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Schools test personalized learning for students

September 17, 2018

RUTLAND, Vt. (AP) — In an age plagued with addiction, economic disparity and mental illness, where technology is advancing faster every day, professionals say aging educational systems aren’t meeting the needs of Vermont’s growing minds.

“We have to re-think everything we do when it comes to educating these kids,” said Mill River Union High School Principal Todd Finn. “We have so much more flexibility with school leadership, and the world is so different for these kids.”

Which is why Vermont schools are gradually shifting to proficiency-based learning in accordance with Act 77. Passed in 2013, Act 77 mandates implementation of Personalized Learning Plans for all Vermont students in grades 7-12 by school year 2018-19.

The law was passed following decades of state-commissioned studies aimed at improving the statewide graduation rate.

The ideal personalized learning model considers the student’s history, strengths, needs and learning style to educate them in a way that increases retention, makes them feel safe, spurs expression and creativity, and creates connection between students and their teachers.

“Educators need to understand the impact of trauma on the brain of a child to ensure their access to learning,” said Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Jeanne Collins. “When a child comes to school and doesn’t know where they’ll be sleeping or when they’ll be eating next, having them sit down and learn Spanish is going to be very difficult.

“But there are things we can do: We can build relationships with students, meet their needs, provide mental health counseling, and then that way when they sit down to learn Spanish, they can.”

For Mill River, that means incorporating a whole new method: “Path, Pace, People and Place.” Students are given a curriculum they need to learn, but are free to develop their own methods toward proficiency, including how fast they work, who they work with, where they do their work, and how they express their knowledge through projects, instead of holding them to a traditional credit-based rubric of As, Bs, and Cs.

“We’re creating independent learners and thinkers,” Finn said. “You’re more of a facilitator than a teacher now. This is better preparing them to be independent in college.”

This sort of approach also includes Social and Emotional Learning such as critical thinking and collaboration, while maintaining accountability measures to keep the students personally responsible for their education.

It also keeps them coming back.

Pre-existing trauma can be triggered or aggravated by the stress of a forced learning experience, which can result in adverse behaviors and a general disconnection from the student’s environment, according to Coral Stone, one of Mill River’s special education teachers who has a level-2 trauma practitioner certification.

“There’s always an underlying cause. The brain holds onto traumatic memories, they do hold onto what happened,” Stone said. “Sometimes kids aren’t over what happened to them, and it impacts them academically, socially, in every way. Kids have to see school as a place they want to go, need to go, as a place that is theirs.”

Fortunately, schools have some other resources. RNESU has been actively conducting trauma-sensitive seminars with David Melnik, of Center Point, an agency that provides inpatient and outpatient youth mental health services. Mill River has also been relying on Stone, who Finn said has been instrumental in re-teaching teachers how best to cater to students with trauma.

Trauma doesn’t just come from one source — it’s the culmination of factors in a societal “pressure cooker,” as Stone puts it, where increased access to advanced technology and social media, combined with decreased socio-economic opportunity, detachment, archaic educational practices and increasing prevalence of mental illness have combined to form generations of dysregulated students who struggle to maintain focus and positivity.

“If you’re a healthy child, and you grow up in a supporting, caring environment, chances are, your brain is going to be primed and ready for academic advancement, good healthy life skills and appropriate social skills,” Stone said. “When you grow up in an environment with chronic stress and trauma, the three main sections of your brain change. Your ability to take in information and use it in a meaningful way can be adversely impacted because you’re not in a calm state of mind to learn.”

Stone said the study of Epigenetics, the way a child’s genetic structures and DNA can be changed by stress, has increased acknowledgment of the growing need for empathetic and personalized learning.

“When you add childhood trauma in their formative years, they’re wired for stress for the rest of their lives,” Stone said. “We find that relationship has long-term medical affects.”

Many still advocate for more traditional ways of teaching students — in neat rows, with limited interaction and a rigorously-structured teaching model geared toward teaching the general student body.

“The days of traditional public education have to be gone,” Stone said. “And studies have shown that physical discipline is to a child’s detriment; it’s going to have a long-term impact on their physical and mental health. . The writing has been on the wall for decades, we’re just now seeing those generations grow up in our system, and now we know it’s true.”

Advocates of new forms of education say allowing students to take ownership of their own education is a step in the right direction on the long road to healing.

“With all of the unemployment, budget issues, crime, it’s difficult to see the light,” Stone said. “But I have to believe as a society that this is not where we’re going to leave off as a human species. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but we got a lot of work to do.”

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Online: https://bit.ly/2pgQdsm

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Information from: Rutland Herald, http://www.rutlandherald.com/

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