School board gets lesson in proficiency-based learning

SCOOTER MACMILLAN
Staff Reporter

The Champlain Valley School District School Board on Tuesday saw a final presentation of proficiency-based instruction and how it works. Teachers from Shelburne Community School and Champlain Valley Union High School demonstrated how the technique works better than traditional testing and grading.

Jeff Badillo and Sam Nelson talked about a unit on revolutions they had conducted with their sixth and seventh graders at Shelburne Community School about revolutions. Rather than teaching one specific revolution in history, they sought to increase student engagement by letting each student pick a revolution.

“Once students chose a revolution they’d like to learn more about, they create a fictional character, and as they learn about the revolution, they drop the character into the revolution and journal about the experiences in the first hand,” said Nelson. “This gives students a lot of choice and ownership over the learning and also makes for a fun product.”

Badillo showed how they were able to incorporate language skills into the history by having students demonstrate their use of metaphor, simile and personification in their journal entries in the voice of their characters in the historical setting of the revolution that they were studying.

The teachers said that they did not assign a specific amount of writing that the students were required to do, and that as a result the students wrote much more than they would have assigned.

Rather than just grading the skills that they have as goals for students to acquire, “we’re really using the skills to teach and develop,” Nelson said.

The teachers shared with the board some of their students’ writing. Nelson got a laugh when he pointed out, “You’ll also notice that because they’re middle school historical avatar journals, pretty much everyone is going to have a love interest in it and death.

“If we’ve got this project that’s so engaging and students are asking, ‘Can we do nothing but write today?’ That’s a really wonderful question to hear as a teacher,” he added.

Champlain Valley Union High School science teacher Sam Parker presented three videos that demonstrated how she worked with students with different levels of understanding of the greenhouse effect. Through discussions and questioning, she was able to challenge students who had a good grasp of the effects. She was also able to bring students with a low or no understanding to a point where they not only understood it but were able to discuss it.

Jessica Lemieux and Mike Abbott talked about a unit they developed through student interaction on vaping.

“We really wanted to focus on development issues that pertained to student life here at school, things that they were dealing with on a daily basis, things that were relevant to them,” Abbott said. “We sort of stumbled upon this idea, the science of teenage vaping.”

Since vaping has become an issue for teens across the country, it seemed like a timely idea. With the help of Principal Adam Bunting, the teachers were able to kick of the unit with a school assembly where they asked why students are vaping. They wanted the students to feel like they were driving the inquiry.

“It was an overwhelmingly positive experience for kids,” Lemieux said. “We both got comments that were like, ‘We’ve never been to such an awesome assembly. Thank you for doing this. We need to talk about this.’”

When they asked the students why the assembly was so successful, they responded that it was because teachers listened to them.

Lemieux said that skills-based classrooms are different than traditional classrooms because they are louder and there is more is going on.

“I think we’re all comfortable with the increased level of chaos,” she said. “But kids do want to work together.”

Over time, as students become used to the process and learn the expectations of them, the noise tends to drop, said Lemieux.

After the presentations, school board chair Lynne Jaunich said, “The collaboration, the personalized leaning, giving students voice makes me wonder: What the heck are we doing giving kids the SAT in the 11th grade?”

If students are learning in a totally different way, Jaunich questioned whether the SAT is a valid indicator of what students have learned.

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