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Q&A with Sami Smith, Middle School Mentor Teacher at CICS West Belden

posted Aug 17, 2017, 6:29 AM by Angela Duffy
Mastery Communications Week, from August 14-18, will surface resources, tools, and best practices for communicating about mastery-based learning to parents, and other community members. Several national organizations will share their thoughts, and we will hear from practitioners in their own words through a Q&A series. This one features Sami Smith, a Middle School 
Mentor Teacher at CICS West Beldena premier K-8 urban charter school in Chicago's Belmont-Cragin neighborhood and part of the Chicago International Charter School network and managed by Distinctive Schools.

1. How do you describe mastery-based/personalized learning at your school?

Mastery-based learning is different than traditional learning. It’s is a student-centered process as opposed to traditional teaching, which is more one-and-done. With traditional learning, teachers teach, kids learn, then they do a “thing”—like a paper, project, or tests. Then teachers move on and whatever grade students get, that’s what they have for the unit, forever. With mastery- based learning, teachers move on because we have a pace but students’ grades are not written in stone. They can (and should) have conversations with their teachers to learn what they can do to improve. I love it because, in this system, I give fewer “final grades” and give more formative feedback so that learning is a continual process. 

While some students may achieve mastery more quickly, some aren’t going to be there right away. They can take feedback from me and their peers to revise their work and attain the grade they want. Reaching mastery is not subjective. Students know when they do and do not meet standards. If they don’t, I work with them so they have next steps to do so.

2. What resources have been helpful in communicating about your approach?

We’ve got a suite of online platforms that our students use. It helps them self-direct their learning, with teacher support, and they have access to it all the time. These platforms help give us a common language throughout the school when we are talking to students and parents about mastery.

When our school began the shift to mastery, we looked at the Personalized learning working definition developed by the Gates Foundation. We started there and each teacher picked one of the four quadrants to focus on so we didn’t have to do everything all at once. We were able to pick one we wanted to do better or wanted to start working on. We all set a goal. For example, I decided to focus flexible learning environments. In my science classroom, I used to have lab tables and that was it. I realized that the set up was not conducive to how I teach. We don’t only do labs, so why is my room like that? So I reworked the set-up of the room to reflect better how students learn.

3. How does your leadership team equip you to talk about mastery to students and families? How do teachers support each other?

It goes back to what I said about setting a single goal. We didn’t start this whole hog. Our leadership reached out to teachers and asked for our input and if we wanted to try something new. Those of us who were interested helped to pilot a multi age class. I think it was successful because it was not pushed on anyone; top down doesn’t work. It has been a gradual process that we all feel ownership over. Since we helped build it, we can talk about it comfortably with any audience or stakeholder. 

Our administration also provided us with time to plan and get on the same page. On Wednesday, students have early dismissal and teachers have three hours of PD or planning time. That first year, we used that time to set growth plans for ourselves. Administration led all PD and assessed our readiness level. And, significantly, there was no stigma for teachers who took longer to get there. There was a recognition that it’s hard to change what you’re used to. Our administration was sure to meet teachers where they were. Which is also how we approach student learning. So it was essentially modeling the experience kids get. This ability to prepare fostered more buy-in, which in turn made teachers feel comfortable talking about our mastery approach. 

For new teachers, we have a new teacher institute two weeks before school starts. There is an introduction to social-emotional learning, mastery, groupings, expect

ations, etc. Additionally, our instructional coaches work with whole grade teams. They work with us on goal setting and refining our practice. The support is more one-on-one, as opposed to our whole school community building a vision for personalized learning, which was what we did at the beginning. 

4. How do you involve students in communicating about mastery?

Letting students have a voice and share their experiences is really important. We often have student panels speak to visitors. Students talk about everything we’re doing so eloquently—about how they learn at their own pace, and their work on habits of success. These panels help our visitors understand what’s going on in the classroom, as it can often be hard to make sense of if you are not used to it.

Students are also helpful in explaining mastery to parents. Our student population is 98% Latino/a and many parents only speak Spanish. While most of the staff speaks a little Spanish, there’s still a bit of a language barrier. Especially with words that are specific to mastery. Since students deeply understand mastery, they are well equipped to speak to parents about it. This goes back to what I was talking about in terms of a common language and shared understanding. Parents also have access to the online platforms where everything is housed, which is part of our dedication to full transparency.

We also conduct student-led conferences. We view these conferences as more of a conversation between the teacher, parent, and student. It is mandatory that the student is present as we believe it invests them in their own learning and is in the spirit of constant feedback. We’ve also got a back-to-school night that introduces parents to the content and process for the year as well as a technology night where students are explaining mastery to their parents. 

5. What are some common misconceptions about mastery and how do you talk to parents about that?

The most common misconception is about homework. I don’t give homework unless we haven’t finished something in the classroom. So, many parents ask why I don’t give homework.

I know that my students have stuff to do—extracurricular activities and a family life and responsibilities—but more than that, my philosophy is that learning is a process that students should own and that they can do anytime, anywhere. I think my students should be studying about an hour a night—watching videos, doing research. But I don’t think kids will all be working on the same things at the same time. They decide when their assessments happen and they know what they need to do, so they should be working on tasks with this in mind. And I am here for support for every student. For example, if a student doesn’t master a standard, I’ll send links, resources, reading, etc. I always emphasize to parents that the work their student is doing is not the same as other students, and it shouldn’t be. Some parents don’t quite understand since it is not what they are used to. The more I explain this with consistency and talk about our expectations, parents feel the intentionality behind what we’re doing.

Another misconception is that if a student doesn’t get a grade in something, they are failing. Parents don’t always realize that their students has the ability to fix any grade and to take an assessment at a time of their choosing. If they are not satisfied with their something, they can always improve it. With hard work and effort and support, students you can get whatever grade they want.

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