WALLINGFORD — Students pre-kindergarten through sixth grade were curled on cushions in the hallways and lounging on rugs, silent but for the excited turning of pages and typing on laptops, teaching and controlling themselves in an environment where teachers coached calmly from a distance on Tuesday.
And this Tuesday was no different from any other Tuesday — though Wallingford Elementary School is, in many ways, a very different school.
“When you’re meeting kids where they’re at, they’re more engaged,” said Principal Helen Richards-Peelle. “With the stand-and-deliver approach, you’re only hitting a certain percentage.”
As part of the Trailhead 2020 initiative set by the Mill River Unified Union School District to distinguish each district elementary school’s programming, the Wallingford Elementary School is focusing on student proficiency and replacing the traditional grade system with a level-based system, in which students are placed based on mastery in each of their subjects, as opposed to their age.
“We’re trying to prepare them to be global citizens,” Richards-Peelle said. “ELA (English language arts) happening at the same time, math happening at the same time and they learn how to apply those skills to real-world situations.”
Personalized learning plans allow the teachers to address retention areas where each student may need slightly more assistance in order to demonstrate a proficiency. On a scale of 1-4, 3 demonstrates proficiency and 4 represents a skill level above and beyond what is expected of them, Richards-Peelle said.
“They progress at their own pace — it’s a growth mindset based on whatever skills they have, disposition and their learning style. For some, they move along a trajectory that’s pretty fast, but it’s about accepting them where they’re at,” Richards-Peelle said.
At Wallingford Elementary, 7- and 8-year-old students might be placed in a mathematics level classroom with students older or younger than they, depending on how quickly they learn their required subject levels, and how they learn best.
After a 10- to 15-minute “mini-lesson” every day, during which students get to decide their instrumental goal for the day, Richards-Peelle said the students are given “menu” options by teachers so they can choose which the they would like to work on at that time.
For first-grade teacher Claire Benjamin, that means allowing the students to choose between writing, reading to self, listening, reading to others and working on vocabulary and literacy.
“They choose the order of what they need to work on,” Benjamin said. “Their choices are all things I want them to work on … but it’s empowering for them to know you can choose.”
Pat Bowen, who teaches students who would be in third or fourth grade, said the new system is bringing individual skills cultivation back to the days of the one-room school house.
Times have changed, and so have the needs of society and the work force, Bowen said.
“We need to move it back now and make learning more individualized … children are flexible, more understanding and more appreciative of the difference,” Bowen said.
Barbara Naunton, who teaches 21 older students, said the shift from traditional to skill-based learning is becoming easier for the students to embrace, and that she’s noticed a higher retention and more student interest, and overall progress in her students’ work.
“The kids really know what they’re learning and why they’re learning,” Naunton said. “They have targets in every area — they know what they’re doing and why … it’s the first time I’ve heard kids say, ‘Now I know why I got a 2.5 instead of a 3.”
The traditional educational system that saw her children through to graduation through Mill River Union High School lacked student engagement and often left some students behind if they couldn’t learn in a strictly-structured, generalized curriculum, Naunton said.
The key, Naunton said, is to make sure the curriculum remains project-based but not product-based — because once the project is completed, the learning stops.
“When I used to teach ancient civilizations, they’d make a sarcophagus, but they’d complete the project and that was it,” Naunton said.
The new proficiency-based learning model allows teachers to share responsibilities across the school regardless of discipline to support the students wherever and whenever they’re needed.
“I teach music, but I’m also helping kids read fluently,” said Dan Seiden, now in his third year of teaching at the school. “We all work as a team; I help other teachers with their work, they help me with mine. It’s all about not leaving children behind, and setting good standards.”
Also Naunton said they’re reaching out to teachers from MRUHS to bring sciences from the older grades down to the elementary school, so the children have an opportunity to expand their influence across the district and access more advanced lessons if they are ready for them.
Wallingford Elementary is incorporating a method called “Toolbox,” teaching the students “The 12 Tools for Learning, Tools For Life,” how to identify with their emotions and personal needs, such as how to self-calm during stress, how to remain empathetic, how to incorporate apologies, forgiveness, patience and courage, as well as incorporating the “Garbage Can” tool to “let the little things go.”
While teachers remain consistent in asserting that manners and respect are paramount, they’re moving into the future: Much of the work previously done with paper and pencils is replaced with progressive technologies and Google Docs. Students use programs such as Freckle, which teaches ELA, math, social studies and sciences for K-12 via laptops also used for instructional typing classes, Richards-Peelle said.
“Schools have pretty much been the same for the past 100 years,” Richards-Peelle said. “Schools haven’t changed that much. Things were designed around the factory model — there were kids in leadership roles and those who would fill the working roles. … We need them to be flexible thinkers, collaborators because that’s what industries are looking for. It’s our job to prepare them.”