Posts Tagged ‘student-centered learning’


Young Artists in Quarantine

June 9, 2020

Student’s share their stories

This is part of a series highlighting the stories of young artists in quarantine. The period of free time that many people are experiencing has led to a sense of freedom in creating– when not held back by the standards expected by society and in much of art education (or needing to prove talent/fill resumes) it’s incredible what can be done. Alone in your room with just a paintbrush or guitar has led many students to find a new independence in art when they have the ability to create just for themselves. We’re hoping that by telling these stories, a change will occur in the way we approach arts education, to focus on the growth of the individual, even after quarantine comes to an end.

This post is written by Robyn Walker-Spencer, 2020 graduate, Camden Hills Regional High School who had the seed for this blog post series.

At 18 months, my family would play “name that tune” with me as I was strapped into my high chair, gleefully crying out the names of song after song, with an impressive base of musical knowledge for my age. I was by no means a prodigy at any point in my life, but as I grew up I felt my love for music grow with me. I took part in piano lessons, then band and chorus in middle school, and eventually musical theater, guitar, and chamber singers once in high school.

I never planned on studying music or becoming a professional in any aspect of the arts (I will be majoring in biology at Bowdoin in the fall), but it didn’t matter. Music and performing was something I always did for myself. As a child, I made up songs to sing as I played in the yard, and now I will play guitar for hours after a long day to blow off steam or relax. I love to express myself on stage, become an evil nanny or a god-fearing nun, and singing in Chamber Singers at my high school has always been cathartic.

I started lessons at Midcoast Music Academy in Rockland, Maine, in the spring of 2018. I was able to discover the importance of music to my own mental health, but perhaps more significantly I began to develop somewhat of my own musical pedagogy. Much of my previous music education had been extremely structured: practice for this rectial, prepare for this audition, complete a piece following specific guidelines. I practiced because I was told to practice (most of the time) but I didn’t enjoy it– it was seemingly necessary to get better, but I spent many a piano lesson wondering if it was even worth it. Starting high school added in another layer. Not only was our creative time structured, but many students kept participating for the sole reason of padding their resumes. At MCMA, I initially found it difficult to get away from the mindset of what I fondly considered mandatory misery– I wasn’t used to practice being something that I felt motivated and excited to do. So what changed? For the first time I wasn’t being ​told​ to do anything– each lesson was simply exploring what interested ​me,​ what ​I ​wanted to learn and improve at. And if my attention shifted, it was fine! We just moved in a new direction. I was practicing frequently because I wanted to, and because I was excited about what I was learning.

I think that this period of quarantine has provided that same sort of change for a lot of young artists my age. For the first time in a long time, we have all the time in the world and just ourselves to keep our minds busy. Groups like ​Quarantine Karaoke​ on Facebook show people coming together to make music from all over the world– people who normally never perform but are now creating for the sake of creating. I’ve seen friends pick up new instruments and play for themselves for the first time. I’ve personally stretched far out of my comfort zone, teaching myself recording techniques on my laptop and even writing a song for the first time. The period of free time has pulled aside the curtain and has really just exposed people’s raw selves: we are able to create art just for the sake of creating. We are practicing because we are excited about it. And we are taking risks that we never would otherwise.


Kids in Charge

November 5, 2019

What does it mean and look like?

One of the questions that comes up over and over is what does student centered learning look like and how do I manage it? Last week flying into my email was a video created by Edutopia. For those of you blog readers who may not know about Edutopia it is the George Lucas Foundation whose mission is dedicated to transforming K-12 education so that all students can acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to thrive in their studies, careers, and adult lives. George Lucas the 1991 founder of Edutopia is an innovative and award-winning filmmaker. Edutopia is all about taking a strategic approach to improving K-12 education through two distinct areas of focus: Edutopia and Lucas Education Research.

The video included in the email is called How to Create Student-Centered Lessons and Put Students in Charge of Their Learning. Some of you may be thinking that the task is easier in the non-arts classrooms but I think this video provides enough information that you can gain insight and develop ideas.

In addition to the Edutopia video a handful of years ago the Maine Arts Leadership Initiative (MALI – then MAAI – Maine Arts Assessment Initiative) started creating videos to answer: What does this student-centered thing look like in a visual or performing arts education classroom? All of these videos are available on the Maine ARTSEducation youtube channel and I’ve embedded them below to make it easier for you to access them.

Co-founder MAAI, Music educator at York High School, Rob Westerberg, with a very different haircut.

Jane Snider, Hancock School visual art educator, MALI Teacher Leader.


Student-Centered Learning

December 21, 2015

Education TEDx talk

Educator Nick Donohue talks about learning today in a student-centered learning environment.


