Where did this idea come from? Why has it led to an engaged learning community that sustains itself throughout the year?
AT LINE ELEMENTARY IN WEST NEWFIELD, MAINE, THERE IS A BUZZ IN THE AIR. All learners, regardless of age or grade level, are working together on projects of their choosing within broad units like weather, cultures, landmarks and landforms, and space. In these units, you’ll find learners discussing the types of animals found in the Okefenokee Swamp, how magma turns into lava, and the impact of the Hoover Dam on soil erosion. Come back three months later and you’ll find another slate of topics being dug into. The question is, where did this idea of units come from and why has it led to an excitedly engaged learning community that sustains itself throughout the year?
When and Where Did This All Begin?
Let’s go back two years, where the seed for our Vertical Learning Team (VLT) was planted. After my colleagues and I received training on proficiency-based learning, we were intrigued by the opportunity for our learners to move along various material at their desired pace. We were also eager to look at other ways to mix learning on a larger scale, not just in academics. We wanted to develop working relationships across the various ages. There was discussion about the workforce—people work with others regardless of their age or backgrounds to investigate and solve problems. Using that foundation, we aspired to create an integrated community within our larger school.
Before we took action at the school, we took action at my dinner table. As educators, we wanted to establish a clear moral purpose for our VLT framework. We collectively agreed to promote rigor, relevance, and relationships in all of our future actions.
From Ideation to Implementation
We started with multi-age lunch and recess, where learners from all grades could play and eat together. At the same time, we implemented the idea of the units mentioned above, which fulfill our desired learning targets. Once these broad units are in place, learners choose an essential question and/or product they want to dive into. In these units, older students mentor younger students as they work together to learn new information or build products that showcase their learning. To ensure each learner is being met where they are and moving forward at a comfortable pace, they receive lessons at their appropriate instructional level.
The team has also focused on building both grit and mindfulness within our community of learners. The value of having GRIT was our community focus during the first year. We defined grit as the determination to work toward a long-term goal despite obstacles and failures, focusing on what is learned on the road to meeting that goal. To build this understanding with our students, they participated in a living metaphor experience about grit.
Each student was given a rough piece of wood and sandpaper. They sanded their wood using different “grit” sandpaper and reflected on the process and how it related to grit in the classroom. They saw that not everyone ended up with the same product, that some people have to work harder than others to get the desired outcome, and that everyone has to use grit to accomplish their goal, regardless of their age or ability.
Now in our second year, we’ve added mindfulness to the recipe. Learners are encouraged and supported to tune into how they feel about and react to different situations and find strategies to help focus their mind and body to calm themselves. Together as a whole community, the children created calming glitter jars to assist in quieting their mind and bodies. In most classrooms, there are calming stations for learners to utilize throughout the day. Some teachers use breathing exercises and visualization to calm and focus learners.
Overall, these values of grit and mindfulness are part of a greater effort to focus our energy towards creating a collaborative culture to show learners that building ties within and outside our school walls can benefit them as human beings. In our first year of this collaborative effort, the team reached out to the larger community by connecting with a local apple orchard. Parents and learners came together to pick apples for a local shelter under a Picking for a Purpose event. Over fifteen bushels of apples were picked and donated. This was the kickoff to a weather unit where a local TV meteorologist interviewed students and engaged them in a presentation on weather.
Students team up with members of various backgrounds and ages to engage in learning and community-building activities.
Educator, Line Elementary School
Since this time, the team has connected with the shelter on two more occasions for an event called “Socktober,” where socks were donated to the shelter for their residents. More socks were later collected for veterans in collaboration with the Daughters of the American Revolution. The team has also been working with a senior citizens home during each holiday. Children make various gifts for the seniors, including creating valentine bookmarks; potting spring flowers; and, this past Christmas, producing a holiday song iMovie.
In rural Maine, developing these ties to the larger community plays a vital role in furthering the learners’ outlook on their impact as a learner and a person. It helps set those expectations that the culture we’re trying to establish also bleeds over into life outside the classroom walls. For many, this opportunity has led to better engagement in the school setting, established a purpose for their learning, and increased their educational and life knowledge.
The past two years of collaborating with, designing alongside, and teaching in this community of learners and passionate educators has been exhilarating and rewarding. This cultural change has furthered our belief that a shared instructional environment is what is best for learners, whether in our own classroom or in each other’s classrooms. This environment allows us to tap into each learner’s potential and develop relationships across the grade levels. Just as they would in a future workplace, students team up with diverse members of various backgrounds and ages to engage in learning and community-building activities.
This community of learners and their parents are starting to realize the benefits to this vertical team approach. The acknowledgement of creating credible, authentic opportunities of learning, based on students’ choice and research, is seen as a positive step forward.