How Personalized Learning Meets National Standards
Emily Dahm, Head of School, AltSchool Yerba Buena
How do AltSchool’s personalized learning environments ensure our students are keeping pace with others in their class? In this first of a two-part series, AltSchool Yerba Buena Head of School Emily Dahm shares how educators develop interdisciplinary units that align to research-based, national standards.
AltSchool is intentionally designed to allow educators and students an unprecedented level of freedom in teaching and learning. Our personalized approach to learning and flexible learning environments are two ways in which we support this freedom. AltSchool educators design hands-on units and adapt their curricula to fit the needs of each learner.
Because this approach is different from what some parents are used to, we often get asked: “How do I know my child is learning what she needs? Is my child progressing on pace with peers in non-personalized environments?”
Personalized, flexible learning doesn’t mean that units are based solely on students’ interests. Our students aren’t able to de-prioritize subjects that are challenging for them. On the contrary, AltSchool’s curriculum is rigorous, based on nationally relevant, research-based systems. Our units align with these standards, which establish what students should be able to demonstrate at each step in their education to be prepared for success in college, career, and life. The key role of personalization is the individualized support each child receives in accomplishing their goals.
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Interdisciplinary Learning Arcs Develop Essential Skills
“The great part about interdisciplinary units is how they bring subjects to life,” says middle school educator Susie Friedlander-Holm. “For example, students are able to experience science phenomena in a variety of real-life contexts, and they use the scientific practices to model, share, and explain their thinking with others.”
Susie and co-teacher Ashley Henry recently co-designed a learning arc exploring ancient civilizations. This interdisciplinary unit helped students develop competencies in English, social studies, science, and math. Students used critical thinking skills to read and take notes on non-fiction texts as well as developing skills in research, essay organization, presentation, and giving effective peer feedback.
Ashley and Susie segmented the unit to align with the three phases of the AltSchool Learning Cycle—Motivate, Construct, and Demonstrate. Individual assignments were associated with milestones and sub-milestones based on Common Core and NGSS standards and the California History-Social Science framework, then categorized into each segment. This learning arc allowed students to explore subjects that piqued their curiosity while developing competencies in each milestone.
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“Creating this project challenged me to develop more experiential learning opportunities for my students,” Ashley says. “Students used a growth mindset to commit to a long-term project. They followed project plans and using goal-setting and reflective practices to track their progress against milestones. And they really enjoyed the process.”
By weaving these milestones into the unit rather than forcing students to focus solely on hitting a science or history proficiency, students make the projects their own. Their curiosity about ancient civilizations shone through in their eagerness to tackle each assignment. "I learned so much that I didn’t know about ancient Egypt!” shares middle schooler Zoey. “Typically, Egypt is presented as a faceless ancient civilization, but I learned about the perspectives of so many important individuals.
"I had enough time to make my presentation great, which makes me feel so relieved!” fellow middle schooler Sasha adds about the process of developing her final presentation. “When I presented to the class the first time, I rushed through it and just wanted to get it over with. But now that I have time to revise my project, I feel prepared to present what I've learned."
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Sparking Wonder While Building Practical Skills
Educator Jamie Spatt, who teaches Foundational Elementary at AltSchool Yerba Buena, also plans interdisciplinary units. In her class earlier this year, students studied ecosystems and habitats in a unit that developed skills in science, research, design, and self-assessment.
“I began with a backward planning approach—I base the standards for the unit on the essential questions that students will need to answer,” Jamie explains. “For this unit, the essential questions were: What are the physical features of my community? What are the different ecosystems in our community?"
Jamie also relied on the AltSchool Learning Cycle to segment her unit into phases with goal-oriented assignments for each. “The standards for Common Core and for NGSS are searchable within the AltSchool platform, so as I built the unit, I added the standards with the beginning and end in mind.” The AltSchool platform includes milestones for knowledge, skills, and habits for each multi-age class: pre-K and K; 1st and 2nd; 3rd and 4th; 5th and 6th; and 7th and 8th. There are typically 5 to 10 milestones in each subject area to establish a focus for every class. Each milestone breaks down into 20 to 30 sub-milestones.
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Jamie associated dozens of national standards to this particular learning arc, ranging from science and geography to listening and interpreting data. “I love planning through the Altschool platform. My favorite features are being able to search the database of standards and connect them to each experience,” she reflects. “The amount of documentation and information made available to me with low 'cost' to my overall capacity and workflow is enormous. My students and I are able to communicate about their progress to their families and other teachers with incredible fidelity and personal detail.”
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Through this unit, these young learners not only gained knowledge about ecosystems and animals, but they also developed the skills to research, analyze data, and communicate and present their findings to their peers. "I learned that the Arctic habitat is very cold and has a lot of snow,” kindergartener Pearl shares about the unit. “The arctic hare survives by camouflaging in the snow from predators. Camouflaging makes the hare special because it’s white and can hide in the snow. It has long feet so that their feet don't sink into the snow. To make a home, it needs to dig in the snow and they eat bark, which is part of a tree."
Taking Ownership of Learning
The standards all AltSchool educators use are completely transparent and visible to students and parents on the AltSchool platform. We encourage families to review and reflect on student progress toward competencies in each unit. Having a clear picture of the milestones they need to hit helps students to take ownership of their learning and progress.
Learning units at AltSchool are truly a collaborative effort—between educators, students, parents, and the broader education and research community who develop national standards. Our educators encourage students to pursue electives and passion projects outside of the core curriculum, but that’s just one component of personalized education. The real personalization happens with the targeted support each learner receives from their teacher to make sure they’re progressing and thriving at exactly the right level.
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