Pirate Academy: Planting the Seeds to Grow Independent Learners

The Pirate Academy Administrative Team at Holman Middle School in the Pattonville School District recently won the 2021 Trailblazer Leader Award, given to educators who are exceptional champions for student-centered learning. The Pirate Academy team is intentional about not giving up until students have mastered every learning target, because they believe that reassessment may be the most impactful part of the process. They are shifting the paradigm from the belief that learning is something students do for their teacher, to something they do for themselves.

by Sara Moran, Principal, Holman Middle School

The seeds for Pirate Academy were planted in 2017 when several districts came together to focus on personalized learning and how that concept could transform education for our students. We considered what a 21st century learner should look like, and reviewed the qualities employers felt were necessary for effective employees. We recognized that the status quo of education wasn’t going to prepare students for a world that was ever-evolving or for jobs that didn’t yet exist. We decided to design a program where students would take responsibility for their learning, which would prepare them to move into an undefined future. The focus would be on collaboration and creativity, and preparing students to be self-motivated, to fail and recover quickly, and be successful despite obstacles. 

The concept of Pirate Academy really started to grow in the following years as teams of administrators and teachers visited New Hampshire and Wisconsin to learn about personalized learning and the various ways schools were implementing the process. In the fall of 2019, Holman Middle School committed to creating a personalized learning academy and began planning for what that would look like. Our first goal was to get the right people involved. We wanted passionate teachers who would center learning on the students to create a culture where students owned their learning and shared that learning with one another, while simultaneously becoming independent and interdependent learners. After hiring the teachers, Mrs. Maegan Bowersox and Mrs. Emily Difani, we began moving from hypothetical ideas to concrete action plans. 

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of this process was not knowing what we didn’t know. The team actively engaged in conversations with others who had already gone through the design and implementation processes, discussing their trials and learning from their errors. It was also a challenge to, as we say in our building, “fly the plane while we’re building it.” But innovation can sometimes be stunted by overplanning or suffer from analysis paralysis. Even though we faced many unknowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic this year, as a team we agreed we needed to continue moving forward and open the academy. So, we began Pirate Academy with sixth grade students as a way to start small and determine what worked best for our school. 

Pirate Academy Administrative Team
Pirate Academy Administrative Team (left to right): Dr. Sarah Moran, Ms. Odetta Smith, Dr. Cara Hiripitiyage, Dr. Tina Plummer

Many lessons were learned throughout this process, one of which was the importance of community. For the teachers to feel less isolated, it was important to communicate with each other as well as other teachers who have already done this work. They were able to talk through future plans and reflect on work already completed. For the students, they were involved in a unique learning experience, and they needed to learn to trust and support one another. 

We also found that learning must be student-centered, and this is where some teachers hesitate for fear of losing control of the classroom. But, in order for students to become independent thinkers and learners, some control must be given over to them. The most important lesson learned throughout all of this, though, was that there isn’t one “right way” for personalized learning to feel, look, or be. Teachers must choose the options that best fit their needs, the subjects/grades they teach, and the goals they and their students set. As we look to continue the growth of Pirate Academy, we will expand to both sixth and seventh grade students next year. We believe in this academy, in personalized learning, and in our students’ ability to learn and thrive.

For those just beginning this process, please remember that change is always uncomfortable, especially when people don’t see a problem with what they are doing. If you don’t push yourself forward, new ideas will quietly disappear, and classrooms will remain what they have been for the last century. Education should be messy because learning is messy. If we’re not challenging ourselves to be better, we can’t expect our students to do better. 

Pattonville School District is located in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. Holman Middle School is located in the city of St. Ann.