Consortium staffers host breakout discussion at Pittsburgh Personalized Learning Network (PLPgh) conference

Consortium Program Directors Aaron Altemus and Sarah Brooks led a breakout discussion about Project-Based Learning as part of a June conference that the Pittsburgh Personalized Learning Network (PLPgh) organized around aligning classroom learning with real-world expectations.

The Consortium’s breakout session stimulated discussion of Project-Based Learning

More than 180 educators attended the conference held at Montour High School. The event featured two keynote addresses as well as other speakers and the breakouts. All dealt in one way or another with personalizing the learning experience.

Chris Sweeney, who is leading PLPGH said the fledgling network and the conference are both intended to help “bring pockets of innovation” in classrooms across our region “to scale.”

Although Sweeney and other speakers at the Conference all talked about the need to change classroom learning to prepare kids for a fast-changing, technology-driven economy, all also emphasized that personalized learning shouldn’t be confused with technology—that’s not what it is.

Nor is it merely a program, said Bena Kallick, PhD, a nationally known school consultant, author and co-founder of the Institute for Habits of Mind. Although there are “six million different definitions” thought-leaders in education generally agree that personalized learning has certain fundamental characteristics, she said.  Among others, it enables students to “deeply engage in meaningful, authentic and rigorous challenges,” Kallick added, citing work done by Allison Zmuda and others who have written about the subject. Because of that, classrooms become “progressively more student driven” as educators redesign their practices, she said.

Both Kallick and Ann Chavez, PhD, who gave the morning keynote, said that personalized learning also emphasizes different goals than traditional classroom teaching, which many educators lament has been aimed at emphasizing only subject matter that’s covered on standardized tests. Chavez, an author and co-founder and Chief Academic Officer of Modern Teacher, said that schools should be preparing students for a world that’s been turned upside down by technology in less than a decade. She said employers increasingly are prioritizing transferrable, non-academic skills when they recruit. Chief among these is “problem solving,” she said.

Education Consultant Bena Kallick, PhD gives afternoon keynote on personalized learning

Agreed Kallick: “Kids need practice in this world that is so very volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. They need practice to gain comfort and confidence to navigate what’s ahead.” Citing educator and author Jay McTighe, she said the aim of classroom education should be “long-term transfer goals” needed across disciplines. McTighe has said, for example, that math competency isn’t merely finding solutions to equations, but being able to create the equations needed to solve real world problems.

In their breakout session, Altemus and Brooks said real-world learning and problem solving are the kinds of skills the Consortium’s Student Powered Solutions program aims to support through its Project-Based Learning experiences. The program pairs classrooms with businesses and other community partners willing to offer students real-world challenges to solve. As the students tackle them, teachers take on the role of coach.

Educators at the conference all expressed enthusiasm about finding ways to personalize learning. But they also discussed obstacles to innovation. Among others, there can be resistance to change and there also is the reality of needing to meet state standards associated with subject matter, some of which may not be addressed when students drive the learning.

Consultant Wayne A. Jones, who had been a Program Director as well as Director of Organizational Learning and Staff Development for The Heinz Endowments, gave a breakout session emphasizing that culture change can help make way for the innovations needed to personalize learning. He said schools need to “create safe space” for experimentation and the inevitable failures that come with it.




Alliance’s June Retreat showcased projects across network

Poster sessions at the Future Ready Alliance’s June Retreat showed that districts are taking a wide variety of approaches to improving opportunities for students to explore and prepare for post-secondary education and careers.

The Alliance is a network of educators that the Consortium brings together to design and implement improvements aimed at ensuring their graduates are well prepared for their futures, not just academically, but also developmentally. The emphasis is on helping all kids find the answers to three critical questions—Who am I? Who do I want to be? and How do I get there? 

The June Retreat showcased projects completed during the school year and provided resources for continuing work into 2018-2019, including a presentation on the state’s career education standards and an index the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) will begin using next year to assess whether students are receiving the preparation needed for “future readiness.”

Projects that district and school teams undertook in 2017-2018 ranged from designing a professional development opportunity for faculty at South Allegheny High School to organizing a “Career Camp” at Yough High School and creating a new credential for students to demonstrate “future readiness” at Steel Valley High School.

South Allegheny’s professional development opportunity took the form of a Classrooms to Careers Conference that featured presentations by representatives of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and workshops with 21 different business partners. The Conference was designed to give educators information they need to help students learn about anticipated job opportunities and workplace expectations.

At Yough, a Career Camp offered opportunities to learn about careers, practice soft skills and understand the job application process. Yough’s team planned activities around these elements and offered them during downtime students have in the days when standardized testing occurs. Some were modeled on activities that students participating in the Consortium’s career exploration program, The Future Is Mine (TFIM) use to create a breakout session at the annual Student Leadership Conference, the school’s TFIM advisor Gina Hipps noted. Hipps also sits on Yough’s Alliance team.

