“In order to make curriculum and outcomes explicit for children and ensure that all learners have the same opportunities, we wanted to address the inclusive piece,” said Daniel Brant, director of early childhood and special education in the district since 2012. “We have programs at our building that are separate, and we wanted to bring them together and have those conversations. We want all students to have the opportunity to interact with each other and hear and use the same dialogue and the same procedures.”
The desire to bring students who are typically developing into the classroom with students who have special needs was an essential piece for Brant’s school. Through conversations with staff and parents around their vision for personalized learning and how it would impact the environment at the Early Childhood Center, the idea of belonging to a community was key. There is a dedicated time during each school day when students move between general education and special education classrooms, providing for learning opportunities as well as a chance to make new friends and gain new perspectives.
“In our community, the expectations are the same,” Brant said. “The way that we engage with you, encourage and scaffold learning are the same throughout the environment. It allows us to give children the safety and comfort that they know their environment well, know the expectations and know how they can sustain and expand their own learning.”
Building a stronger, more collaborative community through personalized learning.
Personalized, competency-based learning is a natural fit for early childhood, aligning the district’s transition to personalized learning, which they call personal mastery, with the experiences Brant and his staff are committed to bringing to the community’s youngest learners. Brant draws parallels between developmental best practices in early childhood and many of the concepts at the heart of personal mastery: a culture of learning that promotes student agency and an awareness of what students are learning and why among all stakeholders, including parents and community members.
And personalized learning is all that teachers in special education have ever known – every child has a personalized learning plan that’s transparent to them and to their parents, and everyone is aware of expectations for behavior and growth. Having the opportunity to grow that level of focus and personalization throughout the school and build a stronger, more collaborative community because of it, has been a positive experience for everyone.
“It’s all that I know, to work where students are at,” said Cindy Woodworth, who has been a special education teacher for 26 years, and with the district for more than 10. Woodworth explained that the opportunities for collaboration and knowledge-sharing has been huge since introducing inclusion into the school – both for learners, and for teachers.
“For the kids in the special education program, they get to see the different toys and activities, to see other students to model from – and also see students who aren’t making good choices and recognize that,” Woodworth said. “And for teachers, it’s good for us to see what others are doing. Collaboration has been growing in this building. We may have different programs, but the overall philosophy is that we want children to grow and learn and be ready for kindergarten.”
Collaboration is key for the cultural shift personalized learning requires of teachers and students.
The spreading of best practices for personalized learning such as standard operating procedures, which special education teachers have always used, and transparent standards have made for greater confidence throughout the school in teachers and students, and in their interactions with families. In addition to coming together as a group to determine and differentiate the standards that students would be expected to master and how they build upon each other so they’d be ready to answer parent questions, teachers at the Early Childhood Center wanted to be able to make progress visible to everyone. And not just for the sake of showing what they’ve accomplished. They also want each and every student to take a moment to recognize how far they’ve come.
“When you have collaboration and a culture where you can discuss and ask questions, it makes a positive experience for everybody.”
“One of our school improvement goals was to build a celebration board,” said Woodworth. “To take those standards and pick three simple ones that the kids can relate to: I can count to 20, I can write my name, I can share with friends. The kids are a part of the process, putting their progress on the board and celebrating. Every kid has an opportunity to be successful on the celebration board.”
Through professional learning communities (PLCs), teachers are also given greater time to interact with each other and share common planning and strategies, which Laura Hilger, a KnowledgeWorks teaching and learning director, credits with fueling teachers’ passion for and commitment to the work of personalized learning.
“Even if it’s 20-minute conversation with their peers, it fuels them,” said Hilger, who has been delivering professional development in the district since they began their implementation of personal mastery. “When I’m around people that want to get better at their practices and continuously improve, to do what’s best for students, I’m all in. It’s the same for educators.”
For Woodworth, recognizing her own role and those of others throughout the school – from students and parents to social workers and occupational therapists – is fundamental to the cultural shift she’s witnessing.
“When you have collaboration and a culture where you can discuss and ask questions,” Woodworth said, “it makes a positive experience for everybody.”