Back in 2011, Chicago International Charter School (CICS) West Belden, on Chicago’s Northwest Side, was a pretty traditional place. Desks were in rows and teachers were doing most of the talking—and the thinking. Test scores were good, but there was room to grow. When CICS chose Distinctive Schools to bring personalized learning to West Belden, big changes began to take root.
With support from LEAP Innovations, West Belden began to pilot the new approach in a subset of classrooms—changing room layouts, rethinking how to group students and use time with them, and knowing students more deeply as learners. “We got to dream our ideal classrooms,” says Rachel Diaz, a teacher who joined the pilot.
By September 2015, West Belden literally scrapped its traditional classroom layouts. In a few rooms, walls came down, creating large environments through which children move freely. Desks came out and new furniture came in to meet students’ learning needs and preferences. With the exception of kindergarten, students now learn in multi-age classrooms that group different grade levels: 1-3, 4-5, and 6-8.
“The environment is truly flexible. If behavior was not great today, we ask why,” Diaz says. “Are the futons facing the wrong way? Let’s turn them around.”
Routines also changed for both students and teachers. Students began learning on the carpet, at the tables and on a futon. Students began to take greater control of their learning, by tracking their progress or letting teachers know about their interests so they can pursue them in the classroom.
Teachers now face the challenging task of planning for a variety of groups at different stages of mastery. Instead of teaching lessons to the whole group, teachers pay close attention to what students need to learn next and deliver short, small-group lessons while other students work independently.
Unlike the “robins” and the “bluebirds” reading groups of yore, these groups aren’t fixed for the year; they change as needed based on how students progress. Starting in fourth grade, students receive individual “playlists” of tasks, readings and research to further their personal learning goals.
Diaz says students have adjusted incredibly well to the new environments, and the change has made a real difference in their learning. “They are so much more confident. They have a voice. They’re happy about what they’re learning.”
Hard numbers confirm Diaz’s observations. In 2015, West Belden students learned as much in one year as the average U.S. student learns in two. A visit to the school last spring confirmed how far they have come.
In Room 104, curly-haired third-grader Leonardo greets a visitor. Most of the class is seated on the rug with the teacher at a whiteboard; two groups are in the back, one at a U-table and the other in an area with futons and sectional furniture. “We have two groups doing Jeopardy and two others using Lexia,” Leonardo explains. “Lexia is like a game and reading. It has cool animation.”
Leonardo knows his favorite learning environment in the room: the U-shaped sectional table in the corner farthest from the door. Most of the chairs are made of molded blue plastic, but there’s one wooden director’s chair with a zebra-print fabric back. They’re all OK with Leonardo. “All the chairs have something to lean on. If I’m reading and I don’t have something to lean on, my back hurts,” he explains.
Leo and two classmates came up with their own definition of personalized learning, now tacked on a bulletin board in the room next door: “Personalization is more choices and more places to sit.”
For West Belden’s adults, personalized learning requires knowing students deeply as learners and designing personalized plans to help them progress. Long, interdisciplinary blocks of time and multi-age groupings allow students to go deep on a topic at their own pace. The schedule also allows more adults to be present—up to four teachers and assistants at a time—making it possible to build in time for one-on-one tutorials.
As Diaz described it, “teachers swarm” in to group students as needed for the day’s learning. More adults in a flexible setting makes it much easier to meet individual student needs.
Diaz recalled a time when she stepped into a grade 4/5 classroom to teach mean, median and mode to a small group of students who missed the initial lesson. Another student overheard Diaz start the topic and immediately asked to join them, saying she didn’t feel confident she had mastered it even though she was there the first time it was presented.
“That was a really cool moment and it wouldn’t have happened before,” she said.