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Lauren Wesnak Smith | Personalized and extended learning

I remember being in a conversation with my mom in high school — I don’t know if we were driving somewhere, or just talking in the kitchen. But I remember her telling me that I was ‘a real people person’ and that that was a gift of mine. She told me I could strike up a conversation with anybody and that people were comfortable around me. She told me she could see me working with people as a teacher or a physical therapist, helping people meet their goals. 

Because she said she could see me as a teacher, I started looking at my teachers in a totally different light. Some of my teachers in high school were honestly the best parts of school. I thought they were the coolest people. They changed my entire view of education. 

They also changed my entire view of myself. I remember thinking, ‘I want to do that. I want to create positive change.’

I went to a progressive public high school called Souhegan. We were part of the Coalition of Essential Schools. We had block scheduling. We called our teachers by their first names, and we had advisory and portfolio projects. Students had a lot of freedom.

During my senior year, one of my soccer coaches (who I actually just reconnected with professionally — Lisa Kent) got me my first internship. I told her I wanted to go to college to be a teacher, and she reached out to her daughter’s first grade teacher for me.

I had a double free block where I could drive down the road to the elementary school. And boom, I learned I didn’t want to be a first grade teacher, but I loved teaching. I loved the interactions with learners. For me, there was a cool factor to teaching. I thought my teachers were amazing humans. 

When I started my teaching career, I stayed in touch with some of my high school teachers, who became my mentors. One of them moved to Costa Rica, and she and her husband built a school from the ground up. Not only was I able to visit, but I later took my own students there too.

It’s a powerful thing about teachers, that they can completely change your life.

The entire state of New Hampshire has an extended learning opportunities program, where students are actively supported in learning outside of school: internships, community service, apprenticeships, and things like that. The program aligns to New Hampshire’s competency-based system of education, and it’s offered at every high school in the state.*

I’m an extended learning coordinator, so I support students in getting high school credit by doing something they’re interested in — it’s super strength-based and community-centered. If it’s a career-driven extended learning opportunity (ELO), then we’re reaching out to local businesses to see if they’ll take a high school student intern. 

It can also be more passion-driven — like if a student got introduced to Shakespeare for the first time in an English class and wishes there were a whole class on Shakespeare. That student could do an ELO on Shakespeare and the impact of his works on literature today, or some other essential question. They would work with an English teacher to get credit and meet competencies. I might reach out to college professors to see if they’ll hop on a Zoom and talk to the student about it, or the student could see if there are any performances of Shakespeare plays in the area… maybe we’d challenge the student to pick a Shakespearean theme and write their own work. It’s student-driven learning.

Students are often a little uncomfortable going into the extended learning program. I’ll ask them, ‘Is this the first time that you’ve been asked to create what you’re going to learn?’ And the answer is almost always yes. Most students have never experienced that, so there’s a disequilibrium. They no longer have a teacher telling them, ‘Okay, week one is this. Week two is this. And here’s your worksheet.’ Instead, it’s, ‘Okay, you gave me six learning objectives that you want to achieve during your project. How do you want to get there?’ 

The students will look around the room, wondering if there’s a map. I can see them asking themselves, ‘What am I supposed to do from here?’

*Competency-based education is a framework for teaching and assessment that focuses on outcomes and real-world performance. Students generally have the opportunity to attempt a given “competency” multiple times and receive continuous feedback.

For most students, if they’re interested in an extended learning opportunity, it’s because their guidance counselor told them about the option. They may need another elective credit, and maybe there aren’t any classes that they’re interested in, because they love coding and our school doesn’t have an advanced coding class. In this case, there are extended learning opportunities that could work for them. So the student might reach out to me and say, ‘I’m interested in doing an ELO in coding. What do I do now?’ 

For this example, I’d probably ask them if they want to do an independent study in a specific coding language. Or do they want to do a career exploration, where they research all the different types of careers that they could possibly have in the world of coding — and then maybe we get them into a job shadow or an internship? Do they want to do a summer experience at a coding camp? 

