The mainstay of work was led by Dr. James Rickabaugh and his crew of excited innovators, who for many years, was the Director of CESA #1 and the newly titled, Institute for Personalized Learning. In his years as the director of this amazing organization, he traveled from school to school, across the South-Eastern region of Wisconsin and eventually across our nation, helping schools understand the importance of understanding that not all learners are at the same position, in their educational journey. As can be seen by the Learner Independence Continuum above, there is a continuum that sees learners participating in an "Educator Driven" system (on the left side) and as we travel through the continuum, the opposite end of the spectrum, is a "Learner Driven" environment, where students have begun to take ownership of their learning and grow their independence as not only a student, but as a citizen, becoming ready for the real world that awaits them, beyond the four walls of a classroom. So much energy was put into this study and the focus on helping schools begin to develop these Learner Driven environments, that there was an official White Paper published, titled the Learning Independence Continuum. In Dr. Rickabaugh's White Paper, he spends a good deal of time describing the importance of this transition, the steps and stages that students and school-systems embrace and explore as they move along the continuum and that this is also a two-way street... students don't necessarily travel to the end of the continuum and consider themselves "having arrived." That is where the Waukesha STEM Academy came into play.
In our sixth year of operation, we heavily focus on many elements that can be seen on the continuum, as well as the elements and multiple facets described in the White Paper by Rickabaugh. One common misconception, is that the "Legacy" model of instruction and schooling is one that is old and outgrown and this is far from true. Best practice in teaching, would suggest that many strategies that are tried and true can be and should still be incorporated into today's educational settings, while finding a balance with some effective, newer and innovative practices, that allow for a gradual release of responsibility by the teacher, school staff and administration. Does this mean that the school becomes an environment of Organized Chaos, overnight? Certainly not. What it does mean, however, is that as educators begin to learn more and more about their students by conducting interest surveys and study-habit inventories, they begin to discover that students no longer need to be spoon fed their education, in a step-by-step format. Students now have begun to find the tools necessary to not solely rely on their teacher, to be their only teacher. With inquiry-based learning, project and problem-based learning, as well as adaptive online platforms, such as ALEKS (for math), Rosetta Stone (for foreign language), No Red Ink (for literacy and grammar skills, as well as the hundreds of other programs that are available, teachers have now begun to incorporate efficient tools, to help provide students with alternative methods of learning similar skills, while providing rapid feedback cycles, compared to the philosophy that they always held the golden key and were the "Keepers of Knowledge." This gradual release of responsibility by educators of all grade-levels, and even at the collegiate and graduate level, has afforded hundreds of thousands of teachers the ability to let those students who are a bit more independent and have grown along the Independent Learning Continuum, move a bit more freely and within a Proficiency-Based system, while simultaneously giving educators the ability to hone in on those students who need a bit more one-on-one guidance and direct instruction. For some students, this may always be the case... they require and/or prefer the face-to-face conversation and direct instruction, to learn concepts and that is okay... that is not a bad, negative or a learning style that is looked down upon. It is part of a BlendEd environment, where students have multiple modalities and platforms, from which they are able to learn from and then culminate their learning experience with productions which represent that learning via application of skills, such as a Capstone Project, where students are able to demonstrate their mastery of a topic(s), by accessing their skill-sets and utilizing those unique characteristics and passions to share out their growth.
With this new found ownership of student learning [by students], also comes a new structure for sharing out what they have learned and moving away from a conference model where the teacher simply sits across the table from a group of parents and regurgitates grades and "problems" that they may be seeing the child having in class. While this model has held some value for the past century, it holds little value in having the student own their learning and truly articulate WHAT it is that they have learned... WHY they have learned it... HOW they know they have learned it... and finally, HOW they have applied this learning, in a real-life scenario, that will help them down the road to become successful in life and not just within the four walls of a classroom.
Enter our S-3 model for conferences.
Last year, when we piloted our S-3 model of conferences, the goal was for our students to own their learning and demonstrate this ownership by sharing out what they were passionate about, as far as their best work samples and proudest moments. I would liken this to a scrapbook composed by an adult, who has diligently spent countless hours finding something that they are passionate about... learning about it... studying it... collecting and building artifacts that are related to this topic and then organizing a "Portfolio" of sorts, that they then share with their family, friends and anyone else who is interested in learning about something that they are pretty excited about sharing with others. This is the real-life parallel to what our students are working on, when they build their STEMfolios (digital portfolios) and use them to organize their learning and share out the wonderful samples of their work, that they have spent many hours constructing and reflecting on with peers and their facilitators, across several contents. With carefully crafted, reflective conversations, our Advisors and content-team teachers have spent much time working with students to help facilitate this process, so they have an ongoing Resumé to share out with all vested parties, who share in the excitement of their education. This is the purpose for our S-3 evenings, in a nutshell, and some parents have wondered if this S-3 (STEM Student Showcase) could just be done at home... sure it could. To us and to the students, however, there is something to be said about having the process formally conducted in an educational setting, where our Advisors are able to help build context, guide conversations and support and steer feedback sessions, which are just as important, if not moreso, than the actual work included in the portfolio. Do the students understand WHY they have chosen certain samples of work to share with others and can they carefully and thoroughly articulate WHAT they have learned... as well as next steps? For this exact reason, it isn't necessarily the specific Advisor that makes the largest impact, but the PROCESS that takes place and the REFLECTIVE QUESTIONS that are guiding the evening... that is the importance of coming to WSA - Saratoga for this evening of sharing out greatness. We have offered to parents this year, the opportunity for students to come to any Advisor's S-3 session (not just their respective Advisor), to ensure that they are able to find a session that best fits their family's schedule, to help work towards building 100% attendance, by ALL STEM - Saratoga students. This is a proud moment for our students and something that is difficult to duplicate at home.
In an effort to honor the Independence Learning Continuum, we have also worked to strike a balance between our progressive S-3 model, as well as roll in a more traditional-style conference model, where parents and/or guardians are also able to come and visit our campus, to meet one-on-one with content-specific teachers. We realize that while many students are at the level in which they are able to clearly articulate their successes and areas in need of growth, not all students may be there yet... and that is okay. This goes back to the continuum and the growth cycles that students enter and weave in and out of, as they continue to grow as learners. For this purpose, it may be necessary to connect directly with a content teacher, to get some more direct and specific feedback, that your son and/or daughter may have forgotten to include, or opted to leave out, to provide for a "smoother" evening, without friction. These are the critical conversations that we need to have with our students also, however, so we would like to honor this format as well.
As we enter the spring season, I would like to share out our two-week framework for parents to come visit with Advisors and content area teachers. Please note that during these two weeks, we are also opening our doors to all families of STEM - Saratoga students, for See-It-Lives, where parents are able to come visit our campus and check out some greatness in action. No need to schedule an appointment or contact myself or the staff... just come on in, check-in at the front desk, get a visitor badge and enjoy.
As we continue to build learner independence, we are trending away from these nights being viewed as an "Event," or "Conference Night," which parents have traditionally dreaded, due to long lines, hot weather, lack of privacy and the lack of personal feeling of these meetings, due to the clock on the wall and the 50 people impatiently waiting outside the same door that you just walked through. We want that to be a thing of the past and have this evolve as a transition into a continuation of greatness of learning throughout the students' entire time at STEM, where connections, communication and growth are a constant. As Dr. Rickabaugh has always relayed so eloquently, we need to arrive at a place where "Learning is the constant and time is the variable." We are there... come along for the ride.