Sunday, September 20, 2015

Personalized Learning - Part 2: Time to Rethink Time

Before getting too far along, I need to explain what personalized learning is in a nutshell.

Disclaimer:  Please note that there are entire books written to explain personalized learning.  I have read several.  Wonderful books.  Looooong books.  This is a condensed version in my own words.

Personalized learning is student-centered learning.  I say again, STUDENT-centered.  It takes into account each child's abilities, interests, and learning styles.  It is mastery-based.  And have I mentioned yet that it is student-centered?

It differs from differentiation because in differentiated learning the entire class is working on the same skill or standard just at different levels.  In a personalized learning environment, students will be working on different skills at different levels at different times.

So are you starting to get an idea?  When I started teaching 5th grade math 11 years ago, I stood at the front of the room every day and lectured the whole class because lecturing is what you do in 5th grade.  I knew all of my kids weren't getting it, but that didn't stop me.  I just charged right through.  Still, I was a good teacher with good lessons.  There are lots of lecturers that are good teachers with good lessons.

This was NOT personalized learning though.  It was not student-centered.  It was teacher-centered.  ME-centered.

When I moved to Kindergarten 3 years later, I started using stations along with whole group instruction because stations are what you do in Kindergarten.  I had dabbled in stations a bit in 5th grade, but I was afraid to relinquish too much control because, after all, how would my students learn without ME telling them directly? Again, ME-centered.  By my last year in Kindergarten, I had a problem.  My kids were either way up here (please imagine my hand showing you the levels) or way down here.  Only a couple in between.  I discovered that whole group instruction just wasn't going to work with this group, so I took it out and my kids just rotated between small group time with me, a.k.a. "Dates with Mrs. Dowda", and 3 other stations.

In studying personalized learning, I now know I was doing a station rotation model without ever hearing the term or knowing anything about it.  I've since met dozens of teachers who have personalized learning for years without know technical terms.  How?  Because they are good teachers who take into account the needs of their students.

Personalized learning began for me by looking at what my class offered through the eyes of my high-achievers, on-levelers, and strugglers.  It only took me a second to realize that during whole-group instruction time even with differentiation my above level students were bored because they either already knew the material or picked it up quickly.  My below-level students were bored because I was speaking over their heads.  My on-level students were doing fine.

To make this long story a little shorter, here's what I do now ... One day per week I teach math whole group.  I introduce the new unit as a quick and dirty overview and conclude with a pre-test exit ticket.  Based on the pre-test, I make 4 performance groups for the rest of the week.  I meet with my highest students in a small group one day per week.  Just one day per week for 40 minutes and we move at an accelerated pace through the entire week's content on the new topic.  I meet with my lowest group every day (except my overview day) for 20 minutes at a slower pace and just try to get them working the skill at its lowest levels.  I meet with the middle groups together 3 days per week to work at a "normal" pace.

Some teachers' first response is "but that's not fair because you have to meet with all your groups the same."  Says who?!?  My lowest kiddos need me the most.  My highest kiddos need me in bursts to help get them started.  The image below is not my creation, but it drives home the idea that fair doesn't have to mean equal.  Personalized learning is about giving kids what they need to succeed.

The natural question that follows this is, "So what do you do to personalize learning for your other kids while you're working in small groups?"  The one-word answer, which I will go into detail about in my next post is ... playlists.

Ooooh!  I can hardly wait to share about playlists!

Other posts in this Personalized Learning series ...
Part 1: Freedom to Fail

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Personalized Learning - Part 1: Freedom to Fail

What started as a spark inside of me a year and a half ago has turned into a full grown blaze.  A passion surrounding this idea called personalized learning consumes me.

Last school year I participated in Tennessee Department of Education's Innovative Educator Network.  Fifty amazing teachers came together to study models of out-of-the-box practices that schools across the country were doing in an effort to personalize learning for all students.  It was inspiring.  Each of us were then tasked to developed our own prototypes to use in our classrooms.

So I made a model.

I failed.

I should tell you at this point that I am not good with failure.  Is anyone really?  I'm all about promoting failure to my students within the framework of growth opportunities.  I, however, do not embrace the ideal for myself.  I am a perfectionist.  I am a planner.  I believe that if I am proactive enough, I won't need to fail to learn.

So I made another model.

I failed.  Again.

I made another model.

It was better.

Long story short, last year I failed a lot.  But in addition to just meeting with the network several times throughout the year, we also got to take real-live, grown-up field trips (Yay!).  I saw this exact sign in the halls of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school and it changed me.  I'm talking CHANGED me!

I came home and set to succeed at failing.  Not in perpetuity, of course.  Just in the sense of giving myself freedom to try.  And it paid off.

Some of the things I did were re-evaluate the way I use time and resources in my classroom.  I also incorporated two things I'd never heard of before: playlists and Genius Hour (which I was also introduced to in Charlotte).  

I am excited to blog what will be our first series to detail how I have learned continue to learn about personalized learning and its place in my classroom.  I hope this will help others on the same path as well!

Monday, August 31, 2015

How to Wrap Earbuds

Two words ... Student.  Earbuds.

