Growing Active, Self-Directed Learners in Northern Kentucky

On the Summit Sparks Podcast: Sarah White

What happens when you give students more ownership over how they learn content? Teacher Sarah White tells us what the transition toward self-directed learning has looked like in her classroom, and how using the Summit Learning Platform as a learning and assessment tool has changed how she spends her time each day interacting with and supporting students.

Sarah White is a science teacher in Scott County, Kentucky at Royal Spring Middle School. This is her 11th year teaching and her second year using Summit Learning in the classroom. This summer she was a Summit Learning Fellow working with other schools and teachers across the mid-south region implementing Summit Learning in their classrooms. As a teacher, Sarah’s passion is building relationships with students, and she credits the Summit Learning approach with helping her be successful in meeting this goal.

The transcript below has been edited for clarity and is a condensed version of Sarah White’s full interview. Find this and all episodes at

When you first adopted the Summit Learning Program, how did [students] react?

As a teacher, it’s been really interesting to see the students take ownership of their learning. And I think when you give them a little bit more choice in the way they go about learning things, they’ve learned how they learn best. For students that maybe struggle with content and sit in a class where the class has gone too fast for them before and they weren’t able to keep up, it allows them to really be able to access those documents as many times as they need, to go at a slower pace and really focus on the information that they need to know.

Can you expand on what the role of the teacher is in supporting students in learning content during Personalized Learning time?

During our Personalized Learning Time, we [teachers] really try to act more as a mentor to our students and really try to help them learn those Habits of Success and the study skills in the things they need in order to be successful… we want them to learn to become self-directed, independent learners.

I’m really going around checking in with students, seeing how I can help them, encouraging them to set goals, to stay on track. But then outside of class, I’m really accessing the data that the Platform gives us about the students, and I’m able to see how many times students have taken a particular content assessment, what objectives or questions they’re struggling with, and I’m able to plan interventions for those students.

And I plan small group workshops with students. I can pair students together — maybe one student’s been really successful in one area but maybe another student is struggling —  so we can create intentional study groups for those students and help facilitate. We can talk about ways that they’ve studied in the past and come up with new ways to study.

Lots of students think that by looking at notes on a screen or notes that that they take on paper, they’re studying. But we really get to have a conversation about it involving so much more than just looking at [notes], that you really have to be an active learner and you have to do something with the notes that you’ve taken.

Can you give an example of a recent small group, or a workshop, or particular type of study skill that you’ve had to teach recently or organize recently for a group of students within your science class?

Right now we are focusing on genetics and reproduction. Some students have worked really hard with the content and they’ve completely mastered it, and then other students are really struggling with [mastery]. So I try to divide the students up into what they are really struggling with; I looked at a group of students that hadn’t passed the content assessment and thought, Okay. Is this just a terminology issue? Are they struggling with the vocabulary, and do they need support in that, or are they struggling with the basic concept of where the genetic information is stored?

Sarah White’s students practicing oral presentation skills in a small group workshop.

So I really tried to look at the objectives that are tied to those focus areas and break down where the student is struggling. And then I was able to pair them up with other students that had been successful in those areas —those students had already passed the content assessment or who had just passed one particular objective.

You talked about the Self-Directed Learning Cycle. What is that?

With the Self-Directed Learning Cycle, we encourage students to set goals. It’s the first step of that cycle. And then once they set goals, they come up with a plan of how they’re going to kind of master that goal. Then of course once they have set the goal, they come up with a plan of how they’re going to implement that goal. Then hopefully they have reached that goal and are able to actually implement the plan and take the content assessment.

And if they don’t pass, we go back and start over and we set a new goal and come up with a plan to achieve that goal. So it’s kind of a cyclical process where we’re always encouraging students, “You know, it’s okay to not pass the first time.” It actually creates perseverance when you don’t pass the first time, but you learn what you need to do better the next time.

Self-Directed Learning Cycle - Summit Learning

How do you know that students can actually apply [content]? That’s a big part of the learning process. Where does that application part come in?

I think for me as a teacher, this was the part that excited me the most about Summit Learning.

I think in our classrooms day-to-day, we get so bogged down by standardized testing… and so many things become content-driven. But as a teacher, your main passion is getting students excited about the learning.

When I have [students] for Project Time, we’re able to really dive into applying that content to real-life situations. And so, where they’re getting the background [content] through the Personalized Learning Time, during the Project Time is when they are actually implementing it in a real-life situation or scenario.

Do you have an example of a [favorite] project in which you…really saw students apply the content that they’d learned?

We were learning about climate change and global warming and the greenhouse effect and those focus areas related to that content. So during their Personalized Learning Time, [students] were accessing those playlists that we’ve talked about and they were mastering that content. But during Project Time, we were working toward having a Socratic discussion about global warming…

We are from Kentucky, and it’s a very agricultural-driven state. The horse industry is really popular in the Lexington area where we live, and so students were able to take the content that they had learned about — that the temperatures could increase, that it could create more droughts, that it could affect the agriculture and crops production — and apply it to us locally and [think about] how that would affect the economy in Kentucky, the horse industry, the crops and the hay and things that are grown here. So as a teacher, it really excited me to see how they were able to apply the content to a real-life setting right here in Kentucky.

Are there any routines, structures, or teaching tools that have worked really well for you in figuring out how to structure Personalized Learning Time in your classroom?

We make sure that students are setting goals at the beginning of our class, because if students aren’t setting goals then during Personalized Learning Time they don’t have a lot of direction. I’m going to make sure that students, when they come into that time, have a set goal and direction in place. 

And at the end of class we like to have what we call our golden time, where we celebrate students that have passed focus areas or we talk about the next steps: “What do I need to do next? Maybe I didn’t master it this time, but I want to go in there and go ahead and think about my goal for tomorrow or something I might need to do between now and then to make sure that I’m successful.”

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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.