Building a Personalized Learning Environment: A Tale of Two Districts (Part I)

In the fall of 2019 the team at South View Middle School was recognized as a Trailblazer Award winner at the 10th Annual Convening on Personalized Learning. Part I (below) will share how the journey at South View has continued to progress. Part II shares how Wayzata West Middle School has been implementing learner-centered practices.

Part I: South View Middle School (Tim Anderson and Tricia Pettis)

South View hosted over 150 educators between two different site visits in 2019-2020. Participants came to see personalized learning in action. They observed South View’s advisory, daily flex time, learning pathways, unit guides, and flexible learning spaces. They also got to hear learners explain how the choices they had in their learning developed self-confidence and a sense of ownership. After visiting classrooms, participants chose from a selection of breakout sessions on the structures South View put into place to personalize the learning. The site visits were energizing, inspiring, and demonstrated how schools could move towards a personalized learning model. Then the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, and everything changed for education. 

South View’s personalized learning structures served learners well during the fluctuating learning models caused by the pandemic. Unit guides gave learners access to information, a consistent experience to track and reflect on feedback, and monitor progress. The focus on building learner agency, the ability to craft and carry out plans, helped guide the direction of what South View invested energy into as we were constantly adjusting to the constraints of the pandemic. This focus on agency led to assessment and grading reform, a new emphasis on forming deep connections through our advisory model, and an urgency around equity. Now we are two years out of the pandemic, but educators are still feeling the impacts it had on teaching and learning.

learning progression exampleToday, South View is still leading the work around developing independent learners. Teachers are supported to grow in the work through professional development. At the heart of professional development is collaboration. Utilizing our instructional coaches, professional learning communities (PLC’s) and pineapple pd are ways we are creating an environment conducive to ongoing professional collaboration. For each unit of study PLC’s write learning progressions so teachers can use data to make instructional responses. A learning progression is the critical bridge that connects academic standards, assessments, instruction, practice, and learning pathways. Having mapped out and unwrapped standards and aligned assessments that serve as feedback for learners,  teachers can create learning pathways to personalize the learning.  From the learning progressions, teachers create unit guides for learners. South View’s unit guides are for learners to engage with the content, monitor progress, and reflect and grow from feedback. Teachers develop learning progressions in PLCs and then create unit guides to give learners ownership, voice, and choice in the learning process.

South View developed a common set of language around learning pathways before the pandemic, and they have remained consistent ever since. Learners are trained to understand that teacher seminar, collaborative groups, and independent flex are different ways to access and engage with content. This common language creates an opportunity for learners to reflect on which pathways serve them best when learning. This is one way teachers establish different learning pathways in a class. Giving learners a choice in how they engage in content develops a sense of agency. Learners refer to our agency learning progression throughout the school year and reflect on how they are developing the capacity to craft and carry out plans, communicate, and make informed decisions based on learning and feedback. 

agency tracker exampleThis agency tracker is a part of learners’ “Learner Story” or Google presentation they use to demonstrate and reflect on who they are as a learner, craft and carry out plans for the week (flex choices, priority list of assignments, goal setting), and share with caregivers for learner led conferences. During the pandemic years, South View redesigned the advisory structures to create belonging and a strong sense of identity and purpose (agency) for all learners. Each week is designed around a theme that aligns with whatever needs have arisen in the building. Across the building learners have a consistent experience of goal setting, academic check in with advisors, and circles (community building activities based on the week’s advisory theme). Recently, 90% of South View learners reported having positive relationships, with 83% reported having a teacher or adult in the building to count on no matter what, on the Panorama survey.  

The way in which South View has grown since being a Trailblazer recipient is in the area of cultural proficiency. Along with developing agency, our mission is to create a strong sense of belonging for all our learners. The Edina vision is for “each and every student to discover their possibility and thrive.” In order to do that, every learner has to be included, valued, accepted, appreciated, and treated fairly.  Achievement occurs in the context of feeling connected to the learning community. For every decision we make, we must consider what barriers might be in the way of everyone being included and having access. We ask the question, how can we open doors for all? It is not possible to create a sense of belonging for all without using the tools of cultural proficiency. The foundation and focus around agency and belonging in advisory, carries over into all classes and content areas and is the true meaning of personalized learning.  To learn more about South View’s current learnings check out our South View Matters Podcast.

South View Middle School is part of Edina Public Schools. The district serves a large portion of the City of Edina, a first-tier Minneapolis suburb of approximately 47,900 residents.

Patricia Pettis is the incoming principal for South View Middle School. She is currently serving as the Dean of Students and an education consultant. @triciapettis10

Tim Anderson is the current principal at South View Middle School. He has been an educator for 25 years, serving as a high school teacher and as Executive Director of Teaching and Learning.