An Inside Look: Student-Centered Learning at Alpena Public Schools

Sea of hands showing unity and teamwork
In a previous blog post, we defined student-centered learning in a theoretical sense. In this blog post, we get a glimpse into what a student-centered classroom looks and feels like in practice. Alpena Public Schools high school English teacher Kris Copping shares how she works in partnership with her students to create a student-centered learning environment.

Breaking tradition

As human beings, we sometimes have a tendency to slip into a comfort zone, especially when we are facing a heavy workload or are under pressure to meet deadlines. 

During these times, we also tend to choose efficiency over effectiveness. 

Kris Copping, a high school English teacher in Alpena Public Schools (APS), is simply not that kind of a person. 

Kris has made a commitment to put the needs of her students over her own convenience.

Like many of us, Kris’s experience as a student was heavily teacher-centric. While many of the practices and school structures that were in place while she was a learner were student-focused, some of the school structures and practices were based on the efficiency and convenience of school operations, and not necessarily on the ideal learning experience for students.

Kris’ commitment to her students pushed her to rethink how she teaches, and she has shifted her practice in a way that focuses on student-centered learning experiences.

Commitment at all levels

Fueled by the support of school superintendent John VanWagoner and the APS ACES Academy director Laura Stibitz, Kris has created a learning environment that uses technology to foster opportunities for personalized instruction for her students. 

Students are far more engaged in Kris’ English course since the adoption of a blended learning format.

Technology as a catalyst

In Kris’ course, each student has dedicated access to a Chromebook computer as well as digital content provided by Michigan Virtual

While the technology is not the focus of the students’ learning experience, it does play a critical role in making student-centered learning possible, allowing students to work at different paces and to demonstrate mastery through a variety of assessment formats. 

Students are heavily engaged with the digital curriculum, but it is the way that Kris has structured her students’ experience that is having the most significant impact on student learning.

Teacher as an architect

Students in Kris’ classroom experience learning in a variety of ways, including direct face-to-face instruction (whole group and small group), independent online learning, and one-on-one coaching support provided by Kris. 

Using formative student performance data, Kris adjusts her instructional approach on a weekly or daily basis to help move each student forward academically. 

When introducing a new topic to students, Kris will often provide whole group instruction using the course digital content. 

This approach includes verbal, visual, and text-based resources to accommodate the various learning preferences of her students. 

Other times, Kris will have students engage independently with the digital curriculum. These online experiences include both formative and summative assessments, and Kris promptly analyzes each student’s performance to determine if students need additional support. 

In many cases, this additional support occurs in the form of one-on-one coaching for individual students in need. 

According to Kris, “The activities and assessments within the digital curriculum allow for this one-on-one time with students. They [Students] can work independently while I provide the coaching needed for other students.”

The learning environment that Kris provides for her students has created multiple pathways for students to be successful learners. 

Student-centered practices

A simple walkthrough of Kris’ high school English class will reveal some classic components of student-centered learning

Just ask any of her students, and they will share that they have choice in the way that they demonstrate mastery of content and skills. 

Digital technology is available, but some students feel strongly about using more traditional methods such as “pencil and paper” assignments or assessments that don’t require the use of a Chromebook. 

Students in Kris’ class move through their course work at different rates. 

In response to this variation, Kris provides the ability for each individual student the opportunity to move on to new content, even if that means students are at many different places within the course. 

She noted that “there are several students in my class who are very independent and very capable of progressing in this way.” 

This example of competency-based progression is another core component of student-centered learning.

Kris’ ongoing monitoring and analysis of her students’ academic performance data is the keystone for her successful implementation of the student-centered learning environment. 

This analysis of data is what drives her instructional approaches on a weekly and daily basis and the pathways she creates for each student.

Classroom culture matters

It is clear that Kris’ classroom is a student-centered classroom. 

While her use of data, the opportunities for student choice, and the existence of competency-based learning progressions help to support this definition, Kris will be the first to tell anyone that the culture of the classroom plays a critical role in making this environment successful.

Kris proudly confessed to her students that she is learning how to work within a student-centered environment built upon a blended learning format right alongside them.

 “I told them that we are in this together, we will learn together.” 

This partnership between the students and their teacher has developed a culture of mutual respect, understanding, and sincere desire to help each other succeed. 

Kris elaborated “I have really enjoyed the fact that we are all learning how to do this together. I really like being here!”

Student-Centered Learning Blog Series

In our Student-Centered Learning blog series, we lead a discussion each month about student-centered learning, what it is, how it can help students and schools, and how to make it a reality. Our hope with this series is to provide practical insights to school leaders, teachers, and parents on how to make education more meaningful to students. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

About the authors

Christopher Harrington
Dr. Christopher Harrington has served public education as a teacher, an administrator, a researcher, and a consultant for more than 25 years and has experience assisting dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended, online, and personalized learning programs. He has worked on local, regional, and national committees with iNACOL and various other education-based organizations aimed at transforming education through the use of technology.

Kristen DeBruler
Dr. Kristen DeBruler received her doctorate in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology from Michigan State University. She taught in the Master of Arts in Educational Technology program at Michigan State University for three years. Her work focuses on K-12 online learning policy in Michigan and nation wide as well as understanding online learning best practices.

Picture of Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.