Franklin County Public Schools is located in Rocky Mount, Virgina. It serves 6,320 students in 15 schools throughout the school district. FCPS has a mission to create, promote, and support a lifelong learning culture whereby students become self-reliant, productive citizens who can successfully compete in the global community. This spotlight focuses on the personalized competency-based learning model (PCBE), developed through an Innovation Grant from the Virginia Department of Education, at Ferrum Elementary School.
One of the most exciting parts of working with competency-based learning models is watching young people put their learning into action and impact their world. The 5th graders at Ferrum Elementary School did just this — they used their new learning about earth structures, weathering, and erosion to help their school maintenance team combat the effects of erosion around their school building.
Fifth grade teacher, Jennifer Saleeba, collaborated with school district leadership and instructional technologists to design an inquiry-based, personalized unit on earth structures.
Taking inspiration from Building 21’s studio model and resources on climate change, Ms. Saleeba built a playlist that challenged her students to make meaning out of their new earth science content; investigate how this new information tells them more about their community; and create a plan to help address a challenge related to what they learned. This way of learning allowed the students to make connections to a real-world problem in their community. Through the investigation of earth science content and community context, the students were able to apply their learning to their world to solve a problem.
From the beginning, the students knew their end goal — to take what they learned and develop a plan to reduce weathering or erosion at home in Franklin County.
Working through a blended learning model, students engaged in the self-paced Earth Structures Playlist, small group work, individual conferences or the “Saleeba Station”, and full class discussions. The unit opened with a brainstorm of questions that the students were naturally curious about that they would revisit and add to throughout their investigation. From there, students worked through the three modules of the playlist. They explored earth structures and plate tectonics; types of rocks and the rock cycle; and finally weathering and erosion.
During each module, the students revisited the driving and impact questions for the unit. And the activities embedded in the playlist challenged the students to make meaning, investigate, and create at each step, building upon their learning as they progressed through the modules. When the students completed work, they also completed a self-reflection on a student friendly proficiency scale, which mirrors the competencies that will be used to assess their final work.
As a part of the Innovation Grant to move the school towards a model of personalized competency-based education (PCBE), teachers developed science proficiency scales aligned with the Virginia Science Standards of Learning. Once her students self-reflected using these scales, Ms. Saleeba knew they were ready to share their work, get feedback during “Saleeba Station”, and move on to revise and deepen their understanding.
Structuring learning this way was new for Ms. Saleeba, her 5th graders, and FCPS.
Karen Weaver, Instructional Technologist, reflects that “this approach allows teachers to really focus on how to differentiate learning and meet students where they are. Using blended learning practices such as station rotation and having the playlist and unit plan outline for students at the beginning of the unit frees up the teacher to do small group work, conference with students, and give feedback along the way.”
Brady W, a fifth grader who experienced this type of learning for the first time, remarks that “using the playlist with PCBE has impacted me as a learner because PCBE lets you learn at your own pace and you are able to control your own learning.”
When it came time to make an impact, students answered the following challenge:
As an environmental engineer, you have been asked to help Franklin County develop a plan to lessen weathering and/or erosion throughout the county. Pick a local area that is experiencing high levels of weathering or erosion and study the rocks in this environment to learn more about the natural history. What kinds of rocks did you find? Did you find more of one type than another? What do you think is causing the weathering and/or erosion? Create a model and develop a plan to lessen the amount of weathering or erosion for that particular area.
At the end of the unit, students presented their plans to their classmates and shared solutions with Mrs. Talley, Ferrum’s school principal. At the Principal Talley’s request, the students then met with FCPS’s Maintenance Supervisor to discuss the erosion they found and investigated around their building. The students shed some light on the problem and offered to brainstorm suggestions for improvement with the maintenance team. Going forward, they will be a part of the process to remedy erosion at their school.
When asked about the students’ experience working through the Earth Structures Playlist unit, Ms. Weaver notices that “you can see where the students feel like their learning has an impact and they can see where they’re making an impact on their community and I think that’s been different from a traditional classroom… They’re more aware of where they are in their learning and they also recognize this experience as more personalized.”
Ms. Saleeba reflects: “Using the playlists along with PCBE has transformed my science instruction from a traditional sense in many ways. It has given me greater confidence in truly understanding what my students know, where their misconceptions are, and has afforded me the unique opportunity to truly give each and every student what they need to learn. Prior to utilizing the playlist along with PCBE, my class was quasi-student centered. I still had more than the majority of the control in the learning activities. What I didn’t have was full commitment and engagement from my students because learning wasn’t personalized for them both academically and personally. Now that I have transformed my science instruction, my students are one hundred percent engaged and committed to their learning as well as taking ownership of their learning. They know where they are, where they are going, and what they have to do to get there. They also have complete voice and choice in how they get there. I have the confidence of knowing my students are not only getting what they need, but learning that will last them a lifetime.”
Hearing this story of impact and knowing that the Building 21 studio model can help teachers think differently about learning in their classrooms is exciting.
And, while Ms. Saleeba was an early adopter of PCBE; all teachers at Ferrum Elementary and Henry Elementary in FCPS will plan on using the PCBE model and tools for an upcoming unit. We thank the FCPS team for sharing their story and we look forward to seeing how their instructional design continues to grow and inspire students to impact their community.