Heading into a new school year, I’m feeling refreshed, energized, and excited to take on new challenges. I have many things on my mind. Who will I be teaching? What do they want to achieve? How can I support them in their learning needs? How will they surprise and energize me along the way? But mostly I’m eager to see how my learners grow and make progress. In fact, this has been a theme throughout my time in Lindsay Unified School District, here in California’s Central Valley.
Eleven years ago, when I first began teaching at Lindsay High School—where all of our learners qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 34 percent are English language learners—many of my learners struggled academically. Our district’s math and reading proficiency rates were below 30 percent and many learners skipped school, dropped out, or engaged in other negative behaviors because they were not motivated or being taught at their level of understanding.
But over the past few years, things have changed. Now, the learners in my classes are more engaged than ever before. They’re more responsible. They are taking ownership of their learning. There are fewer behavioral issues. They are making progress. The graduation rate has soared from 76 percent in 2010-11 to 87 percent in 2013-14. It’s no coincidence that this progress has happened at the same time that our district overhauled our approach to teaching and learning.
This new personalized approach shifted our culture, our daily routines, and even our vocabulary: Lindsay students are now learners, and, as a teacher, I’m now a learning facilitator. In our classrooms, learners navigate their way through the curriculum at their own pace, rather than on a set timeline that may force them to move too quickly or too slowly for their needs. And I work with each learner to set individualized learning goals and targets that help them chart a path to reach their long-term goals, whether it’s to become an engineer, a teacher, a police officer or a business owner.
Our personalized approach in Lindsay is part of why I find the beginning of the school year so exciting. As I sit down one-on-one with each learner, we look at their data from the previous year, pinpoint where they are now, and set a clear goal for what they can achieve by the end of the year. For some of my ninth-grade learners, this goal might be to complete both the ninth-grade and tenth-grade curriculum in one year; for others, it might be to raise their proficiency from a sixth-grade to a seventh-grade level. We also set smaller, interim goals, such as “completing an analysis of Romeo & Juliet by November 1,” these milestones help learners stay motivated and on track throughout the year. In many ways, it’s like mapping out a route for a road trip, and each learner makes their own itinerary. It’s exciting!
Most importantly, it’s working for our learners. For example, last year, a learner named Laura came into my class reading far below grade level. When Laura and I sat down at the beginning of the school year, we set goals around increasing her reading ability; the first step was to focus on moving up just one level in our literacy learning program. We had regular check-ins to look at her data and discuss her progress, and I also provided mini-lessons when she needed more support. And sure enough, she soon achieved the next level in the literacy program and was ecstatic—so ecstatic, in fact, that she immediately focused on moving up another level. By the end of the year, she had succeeded in making big improvements in her reading proficiency and she has become more confident and independent. Laura even received an award for being the most-improved ninth-grade learner.
This is the kind of growth that has been inspiring to experience in Lindsay Unified School District and this growth is in large part a result of how we work with our learners to set goals, track progress, and personalize learning to their unique needs and interests. As the new school year kicks off, I’m thrilled to welcome a new group of learners to my class, and to empower them to set their own goals, make progress, and take ownership of their learning.