Steel Valley’s new credential is aimed at certifying competencies beyond those reflected in a high school diploma, said Superintendent Ed Wehrer. “It will have more value,” he said, noting that diplomas alone merely show that students completed their classes with passing grades and give no indication, for example, of whether they’ve developed other essential skills.

PDE’s Career Readiness Advisor Laura Fridirici told Alliance participants that the work they’re doing should contribute to moving students toward state goals.

A stakeholders’ report compiled when the PDE was formulating its response to ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act that Congress passed in 2015) “found kids graduating without a plan,” Fridirici said. Under the Future Ready Index assessment, PDE wants kids to show progress toward career awareness and preparation at every grade level. Among other things, it will look to see what percentage of a district’s 5th graders are engaged in exploration and preparation. By 8th grade, PDE will be looking at what percentage of a district’s “students have created plans” that identify possible career paths that connect to their interests and engage in activities that would help them explore or prepare for those paths.






Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation renews support for TFIM

Penguins Foundation President Dave Soltesz presents check to TFIM Program Director Gina Barrett

The Consortium extends its thanks to The Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation for its ongoing commitment to our career exploration program, The Future Is Mine (TFIM). Earlier this month, the Foundation presented a $7,500 grant to help fund the program and its annual Student Leadership Conference.

“We’re truly grateful for the Penguins Foundation’s support,” said Mary Kay Babyak. “We appreciate that the Penguins recognize the ways that TFIM emphasizes key parts of their mission including education, teamwork and life skills.”



Student Powered Solutions to roll out more options

When the 2018-2019 school year begins, our Student Powered Solutions (SPS) program will roll out new options for participating that are designed to accommodate varying levels of experience with Project-Based Learning well as different financial and time constraints.

SPS program staffers introduced the new options to interested educators at a May 30th information session and will host prospective business partners for a similar briefing in June. The May session drew both past SPS participants as well as educators who wanted to learn about the program and the support it offers for PBL.

Since its inception more than two years ago, SPS has connected schools with companies and other organizations willing to offer real-world projects as classroom assignments. As part of the program, SPS staff have supported educators in implementing PBL and served as their liaisons with companies. In the past year, SPS also began offering formal training in PBL.

An SPS participant tried out a virtual reality mask that was the focus of a Project-Based Learning Experience created in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center

To learn how  a typical SPS experience is organized from beginning to end, attendees watched a video of a project students undertook in the past year with Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center.

“Beginning in the fall, we’re going to be offering some different options because we’ve found that some of you have different needs and we’re trying to accommodate them,” Consortium Director of Organizational Advancement Jackie Foor told attendees. Broadly speaking, educators can opt for different levels of training, varying degrees of classroom support and different levels of engagement with business partners, she said, referring to a handout on the new SPS options. The different levels also would carry different program participation fees, Foor said.  (Educators interested in more information can contact the Consortium.)

In addition to describing program changes, SPS staffers briefed educators on the ways PBL can improve student achievement and career preparation. Among other things, there’s research suggesting PBL can improve standardized test scores, problem-solving ability and other soft skills such as communication and collaboration. By supporting students in these areas, PBL also can help schools meet new state standards around career and college readiness, SPS staffers told attendees.

Veterans of the SPS program also shared some of their own thoughts on PBL. Several said that the biggest hurdles for students to get over were understanding that there were no single right answers to the problems they’d tackled and their teachers had no specific solutions in mind nor any specific approaches.

“I just had to keep pushing them and telling them I didn’t know the answer either,” said Doreen Tabb, a Woodland Hills teacher whose class worked with the marketing firm for Remake Learning on ways to attract more parents to Remake Learning Days. That the students kept turning to her out of habit “was frustrating,” she said. But Tabb also said that seeing her students make their final presentations and their visible pride of accomplishment afterward, “made it all worth it.”










BAMSM expansion brings mentors to more kids

Under a mentoring program new to Woodland Hills School District this year, two participating students have benefited enough from their adult mentors that they’ve started trying to do a little mentoring themselves.

D’ Marcus and Keshawn both said adult mentors from the Be a Middle School Mentor (BAMSM) program helped them stay motivated about school so they’re trying to do the same for their peers. 

“I’ve noticed them both mentoring others,” said Woodland Hills teacher Emily Beitler, who accompanied students on a field trip to the Roberto Clemente Museum.

The boys were among a handful of program participants who took a few minutes during the fieldtrip to talk about what they were learning in BAMSM.

“If somebody’s getting bad grades, I try to help them,” explained D’ Marcus, adding that the mentoring program had taught him to “be more respectful of peers and others” and more attuned their needs.

