Visit to James M. Hill High School to see Personalized Learning in Humanities Department

A Best-Practice Reflection by: Dax Silliker, North and South Esk Regional High School

After applying for and being awarded an iHub grant to visit another school in our district, I scheduled a trip to see the educators in the Humanities Department at James M. Hill School (JMH) in Miramichi, NB. I had completed my student internship at this school in the fall of 1999 and was excited to see the changes that have occurred over the past twenty years. I certainly saw some familiar faces, however, the way teachers were conducting their classes was new (and improved, I believe) for sure.

I made contact with Mr. Mark Noel, Mr. Tyson Theriault, and Mr. David Gopee after hearing exciting things about how these three teachers were changing their classrooms to a more personalized environment. When I arrived I had the opportunity to sit with these three, along with student intern, Mr. Riley Esty, from St. Thomas University, and discuss what they have been doing over the past year and a half.

Last spring a group from JMH travelled to California to visit High Tech High and came back with a new mindset on how students best learn in school. Other educators from various schools in our district have made the same trip to this school south of the border and return amazed at what is happening there.

What is Personalized learning, and more importantly,

how do I do it with my classes in my classroom?

At points during last year I myself had made attempts at what I thought was “Personalized Learning”. I discovered some things that worked and some that did not. I was constantly seeking the answer to the question, “What is Personalized learning, and more importantly, how do I do it with my classes in my classroom?” After much research in books, on the internet, and via podcasts, I was still unsure of what exactly to do. I was hoping this visit would show me what to do and it certainly did.

The answer to my question actually came a few days before my visit to James M. Hill and was confirmed when I spoke to the three teachers there. Ms. Angela Murphy, from my school, North and South Esk Regional High School (NSER), has been a huge promoter of personalized learning and the answer she gave me after numerous discussions was quite simple but powerful. There is no “right way” to implement personalized learning into your class. It is simply a process whereby students are given more control over what they learning and how they learn.

There are many, many ways in which this can happen in any class, in any subject. The direction is to move away from a teacher providing information to the students who then regurgitate it on a test and move on. Instead, teachers are facilitators who guide students and journey with them in their academic adventures. Students focus on topics that are relevant to the course curriculum but also interest them. They decide the what and the how and must prove to the teacher what their score should be.

After meeting with the three teachers at JMH, I was able to witness and be a part of the Model UN exercise the classes were conducting. Mr. Gopee’s History 112 class joined the other two classes (World Issues 120 and English 122) and participated in just this unit. It was amazing to watch the students interact with one another and not even be in the same class per say. The teachers floated from room to room and listened to each group debate resolutions. If need be, the teachers interjected to spark debate but this happened very little. All students were engaged in the process and were taking turns contributing to the discussions.

During the first hour, the Model UN activity was completed and then the second hour of class saw the students break up to work on other projects. Some were in groups ranging from two to six members and some students were working on individual tasks. A white board hangs outside Mr. Theriault’s classroom and lists each student’s location on every day. Some went to the computer lab, the shop, different classrooms, and one student even went to work with the school’s art teacher while Mr. Esty covered that teacher’s class.

The collaboration between not only students but everyone in the entire building was amazing to see. Strengths of staff and students are being focused on and utilized to the highest degree possible.

One girl in grade twelve spoke to me about her project on Mental Health Literacy. She wanted to develop an App to help those suffering from Mental Health. So I assumed she wanted to learn how to build an App. Nope. She was going to outsource this aspect of the project and work on the Literacy side of things. She was already in communication with Dalhousie University and local Mental Health authorities about the project and showed me all of the work she had completed to date. My final question was, “What are your plans for after graduation?” Her response, “Welding”. I assumed she would be pursuing something in the mental health field and this couldn’t be further from the truth. She was so engaged in the project and had such enthusiasm for it.

She was like most in the class of about thirty students; they worked the entire time and were off task very little. They asked for help if needed and the teachers were always there for them.

One group looking to take recyclable plastic and make it into 3D printer filament had encountered an obstacle when all three of the companies they tried to connect with refused to respond to them. They needed “pellets” to complete the project and couldn’t source any. Mr. Theriault sat with them and discussed possible grants in which they could apply for. They ran with this and were immediately back on track. I truly hope they receive what they need as it is a great idea for sure.

So thanks to this visit, made possible through my iHub Learning Inc., I am recharged in my quest to implement personalized learning in my classroom at NSER. Whether we call it “personalized”, “flipped”, “blended”, or “project based learning”, one thing is for sure, it is the new way of doing education in our global society. Thank you to iHub for providing me the means to see the great things happening at JMH and thanks to the teachers mentioned above for so graciously allowing me see them in action and pick their brains on how to “do” personalized learning.

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