Teachers, administrators and superintendents eager to incorporate response to intervention (RTI) and student-centered learning practices into their curricula flooded the Augusta Civic Center for breakout training sessions at the Experts Down the Hall conference on Monday. But it was seven RSU 2 students who stole the show during the student panel on learner-centered instruction.
This year’s Hall-Dale High School seniors will be the first graduating class to have spent all four secondary education years in a student-centered learning environment—and they raved about their experience.
Hall-Dale Middle and High School Principal Mark Tinkham facilitated the panel, which consisted of four Hall-Dale seniors, a senior from Monmouth Academy and two Hall-Dale middle school students.
In RSU 2, students are assessed three times to prove they are proficient in a standard. To demonstrate their understanding of a topic, students are given the “voice and choice” to get creative.
“If you like writing essays, you’ll have the choice of showing you’re proficient by writing an essay. Or if you’re artistic, then you can make a poster. You can take a test if you want. It’s up to the student,” explained senior Kurt Thiele.
In this learner-centered system, students are not penalized for turning in assignments late. Learning is constant, a work in progress—a fact which this system recognizes. If an English essay is submitted past due, the student’s work ethic grade, rather than the student’s English grade, reflects the assignment’s tardiness, which is exactly the way the students like it.
“It sounds crazy for my assessment to not be assessing my knowledge but assessing when it was passed in,” said Thiele, whose middle school education followed such a pattern before RSU 2 transitioned to student-centered learning. Now his work ethic and behavior grades are completely separate from his standards grades.
After students pass the standards up through 12th grade in one or more subjects, their learning does not stop there. They are encouraged to continue their education at nearby colleges, such as the University of Maine at Augusta or Thomas College. Of Hall-Dale’s 92 seniors, about 60 are enrolled in college courses, according to Tinkham.
Alternately, if students have passed the standards in a subject but want to return to a specific standard or class in which they struggled, the system allows for that, too.
“You can go back and increase your grade,” said Anais Truman, senior at Hall-Dale. “If I only got a three [on the four-point rubric] on a writing standard in freshman English, I can now go back and improve it because my learning isn’t just ‘one test, one grade’ defines my learning. I can now go back and re-learn.”
“This is not a system that holds you back,” Principal Tinkham said. “As opposed to clipping your wings, this sets you free.”
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen gave the event’s keynote address, commending the educators in attendance. “So many of you are moving past teaching age-based grade levels in your districts. With the Department’s strategic plan, we took an approach that puts the student in the middle. Much of what you’ll be covering here today connects to that plan.”
Ansley Newton, RTI consultant at the Maine DOE, announced to conference attendees the new RTI facilitator’s guide and website, which the Department released earlier this month.
“The Japanese proverb that states ‘None of us is as smart as all of us’ held true for this conference as educators shared best practices in the areas of academics and behavior that help students to feel better connected and to succeed in school,” Newton said.
Attendees spent the remainder of the day in workshop sessions, led by 40 Maine educators, that ranged in topic from multiple tiers of instructional strategies to classroom-based instructions and behavioral support.
“Comments at the end of the day were very positive, and many participants said it was the best conference they had every attended,” said Newton.