Personalized Learning at Weller Elementary School (Milpitas, CA)

In the Spring of 2012, teachers at Weller Elementary School, along with other schools in the Milpitas Unified School District, presented blueprints for re-designing their schools to Superintendent Cary Matsuoka, his top deputies, and the teachers’ union. The Superintendent’s group chose Weller’s  redesign for its school as one of two pilots for “blended” and “personalized learning” to be put into place using rotation of upper-grade students through the Learning Lab for a few hours a week and for the lower grades, in-class rotation of activities, including online software, supervised by the teacher. Soon after, Milpitas voters approved a bond referendum that produced funds for building new schools, remodeling older ones, and buying new technologies for teachers and students to use.

All of this occurred during the tenure of Weller principal, Raquel Kusunoki.

As a young child, she and her family immigrated from the Philippines to the Bay area. Kusunoki eventually became a credentialed teacher. She has been the Weller principal for four years after serving as assistant principal at the school and then teaching  for 13 years in San Jose Unified District elementary schools. As she told me about her years at Weller, “my umbilical cord is connected here.”

With nearly 450 students (K-6), Weller has a diverse cultural mix. Sixty percent of the students are Asian (including Filipino), 29 percent are Latino, four percent are African American and four percent are white (2015). Of that enrollment, 44 percent are English Language Learners and 47 percent are eligible for free and reduced price lunch–the poverty indicator.

On October 19, 2016, I spent the morning at Weller interviewing the principal, observing  two teachers’ lessons, and then meeting with a group of 6th graders and five teachers who have been closely involved in Weller’s “blended learning” design.

I first went to Richard Hart’s combined 5th and 6th grade class. While they have access to the Learning Lab at scheduled times, when in their classroom, Hart’s class rotates activities between whole group instruction, small group, and individual work in language arts, math, and online units that Weller teachers had designed in their summer experience with Summit Base Camp.

It is 8:30. There are 32 students in class sitting at pods of four, pushed together desks scattered throughout the room. The walls have displays of students’ work— hand-drawn architectural drawings of community centers, part of a recent unit. There is a Chromebook cart in the room and shelves of books along the walls. There is also a printer and TV monitor in the room.

All students are engaged in different activities. On the whiteboard is an agenda for the day’s work showing that students will work on their “Myths” project and their PLPs. As I move about the room, I see 10 students working on their Personalized Learning Plans. They are doing their self-assessment of what they have completed and what they still have to finish in their “myths” unit. Others have their tablets open and are reading, taking notes, conferring with classmates. Some students have ear buds when they have videos to see. Each student has a playlist (much of which has been created by Weller upper-grade teachers) for the “myths” unit to read, watch videos, do worksheets, etc. They take notes and when they have completed their playlist, they check with the teacher and then, if teacher approves, students take the assessment (see below).

Hart walks around the room talking with individual students as they work on their PLPs and sees where they are in the project on “myths.” When students want teacher’s help, they raise their hands. Hart carries his Apple laptop in hand and sees what is on screen of each 6th grader (he is using gScholar to track individual student’s work). Teacher does question-and-answer with each student as he moves around the room. Hart often leans over and shows a student what he has on his screen tracking the student’s completion of work.

I see some students going up to an whiteboard easel and sign their names when they finish a topic. Their names and topic signal the teacher that he will have to see the notes each student has taken, approve what student has done,  and then permit student to move to assessment for that part of the unit. After one quickie conference with a student, I see Hart do a fist bump with student who completed the task.  I also see one English Language Learner working online by herself.

As I scan the classroom close to 9AM, room noise is minimal  with the murmuring of the teacher in conference with a students or a pairs of students talking about a task. After walking through the room, I note that no students are off-task.

I then go to Juhi Sharma’s combination 5th grade class. Twenty-seven students sitting in the room arrayed 3-6 at tables in no particular order. Student work covers walls. White boards on three sides of room contain instruction, daily agenda, and goals.

One white board has instructions for her 5th graders in the morning and 6th graders in the afternoon:

5th PLP—activity Chap. 2 Review/test
PLT—Focus Area” Math (Personal Learning Time when students can choose to work on different topics)
WorkShop: Powers of 10

6th—Complete Checkpoint 1 (PLP)
Complete 6.2 & 6.3—(refers to chapters in textbook Go Math)

On the front whiteboard, the schedule for that week is displayed.
8:00 HR/PE  (home room and physical education)
9:00 Math
10.00 RTI (program called Response to Intervention used to identify students needing academic or behavioral support)
11:00 Recess/Lunch
12:00 Math
1:00 Science
2:00 Clean Up

As I look around the room, I see 10 students sitting in two rows facing another teacher, Beverly McCarter, who is teaching place value. The title of the workshop is :”Powers of Ten.” McCarter gestures to a chart on the whiteboard showing place value as she explains the concept and gives examples and then asks students to use place value as she poses questions. Sharma will do similar math workshop with a portion of McCarter’s class at another time.

As I scan the room, the rest of the class is working individually as I saw in Richard Hart’s class.  Sharma walks around with laptop in hand asking and answering questions and monitoring work (like Hart, she uses gScholar to see where the class and individual students are). I see that Sharma does a high-five slap of hands with student after he shows her that he is finished. When students have completed a topic, they write their names on a whiteboard. Once Sharma approves notes of each student, they move on to assessment–in this instance class is working on multiplication and fractions. Looking over the shoulder of one student’s PLP, I see that he has finished and passed all of topics but one. He is using his Personal Learning Time to finish up.

