match what our district vision is and to better meet the needs of the kids,” said Spencer Elementary Principal Jill Schulz. “So what’s happening in our pre-K and kindergarten with the tools is very much connected to what we are doing in our second grade, fourth, and fifth grade, and, actually, our junior high teacher was probably the first teacher to start going down that road.”
Start of the journey
The concept for individualized learning in Spencer began with middle school math teacher Judy Barton.
“I went to a conference and listened to a speaker here at school that talked about what was called ‘flip teaching,’ and it just seemed like I should give it a chance,” said Barton.
Based on the concept, Barton designed a class structure in which students could work at a different pace, allowing her more time for individualized work with each student.
“Instead of spending the majority of the class time teaching a lesson, it allowed me to spend more time with my students and working with those who needed my assistance,” said Barton. “After a while I made it so kids could work at their own pace within this.”
“I taught across the hall from (Judy), so I got to see it firsthand,” said Schulz. “Then I taught social studies, so I tried to incorporate a lot of these ideas into my own classroom.
“When I came to (the principal position), one of the very early CESA (Cooperative Educational Service Agencies) meetings I was at, the director of CESA 10 was discussing that they were going to be partnering with CESA 1 out of Milwaukee and offer to some pilot schools to look into (individualized learning).”
Schulz approached the second-grade teachers about the concept, and they traveled to CESA 10 for a four-day training session.
“So they brought those ideas back,” said Schulz.
Schulz also met with CESA 1 out of Milwaukee.
“My guess would be that CESA 1 is the leader in the nation when it comes to this change in learning,” explained Schulz. “We are very fortunate that they are in our backyard.”
In addition, Spencer staff visited the Edgar School District and several other schools.
“People make it work for their district,” said Schulz. “Like Edgar needed to Edgar-ize, we needed to Rocket-ize.”
What it looks like
“Our kids today are very different than even kids 10 years ago,” said Schulz.
“It used to be that students were looked at more as vessels that we needed to fill with information because adults were looked at as people that had that information, so we filled these vessels with information. Now, that information is everywhere. They can get that information 24-7 from many different sources,” she explained.
The structures in learning have been adjusted to create self-paced educational plans for the students in the pre-K, kindergarten, second-grade, as well as the fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms.
“Each year we add another layer,” said Schulz. “We have also made some changes in grading and homework, and I think that has been a little harder for our parents.”
The most visible element of the change in learning structure exists in the fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms, where a wall has been removed, and students and teachers fluctuate between rooms in a self-paced environment.
Desks have been replaced by communal areas to establish a relaxed and comfortable setting.
Benefits and drawbacks
“Connecting and building relationships (with the students) has been so much easier to do within this environment,” explained Schulz. “They have the time because they have another (teacher) that can help out.
“I think that the teachers used to feel that they would give the students a test or a quiz, and their hands were kind of tied as far as, ‘Well, I would love to give all of these kids individual help, but how do I do that?’ In this environment it’s allowed them to sit down with them.
“The other thing … is the students being able to judge where they are. When they take the pretest, the kids look through. The kids kind of gauge themselves. (We are) helping the kids know who they are as a learner. That is the biggest piece because that is how they can grow.”
Schulz added that changes in structure also come with complications, stating that traditional grading may no longer be an accurate reflection of a student’s work.
“That is our challenge for this next year: to find a system to communicate with parents accurately the growth their kids are making,” said Schulz. “That is hard to do. That is our challenge moving forward.
“We’ve been working on pieces of this for a long time. It is a work in progress.”