A year in, teachers praise learning platform


BRETZVILLE — It’s been a challenging school year at Cedar Crest Intermediate School.

Students, staff and parents at the Southeast Dubois school spent the year transitioning from traditional teaching to Summit Learning, an online education system that utilizes a technology-infused curriculum with individualized learning time on electronic devices, project-based learning activities, as well as built-in time for mentoring and enrichment.

For students, the switch meant learning to take more ownership of their educations and how to manage their time in a structure with more personal learning time. For the teachers, it meant adjusting to a new curriculum, which often required adjustments, and learning to work in a day structured in a new way. For parents, Summit meant getting used to a learning system that emphasizes students working on their own, doesn’t include a lot of homework and is mostly online.

Personalized and project-based learning systems like Summit are becoming increasingly popular in education. At this month’s board meeting last week, Southeast Schools Superintendent Rick Allen said that at the April superintendents meeting at the Southern Indiana Education Center, representatives from Barr Reeve Community Schools in Montgomery presented on SuccessMaker, an online system that the school district is using. Part of the presentation was a list of popular, online, personalized learning platforms, and Summit was on it.

Despite the growing popularity of platforms like Summit, the switch at Cedar Crest got mixed reviews from students and parents. The teachers, however, all like they system and advocate for its continued use at the school. At the school board meeting last week, several teachers spoke in favor of the platform, sharing the success they and their students have had this year.

“I realize that teaching can be done without [Summit],” Terri Bell, who teaches fifth-grade language arts and social studies, said in an interview this week “But I prefer to teach with it.”

She told the board the same.

With Summit, Bell said, she can easily differentiate her instruction to fit students of different abilities, and thanks to the built-in mentorship time, she’s gotten to know her students more than in years past. She’s also been able to work with them one-on-one with skills, such as time management and goal setting.

“That wouldn’t be possible without the personalized learning time,” Bell said.

That personalized learning time happens during a 45-minute period in the morning. During that time, students work independently on lessons in all subject areas through the online platform.

As they progress through the lessons, they take checkpoint assessments along the way so that their teachers and parents can track their progress. Teachers set deadlines for the lessons, and it’s up to the students to manage their time to get them done. If they’re all caught up, students are expected to work ahead.

Sixth-grade math teacher Kyla Lueken recalled a conversation she had with some students about continuing to work, even if they’re all caught up on their deadlines. In their jobs someday, she explained, they’ll be given projects to complete, and once they’ve completed them, they’ll be expected to move right on to the next thing, regardless of if they finish something ahead of deadline.

“You don’t get to take two weeks off just because you finish early,” Lueken recalled telling the students.

During personalized learning time, students also meet one-on-one with their homeroom teacher to check in, not only on lessons, but also on life in general.

In the platform, teachers provide a variety of resources for students to use to learn the material: articles, videos, soundbites and more. The variety allows students to figure out how they learn best and to get to know their learning style ahead of the more challenging classes they’ll have in middle and high school.

Teachers have also found more opportunities to tie what they’re teaching to life in the real world. After personal learning time, there are two periods of project time, which is set up more like traditional classes and is geared toward cognitive skills like problem-solving and real-world application.

“They had to take more responsibility for how they’re going to get to that finish line,” Lueken said.

Bell and Lueken agreed they’ve seen their students become more independent learners and take more pride in their work than in years past. They’ve also seen students progress more because of the differentiated learning.

Although their students are more independent in the Summit platform, both Bell and Lueken stressed that they are still providing direct instruction to their students. Now, though, it’s more small group and one-on-one instruction.

“We’re still teaching them,” Bell said. “We’re just teaching them in a different way.”

Although Cedar Crest’s educators like Summit and plan to continue using it, they acknowledge that the transition has been difficult and that they have heard several complaints from parents through the year.

As part of the platform, Summit provides curricula based on the national Common Core standards. The platform also allows teachers to upload their own materials to match their state’s education standards and the community’s standards.

Early in the year, some students were getting well ahead, and parents found some material Summit provided that they deemed inappropriate. Next year, that shouldn’t be an issue. Teachers have been editing the material throughout the year, taking out resources they don’t like and adding better resources.

It’s trial-and-error process that Bell and Lueken said is common anytime schools adopt new curricula.

“Anytime we adopt a new textbook, the first year is hard,” Bell said.

Usually, though, one subject at a time adopts a new book. When Cedar Crest switched to Summit, the teachers said, it was like every subject got new textbooks at the same time.

School staff also heard from parents that the Summit platform was difficult to navigate and that it didn’t allow them to help their children with their homework the way they used to.

“Our parents are very supportive of education and they’re very supportive of our students,” Principal Mark Jahn said. “They want to help.”

To help parents help their students, Jahn plans to make more instructional videos that explain to parents how to navigate Summit and how they can help their children study.

The platform is designed so that students have less homework, but the students still make flashcards, take notes and take assessments to gauge their process. Jahn suggests parents help their children study with the flashcards, look over their notes to help them develop good note-taking skills and check their children’s assessments to make sure they’re on track.

Privacy concerns also came up. Summit is an online platform and requires students’ emails and a name. Currently, students’ corporation email addresses include their full names, and their names appear in Summit. Next year, Jahn said, administrators will assign the students alternative names that will appear in Summit rather than their real names.

Student email addresses corporationwide will also be changed so that they don’t use students’ names, Jahn said. That’s because students use online platforms that require an email address across grade levels, and changing the email address format will add an extra layer of privacy.

Educators at Cedar Crest are confident that next year with Summit will be easier than this year. With one year under their belts, they now have a better idea of how to work within the platform and how to prepare students and teachers for the education system.

“You just don’t know how something’s going to work until you use it,” Lueken said. “But you’ve got to start somewhere.”

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