Thursday, August 14, 2014

Professional Learning Communities

Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) have been a hot topic in education for at least the last decade. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what they are, how they are supposed to function, and what they are supposed to accomplish. Here at Sorenson’s Ranch School, we have realized that even though our best efforts have always been exerted toward helping our students learn academic curricula as well as more appropriate strategies for living, without a formal structure and dedicated time to focus on specified goals, the real purposes of PLC’s are not accomplished. In short, effective PLC’s don’t just happen. They must be planned and monitored for success to follow. What exactly is a PLC? A PLC is a group of individuals who want to learn to be better at what they do. Any type of business can benefit from the formation of PLC’s, but because of the isolated nature of what teachers do (we almost never teach in front of our colleagues), PLC’s can be particularly effective in education. Simply put, PLC’s provide a venue for teachers to talk about the nuts and bolts of educating. Research has shown that when teachers get together and talk about the craft of teaching – what works and what doesn’t in various classroom environments – teaching improves. How is a PLC supposed to function? A PLC meeting is not a time to discuss disruptive student behaviors, plan faculty parties, or work out the details of scheduling conflicts. All of these issues are valid and appropriate topics for discussion at the proper time and place, but PLC meetings must focus on a narrower set of topics. We must ask and answer the right questions in order to have our PLC meeting time be as productive as possible. What is it, exactly, that we want our students to learn? Can we coordinate our teaching such that concepts learned in one class are reinforced in another class? What, precisely, are we going to do if we begin to see evidence that our students are not learning the things we have agreed upon as critical? Questions such as these tend to focus educators’ attention and concentrate their efforts on actions that directly benefit students. What should we expect to accomplish through the formation and use of a PLC? The answer to this question will vary depending on the environment in which the PLC is formed. In education, the effects of a properly functioning PLC should be observed in measurable ways such as increases in student test scores, increases in graduation rates, and increases in the number of students pursuing education beyond high school. By using data to track student performance, teachers are able to see if their efforts in PLC meetings are yielding the results they want. Because of the nature of our student body, Sorenson’s Ranch School teachers have a specialized set of challenges. Our PLC meetings help us to focus our efforts on those teaching strategies that will allow us to optimize the learning of our students while they attend our school despite whatever unique circumstances may have hampered their progress in the past.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Mastery Learning at Sorenson's Ranch

​At Sorenson’s Ranch School we use Mastery learning, which is a process where students are allowed to use a personalized process for learning. Students are encouraged to reflect on elements of the curriculum as they are exposed to them and then integrate these things, enhancing what they already know. Mastery learning tends to be a more effective option for moderate to lower functioning students who struggle to keep up in a traditional class setting. Students are allowed to complete assigned work over a period of time, while often having to maintain minimal benchmarks of completion. ​Mastery learning is also generally more versatile in a students’ ability to demonstrate mastery of a topic or concept. Instructional concepts as well as assessments are usually varied so that students can “display” their knowledge in a variety of ways. Portfolios, drawings, papers, posters and other projects are examples of alternative assessments. Master learning affords the student the ability to, often by requirement, rework assignments and assessments until they demonstrate satisfactory levels of comprehension and can therefore move on to additional concepts and/or material. Mastery learning is the preferred method of academic instruction in non-traditional, or special purpose schools. This type of instruction is more accommodating for institutions with an open-entry, open-exit type of enrollment. ​One of the challenges we face with the use of mastery learning is motivation. The concept and premise of mastery learning seems noble enough, but students are obviously more effective if they are motivated to take advantage of what can often be a slower process of learning. Students’ who are moderate to lower functioning academically, can quickly become lazy about learning and use the slower process as an excuse for why they “can’t learn”. This is usually due to the student putting off assignments that need to be completed until they do not have sufficient time, and/or desire to finish. It can come from the student lacking the necessary desire to complete the assigned work. It can stem from past academic failures or old habits that the student feels may get them out of some of the required work. It also however, can come from an honest inability to understand concepts or the ability to attach new learning to information that was previously learned. ​I think it is safe to say that that mastery learning could also be termed “patient learning” as it allows for a more personal process for learning. There are of course, both problems and benefits of this type of learning. When not properly utilized students can actually fall farther behind their peers in academic instruction with mastery learning in a given time period. When applied properly mastery learning provides a viable option for many students who find it hard to keep up with the normal academic flow or time table of a traditional school setting. Mastery learning can boost the confidence of some students who have historically demonstrated difficulties in learning, further motivating them to want to learn. ​At Sorenson’s Ranch School we have learned that Mastery learning is a good fit for the students we enroll in our program. We feel that this type of learning is adaptable by our teachers to meet the various academic needs of our diverse student body. We are most often able to help students catch up to appropriate grade level instruction and experience general academic success, which many of our students have not had in the past.