Keshawn said the mentoring program made him realize the importance of teamwork and “the way you need everybody.” Because of that, he’s tried to lend a hand or an ear whenever he notices friends or classmates looking like they might need some help or someone to talk to.

United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania launched BAMSM in Pittsburgh ten years ago and over the decade turned it into an award-winning program. To build on that success beyond the city limits, United Way partnered with the Consortium this year to take BAMSM to Clairton and McKeesport Area school districts as well as Woodland Hills. Together the newly added districts drew nearly 40 students and more than 20 adult mentors. Consortium staff members bring together mentors and mentees once a week at each site.

From getting better grades to coping with test anxiety, kids said they found BAMSM helped them with lots of things. Makayla, for example, said activities with mentors in Woodland Hills helped “to calm us down when the PSSAs were coming up.”

Nor were kids the only beneficiaries, said Vann Williams, a Wabtec employee who became an adult mentor in Woodland Hills.

“I got a lot from the kids,” he said. “They’re smart and they’ve got compassion—I think our kids get a bad rap. I think I get more from them than they do from me.”





STEM Camp for Mon Valley kids!

If you know of students currently in 9th  grade who might benefit from a STEM camp, why not give them applications for this three-day program coming up at the end of June. BlueRoof Technologies, one of the Consortium’s Champions of Learning Award winners, is offering a free summer STEM Maker Digital Academy at Penn State Greater Allegheny from 9 am to noon, June 25th through June 28th.

Students must be from Mon Valley schools and have a sponsoring teacher to be considered. Space is limited to only 15 students who will be rising to 10th grade in the fall.  BlueRoof is particularly targeting students who are capable, but not necessarily motivated toward or thinking about a STEM career.

The company has offered STEM encouragement programs for more than 10 years, successfully motivating students with hands-on projects. As part of the upcoming summer program, students will complete electronics projects that they can take home. Learn more or download an application.





Using Project-Based Learning and Video Games to help kids explore careers or build soft skills

The Consortium is pleased to offer two summer workshops for teachers as part of South Fayette School District’s STEAM Innovation Summer Institute.  One is about using video games to help kids explore careers and develop soft skills and another on Project-Based Learning (PBL). 

We’ll host the video game workshop in partnership with Simcoach Games on Monday, June 25th from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm in our offices at 1100 Industry Rd., McKeesport. The workshop on Project-Based Learning takes place from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm on Wednesday, June 27, also in our offices at 1100 Industry Rd., McKeesport.

Lunch is included at each session. Make reservations early because space is limited! Register soon at Eventbrite because space is limited.

  • You’ll find the video game workshop listed as Session S.2.10 Using Video Games to Develop Career Readiness.
  • The PBL workshop is listed as Session S.1.3 Getting to Know Project-Based Learning.

Breakfast briefing on SPS and PBL 

Interested educators should plan on attending a breakfast briefing about our Student Powered Solutions (SPS) program and workshops on Project-Based Learning. The agenda will be focused on the benefits of participating in SPS, the Consortium’s project-based learning program, including how to get involved for the 2018-2019 school year. Come hear from last year’s facilitating educators, learn about past projects, and view student work from the 2017-2018 school year. We’ll also discuss upcoming training opportunities for those who would like to learn more about project-based learning. The dress will be casual and free parking will be provided. To register, just click to our Eventbrite page.


LCTE stages mock interviews

At the latest session of Leadership in Career & Technical Education, kids enthusiastically held up “Stop” signs during mock job interviews, calling out behaviors and answers that might give employers pause—from slouching in chairs to looking at text alerts.

A mock interview with Program Director Jenn Sethman

They also practiced introducing themselves with the kind of elevator speech needed to quickly make new contacts. As they have in all four LCTE sessions, the kids had time to network with peers from other districts as well adults supporting the program.

This year’s sessions have helped Trinity, a junior from Steel Center for Career & Technical Education, prepare for situations she knows she’ll confront following graduation.

Among other things, “I knew the term ‘networking’ but I didn’t know what it really meant or how important it was,” she said. Nor was Trinity familiar with LinkedIn, the online network lots of professionals use to connect with others who might help them in their work or job searches. She said she can imagine lots of ways to use it.

At the May session, which again brought together Allegheny County’s four CTCs, students also talked about instances where they’d need the soft skills that LCTE emphasizes. In addition to Steel Center, participating CTCs include A.W. Beattie Career Center; Forbes Road Career & Technology Center and Parkway West Career & Technology Center.

Three previous LCTE sessions engaged students in team-building exercises and other situations to practice the kinds of soft skills needed in the workplace.

Students often need this practice to develop the soft skills that research shows are as important to future success as academic performance. LCTE is just one of several programs the Consortium offers to help students build these skills. Aimed exclusively at CTC students, the program aims to reach students who will need these skills to advance within their fields or take on supervisory roles.