Then if they’re still on board, I go over the four base competencies of the program: research, reflection, product, and presentation. The student, myself, and their lead teacher also develop additional competencies, personalized and connected to their subject area (these may be competencies that are part of a coding program we find and wish to use online — or if a student is looking to earn credit in a specific course, we would pull competencies that the school already has in place thanks to the help of the lead teacher). No matter what ELO they do, they all have to do a significant amount of research. They need to do weekly journal reflections to track their progress and to reflect on their learning goals and objectives, since they’re doing all of this work independently. So we have a system in place where we track together how they’re progressing towards their goals. 

By the end, they need to create a product that is connected to the community in some way, shape, or form. And finally, they need to do a presentation of learning. They give that presentation to a small panel that includes everyone on the ELO team, as well as peer supports of their choice. We invite community members who they may have worked with, as well as their family.

The student’s application for extended learning is less about why they should be in the program and more about their interests: ‘Why are you interested in this idea? What strengths do you bring? What challenges could get in the way? Have you ever written an essential question before?’ It’s really a guided brainstorm. We create an agreement where the student lists six learning objectives and their two essential questions. That’s the compass that guides them throughout the project. This initial agreement needs a lot of different signatures of approval, and it’s just the first step. 

From there, there’s a bunch of paperwork, especially if we have students going out into the field and doing an internship. We have the department of labor involved, because we need to make sure that all of the businesses are legit and that students can be there safely. There’s paperwork for the community partner, a code of ethics and conduct, and there might be liability or confidentiality waivers (especially if we have students in the medical or education fields), and more. Students are looking to earn high school credit, so we need to make sure that we have a team of people working on it, not just myself and the student — we have licensed educators in whatever subject area the student is looking to get their credit in. 

It’s cool to know that I’m giving students this opportunity to dictate what they’re learning and how they’re going to do it. They get to do a lot of creating. And I think the real world experience the students get is next level. These students are so driven, because they’re excited that they get to work like adults. Some also get to leave school grounds and have incredible opportunities. Those opportunities can lead to recommendations for college, or college essay experiences — and for some of them, their internship is what helps them decide what they want to do. That’s what happened for me as a student, too.

A student came to me with an interest in interior design. She wanted to do a job shadow. We partnered with a local interior designer who owns their own business, which was a bonus because the student was interested in entrepreneurship.

We did a meet and greet and interviewed to make sure the partnership was a good fit. Both the community partner and the student were like, ‘Yup, let’s work together.’ So the student got three days out in the field as a junior. Those days were successful, so the student was invited back to be an intern during their senior year. 

So her junior year extended learning opportunity consisted of three job shadow days as well as background research on what it takes to be an interior designer. Through that process, she thought about her path after high school: ‘What should I be looking for in a college? Will I need a license or certification? When should I start developing a portfolio?’ Things like that. She was also working with the art teacher, doing an advanced study on interior design. During the job shadow days, she was able to try her hand at making a vision board for a specific project and doing color theory.

During her senior year, she expanded on her advanced art study, but in partnership with an internship two or three days a week with the local interior designer. She got to go on client calls, do client follow-up reports, contact vendors, and learn the design firm’s process.

Extended learning in New Hampshire is based on the desire to help more students get real world learning. It dates back to 2005, when the NH Department of Education began an extended learning pilot. The pilot resulted in best practices as well as research studies on the effects of extended learning on student outcomes. 

The state found that school-run student learning has positive effects on students’ academic commitment, as well as their post-grad aspirations and preparedness. These positive effects were seen for economically disadvantaged and low performing students, not just students who already had access to these types of opportunities. The research found that participation in school-facilitated extended learning was consistently associated with a greater number of positive student outcomes than virtual ELO participation. So you can imagine how COVID presented huge challenges for this type of learning. Now we’re helping to put the community back into public schools. 

