How One Summit Learning Educator Differentiates Lessons for Diverse Learners

On the Summit Sparks Podcast: Sarah Pierce

This month on the Summit Sparks podcast we are highlighting Cognitive Skills, one of Summit Learning’s four student outcomes. This week we talk to, Sarah Pierce, a 7th and 8th grade STEM teacher in her second year of the Summit Learning at The Classical Academy in Escondido, California. Along with her team, her teaching style emphasizes parent involvement and strategies to help students succeed in the new style of learning. In her interview, she offers resources for differentiated learning in a Summit Learning environment.

The transcript below is a condensed version of Sarah Pierce’s full interview, which can also be found via the Summit Sparks podcast on iTunesSoundCloud, or Stitcher.

The Classical Academy has a unique schooling structure. Can you describe the school structure for listeners so they have a better context for the questions we’re going to be discussing?

The Classical Academy is a homeschool charter… what that means is that we are a homeschool school. The parent is the primary educator at all of our campuses. At every campus, at every grade level, elementary, middle, to high, the number of homeschool days goes down so the students are slowly getting used to being in school more. At the middle school level, it means the students attend three school days out of the week but then they’re homeschooled for the remaining two.

And because we are a homeschool school, we do our attendance a little bit differently than normal schools, so we do attendance by work completed. And what that means is that, if students need to work from home, they can. We have a 504 student who’s in our classroom who actually works from home every Wednesday because it’s more successful for him to be home on that day than it is for him to come to school.

What has been one of the most successful Summit Learning projects that you’ve been a part of and why?

The one that comes to mind is the most recent science project we did, which is called Playing With Forces. It’s an eighth grade project relating to forces, and students had to come up with a game that involved forces, and they had to explain how their game related to each of Newton’s laws. And then they had to demonstrate and give a presentation on how that works…

The thing I loved about this project is we just had so much fun in class. I mean, we had students talking about it in other classes wanting to work on this project in other classes… it’s a good problem to have.

But we started off playing Broom Ball. We had bowling balls and brooms, you know, rolling along the corridors. And the teachers were looking at me going, “What are you doing?” And I was like, “We’re having a great time.” But we started off with that and then the students were given different types of balls. We had pool balls, we had ping pong balls, and we talked about the different types of forces, all of Newton’s laws, we went over those, discussed how they related.

Students had to do work that showed how they related, and then they made a presentation to explain it. They also had to take a picture of their game in action and create a force body diagram on the picture, so we were manipulating the different technology skills in there as well.

You’ve created, adapted, and created some fantastic differentiated resources. I would love if you could talk about a few of the resources that you’ve created for students to help ensure their success in learning content and turning in those assignments.

One of our teachers is really passionate about helping IEP Students, and she is working on creating playlist study guides so every playlist has a study guide… She goes through the questions on the quiz, all of the possible questions that could come up in a content assessment and created a study guide that addresses those questions. 

So if students went through and looked for that information, they would be able to pass the content assessment, and that really helped a lot of our struggling kiddos. And they’re given feedback, and I’m sure you’re going to get into this when you cover content more in the podcast, but they’re given feedback on how they do on each specific objective.

One of the things that we love that we actually adopted from the Facebook community, the Summit Learning [Teacher] Facebook community, which is an amazing community… is a playlist checklist, which walks the students through something called the self-directed learning cycle, and there are five steps in it. It starts off with setting a goal, then you make a plan, they do the learning, they show they’re learning, and then they reflect on their learning. And so each of these steps is correlated to how to study for a specific playlist…

Self directed learning cycle summit
Teacher Sarah Pierce structures her student’s personalized learning time with this self-directed learning cycle.


Can you briefly talk about the project scavenger hunt that you created?

We call it [project scavenger hunt] the UTP lovingly, so if you hear me refer to it in the future, that’s what it is. It’s “understanding the project,” UTP. I found this in one of the last projects that I taught last year, and some teacher somewhere, thank you whoever created this because it has changed my life.

But I use it now for every project, and actually every teacher at my site uses it for every project. The goal of it is to help students understand the project including the skills they’re expected to develop and how we will then assess those skills. So it walks them through when is the project due, when does it start, what content do you need to know, and that is relating specifically to the focus areas. Every project has focus areas that are associated with it.

So for my Playing With Forces project, I was telling the students, “You probably should work on passing forces in motion and types of forces.” They also list out who they can ask for help, who’s going to support them in the project. It might be a mentor in the community. It might be a teacher. It might be a parent.  It might be a peer. What are the skills that they need to know? Both skills like the ability to manipulate slides, the ability to work with technology and cognitive skills, the things they’re going to be assessed on.

But the biggest thing that the UTP or the project scavenger hunt does is it helps them break down the skills, because the skills, they’re written in very academic language. As you get lower in grade level, it becomes harder to decipher those for the students, and so as a seventh or eighth grader, we’re looking at those skills and figuring out what does that even look like in terms of this project?

Another part of that that students have to do is they have to look at their scores on previous skills and make a plan for how they’re going to improve their score. One of my goals this year… is to help the students understand the [Cognitive] Skills rubric more and to focus on it more. So I’ve been having conversations recently where students say, “How do I raise my grade, Ms. Pierce?” And I say, “Well, let’s look at your score…you scored a 2.5 on this in the last project. Take a look at the next project. We’re going to be reassessing that skill in this project, and if you look at the individual tasks within that project, not just the final product but the tasks, they are associated with a specific skill. So each task has a different skill. So you, if you want to raise your grade on that, you need to focus on task one.”

And we give them feedback then in the comments on their Google document that relates to that goal. Here’s how you can improve your score and precision. So one [piece of] feedback I gave to a student recently was, “This is a really excellent, you know, way of using precision. I can see that you’ve really defined words precisely. But you really wanted to get to a five, and so to get to a five, you need to add in more detail. I need to be really certain. I need more detail and explanation of what’s going on. I can’t clearly see in my mind’s eye, from what you’ve said, what happened.” Then he’s able to go and use that feedback and use that to improve what he’s doing and to get to the goal that he wants to get to.

4 Resources for Differentiated Learning

(Adapted from the Platform and Summit Learning Facebook Community by Sarah Pierce at Classical Academy):

  1. Playlist Checklist/Assessment Ticket
  2. Task 1: Defining the Challenge (adapted header with area for defining goal and processes)
  3. Understanding the Project (UTP) Scavenger Hunt
  4. Summit Accountability Plan (for students, teachers, and parents)

Did you enjoy this episode or have ideas for a future episode? Subscribe to Summit Sparks on iTunes and leave us a review!  Want to learn more about how students build skills through project-based learning? Read about 3 Middle School Projects that Help Students Develop the Skills for Adulthood.


About the author

Lauren Faggella
A storyteller and former educator, Lauren Faggella is dedicated to turning the Summit Learning community's stories and ideas into great content that informs and inspires a range of audiences. Prior to joining Summit Public Schools, Lauren was a professional freelance writer and third-grade teacher in Rhode Island. She earned her MEd from the University of Rhode Island and BA in English from Elon University.