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25.4.2019 | Argy Nestor

Here is How a HundrED Ambassador is Personalizing Learning and Leading Change in her State

HundrED Ambassadors are our eyes and ears around the world identifying innovations, helping spread them to more students in creative ways & inspiring local communities to come together to discuss, act and lead change. Argy Nestor, our Ambassador from Maine (USA) writes this blog to share how her state is working to personalize education for all their students.

During the last 10 years in the state of Maine, in the United States, many conversations at the state policy and local level have taken place around personalized learning, student-centered learning, and proficiency-based learning. All three terms have slightly different meanings but the similarity is, all have the potential of impacting each learner’s success and the future of our state, country, and world.

The state was on a pathway of requiring that every student exhibit fulfillment of the learning standards in Visual and Performing Arts, World Languages, English, Math, Science & Technology, Social Studies, Health Education & Physical Education, and Career & Education Development. All eight content areas are critical to help us grow into engaged and contributing citizens. Most importantly in this proposed learning system the ownership was to be shared empowerment for students to “own” their learning. Teachers would shift from the disseminator of wisdom and become the ‘guide on the side’ providing instruction and support for student learning - an effort to realize student-centered learning. In my thinking, this would lead us to meeting the needs of every 21st century learner helping them to realize their full potential.


What went wrong?

Differences of opinions, lack of understanding, poor communication, attitudes stuck in the past, and decision-makers with little connection to classrooms and students. At the end of the day, it was decided to hold onto past practices. The legislation was watered down and each of the school districts across the state is now determining how to approach proficiency-based learning.


There is good news

Even with all this underway one group didn’t lose site of the value of transforming classrooms to a more student-centered environment and attention to assessment.

The Maine Arts Leadership Initiative (MALI) has been bringing visual and performing arts educators together since 2010. Originally established as the Maine Arts Assessment Initiative with the mission: Creating an environment in Maine where quality assessment in arts education is an integral part of the work all arts educators do to deepen student learning in the arts. In fact, MALI includes in their list of eight “Belief Statements” this definition: Student-Centered Learning encourages and empowers students to become independent learners, ultimately taking charge of their own education. Experiences within the learning environment are active, collaborative, engaging, and support students to explore their artistic processes in meaningful and purposeful ways.

Personalized learning and assessment have always been central to arts education. MALI has provided over 400 professional development opportunities for Maine arts educators to expand on their thinking and build and shift their practices to meet the needs of all learners. MALI helps to clarify the purpose of student-centered learning and supports teacher leaders in designing effective assessments that provide information to both the student and teacher. For example, a student learns to use the tools of printmaking while making prints. As their skills increase more complex ideas are brought in and soon the layering of colors enhances their prints; learning foundational printmaking techniques and growing from there. The learning leads to refection (assessment) and circles back to deeper learning. One informs the other. Self-assessment and teacher assessment are naturally built into the process. The student continues to build on their learning as they learn to make decisions, the teacher continues to improve their instruction. The portfolio collection provides a body of work to review and reflect on and shows the student and teacher a clear picture of personal growth.

It needs to be our legacy that we established new thresholds of treating our students with the utmost respect, integrity and dignity. Any attempt at achieving this goal must then begin and end with meeting them where they are at as individuals. This must translate not only to our instructional practices but also to our assessment practices as well, because in the end, these two must inform each other. It is only then that we can elevate our art - the art of education - to the very highest level. - York High School Music Educator, Co-Founder of Maine Arts Assessment Initiative, Rob Westerberg


Why is this important?

Much of what a student learns is because of the relationships he/she develops with individual teachers. Healthy relationships lead to students desire to learn and reach their potential. It is at the heart of today’s challenge.

Falmouth (Maine) Music Educator and MALI Design Team member, Jake Sturtevant says, "I have found that the relationship is at the center of teaching and learning. Having that perspective has helped me with developing and implementing personalized learning and assessment practices that work better for the students. When I give feedback, it is built on the premise that there is a relationship, so they know if they don’t do as well, that they won’t compare themselves as much to others, or know what to do with the shame that comes with that failure. I have been trying to do a lot more with mindset and developing strategies to help support students with emotional awareness and how to describe their own skills and learning. It is important to me to try to help support each individual in their journey as much as I can."

The focus on relationships creates a learning environment where every student can flourish. The ideal learning environment might be different for every learner in a class of 12 or 30 or 100 students. It certainly looks different in a non-traditional educational setting such as a multi-age class, out in a community, on a boat or project-based. Even before the type of environment can be selected, including the student in the decision is critical. What’s important to each learner; listening and watching as they express their needs while they maneuver along their educational pathway is essential. Providing questions and allowing them to explore answers as their needs shift and the world offers more and different learning opportunities and pathways.

