How a Breakthrough School Beat Summer Learning Loss

Students on Chromebooks at DC International School.

Students on Chromebooks at DC International School.

Students in America lose an average of one month of learning over the summer. That’s not a lack of progress—that’s a backwards slide in math and reading, as if four weeks of hard work by students and teachers hadn’t happened during the school year itself. This summer learning loss “disproportionately affects low-income students”—like the students who attend our school, DC International School.

We are a charter school in Washington, D.C. starting our second year of middle school, with 52% of our students receiving free or reduced price lunch. We do not have an extended school year and our students did not attend summer school. But with no additional money spent, we beat summer loss.

The key? Personalized, technology-driven learning. We are a 1:1 school, with Chromebooks provided to all of our students through the support of the Next Generation Learning Challenges project and the CityBridge Foundation. The students use the Chromebooks in class and take them home for homework. They keep them during the summer, too. So over the break, we assigned all students to spend an hour a week on TenMarks, a math practice program with individual learning pathways based on diagnostic assessment, and tips for students who struggle. All students also were assigned to read and respond to 40 articles through the Curriculet/USA Today summer challenge. The students could choose the articles and earn badges for their progress. The great part? All of this was free. (We don’t receive any donations or particular benefits from any of the vendors mentioned here.) We also continued to use Achieve3000, a reading intervention using leveled text that we had found success with during the school year for our struggling readers. The software makes the text a just-right level of challenge for readers, with immediate feedback (as on the Curriculet articles and TenMarks) on student responses to questions.

Our students experienced no summer learning loss in either math or English. In fact, using NWEA’s Measures of Academic Progress, we found they were beating the rest of the country during the summer break. Compared to national norms, our students grew by five percentile points in math and two percentile points in reading from June to September. This addresses a huge issue in American education—and it wouldn’t be possible without the Chromebooks and the personalized learning platforms.

It also wouldn’t be possible without human beings at the school—but even here, technology made it work. Faculty could track whether students were completing their Curriculet reading and used that metric as a proxy for summer work generally. Starting in the second week of summer, we called parents of students who weren’t completing the work, as well as those who were excelling or improving. (Shout-out to our awesome full-year aides who made these calls!) Think about the difference between this process and waiting until September to see if students turn in summer assignments! We also opened the school several hours a week to provide a supervised space to work for students who needed wi-fi access or just a friendly face.

We have a long way to go—with math, with reading, and with personalized learning. But these results tell me that we’re on the right track. If summer learning loss can be a thing of the past, who knows what other educational fossils we can leave behind?

—Simon Rodberg is the principal of the District of Columbia International School

Mapping Personalized Learning for Fellows

A prototype version of the Education Innovation Fellowship skill map made from Post-Its

A prototype version of the Education Innovation Fellowship skill map.

As we’re recruiting teachers for the 2016 cohort of Education Innovation Fellows, we are also working to apply what we have learned from the first three years of the Fellowship to make next year even better. One important lesson is that personalized learning is not just for K-12 students—it is also a powerful tool for enhancing adult learning. So we’re building out a framework to better personalize the Fellowship experience itself. We’re drawing a new map.

The first of the four pillars in our vision of personalization is competency-based learning. This means that a learner gets the right content at the right time, based on her current skills and knowledge. She gets credit for what she knows, and gets the precise support she needs to learn what she has not yet mastered. For Fellows, this means meeting them where they are. Some might already have deep experience with blended learning, while some might be new to the field. Others might have read widely on education innovation, while others might be looking for the best sources. One fellow might have been building project-based learning experiences for years; another might be ready to begin redesigning a curriculum with a project-based focus.

The point is that everyone has gaps in their knowledge, and everyone has a different starting point. In order to chart a course through all of the learning we pack into the Fellowship, a skill map is a powerful tool. A skill map plots the relationships between discrete units of knowledge. For example, middle-school math students must learn how to multiply decimals before they can use pi to calculate the circumference of a circle; the former skill is a prerequisite for the first. Similarly, Fellows must be able to explain the steps of the design thinking process before applying that process to pilot projects in their own classrooms.

An upshot of mapping skills like this is that Fellows can then move at their own pace: if you’ve already mastered a foundational skill, you can move ahead to a higher-level skill. That ability reinforces two other personalized learning pillars: student autonomy (Fellows can better define the pace, path, and substance of what they learn), and purposeful and relevant study.

We’ll have more to share in the coming weeks about how this framework will work. In the meantime, the origin point on this map is the Fellowship application.

—Andrew Plemmons Pratt, Program Manager, Education Innovation Fellowship

Empowering English Language Learners: Come Prepared for Conferences

At Center City PCS in Shaw, we teach native speakers of 9 languages. I use a three-part framework to support English Language Learners in being strong, independent learners in a blended learning classroom. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 here!

