What I Learned on a Learning Tour of Beverly Public Schools

by Stella Kounelaki Gryllos – Guest Author

On a snowy day, one week before schools closed for Christmas, I headed up to Beverly, a coastal town 30 miles north of Boston. The mission? Experience personalized learning at the Hannah and Cove elementary schools and learn best practices from educators at those schools.

The learning tour was organized by MAPLE, a network of schools in Massachusetts that have come together to learn how to personalize learning. MAPLE is one of the programs that are supported by LearnLaunch, a long-time advocate for technology in education and one of the biggest hubs for edtech entrepreneurship in Boston.

There were about 30 of us on the tour. Most were educators in schools that are members of MAPLE, joining the tour to get ideas about how to implement personalized learning at their schools. After a short intro, we were divided into groups of 5–6 and, off we were visiting classrooms!

My group was assigned to the Cove school. First, we visited a Grade 3 classroom on their “literacy block,” a 90-minute block dedicated daily to reading and writing. The teaching method was project-based learning. Students were working on their second project for the year. They had been asked to identify common misconceptions about the history around Thanksgiving and produce material that turned those around and educated the public. They could decide to create a movie (with iMovie), a digital book, a theatrical play, or anything else — as long as it involved reading and writing. And, their teachers made sure it did. They were asked to follow research frameworks and document their research in a journal. They were provided with resources (through Padlet) that they had to go through and they also had to write a script (on Google Docs), before moving on to production.

Students working on their scripts using Google Docs

The deliberate use of technology was impressive. Students were getting accustomed to technology and, at the same time, learning some serious stuff like how to scientifically approach a topic and examine multiple sources to get closer to the truth. Imagine third graders working on their reading and writing, history knowledge, and teamwork skills and not causing trouble! But, of course, who wouldn’t enjoy filming themselves and their classmates reporting on truths about Thanksgiving in a news studio? (Hint: Students filmed in front of a green backdrop. Using the Green Screen app, they were able to edit the backdrop out and replace it with an image of a news studio.)

The mode of learning was similar in all the classrooms that we visited. We popped into a Grade 3 STEAM classroom next. It was a 45-minute module on coding. They were using KIBO robots, a cute little car-shaped robot. “Let’s make our robot dance,” two girls said with enthusiasm. Their teacher had presented them with a list of potential “challenges” and had asked them to program their robots to perform those challenges.

Students programming the KIBO robots

Having students choose what to work on sets them up for success. Once they feel that they own their projects, they are eager to think creatively and troubleshoot. They had to decide which blocks they needed to scan and in what order to program their robots. After a few trial-and-error rounds, the girls had it all figured out and were excited to see their robot perform the moves!

We were off to a math classroom next to witness a true station rotation model. In a 90-minute block, Grade 4 students moved through 3–4 stations performing different, but linked activities. A group of students was working with the teacher. They were watching a video with a jar filling up with M&M’s. They had to first make a ballpark estimate of the M&M’s in the jar and then a more precise one using the area model. At a table nearby, another group of students was working independently off of a worksheet drawing rectangle gardens, calculating the number of trees to be planted, and the amount of soil required. The worksheet came with a QR code that brought the activity to life. Students scanned the code with their tablets and were presented with a video that guided them through the activity. Finally, another set of students was on their laptops using ST Math, an adaptive software.

Station rotation model: A group of students working with the teacher

The station rotation model is key for bringing technology into the classroom. From a practical standpoint, it is a way to use technology in classrooms that are not 1:1. Some students can work on the few ipads that the class has, others on the chromebooks, while the rest can watch material projected from the teacher’s device. From a personalized learning perspective, in stations students spend time on adaptive software that offers a customized learning experience and that caters to their very specific needs.

Station rotation model: Students working independently on their worksheets

The last classroom we visited was a Grade 1 literacy class. That class was also organized in a station rotation model. Some students were working with the teacher, while the rest were on their computers. “This is my favorite one,” a student working on a Lexia Core5 activity exclaimed. The student was having fun, while the software was monitoring his performance and throwing at him just the right kind of material to ensure mastery and growth.

Station rotation model: Students working on Lexia Core5

Seeing first graders work on their own makes you think about the work that goes on early on toward establishing routines that help students through learning. For a student to be able to work independently, they must know how to approach the activities. This means working with them on anything from active reading to following instructions and knowing when to ask for help. These techniques are going stay with them through elementary and continue to be advanced as they progress through middle and high school becoming a toolbox for lifelong learning.

Along with students, educators also make sure that they are learning constantly. The work that we saw going on in the classrooms is the result of careful planning and continuous improvement of teaching methods. Grade-level teachers meet every day for 45 minutes and once a month they meet as a bigger group with the principal and other learning specialists. Professional development takes place primarily in the summer while smaller activities, like book clubs, go on throughout the year. Most training is local, though educators also mentioned attending Summit Learning workshops on personalized learning in California.

Photos courtesy of Ellie Miller, MAPLE Program Coordinator, LearnLaunch Institute


About the Author
Stella Kounelaki Gryllos
Stella Kounelaki Gryllos, works on making education meaningful through technology and innovative program design. She holds a PhD from the MIT Sloan School of Management. Check out her blog here.