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Future of Learning

Prototyping During the Pandemic: The PLA

From the Elementary Division at Lincoln Community School in Accra, Ghana
By Marina Gijzen
08-Jun-21
Prototyping During the Pandemic: The PLA


Like many schools across the globe, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused us to re-evaluate how we serve the needs of our students. At Lincoln Community School, our elementary school teachers and leaders learned from our March-June 2020 emergency online experience that there might be a more effective way to provide a student-centered approach to online learning.


Our goals:



  • To meet the personalized learning needs of each student

  • To collaborate and leverage the strengths of each teacher to learn from each other and become more powerful as a team

  • To ensure that the families of our students were part of the learning team and that our communication was strong


With those goals in mind, we dug into the research, shared ideas, and asked “What if?” and “How?” As a result, we prototyped a system using what we name “Personalized Learning Advisors.”


Personalized Learning Advisors (PLAs)


Why rename the “teacher”? There is power in words. By changing “homeroom teacher” or “specialist teacher” to Personalized Learning Advisor (PLA), we also start to change the culture.


The LCS elementary team has been operating with PLAs since August 2020. What was, at first, a temporary measure has now become an improved format of teaching and learning.


Our goal in creating the PLAs: to shift our traditional way of thinking about teaching from a silo homeroom teacher to a more collaborative, transdisciplinary team approach.


What Personalized Learning Advisors provided for us at LCS:



  • Small cohorts of students per teacher

  • Close monitoring of all students

  • Increased parent contact

  • Leveraging of teacher expertise

  • Increased opportunity for personalized learning


What does this look like?



  • A group of PLAs and TAs meets the needs of all students in the grade level cohort (e.g., 40 students and 4 PLAs and 2 TAs)

  • Formerly named “homeroom teacher” and “student support teacher” and “specialist teacher” together they create a team of grade-level PLAs - a truly diverse and transdisciplinary team of teachers

  • These teachers form a group that is responsible for the teaching and learning of all students across all disciplines for the entire grade level cohort (no specialist pull-outs)

  • Each PLA has a small group of students (advisees)

  • PLAs meet regularly and follow a Professional Learning Community approach and plan for personalized learning


The role of the Personalized Learning Advisor



  • to advocate for their advisees

  • to get to know their advisees, their friends, their families, their strengths, and their needs (in short, be a walking encyclopedia on their advisory students)

  • to create strong and steady communication between the PLA and the families

  • to respond to parent information and questions or introduce them to the faculty member who can answer the question

  • to monitor their advisory students carefully to ensure their needs are being met

  • to ensure that the learning progress and goals of their advisees are recorded on a common document (shared by all teachers in the grade level)

  • to meet regularly with their teaching team to discuss student learning and next steps

  • to reach out to their advisees and check in with them


The PLA is NOT



  • the homeroom teacher

  • the teacher that teaches all the classes


Some PLA teacher feedback


“The whole grade level team knows the entire class so well and the culture of care is deeply evident.”


“I value the importance my colleagues place in our students.”


“I recognized that my colleagues advocate for their PLAs with determination and care.”


“I have the opportunity to learn from my colleagues because there are no more siloed classrooms."


“We know all of the students in the grade level, not only our class.”


“We are truly able to know our students and advocate for their needs.”


“This system has created a deeper relationship between all teachers and all students in the grade level cohort whereas this didn’t exist in more siloed homeroom classes.”


The Journey



How do you eat an elephant?


One bite at a time.



At Lincoln Community School, we are “eating the elephant” by prototyping Personalized Learning Advisors to change our culture to better meet the needs of our students, families, and teachers. If we were to put the elephant into an equation, it might look like this:


Pandemic forcing 12 months of online and blended learning (and counting!)
+ LCS Values
+ A new visionary ES building
+ PYP curriculum framework focusing on personalized learning
___________________________________________________________________


 =          Personalized Learning Advisors


Parts of the equation:



  1. Pandemic


Forcing change and offering opportunities while taking care of everyone’s wellbeing


During this pandemic, teachers around the world have demonstrated the capacity and courage to step up to change. We have it in us to be agile and accept imperfection while on the journey to make academic and social-emotional learning better, one bite at a time.


Our LCS teachers and leaders have learned to go slow, to go far. We know that we need to take care of ourselves and of each other while we continue to improve the culture of learning and teaching.



  1. LCS Values


Prototyping together with grace


We are living through hard and very grim times. It is during these difficult periods especially that we rely on our values to guide us. Last year, our LCS community, with the help of NoTosh, developed our school values:



  • Don’t just tell me how it’s done. Let me try.

  • It is what you do next that matters.

  • Be kind: it opens doors and minds.

  • The more we do together, the more we achieve.


Our values embody trial and error, prototyping, reflection, collaboration, and grace.



  1. A New ES building


Collaboration and Personalized Learning


We have a new Elementary school building finally filled with joyful children. The large space was designed to promote collaboration, flexibility, and personalized learning with glass walls in the pods, hubs, and classrooms. While we waited to fully occupy the space, we wondered how online-school might act as an incubation environment for collaborative teaching and more personalized student learning.



  1. PYP curriculum framework


The Learning Community


The PYP framework is a student-centered approach focusing on an inquiry-based, transdisciplinary curriculum framework that builds conceptual understanding.


The learning community assumes a shared responsibility for the learning, health, and wellbeing of all members. The learning community is inclusive of everyone involved in the life of the school: students and their families, all school staff members, and other important adults in the students’ lives (from PYP The Learning Community).


Next Steps


A culture of prototyping


Over the past nine months, we have been adjusting and adapting our Elementary School PLA approach living by our values and giving ourselves the grace to try, adapt, discard, or improve. We know that this is becoming our culture—to wonder, to connect, and to ask “What if?”  Maxine Green, educational philosopher, author, social activist, and teacher, states it well:


“For me, and, I am sure, for most of you, to be human is to be always in the process of becoming, to be in quest of openings, of possibilities. Always.”    


Following our North Star: Our LCS Vision


“We’re going to be the most exciting learning environment in Africa, where learning is challenging and joyful, designed by students and teachers together.”


We are proud of the work we have done with all our community members - parents, teachers, students, and administrators. The onset of the pandemic has been a springboard for fast-tracking this PLA approach, and although it is still very much a work in progress, we are creating effective teams, we are learning from each other, and we are accomplishing more together than would be possible alone. During these unprecedented times, this has made us stronger and better together.




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