School admits new learning platform ‘a major change’December 13, 2018
By LEANN BURKE
BRETZVILLE — One Monday morning at Cedar Crest Intermediate School, a sixth-grader tutored his classmate on a lesson due that week, one student looked over her study guide, and another watched a video and took notes. All of this happened in a single classroom while the teacher met one-on-one with students to check in.
The scene is typical of schools using the Summit Learning platform, an online education system that utilizes a technology-infused curriculum with individualized learning time on electronic devices, project-based learning activities, as wel
l as built-in time for mentoring and enrichment. Cedar Crest launched the system schoolwide at the beginning of this school year. Now, almost one semester in to the new system, challenges have arisen, leading people to either love or hate the program.
Cedar Crest’s move to Summit Learning shows a shift from the traditional “sit and get” education — where students sit at their desks and receive lessons in the familiar fashion — to a project-based curriculum that allows for more self-directed learning and more differentiated instruction from the teachers. Switching the teaching styles required a change in the daily schedule at the school. A typical day at Cedar Crest looks like this:
• Students arrive at school and report to their homerooms for attendance like they always have.
• During the first 45-minute period of the day, sixth-graders attend their music, band, art, physical education and library classes. At the same time, fifth-graders engage in personal learning time. During this time, students work independently online through the Summit Learning platform via their Google Chromebooks. The platform includes tutorials, lessons and tests that the students must complete in each major subject area — math, science, language arts/English and social studies. Content teachers assign deadlines for lessons, and it’s on the students to see that they meet them. Students who are ahead in lessons may tutor their peers during personal learning time, and teachers also use this time to check in with each student to make sure they’re staying on track.
• During the second 45-minute period, the students will swap activities — fifth-graders will attend their arts, music, band, gym and library classes while sixth-graders have their personal learning time.
• For third period, students attend a 1-hour-and-45-minute project time for either math, science, language arts or social studies. Content area teachers lead these classes, and they are structured similarly to how classes have been in the past, though lessons are geared more toward projects and small group work than in the past.
• After the first project time, students have lunch and recess before ending their day with a second project time that covers a different content area.
The new schedule means that rather than having all four core subjects every day, the students have them every other day — two one day and two the next. But it also means that core-class times are twice as long, giving teachers more time to offer instruction and for students to complete the projects their instruction is based on.
“I have heard from my son that (project time) starts with the teacher in front of the class giving instruction,” said Michelle Kieper, whose son, Gavin, is in sixth grade. “After that, the students break into their project groups.”
Kieper supports the switch to Summit. She believes that small-group work will better prepare students for real-world situations, especially since the groups are made up of students at varying levels of mastery. The project time also offers the teachers more time to work individually with students who may be struggling, another part of the system Kieper likes.
“I believe that one of the greatest things about Summit is it teaches students how they learn and helps teachers figure out how each students learns,” Kieper said.
The system works especially well for Gavin, who has hearing loss, Kieper said. Before, Gavin spent two to three hours at home each night working on homework with his parents so he could keep up in school. With Summit, he’s able to follow his own learning style during personal learning time — he favors the video resources in the Summit lessons — before having those lessons reinforced by his teacher during project time. At home, he spends half an hour on additional personal learning activities, does any additional studying he may need, then has the evening free. The independent nature of Summit also helped Gavin learn personal study skills and time management, which Kieper said was one of her goals for him this year.
“It’s been very positive,” she said. “Positive for our family life. He can still be his kid self.”
Not all parents are on board with Summit, however. Several parents attended the school board’s December meeting to discuss the program, and Haleigh Hopf spoke on their behalf. Hopf shared concerns that some of the content is not age appropriate, that students are spending too much time in front of a screen, that the kids are not receiving the teaching attention they need and that parents are unable to help their kids with homework because they don’t understand the platform well enough. She also pointed out that Summit is based on the national Common Core standards, not Indiana’s academic standards.
For her family, Hopf said, Summit was “make or break” in determining if her children stay at Cedar Crest.
Calls to Hopf for additional comment were not returned by press time.
Educators at Cedar Crest acknowledge that putting the platform into practice has had unforeseen challenges. Cedar Crest Principal Mark Jahn said that staff have removed a handful items that parents found while looking through the lessons that they thought were inappropriate.
The biggest challenge educators have faced while working with Summit has come from tailoring the lessons to their needs. Summit gives teachers and administrators the ability to add or remove resources to the lessons to align them to state education standards and to the school’s expectations, but working through the lessons to make those changes has taken more time than Cedar Crest’s staff anticipated.
“But any new textbook or curriculum would (take time),” said language arts teacher Alicia Kunkler.
Staff noticed that some students reached lessons in their personal learning that the teachers hadn’t looked through yet, so Jahn started looking through lessons as well. The school also brought in a retired teacher to help sort through the content.
The other big challenge has been teaching the students how to be more independent learners. Teachers spent a lot of time at the beginning of the year teaching students how to take good notes and how to manage their time. Fifth-grader Nora Welp said learning those skills has been a challenge.
“I’ve been using my planner a lot,” Nora said. “That’s helped me.”
Recently, Jahn offered the teachers the choice to mentor students every two weeks instead of every week in favor of making time to re-teach some of the independent learning skills. Most teachers, however, have found ways to do both.
Sixth-grade language arts and social studies teacher Lee Bilderback is one teacher who makes mentoring a priority. He meets with each of his homeroom students once a week for five to 10 minutes each. During the meetings, he asks them how they’re doing on their learning goals and if there’s anything they need extra help with. If a student has a topic they need help on, Bilderback asks the class if anyone has passed the assessment for that skill who can tutor the student. He also makes sure to ask about students’ social lives to build a relationship with his students and to find any issues that may need adult attention.
Overall, the teachers are happy with Summit. The platform breaks assessments down to skills so teachers can see more specifically where students need help, and the longer class time offers more opportunities for teachers to work one-on-one or in small groups with their students.
“I think it gives me the ability to differentiate instruction and better meet the needs of each of my students,” said math teacher Kyla Lueken.
Summit also led Lueken to include activities in her lessons that she wouldn’t have before the extended class times. For example, when the students learned about ratios, they made lemonade to practice measuring and converting measurements.
As far as screen time goes, Jahn said it varies day to day. Due to personal learning time, students will spend at least half an hour on their devices each school day. Beyond that, however, it depends on what teachers are doing during the project time.
Sometimes, the teachers may not have students on their devices at all, such as the case on Monday when Bilderback led his students in a discussion of a short story by Ernest Hemingway. Other times, students may use their devices in conjunction with teacher instruction.
Jahn estimated that the maximum amount of time students could spend on their devices in one day would be three hours, but that’s not the norm.
While the school’s staff holds firm that moving to Summit was the right choice for Cedar Crest, they also understand that it is a major change. Jahn encourages any parent interested in learning more about the system or visiting the school to see it in action to contact him at 812-817-0900.
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