Additionally, Central School, South Berwick, Maine Music Educator, York County Teacher of the Year, and MALI Teacher Leader, Kate Smith is of the opinion that "Student-centered learning puts the emphasis, and the responsibility, on the student. Students want to be heard. It's as evident in my Pre-Kindergarten music class as it is in my daughter's AP US History class. When students are given voice, they learn to be problem solvers, communicators, collaborators, and self-directed, lifelong learners. This can be an uncomfortable feeling at first for the teacher, who may wish to retain more control and "the microphone". But the engagement, depth of learning, commitment and student growth makes the transition from teacher to student-centered learning essential. Students own their learning. They are invested. Learning becomes as it should be; meaningful and purposeful."


What is the curent reality?

In a school with several grade levels and/or teachers, a focus on test scores, a large community, a top down the administration, lack of student motivation and/or parent involvement, eligibility requirements, and so many other factors, what is the reality? Is it realistic to personalize learning? How does one teacher manage it?

It’s important to understand the ideal is also not usually as practical. I find myself coming up short many days because of many factors including, time limitations, system issues- with grades still be at the center of a lot of pieces of the educational puzzle. Sadly, there are restrictions, out of a teacher’s control, that work against being able to provide a flexible learning environment to meet the needs of each student. - Jake Sturtevant


What do students think?

We know we can count on students to be honest and share their ideas and give us feedback on topics that impact them.

Sweetland School, an arts-integrated school for students, grades Kindergarten through 8 in Hope, Maine uses a model of reflection that continually provides teachers the opportunity to observe students as they learn and grow. This documentation process informs the next steps for teaching and learning. Competition is not necessary when students are striving for their personal best. They are empowered to be curious and experience the magic in learning every step of the way. Here’s what Sweetland students say about learning:

  • You learn from other people, learn with them, and help them out.

  • The teachers teach you stuff because they know all the stuff that kids don’t know, also teachers learn from kids too!

  • Teachers can see and get an idea of what you want.

  • To be listening and concentrating on what you’re doing.

  • Being together. Talking. Being in a conversation.

  • Being kind to everybody.

  • People should stop and think about being mindful with words.

  • Interruption makes you feel like a shadow, and like no one cares.

  • The safest thing we can have is respect for everything and knowledge. Be aware and respectful of everything.

Even in a free and independent environment, many challenges present themselves. This means that the work is bigger than the system and based in culture, history and time – so we just need to keep putting our best efforts forth. We believe student-centered learning has the capacity to increase learning opportunities for all. With time and practice, commitment and belief, change can occur. - Sweetland Founder, Director, Teacher, and HundrED Ambassador Lindsay Pinchbeck


What have we learned?

The collective work of MALI has provided data on many successes of student-centered learning. We know that the brain research can provide us valuable information to inform our work as educators. We know students need:

  • Clear targets and information

  • Time to process

  • The opportunity to explore, research, and experiment which can lead to failure which leads to deeper learning

  • To be trusted and feel safe

  • To experience success

  • To understand that it is about the process along with the product

  • The chance to get and give feedback, to share their work with an authentic audience

  • To use their voices individually and collaboratively which leads to empowerment to make a difference


Always hopeful

Our challenge is complex – effective personalized learning and assessment - but I know that if we trust the process, lean in with a growth mindset, document student and teacher work, collaborate with like-minded educators, advocate for each student, and never lose sight of what is in the best interest of EVERY LEARNER, that we can climb this mountain together in Maine and beyond. Our future depends on it!

If you are completely preoccupied with what is already known, you can’t make the leap into that other dimension of creativity or imagination or poetry, or whatever it is that allows for seeing a hidden order in things which, until it is seen and realized, is isn’t seen at all. - Jon Kabat-Zinn, Author of Mindfulness for Beginners

About Argy Nestor

Argy Nestor, a HundrED Ambassador from the United States, serves as the Director of Arts Education at the Maine Arts Commission. Her decisions around programs and policy continue to be driven by the question: What is in the best interest of PreK-grade 12 learners? 

One of the Commission's banner education programs is the Maine Arts Leadership Initiative - providing 400 professional development opportunities for Maine arts educators and teacher leaders including PK-12 arts teachers and teaching artists (and growing). The community of learners encourages educators to challenge themselves to collaboratively build on their knowledge and experiences using a Logic Model. 

HundrED Ambassadors are the local changemakers, eyes and ears for HundrED, seeking and sharing inspiring innovations in education while building local movements for change. If interested in reaching out the local Ambassador from your region or becoming one yourself, explore our HundrED Ambassadors page.


Argy Nestor