Part 3: Come prepared for conferences.

Each individual’s path of language learning is slightly different. No student learns 100% of the same words and concepts in 100% the same order. Our classroom’s blended learning model includes time for conferences in order to make room for personalized instruction that is designed to fit individual student needs.

Some of the personalization comes from me, the teacher, in the way I respond to student data and come to conferences with teaching points in mind. But an extremely motivating form of personalization comes from students themselves when they come prepared for conferences with questions. In order to make sure students know what I mean by “come prepared,” this year, I’ll be sharing this list of potential conference topics with ELL students:

  • A word you are not sure how to use in a sentence
  • A sentence or paragraph of text that was confusing
  • A person or place name that you would like explained (many allusions to American history and geography are challenging to newcomers)
  • An open response question worded in a way that you found confusing
  • A place where you lost points on an assignment, and you want to be sure you know how to correct it
  • A real life situation in which you wanted to express something and were not sure how to say it in English

In language learning, as in most kinds of learning, success breeds success. Controlling their pace, collecting new words, and coming prepared for conferences are three strategies ELLs can use to accelerate their success with English in a blended learning classroom. I’m hopeful that by explicitly teaching these three strategies for maximizing language learning, my co-teacher and I can put kids in a position to be the drivers of their own English acquisition and to improve their English on purpose in every class period of their days.

Alison Gillmeister, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Center City Public Charter Schools—Shaw Campus


Empowering English Language Learners: Collect New Words

At Center City PCS in Shaw, we teach native speakers of 9 languages. I use a three-part framework to support English Language Learners in being strong, independent learners in a blended learning classroom. Check out Part 1 here, and stay tuned for Part 3 later this week!

Part 2: Collect new words.

Building vocabulary is the key to an English language learner’s (ELL’s) success. I tell my students that when they read, they are like Mario traveling through his video game world. Each new word they encounter and pick up for themselves is like one of those gold rings that Mario collects on his journey. Recording a word that is new to them so that they can study it later should set off a rewarding “Ding!” in their brains, just like the “Ding!” that Mario hears when he picks up a gold ring.

Many of my students already have the habit of collecting words that are new to them and recording them in their individual vocabulary notebooks. The challenge is making sure that students go back and study those words later so that the words move to long term memory.

A teacher at the EdSurge Tech for Schools Summit in July shared a tech strategy he uses to address this challenge, which I will be trying his strategy year. When this teacher’s students read online, he has them read with Quizlet, an online flashcard program, open in another tab. Students can create digital flashcards as they read. A teacher can then see what words students are recording and how often students go back to study these words.

At our computer station this year, I will require students to use Quizlet to collect new words as they read. I am excited to see what difference the digital flashcards make in students’ independent acquisition of new vocabulary.

Check back later this week for more on the framework I use to support ELLs in being strong, independent learners in a blended learning classroom!

Alison Gillmeister, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Center City Public Charter Schools—Shaw Campus


Empowering English Language Learners: A Three-Part Framework

At my school in Shaw, we teach native speakers of 9 languages. Across the city, about 10% of D.C. students are English language learners (ELLs). That’s more than 7,000 students who qualify for official services to support them learning English. And that figure does not include the large number of kiddos who are proficient in English and who continue to hear or speak another language at home.

Blended and personalized learning models are exciting for ELL students and their teachers because these models potentially create the conditions for students to make rapid progress with their English. To capitalize on being a student in this type of model, ELLs need to be aware of two things:

  1. They are always learning English, whether or not language acquisition is a stated objective for the class as a whole. Learning English is a personal objective that ELLs need to pursue through every single activity.
  2. Certain habits allow ELLs to ensure that they are growing in their English as well as in their content knowledge. If ELLs carry out these learning habits independently, without teacher prompting, they are sure to make progress in English.

Here’s the framework I’ll be using to teach ELLs what they can do to be strong, independent learners when they’re in a blended learning classroom:

  • Control the pace.
  • Collect new words.
  • Come prepared for conferences.

In this post, I’ll share what I teach students about the habit we call “Control the Pace.” Later this week, I will share more details about the other two habits in the framework.

Part 1: Control the pace.

Whether students are at a tech-based station or not, they should adjust the speed at which they’re working to optimize comprehension. Many students already have habits of re-reading when they are trying to understand text on paper. During my summer pilot, I found that students did not automatically apply this strategy to audio or video content—some kiddos did not re-watch or re-listen until I told them outright that they could (and should!).

Going back to listen for the answer to a particular comprehension question or to find details to support a claim is beneficial for all students, but repeated listening is doubly important for students who are learning English. Language acquisition research has shown that repeated listening (in ESL lingo, sometimes called “narrow listening”) enhances comprehension and even motivation.