During COVID, we couldn’t go into all these different spaces. People got used to not coming to school or inviting students in. 

It lights me up, helping community members get excited about working with the kids. It feels powerful.

I don’t think of extended learning as purely career-focused. In the example I shared earlier of the student studying interior design, that came out of a student’s passion. I wanted to help her grow that interest, whether or not she pursued it as a career.

Extended learning is also not something that students should do just to get into college. It’s about helping them grow as people. There’s a 500-page handbook for extended learning in New Hampshire, and my major takeaway was that this experience should be strengths-based and take place outside of the “regular” classroom. This allows for a more personalized, organic learning experience. Sure, it’s helpful to gain career experience if the ELO goes that way, but there’s so much power that comes with learning and owning your strengths; doors open with that knowledge too.

Experience-based learning lights me up. It’s always lit me up, and it’s always been part of my mission as a teacher. Being able to learn organically is a gift. I think that by identifying students’ strengths and uncovering the gifts that students have to share with the world, we remind them to treasure those parts of themselves. We remind them to let those strengths guide them, so they can share those gifts. 

When you talk about people who are in the zone — a state of flow — some of that comes from intrinsic motivation, which usually draws from a passion. So if I can take a student and help them identify what they’re passionate about, that might motivate them to learn something more and contribute in a meaningful way.

I think about my own story, and I’m so thankful to have a mom who always openly reminded me of my strengths. She talked to me about my gifts, and I was able to channel them. I was super lucky to have that. I was also lucky to have my mentor at the time —my soccer coach — who cheered me on from the sidelines, in soccer and also metaphorically. They were there. They’re still there. And that is powerful. 

This work clearly lights me up, because I can feel it in my bones.

I have two large storage bins that are taking up the majority of our storage closet in our house. I call them my teacher boxes. They are filled with treasures from my years of being a homeroom teacher. 

These kids, man, they are powerful. They are so connected, thoughtful, inspiring, and creative. You can tell how much pride they put into this stuff. I tried to elevate their learning, and they always met me there. 

As a classroom teacher, you’re constantly reminded by your students that you’re making a difference. My first year in public school teaching, I completely blew out my knee. I had to get back-to-back knee surgeries, so I was out for a really long time. And when I returned to the classroom, my students had put up banners saying ‘welcome back’ with quotes all over them. I had students who would stay after school every day and stack all of my chairs for me, clean all of my tables, and clean my whiteboard. I never asked them to, they just did it. Because I was on crutches, they would wheel me down the hall on a roller chair so that I could go to assemblies. 

My soccer team that I was coaching at the time had all written me letters, put them in a bucket, and dropped the bucket full of letters off to me. I had students who made me another box, filled with 100 notes. Every day, I would pick out a note and read one.

The notes say things like:

‘You inspire me.’

‘We love you.’ 

‘Sing more. You have an amazing voice.’ 

Another student at the end of her 8th grade year gave me a long letter. One section said, ‘You gave me a passion and motivation for learning, writing, thinking, exploring and loving our world. You made learning an amazingly magical, fun-filled adventure that I never want to end. These are years I hope I will never forget. And I hope you continue to inspire and nourish other people’s learning in the same way you did to mine. I leave here with the keys I need to succeed. And I could not have opened these doors without you.’

I remember reading these notes the first time and feeling like it wasn’t about just me. It made me feel grateful to every teacher I’d ever had. Teachers, what you do is beyond anything else, the impact that you make.

Khan Lab School introduced me to a whole other side of education that I’d never experienced before, where we were able to develop a program from the bottom up and focus on personalized learning. We built the scope and sequence and curriculum map for middle school, and that was one of the coolest and most challenging things I’ve ever done in my life. I loved it, and I loved the conversations I’d have. I felt like it opened this new door for me with lifelong learning. 