As noise in room increases from “Powers of Ten” workshop finishing up and the 10  students returning to their tables, writing their names on whiteboard and conferring with others at their tables, Sharma says, “voices, please.” Class quiets down and she says “thank you.”

After 35 minutes, I look around the class and see students working on different tasks during PLT, going from their Chromebook screen to writing in their notebook, and working on assessments they can submit and then move on to next task.

Five minutes later, Sharma announces that one student has passed all of his unit tasks. There is scattered applause from students.

A buzzer sounds ending the class.

I then go to another room for a half-hour meeting with a group of sixth graders and five teachers. The principal selected the teachers and the teachers selected the students. Because Weller has had many visitors from the Bay area, state and from across the country, the 6th graders and teachers were well-prepared for my easy questions.

I asked students what they liked most and liked least about the PLPs. I did the same with the teachers. In both instances, there was many positive statements about the process salted with occasional complaints from the students. Nothing substantial, weighty, or surprising did I hear.

______________________________________________

On November 8, 2016 I returned to Weller to see two primary teachers do their in-class rotation of activities in small groups, large groups, and independently, again, using Chromebooks for individual work on content and skills.

Third grade teacher Jackie Dang is in her third year teaching. As I enter her room, I see  21 students arrayed at seven tables, each holding 2-4 students. In the rear of the room, there is a circular table where Dang sits with one 3rd grader listening to the child reading. High on one wall are large photos of every child in the class, big enough to see from anywhere in the room. On another wall is a set of posters about what a “mind-set” is and its importance (the teacher told me later that she taught five lessons on “growth mindset” at the beginning of semester). And on another wall are posters of the branches of the U.S. government.

growth-mindset-weller    dang-class-weller

The class has just finished a rotation of activities.  One group of nine students with their Chromebooks open are taking a quiz on readings they completed. Ten students are sitting on the multi-colored rug with rubik cube colors—red, orange, green, blue–writing in notebooks, reading on the topic of the day, watching videos.

After Dang finishes with one student, she calls up another. She listens as student reads story to her and then hands the little girl a work sheet that gets at comprehension of story. The questions on the worksheet asks student to make predictions based on what she read and then to write short sentences to summarize the story.

As I walk around the room, I see that all of the students are on task. From time to time, the teacher wants everyone’s attention to announce something. She sings: bump,de-bump-de-bump. Students stop what they are doing and repeat the syllables. One one of these occasions, the teacher says that two worksheets were turned in that did not have names on them. Two boys come up and collect their papers from the teacher.

Before calling up another student, Dang walks around the room checking on what each student is doing. She returns to her table, summons another student. The girl  reads to teacher and teacher goes over worksheet she had turned in.

I walk over to a third grader who is typing in her Chromebook. I ask what she is doing and she tells me that she belongs to the “typing club” in class. I look at the screen where there are printed sentences. The nine year-old types letters to match the words of the on-screen sentence. As she does, the screen lights up showing the fingers of each hand hitting the keyboard letters. The  screen simultaneously shows the percent of the letters and words that are accurate and the speed at which she is typing. After she finished, the screen flashes that she has attained 95% accuracy at a speed of 30 words per minute. The screen also shows what the requirement was for this exercise, 80% accuracy at 25 words per minute; a nearby student had 100% accuracy at six words per minute.

As the activities come to an end, Dang sings bump,de-bump-de-bump. Students stop what they are doing. Dang announces that class will come to the rug to begin a social studies lesson on government. After they settle in, Dang moves to a whole group discussion by reviewing words they learned in the last lesson: symbol, vote, laws, legislative, and judge. Students raise hands to answer her review questions.  After going over these words, she asks them to work in groups to write five sentences on strips of cardboard that uses each of the words they just reviewed. Dang  creates groups by counting off students 1 through 6 and then directs each numbered group to different parts of rooms to begin writing the five sentences on cardboard strips

At this point I leave the room and go down the corridor to John Duong’s 4th grade class. A former Weller student who was hired by the principal, he is in his fourth year as a teacher. There are 31 students in the room. The agenda for the day is on little black board in the front of the room:

Computers,

Ellis/Angel Island trip,

recess/lunch,

math,

writing,

End of day. 

Rows of tables sitting two students per table face the front of the room. At the rear of the room are 30 Chromebooks lying flat on desks facing a wall.

When I entered the class, students were working on immigration and creating a brochure for immigrants coming to either Ellis or Angel Islands (Ellis Island admitted 19th and early 20th century immigrants from Europe; Angel Island admitted immigrants from Asia at roughly the same time). The class was going on a field trip to Angel Island the next day.

Duong was leading a whole group question-and-answer on which island students should  choose as immigrant entry point to the U.S. for their brochure. Students had a handout of directions and items to be included in a brochure for each island.

On the whiteboard, Duong projected the sheets students had to complete. On each sheet students were asked to compare and contrast the two entry points for immigrants. Venn circle for each island appeared on whiteboard with an overlapping part for the two circles.  Students had already read excerpts and seen videos about each island and immigration from Europe and Asia on the Chromebooks and were now ready to complete these sheets. After their field trip to Angel Island, they would return to lessons on completing a brochure for immigrants from Europe and Asia coming to America.

As the whole-group discussion came to an end, Duong directed the class to divide up into their pre-arranged small groups to complete the Compare and Contrast worksheet.

As the small groups went to work, I spoke with students near me and asked what they were doing with the Venn circles and why. They explained the task accurately to me. In the next 10 minutes, the noise level rose and at one point, the teacher got everyone’s attention and asked them to work quietly. The noise level fell to a murmur.

At this point, I left the lesson, met briefly with principal Raquel Kusunoki and exited Weller.

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