I’ve certainly found this to be true in my own study of French. One class I’ve taken at the Alliance Française is designed entirely around repeated viewings of the same one to two short news clips per 90-minute class session! I’ll be sharing with my ELLs how much those repeated listening experiences have improved my vocabulary and my comfort with certain grammatical constructions, and I’ll be encouraging all of my students to rewind and re-listen as much as they like.

Check back later this week for more on the framework I use to support ELLs in being strong, independent learners in a blended learning classroom!

Alison Gillmeister, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Center City Public Charter Schools—Shaw Campus


Apply to the 2016 Education Innovation Fellowship

teacher helping a student working on a laptop computer

The Education Innovation Fellowship is about reimagining what classroom instruction can look like and creating more personalized learning experiences for students. Applications for the 2016 cohort are now open.

CityBridge Foundation and NewSchools Venture Fund launched the Education Innovation Fellowship, a yearlong program that introduces teacher leaders to the most promising practices in personalized learning, in 2013. With the support of a $1 million grant from the Microsoft Corporation, the Fellowship has served 54 Fellows in the first three cohorts, offering them opportunities to pilot personalized learning models in their schools and fostering classroom innovation in dozens of Washington, D.C. schools. The Fellowship will continue in 2016 as a strategic investment in great teachers—the classroom leaders who can become natural change agents for their schools. The program will empower them with a toolkit of student-centered design skills that will enable them to to drive instructional innovation.

In 2016, 20–24 new Fellows will be selected from a pool of qualified applicants currently teaching in District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and D.C. public charter schools. The Fellowship program will run from January through December 2016 and will include local and national school visits, workshops, seminars, guest speakers, and technology demonstrations. Fellows will design and lead personalized learning pilot programs during the spring or summer of 2016 and will expand them in their classrooms and schools in the 2016-17 school year.

Get all of the information about the Fellowship, along with specific instructions for applicants, nominating principals, and recommending colleagues. The application deadline is November 11 at midnight.

Let Them Go Shopping: How to Redesign a Library

On Wednesday, I introduced my 72 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students to our classroom library. And for the first time in 96 hours, I relaxed.

In the past, my classroom library has been a source of stress for me—an insistently nagging problem that’s usually not quite high enough on the priority list to warrant the inevitable Sisyphean effort required to revamp the system. I’ve brought many of my own childhood books to share with the kids, bought more than a few more, and spent many laborious hours painstakingly tagging all of my books with genre-specific stickers. It was an endeavor rewarded with about 12 minutes of success…and deemed a complete failure when stickers began falling off by the bucketload. Not that they would’ve done much good anyway; I learned the hard way how important library routines and procedures are.

But solid systems in place or not, when I got an unexpected shipment of new books courtesy of Scholastic bonus points from our book fair, I groaned, wondering how many stickers I had left. Not the correct response for an ELA teacher and self-proclaimed lover of all things literary. So I decided to figure out what was going wrong.

And now—I have a classroom library prototype! And initial testing is favorable.

Here’s how it works:

All of our classroom library books have been scanned into Libib (check out our library here!), and the physical books are arranged on the shelves in alphabetical order by author’s last name. The students go “book shopping” online, then go to the physical classroom library when they’re relatively certain of a book (or a few) that they want to try. Then, when they finish a book, they put it into the return box, and trained (12-year-old) librarians return the books to their proper places on the shelves.

Here’s what I’ve found:

  1. The kids like it. A lot. When I asked students why they thought I might have organized our library this way, one responded. “Cause you love us!” True, my friend. True.
  2. The ability to tag one book with multiple genres/categories and for students to search by these tags is invaluable.
  3. A few kids still like to book shop by perusing the physical library.
  4. Book shopping happens significantly more quickly this way, and more kids find a book that they stick with on the first try.
  5. It takes quite a long time to scan upwards of 1,000 books into an online library system, particularly when there are quite a few glitches (not recognizing the barcode, identifying the wrong title, etc.). My solution: I found someone who loves me very much and has similar perfectionist tendencies, and I got them to do it for me. That was a good move.

Here’s what I wonder:

  1. Will it be worth it in the long run? It’s been successful for two days, but only time will tell…
  2. Was Libib the best choice? I’m paying five bucks a month, and I love the layout, but the circulation system isn’t as intuitive as I’d like.

The bottom line: One week into my first school year as a classroom teacher, I feel pretty happy with our system, and that’s saying quite a bit. It’s kind of delightful to watch kids trying to sneakily read books under their desks while I tell them how we’re going to transition to our next activity.

Samantha Ellerbeck, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Center City Public Charter Schools—Brightwood Campus