Teamwork makes the dream work: How Asbury Elementary is scaling personalized learning through a shared school vision


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Asbury Elementary

To scale personalized and project-based learning school-wide to foster self-directed, respectful, and empowered lifelong learners.

School-wide Personalized Learning


"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."

-Alicia FaJohn 

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:


Supporting Personalized Learning

 

For a school to create a culture supportive of PL, it takes:

  • A common vision that is shared by the whole school.
  • Leaders who are unified in their definition and understanding of PL and their PL goals.
  • Collaboration across the entire team to build systems and structures that enhance PL.
  • Comfort with trying new ideas and learning from mistakes.
  • Autonomy for both students and teachers to try new things and follow their passions.

 

"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."

-Desi Kennedy

Hear Desi and Alicia talk more about the support necessary for PL implementation to be successful: 


Personalized Learning at Asbury

 

"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."

-Desi Kennedy

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:

PL at Asbury supports the school-wide vision: "We are a diverse, vibrant community of inquisitive and engaged learners. We are committed to excellence and equity to foster self-directed, respectful and empowered lifelong learners."

Asbury hosts two Expo nights, during which students demonstrate what they've learned from their project-based learning (PBL) units. These 6-8 week PBL units are guided by a robust driving question and engage students in projects aligned with the common core standards and unit of study. 

Students create posters, videos, dioramas, and interactive models to share their findings with family, Asbury staff, educators from across the district, and their peers during the Expo night.

Asbury invites educators from across the district to their school to experience the Asbury way of doing PL.

Family traditions are celebrated at "Dish-a-story" where students bring in dishes that are meaningful to their families to share with others. Students share the story behind the dish and talk about their culture.

Asbury draws upon local resources to bring in expertise and involve students in the community. This map analyst from the DPS central office came to share his expertise in creating maps.

A meteorologist from Channel 9 News came to Asbury to share her expertise and give feedback to students about their weather projects in preparation for Expo night.

Parents are often invited in to talk about their expertise with students as well. This Asbury parent works at the University of Denver as an ecology professor and came in to talk about animal food preferences.

Students have also gone down the street to the University of Denver for field trips. For one project, they visited the courtroom and used it for a mock trial.

Students are involved in various activities at Asbury. After a rigorous application and selection process, this group of students was selected to be Asbury's Welcome Ambassadors. They help welcome new families and students by giving tours and answering questions about the school.

Alicia makes fun a priority during her "fireside chats" which are videos she records and distributes to Asbury families. During her fireside chats, Alicia updates the Asbury community on current and upcoming events, such as the annual "Spring Wing."

As part of Asbury's social emotional curriculum, each classroom has a charter that lays out the expectations for the class. Students help to create the charter and sign their names at the bottom. 

The hallways spaces are comfortable and accommodating for students. All classrooms have flexible seating with many seating options that students can choose from.

Desi creates a PL newsletter to share what is happening each month with parents and other educators. 

PROJECT BASED LEARNING AT ASBURY ELEMENTARY

 

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.

"For us, we’ve defined PL and PBL (project-based learning) as rigor, as data-driven and standards-driven. We never took that element out. There is no fluff. There is no dessert course--it’s always the main course. It’s rigorous and we ask high level info and we still have high expectations for teachers and children. Kids are exploring parts of their brain and the curriculum that they wouldn’t have before." 

-Alicia FaJohn

Kindergarten Literacy, Math and Science: To learn why living things need different environments, kindergarten students researched different pets and what they need to live.

Each kindergarten class voted on a new pet that they wanted to join their class.

After adding a new guinea pig to the existing guinea pig gang, students, teachers, and parents worked together to plan a race of their pets. Students learned from parent experts about guinea pig food preferences and what to consider when building the race track. 

A sportscaster from Channel 7 News came to talk to the class about his job and how they could be sportcasters for their race. Students take on different roles for the final race. They create a race track, including logos, sponsors, obstacles, and advertisements. 

1st Grade Social Studies: First graders participated in a unit about what makes a community. Fourth graders led the first grade team on an excursion around the school's perimeter to identify different places that are important within a community. 

A police officer visited the class to talk to students about what role he plays in the community and what makes a community great.

2nd Grade Literacy: Second graders learned about inventors and wrote about them in three different formats: a non-fiction biography, informational writing for a presentation, and opinion writing. The class created a living museum and dressed up as different inventors to share learning with their families. 

The students became inventors by identifying problems they could solve with a new invention. Students pitched Shark Tank-style to a panel of business owners, inventors, and parents.

Students were given "funding" for their inventions instead of grades.

3rd Grade Literacy: Third grade students grappled with the question, "Is the Big Bad Wolf really bad?" They read about wolves in fiction and nonfiction and learned about how wolves are portrayed in different media.

Students heard from experts from the Defenders of Wildlife and a local animal sanctuary. They went on a field trip to an animal sanctuary to see wolves in their natural habitat.

The unit culminated in a trip to the courtroom at the University of Denver to put the wolf on trial and decide whether or not the wolf is guilty of being bad.

4th Grade Literacy and Music: The literacy and music teachers teamed up to explore poetry, hip hop, and rap. Dr. Adam Bradley, a professor from the University of Colorado, talked to students about his research and his experiences as an author. 

The class visited a poetry bookstore in Boulder, where they participated a poetry workshop with Dr. Bradley. Students presented raps that they had written and Dr. Bradley gave them feedback.

After the poetry workshop, the class visited Dr. Bradley's Laboratory of Race and Popular Culture (RAP Lab) to learn more about hip hop, rap, and its connection to poetry. Read more about their visit here.

5th Grade Social Studies: Fifth grade explored how weather impacts a community. Students progressed at their own pace through six stations about weather and the impact it can have. They then chose a weather-related topic that they would research and present on at the next Expo.

Students included a service project to give back to their local community through Coats for Colorado. They hosted their own coat drive, collecting 150 coats in just two weeks. They delivered the coats by foot to Dependable Cleaners.

Kylie Bearse, a meteorologist from Channel 9 News, came in to share her expertise and give feedback on students' projects before the May Expo.


Impact on the School

 

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.

If you want to try this...

 

  • Cultivate a culture of failing forward. Model how teachers can try new practices and learn from practices that don't work.
  • Draw upon local resources. Reach out to the community to find people who can come in to share their expertise or host field trips. 
  • Draw upon the school community. Invite caretakers and extended family to the school to share their expertise as well.
  • Don’t be afraid to take a risk and try something new. It’s messy and that’s part of the process.
  • Keep the bar high. Set high expectations for all students.
  • Trust your students and your teachers. Give them autonomy and the freedom to try new things.
  • Share the work with the school community. Involve parents and other community members in the work as much as possible.
  • Don't be afraid to redo things. If it doesn't work the first time, make changes and try it again.

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.

More about Desi and Alicia

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:

RESOURCES

Special Thanks to...

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.