Celebrating PBE

January 12, 2015

Transitioning to Proficiency Based Education (PBE)

I am well aware of the difficult task educators have taken on across the state of Maine. Each week I receive emails and/or phone calls from visual or performing arts teachers with questions and concerns about the PBE work underway. Fortunately, the Maine Arts Assessment Initiative (MAAI) presently has PBE at the heart of our work. And, thanks to Rob Westerberg, MAAI Leadership Team member and York High School music teacher, who has created the Maine Arts Assessment website at to assist you as teachers tackling this task, alone or with colleagues. MAAI is committed to shifting our work to respond to the challenges of the arts classrooms across the state. If you reach out and connect with the MAAI Teacher Leaders or Leadership Team members, no one needs to feel like an island. Contact information is on the site included above or please contact me at

As is the case, at any time in educational reform, districts are at different places with the work. At the end of the first grading term earlier this year, I saw one of the MAAI teacher leaders who was very excited to share what was happening in her school. I asked her to write it down and send it to me so I could share it with the Maine Arts Ed community on the blog. Below is her post, I am sure you will read the excitement in her words and get a picture of the journey one school has had underway for two years.

A Celebration of Proficiency Based Learning

by Jen Etter, Music Educator, York Middle School


Jen conducting a middle level chorus class. She is not that tall, yes, she is standing on a chair.

I imagine it is not an every day occurrence to walk into a staff meeting and be whacked on the head by a gigantic balloon. It certainly isn’t at our school! This particular day, the multi-purpose room was decorated from top to bottom with streamers and colorful dots. There was loud music blaring and enough food to feed an army. So what would warrant this kind of celebration on a random Wednesday in the middle of October? The release of the report card of course!

The report card we released in mid-October is far from perfect, however to say it represents an enormous amount of hard work and commitment would probably be the understatement of the century! In the past year, York Middle School has transitioned to completely proficiency based instruction and reporting. This change required a complete overhaul in the way we do things around here.


Jen presenting to “critical friends”, summer 2013

For us the process began about two years ago. Our district had almost a complete change over of administration and our new focus became teaching and learning. I always feel odd saying that because really, shouldn’t the focus always be on teaching and learning? Well yes, it should be but I think everyone knows that more often than not, other things seem to get in the way. For many, including myself, this was a major transition in how lesson planning was approached. Until this point in my teaching career, when I planned a lesson, I usually thought about it in terms of two things: what do I want to teach the kids? and how much time do I have? Now, two years later it seems crazy to even think about that. In hindsight it seems so unprofessional! Personally, the shift of focus to teaching and learning has forced me to change my focus in lesson planning. What do I want every student in my room to learn? and how do I know they’ve learned it? For me, this change in mind set has made all the difference.

I don’t mean to paint a picture of perfection at my school because it is anything but that. For all staff, the transition to standards based reporting and proficiency based learning has been a major undertaking. It has raised major questions about the direction that education is heading both in our state and nationally and in many ways has divided our staff because of different philosophies. Despite this, the level of professional conversation that has been happening throughout our school is one of such depth and substance that it could motivate the most unambitious of teachers!


Jen with colleagues, Rob Westerberg, and Cynthia Keating at the Summit on Arts Education, July 2014

There are major changes happening in the world of education, there is no doubt about that. It is both an exciting and very scary time to be in the profession. I urge you, get caught up in the excitement and be part of the change. Be part of the conversation about what education should look like for our kids because I guarantee, no matter how you feel about proficiency based learning, diving into the discussion about what it should look like could be one of the most valuable things you will do as an educator.

Thank you Jen for sharing part of your journey and taking on a leadership role in your school. Jen can be reached at


Student-Centered Learning Exposition

February 11, 2012

Proficiency-based school culture

Students at the Center: Reaching High Standards

Celebrating Innovative, Powerful Learning in Our Schools

Maine Association for Middle Level Education (MAMLE) and the Middle School of the Kennebunks will sponsor the first ever exposition in Maine devoted entirely to student-centered learning within a proficiency-based school culture. Sessions, led by both students and their teachers, will be exciting to attend as we discover how teachers across grade levels and curriculum areas are creating innovative, student centered units and programs that stimulate learners intellectually and challenge them to think critically and creatively while meeting standards. This unique event will occur on Friday, April 13 at the Middle School of the Kennebunks.

This day-long conference will highlight student-centered, performance-based units and projects (classroom, school, or community-based) from across the K-12 spectrum. The presenters will demonstrate how their particular learning opportunity…

  1. Engages students in innovative, creative ways
  2. Focuses on specific learning outcomes
  3. Incorporates student voice
  4. Provides multiple ways for students to demonstrate learning

You need to attend if…

  • You and your students have examples of student-centered, performance-based units and projects to share.
  • You want to do transform your teacher-centered instructional approach to one that is more student-centered, and you need to see some concrete examples to give you ideas how to do it.
  • You’ve had no experiences with student-centered, performance-based units and need to find out the basics.
  • You want to be inspired by students and teachers sharing their exemplary work.

Every superintendent in the state of Maine has received a copy of Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning, and the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning is growing exponentially as more school districts explore the concept of customizing learning through student-centered, proficiency-based curriculum and instruction. The Students at the Center event provides an opportunity for students and educators to share strategies for transforming education from a teacher-centered approach to one where students’ learning targets, learning styles, and interests combine to provide optimum success for each student.

All details about presenting and/or attending are available at


Contact Dr. Wallace Alexander, Executive Director of MAMLE

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