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Bena Kallick (left), a nationally recognized consultant who is is an expert on "habits of the mind," met with students and faculty mentors on Friday, Sept. 11. She had everyone focused on behaviors that are needed when you aren't sure how to proceed with a project or problem. Such behaviors are essential to the self-direction needed with personalized learning.

At MHS, Students Are Excited About 'Apples'

There's a tradition in education that students give their teacher an apple as a gift.

At Manchester High, though, it's students who are benefiting from, well, APLS.

APLS stands for Academy Personalized Learning Seminar, but everybody just says "apples."

This new initiative gives students the opportunity to choose an area of interest and immerse themselves in it with the ongoing support of a staff member -- who is not necessarily one of the student's "regular" teachers.

"This is really about allowing students to dive into an area they are passionate about," said Mark Ruede, an assistant principal at MHS who oversees the school's Medical Careers Academy as well as its STEMD Academy (which adds Design to the familiar Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics disciplines).

MHS has four other academies -- Education and Public Service; Culinary, Hospitality and Entrepreneurship;  Liberal Arts; and Performing Arts/Communications -- and every student in grades 10-12 belongs to one of these "smaller learning communities."

About 60 of these students have volunteered to be part of the APLS program. It's not a class per se, but they meet with their faculty advisor regularly during time when both are free -- often during Power Hour.

Students are free to choose any subject to pursue, and their work or investigation can take shape in any way.

For example, a boy excited about psychology might research the profession, and with guidance from her faculty adviser contact practicing clinicians seeking an opportunity for a job shadow or a tour of a psychiatric hospital.

A girl who loves computer programming and dabbles in game design might -- as part of APLS -- investigate whether to start a home computer business.

"The key is allowing students to be in control, to let them decide what they really, really want to do and how they want to do it," said Jill Krieger, the MHS principal. "Staff members who are mentors have spent a lot of time in training, working on how we can be supportive and make sure that students make progress and have some accountability -- but not give too much direction or advice."

Students are expected to produce something -- maybe an art portfolio, or a speech, or results of a fund-raising campaign, or whatever -- at the end of the year. They can earn a half credit but won't be graded with a traditional grade, rather they will create a digital portfolio that demonstrates their growth through the year.   

"This is really about the experience," says Katelyn Miner, an assistant principal focused on instruction at the high school. "So far we are thrilled about the enthusiasm and the energy everybody involved has for APLS."

To provide some parameters for what are expected to be wildly different areas of study, staff members worked with consultant Allison Zmuda, a nationally renowned expert on personalized learning.

Under her guidance, they identified various "capacities" that students could strive to demonstrate during their work. These include, for example, the ability to effectively collaborate, or problem solve, or communicate.

Staff then spent hours debating and developing "quality indicators" so that there would be a general agreement on, say, what highly effective collaboration looked like.

Another nationally recognized consultant, Bena Kallick, has also been involved. She is an expert on "habits of the mind," which she describes as behaviors that are needed when you aren't sure how to proceed with a project or problem.  These behaviors are essential to the self-direction needed with personalized learning.

Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision. Managing impulsivity. Gathering data through all senses. Listening with understanding and empathy.

Those are four of 16 such "habits" that students discussed with their mentors at a workshop early in the school year -- the type of "whole group" work that will happen a few more times throughout the year.

Otherwise, APLS work will be unfolding one day at a time, as students check in with their mentors and also find or make time to explore, investigate and immerse themselves in schoolwork they truly own. 

"It's already been rewarding to see how excited our students are by this," said Krieger. "We know we will be impressed by how our students take advantage of this exciting and challenging personalized learning opportunity -- and we look forward to getting more and more students involved each year."

Manchester Public Schools 45 North School St, Manchester, CT 06042

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