Each year I invite our teachers at Montour High School to participate in the Shadow a Student Challenge. For one week, a group of teachers spends time following students around the building, attending their classes, and joining them in lunch, activities, and more. Afterward, the teachers and I get together and talk about their shadowing experiences. It was during one of these afternoon conversations that changed the direction of our school community for the better.

The teachers shared their perspectives and talked about how students had no time in their day to reflect upon their learning and were not engaged in relevant explorations of concepts. Furthermore, the students did not receive much-needed academic support. The teachers saw countless lost opportunities to enrich student learning and were concerned that students had no means of accessing social and emotional outlets. We left that afternoon knowing we had to do something different.

As we continued to reflect, we kept coming back to:

  • How can we make our students’ day more meaningful?
  • How do we find time for them to reflect?
  • How can we provide our students with choice in what they are going to learn, and how they are going to learn it?
  • How can we empower them to make decisions about their learning?

Through our dialogue and months of collaborative planning, we arrived at a dedicated block of time each day for personalized learning that we called Spartan Personalized Learning Time (PLT). During this time, teachers offer innovative and creative programming, tutoring, and enrichment, and students choose the daily activities that meet their needs or interests.

Since 2016, we have moved to empower our students to make choices about how their learning will look and feel each day during PLT. Without being prompted by a bell tone, students leave their fourth-period classrooms and head off to the 40 minutes of their day that belongs to them.

Students may spend some of that time focusing on academics, while other students are engaged in an extracurricular activity or project-based learning exploration. It’s up to them how they spend this time.

If you were to walk around the building during PLT time, you’d find students in the chorus room practicing songs, in the library reading books, or in the greenhouse getting their hands dirty.  Some students might choose to explore the cyberworld in the Virtual Immersion Lab, hone their on-air skills in the Spartan Express Radio Studio, or invent a new gadget in the IDEA CREATebrary. Students might decide to use their PLT time as a wellness outlet to address their social/emotional needs by engaging in “Me to We” or yoga. Whether it’s the classroom, courtyard, gymnasium, or stage, you would see students authentically engaged in work with their teachers and peers.

So far, the Spartan PLT initiative has been a resounding success. Teachers appreciate the time to work alongside students without the pressures of grading and curriculum mandates. It gives them opportunities to build positive relationships with students. Students love engaging in experiences that they choose to do without having to worry about homework and assessments. Many have discovered new passions and have improved their outlook on school.

As we look ahead to the upcoming school year, we are preparing for Spartan PLT 2.0. Each day, students will schedule their PLTs and lunch period during a 99-minute window that will include nongraded mini-courses that are developed collaboratively by teachers and students.

I recently had the privilege to talk about Spartan PLT during the Personalized Learning Leadership Conference—Moving from Theory to Action in Pittsburgh. I sat on a panel that focused on student voice and choice that was specific to personalizing learning for students. As I shared our journey with those in attendance, I could not help but reflect on where we have been and where we are going.

There is much work ahead, but the efforts of our school community have laid the foundation for what we hope will be more engaging and innovative learning experiences for our students. We hope that Spartan PLT is a step toward instilling in our students that their learning and the success that follows must become theirs. To find out more about Spartan PLT, watch this video or contact me at [email protected].

Preparing our students for their post-secondary endeavors must go beyond engaging them in traditional learning experiences via traditional teaching practices. How can we find ways to empower students to take ownership of their learning through voice and choice?

Todd Price has served as the principal of Montour High School, a suburban school district west of Pittsburgh, PA for eleven years. In 2017, Todd was named the Pennsylvania High School Principal of the Year by the Pennsylvania Principals Association and a candidate for the 2018 Principal of the Year, as sponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Follow him on Twitter @hilltopspartan.

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