Superintendent Matt Geary Reflects on Leveraging Personalized Learning in Manchester

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Superintendent Matt Geary has been leveraging personalized learning as a means to further the end of creating an equitable learning environment for all students. As he reflects back on the past few years in Manchester, he clarifies:

“I’ve learned that the work to create an equitable school district is really about two things – what we believe about kids and their potential and the culture of our organization. In order to create an equitable system, we all need to examine our thoughts, beliefs, and biases and how those impact our expectations for the students we serve. And that begins with me. This is a very personal journey for every educator and requires us to self-reflect, listen to students and families, and empathize with those we serve. We need to have high expectations for all students but also we need to create a culture that allows us to bend the curriculum – to personalize the experience of each student – in order to ensure that all kids get what they need to grow and learn across disciplines.”

The following is the vision that the district team developed:

Achieving Equity through Personalization

In order to achieve equity through personalization we will:

  • Be learner driven
  • Create multiple pathways to achieve identified goals
  • Support innovation and expect continuous growth
  • Engage in discourse where every voice is recognized and respected
  • Reflect upon beliefs, behavior, and assumptions and how they impact achievement

The true heavy lift is not articulating the vision but creating the conditions to make the vision possible. Inspired by Ed Catmull’s idea of a braintrust, we articulated our own “ground rules” to create an environment built on trust where everyone has an equitable voice so our creative and innovative ideas can grow.

  • Understanding of purpose – to clarify the goal. What are we trying to do here? How is it in service to the larger vision?
  • Just right number of participants and who is at the table (depending on the task, representative stakeholders) to engage
  • Say what needs to be said – give honest feedback in a way that is going to be heard.
  • Everybody contributes, but contributions can look different ways.
  • We give encouragement for the development of an idea, not prematurely making assumptions or judgments.
  • Trust that the work of the group will help each of us grow the idea and/or understand why it’s not working.

This work inspired many conversations that was captured for both Manchester Public Schools faculty as well as inspired this excerpt in our book describing “Yes, buts,” Students at the Center:

Yes, but … Yes, but … Yes, but … Yes, but …
Some staff members don’t believe that student-directed learning is accessible to all students.

Classroom climate needs to nurture risk-taking values.

We’re stuck on “this is the way we’ve always done it.”

We believe students need to be held accountable and learn their lessons.

What do we know about how to change beliefs for an organization?

Can we as a district articulate what the ideal “culture” looks like—and in actionable terms?

How do we provide specific feedback to students in a way that promotes ongoing growth and student self-reflection?

How do we support teacher/staff capacity and growth?

Some staff have difficulty with engaging students in explicit skill areas.

Students need to be taught language that supports purposeful discourse.

Teachers need to develop the questioning expertise to move students to higher levels of thinking.

Assistant principals in need a growth plan to assist them in becoming instructional leaders in the building.

How are we supporting new learning in our district with staff, students, and families?

Some staff members don’t think they have time to implement this approach with fidelity.

Do teachers who are new to the profession need different time and supports than experienced faculty do?

Instructional minutes recommended by the district/state are seem to be in conflict with student self-directed learning.

Legislation dictates structure.

How do we capitalize on the time available and manage it effectively?

How do we collect information to diagnose areas of growth and use the information to change our programming?

Students benefit from personalized instruction, as opposed to a designated time to receive explicit instruction.

What is the research support for restorative models of discipline?

What are the “yes, buts” that surface in your school or district? Comment below.

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