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Developing a Competency-Based ELA Classroom


Language Arts Lead Teacher Stephanie Price (right) and Dean of Curriculum and Instruction Lisa Simms (left) collaborate on DSISD’s competency-based approach

When I started my journey at Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD) in spring 2015, I was excited. After nine years of teaching in a traditional model of education, the new possibilities at my disposal sparked my creativity. Little did I know how much I would feel like a first year educator all over again once school started in the fall. I was embarking on uncharted territory, and no amount of summer planning could have prepared me for what was next. Now, a year in, I’m able to reflect on what I’ve learned, and offer a bit of advice to teachers and school leaders who might be interested in this model.

Discovering Pacing for my Students

As I learned what competency based education meant, it was my understanding that students could and should move through acquiring content and skills asynchronously, or at their own pace. Our learning management system, Summit Public School’s Personalized Learning Platform (PLP), allowed for students to access content, assessments, and projects on their own.

My initial approach prioritized the pace of the learning over the personal needs of each student. Students could move as quickly or slowly as they wished through their work, choosing supports and enrichments as they went along. This student-led approach didn’t account for the fact that students weren’t ready to identify their own needs without my guidance. Many of them lacked the self-directed learning skills and agency. It became messy, and it started to feel like each student was isolated. I missed the collaboration I was so used to in a traditional model. I also realized that about a third of my students were ready for the rigor of Advanced Placement coursework while about one tenth of them were struggling to keep up at an appropriate pace, even with the scaffolds provided for them to choose from. This was all useful learning for me, and at the end of the first trimester, I developed and implemented a differentiated grouping system that I called a “cohort model” in response to these challenges, and influenced heavily by student voice.

Implementing the Cohort Model

The cohort model simply allows students to choose their own adventure in the language arts classroom. Although all students work in small groups at their own levels, they are connected through common themes, tasks, and texts. My class has three cohorts: Introduction to Literature, AP Language Cohort, and AP Language Veterans. An example of a typical day would include the Intro to Lit students reading leveled versions of Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr. in preparation for writing a short response on figurative language in the text while the AP Cohort analyzes the whole letter for a rhetorical analysis essay. Meanwhile, the AP Veterans read Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau alongside Letter to Birmingham Jail to write a full compare contrast analysis on the figurative language each author used to support his argument.

I encourage students who are ready to join the AP cohorts, but if they don’t feel ready for AP level rigor, I certainly don’t force them to join. The cohorts are not homogeneous when it comes to academic ability. For example, there are some students in Intro to Lit who have lexiles above 1600, and there are AP students with lexiles below 700. The choice to join an AP cohort is not about ability, it’s about interest, motivation and agency. When students are not working in cohorts, they are in interest-based Literature Circles that are heterogeneously mixed with students from all three cohorts for a blend of abilities, personalities, and perspectives. This allows all students to come together around common themes and work toward common goals with students of other levels and abilities at least once per week.

Planning Ahead to Support Student Learning

One of the important parts of the cohort model is making sure that students have a clear vision of what they will be doing each day. I plan extensively so I’m able to provide my students with calendars every month. One example is my plan for the Conflict, Compassion, and Community Unit. Even though the cohort model has transformed my classroom into a much more positive and thriving environment for learning, challenges still exist. My students are teenagers, and they do sometimes struggle with motivation, focus, and engagement like most teens. Supporting students with time management and accountability is crucial, and the calendars are an important part of this. They help students in understanding exactly what’s expected of them and in managing their time wisely.

Using Resources in a Cohort-Based Classroom

When it comes to curriculum providers and resources, DSISD uses Summit Public Schools’ Personalized Learning Platform (PLP) and Cognitive Skills Rubric as common practices for instruction and assessment. In my classroom, I use both the digital and hard copy versions of The Language of Composition (2nd Ed.) by Shea, Scanlon, and Aufses to design my lessons for AP Language. I create almost every assignment, activity, and assessment on my own using a blend of my past successes and the strategic and thought-provoking guidance of my coach, Lisa Simms.

I choose Literature Circle novels based on the themes in each unit, and always ask for student input. This ensures diversity in authors, non-fiction/fiction, lexile levels, and plot. We are just in our first year, so our classroom library is small but growing. As a language arts team, we also plan to use LightSail, an online library and reading comprehension platform, next year to add more options for our students.

Fostering Competency through Cohorts

I feel like the cohort model has made my classroom truly competency based. One of the most important things about competency-based education is letting go of the status quo when defining what it means to be a 9th grader, a 10th grader, and so on. For instance, Introduction to Literature is the standard course for 9th graders in Denver Public Schools, but not every 9th grader in my classroom is “standard.” Not only are my students at varying levels, but what it takes for each of them to master material is different. Every student in my classroom is able to work at their level without being separated from their peers. They can learn from one another and make shifts in the level of their course work when they are ready—not when the next school year begins.

Although this may seem like standard differentiation or tracking within the classroom, I would bet my ten years as an educator that anyone who visits my classroom could see the difference. The cohort model creates an avenue for all students to be proud of themselves for taking risks and accepting challenges. They are truly owning their learning, and it is my hope that they will all finish their first year at DSISD with measurable growth as both readers and writers, and with a feeling of accomplishment and time well spent.

Assessment Tactics for Student Growth

Assessment is also an important motivator for students at all levels. I use our cognitive skills rubric, which provides ways to give students measurable feedback on preparation, following norms, active listening, and discussion contributions. Because students have a lot of voice in their novel selections, which fosters motivation, it’s very rare that they fall behind in the reading. The discussions in their groups are lively, and they hold each other accountable for preparation in the days leading up to a book talk. Another aspect that enhances engagement are the thematic units that provide real world and cultural connections, creating relevance for all students.

Ensuring that students are in cohorts that match their abilities and their readiness for self-directed learning is an important part of making sure that all students feel ownership and control when it comes to their learning. Ever since I implemented the cohort model, students have become more invested in mastering cognitive skills because the skills now have relevance that they didn’t have before. The formative and summative assessments for all cohorts are designed to give students multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery of cognitive skills in multiple ways, several times throughout the year. This data informs our weekly data driven instruction meetings and my instructional shifts.

Trust Yourself and Your Students

If I knew in the fall what I know now, I would have planned for the cohort model from the beginning and provided students with their options immediately. I have now started to develop documents to do this next year (examples here and here. At the beginning of the year, everything was just a theory. In practice, there were several challenges but with the help of my students and my colleagues, I have been able to shift things so that all students feel empowered and appropriately challenged. Teachers interested in implementing the cohort model should remember to be flexible! Don’t be afraid of failing and starting over. Don’t be afraid to turn to your students when you get stuck—their voices are the most important factor in their success!

Stephanie Price is a Language Arts Lead Teacher at Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design (DSISD), a mastery-based high school that launched in summer 2015 with generous funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and support from Springpoint, as part of the Opportunity by Design initiative. To learn more, visit their website and check out this video about the school.