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MAYVILLE | The fifth grade classrooms at Mayville Middle School do not look like traditional classrooms.

Students are sitting on the floor, in bean bag chairs and under desks. Some are in small groups; some are sitting in desks working on laptops. Some teachers are working one-on-one with students, some are working in small groups, and some are sitting with students on the floor facilitating discussion.

This nontraditional environment is all a part of the middle school’s new personalized learning initiative. The district began looking into personalized learning about three years ago with some research and site visits, according to principal John Schlender.

“We have known for a long time that our current education model is not ideal and it is based on years and years of efficiency. There has to be a better way to teach kids,” he said.

So what is personalized learning?

Schlender said, “There are lots of different definitions. We have struggled with what it means to us. What is comes down to is allowing students to learn what they want to know when they need to know it and giving students a voice and choice with their learning.”

This year’s fifth grade class is the first class at the middle school to be taught in this personalized learning environment. At the beginning of the year, each student was tested on his or her specific learning style.

“In the past we always encouraged teachers to get in touch and be aware of their students’ learning styles and try to differentiate for those students, but the teacher was still doing all the work. Now we have put that same process to identify students’ different learning styles but we have put it on them so they recognize their own learning styles,” Schlender said.

There have been concerns from parents that this model gives students too much freedom and not enough structure. With the program’s reliance on the motivation of students to learn and excel, some parents were concerned students could fail.

“One of the components of personalized learning is learning through failure, having it be OK to fail,” Schlender said.

He said some of the more successful students never experience failure in the classroom, but will some day in their lives.

“That is where the teacher is such an important part of this. When kids fail, rather than swooping in and saving them, they help guide them in a direction where they can figure it out. That goes back to the engagement and motivation piece. That feels really good to a student to say, ‘I was stuck but I figured out the solution and I was successful.’”

When asked whether the fifth graders had problems with motivating themselves, Schlender said they did not. He said no one likes to be told what to do and the students are more motivated when they are able to help choose what they will learn and how they will learn it.

He added, “It doesn’t mean that expectations are any lower. We still are meeting the standards and we are still gauging student’s success. There is constant check-in and daily checking of data and accountability for those students. Students are not allowed to lag behind. They have to demonstrate their mastery. There is ongoing counseling with the teachers. They are not just out there on their own without any accountability.”

The preliminary results show that so far, the program is a success. Schlender said the fifth graders did well on mid-year tests and the results showed that 75 percent of the students exceeded expected growth.

Fifth grade teachers all praised the program as well as the success of the children within the new personalized program. Each day the students are given a list of things they must do and a list of things they can do. Teachers evaluate student progress each night and make adjustments. Students who need more direct instruction receive it and those who show mastery in various topics are able to move on at their own pace.

Fifth grade teacher Melissa Schneider said, “This is about giving kids the choice, the opportunity for them to find what they are passionate about. It gives teachers a chance to catch problems before they snowball.”

She added, “The kids really enjoy it. It makes sense and it is best for the kids.”

Fifth grade student Melissa Batterman said, “It has been easier than all other grades. Some kids who have more knowledge help the others. Some people can learn better if they are not at their desks.”

She said she is enjoying school more.

“To listen to a teacher talk about math when it’s stuff you already know, you get bored,” Batterman said.

With personalized learning, if students can show they have learned material, they can move forward without direct instruction.

In the future, Schlender said he hopes the program expands across the entire district, kindergarten through 12th grade.

Schlender said in the past students would typically move along to the next grade level whether they had truly mastered the material or not. That meant the time allowed for mastering the knowledge was nine months and that did not vary.

“We are trying to shift ... so all students will learn all this information at their pace, within the time frame that it takes them. Learning is the constant. They have to learn and master all of these things.”

“One of the components of personalized learning is learning through failure, having it be okay to fail. Fail for us is first attempt in learning and that when you fail that is how you learn and that is okay.” Principal John Schlender, Mayville Middle School