I learned so much about myself from that job. It showed me strengths I didn’t even realize I had, in terms of creativity and working outside the box to create new experiences for learners. People would come ask me how to link concepts together. The ongoing joke I had with one coworker was that I could make a lesson about turtles and spaghetti and it would still be connected to a standard. It was a special group of people we had there at the time.

So I told myself after Khan Lab School, I wanted to continue doing work like that. My life took a different path than I expected. I moved. I didn’t feel like I was ready to go back into a classroom right away. So I took time off, and I missed teaching. I decided I wanted to get back into the classroom in a different way. I took a job as an assistant kindergarten teacher at a school in Washington state that focused on personalized learning.

When life brought me back to the East Coast, I wasn’t looking for an English teacher job anymore. There was a small school near where I wanted to live, and they were pushing for a personalized learning teacher. I got that job and stayed at that school for three years. In my third year, COVID hit. 

During COVID, everyone with a license was asked to teach core classes so we could keep the class sizes small. So that’s what I did. And then I met my person, and I moved again. It opened the door for me to start fresh. 

I knew that I wanted to be an education coach and work with teachers, and this was the time to do it. I didn’t know where or how to start and because I had just moved and I’ve never run a business or started a business before, but I also wanted to meet people and be in a school building. There’s something different about being in a school building daily. I found the balance I was looking for through being a part-time extended learning opportunities coordinator and coaching part-time. In both roles, I got to focus on personalized learning, just in a different way.

We need more space for creating and dreaming. We need more space for play in school. As teachers, our plates might be full, but how can we whip our leftovers into something else?

There are these magic moments when you’re allowed to play. 

One of the standards for seventh grade ELA is about students learning about the different sections of books and articles. So one day I borrowed supplies from the science teacher — everything a student would need to dissect something. I put goggles, aprons, pipettes, tweezers, and everything on their desks. I had everything purposefully laid out in silver trays. And then when the class arrived, I put my goggles on, and I said, ‘In today’s class, we are dissecting!’ 

They used their tweezers to flip open books and tell me about their structure. It was fun. I went home that day and thought, ‘Man, that was good.’ Just the look on their faces… and somebody trusted me to teach in that playful way. Students trusted me to do it. The science teacher trusted me to do it. Whoever hired me trusted me to do it. I felt comfortable enough in that space to do it. I felt safe to play.

When I think about why I’m leaning towards coaching teachers full-time, it’s not because I want to leave teaching. I’m still in it. 

I want to help more teachers stay in schools.

I think high quality teachers need connections in order to stay. And I don’t mean just in the building — I mean, deeper, wider, broader connections, and that requires time and funding. 

For teachers, it’s especially important to provide opportunities for growth, because we are in the business of growing. Some of the highest quality teachers learn through life, and that’s what makes them great. They want to keep excelling, and they want to keep practicing. We need to be able to provide the space for that. 

I was in a webinar last year where a woman shared about a mentorship program she was building, where more experienced teachers could become a mentor for newer teachers. Those mentor teachers would be given fewer classes to teach so that they’d have more time to mentor other teachers. I feel like that’s an incredible approach, because we’re losing teachers when no one has time to provide feedback to help teachers grow, reflect, practice, and play. 

I also think it’s easy to get caught in a negative loop in schools. I don’t know how you combat that from a systemic level, but for yourself as an individual, there’s a lot that can be done. It’s hard, and it requires holding a lot of boundaries and getting teammates on board to help, too. We all need to vent, but we also need to recognize the positives. 

I think about whole classes of students who experience a negative loop, coming up through the grades. You’ll hear, ‘They’re the hardest class we’ve had in five years. They’re the hardest class we’ve had in six years. You’re getting them next, the hardest class we’ve got!’ 

My response is, ‘They’re in my room now. We’re starting over. And I think these students are great.’

If we keep feeding that story, those kids are always, always going to think they’re the bad kids.

As teachers, we get to tell a lot of stories. The stories that should be looping are the positive stories, because the negative ones don’t need to get fed.

–Lauren Wesnak Smith
Plymouth, New Hampshire