To scale personalized and project-based learning school-wide to foster self-directed, respectful, and empowered lifelong learners.
"We look at every child--all 350 of them--and say, 'What interests you? What sparks you?' We do the same with adults in the building, so as a teacher, what inspires you? What are you passionate about? What is it that drives you? And that’s what [personalized learning] means to us is following the person and what interests them most."
It's a chilly December evening as families and educators from across the Denver metro area pour into Asbury Elementary. As they enter the school, they are greeted by students who are eager to see them and excited to share their learning. These families and educators will spend the evening hearing about Asbury students' passions, curiosities, and learning.
Twice a year, Asbury hosts an Expo night that shows off students' projects, a culmination of weeks of independent and self-directed research on a topic of their choosing. At their December Expo, students presented on everything from the impact of weather on communities to the connection poetry has to hip hop and rap music. Students created posters, dioramas, and videos to demonstrate their learning and engage others in their presentations.
The Expo night is just one of many innovative practices that Asbury Elementary is doing. For the past four years, Asbury has been shifting from a traditional model of education to one that puts students in the driver's seat of their learning and prioritizes student voice, choice, and self-direction.
Asbury educators describe themselves as a "diverse, vibrant community of inquisitive and engaged learners committed to excellence and equity to foster self-directed, respectful and empowered lifelong learners." United by this common vision and supported by principal Alicia FaJohn and Personalized Learning coordinator Desi Kennedy, all of Asbury's educators have made Personalized Learning (PL) and innovative practices a priority.
Now in her fourth year at Asbury and her first year as the principal, Alicia noted that PL was already spreading throughout the school when she started. To her, PL is about giving both students and educators autonomy in following their passions. Hear Alicia talk more about her role at Asbury and what PL means to her:
Desi is in her second year as the PL coordinator. She works closely with teachers by supporting their implementation of Personalized Learning practices and by acting as a thought partner for new ideas. Desi shares information about PL through social media and newsletters. She also develops partnerships with local businesses and agencies to enhance student learning and involve students in the community. Hear Desi talk more about her role at Asbury and what PL means to her:
For a school to create a culture supportive of PL, it takes:
"Just trusting the potential of students and teachers is important. Every time I get nervous about an idea, I run it by the kids and they make me feel like this is going to work or we can do it a different way or they come up with new ideas."
Hear Desi and Alicia talk more about the support necessary for PL implementation to be successful:
"That collaboration between students, teachers, and parents cultivates how PL looks in our building and it looks different in all schools. That’s a big lesson--that it’s okay for it to look this way because it’s the Asbury way and it works for us."
Personalized Learning looks different at every school, which is an idea that Asbury embraces. Asbury educators use a variety of different ideas and practices in their PL implementation, but there are some common links throughout the building. See what practices Asbury is using to build community and support PL:
Along with PL, project-based learning (PBL) is another practice that Asbury is scaling school-wide. Across grade levels and subject areas, students participate in projects that deepen their learning and engage them with the community around and within Asbury.
Hear Desi talk about how she thinks PL has affected students, teachers and parents at Asbury:
Desi sees student and teacher engagement increasing. Students are more excited about their learning and teachers can't wait to try new ideas and share what they're doing with colleagues and families. Desi involves families through social media, invitations to share their expertise, and resources on Asbury’s website. Parents are excited to support learning by coming in and sharing their expertise or connecting Desi with other people who can.
Elizabeth Neufeld, an Asbury parent, sees her children loving learning and being excited about school. Elizabeth believes parents are always involved in the Asbury community and their children's learning.
Hear Desi talk more about the lessons she's learned as a PL coach leading this work.
Hear Alicia talk more about the lessons she's learned as a principal leading this work.
This is Alicia's fifth year at Asbury. She has been working in education for eleven years, previously in both public and Montessori schools. Alicia wanted to become an educator after hearing a neurologist speak about the processes by which children learn. Alicia previously taught 2nd and 5th grade and is always amazed by students' capabilities. You can contact Alicia at ALICIA_FAJOHN@dpsk12.org.
This is Desi's second year at Asbury. After college, she earned her Master's in Educational Psychology at the Boulder Journey School, a Reggio inspired school. It was here that she worked as an early childhood educator for 16 years and raised her two children. Desi has mentored over 25 graduate students who were becoming teachers at Boulder Journey School. She then took her passion for working with children into public school, landing at Asbury in 2017. Her mission is to always put children at the forefront and give them a voice in their learning, making sure they are seen and heard. Desi always knew she wanted to be an educator, as she's always been amazed by the potential of children. You can contact Desi at DESARIE_KENNEDY@dpsk12.org.
See how teachers at Asbury are implementing PL:
Thank you to the entire Asbury staff and student body for leading this work! Thank you to PL lead Desi Kennedy and principal Alicia FaJohn for letting us showcase this work and thank you to Elizabeth Neufeld for taking the time to talk with us. Thank you to Innovation Partner Elisa Bowers for her work with Asbury and her dedication to personalized learning.
A huge thank you to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation whose Next Generation Systems Initiative (NGSI) grant has been instrumental in helping Denver Public Schools design, implement, and study personalized learning.
Report by Sophie Gullett.