Does this strike pain in your heart like it does mine?  Can I just say first of all how GROSS I think earbuds are for elementary students?  Not all little ones have someone to clean out their ears for them and ... that's all I'll say.  Secondly, they are a tangled mess all the time, leading to frayed wires.

I came up with a way that seems to be helping my kids avoid the tangles and I've posted some pictures below.  The key is "Spiderman" fingers (pointer finger and pinky finger).  Students hang the earbuds below their pinky and can hold the cord with their thumb.  Wrap the cord around the 2 fingers, leaving a "tail" that is several inches long at the top.  Remove the bundle of cords, gather them, and wrap the middle with the tail.

This is helping most students keep their earbuds neat and my life a little happier.  Hope this helps make yours a little happier too!

Use "Spiderman" fingers to wrap earbuds and prevent tangles

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Back to School Monster Glyph

Back to school time already?!?  Teachers return the last week of July in my system, so at this point we've had kids for almost 2 weeks.  My team has a new schedule this year with two 45-minute blocks in the afternoon for RTI.  Since we are just getting to know our kiddos, I created a fun Back to School Monster Glyph that they really enjoyed doing during that time.

This monster glyph has a back to school version and a generic version.  Both are available in color and black and white.

Here is the glyph, available for download on TpT for $3.  There is a Back to School version included as well as a generic version that could be used at any point in the year.

Just a quick note: I shrunk down the monster to half size (printed 2 pages per sheet on the copier) because all 65 third graders' monsters were going to be displayed in the hallway along with the pieces they wrote to go along with the glyphs.  Half size was the only way everything could fit on the bulletin boards.

You can either have students color the pieces of white paper to cut out themselves, cut out the pieces for them ahead of time so they can assemble them, or make a template for students to trace and cut out which is what I did.  I copied the monster pieces on colored card stock, laminated them, and labeled them with a Sharpie.  

The color of the head/body is part of the glyph key so kids asked if they could do the arms and legs different colors.  When I had some former students do a trial run of the glyph, one chose different colors and the other matched her arms and legs to color of the face.  I thought the same-color monsters turned out so much better that when my kids asked I told them to do the same colors.  It helped with saving construction paper also since most students were able to fit all of their parts on one sheet of construction paper.

After they made their glyphs, they wrote about what they hope for this school year.  The last step before hanging them was for the students to graph the data for each monster in an organized fashion

I equipped the kids with clipboards and had them lay their monsters at their seats.  I printed the graphs 4-pages-per-sheet and directed students to the first graph.  They graphed their own data for that first graph on their paper, then I directed them to graph the other monsters at their tables.  I counted down from 10 to "monster" at which point they rotated to the next table, graphed it while I counted down again, and so on.  When they got back to their own tables we compared the data to see if everyone recorded correctly and discussed the results.  We did the same thing for each of the 6 graphs.

While it sounds very time consuming as I type this, it really wasn't bad at all and was the best way I came up with to ensure that each child graphed each monster.  The kids loved it and were asking when the next glyph would be coming before they even finished the first.

The entire process lasted about a week with 2 days to create the monsters, 2 to write, and 1 to graph.

Sunday, August 2, 2015


Change. If you can count on anything in the field of education it is that things will constantly be changing. When I first began teaching 10 years ago one of the first lessons I learned from my mentor teacher was not to get too bent out of shape when our system implemented new programs. She explained that whatever the new program, manipulative, technology, doodad, or thingamabob that we were required to use in our classroom would be replaced in a few years. I was skeptical at the time, but she has been proven right time and again.

Now as wise as that advise is, believing it is one thing, and actually taking it is another. I have never liked change - in the classroom or anywhere else. One of Alyson's favorite stories to tell about me has to do with my inability to adapt to change. It happened back in college at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). We had been dating for several months and it was starting to get pretty serious. We both lived on campus so we had a standing lunch date each day. MTSU has two primary places to eat. We alternated our lunch location based on our class schedules, so we ate at McCallie Cafeteria  on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and JUB dining on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The way Alyson tells it, she casually suggested that we switch it up and eat at the JUB on a Friday but I was having none of it. She claims that I did my best Dustin Hoffman impersonation (a la "Rain Man") complete with me repeatedly saying "We eat McCallie on Fridays. We eat McCallie on Fridays." If you haven't seen it or want a refresher click here for a short clip. Just replace "Four minutes 'til Wopner with "We eat McCallie on Fridays" and you'll know exactly what happened. It is funny to talk about it now but at the time I really couldn't comprehend why we would "change" when we already had a system that worked.

Since then I believe I have gotten better at adjusting to change, but I still don't like it. It is very tough for me to change how I do things in my classroom. Once I figure out what I like and what works I like to leave it that way. Why change if things are working okay? The problem with that is that just because it works well, doesn't mean it can't work better. So this year is going to be different. I owe it to my students to try new things and see if there is a better way to do things. My first step will be to implement a time for students to work in stations each day. I'm not ready to commit to stations all day every day, but I am willing to try 20 minutes per class. What is the worst that could happen? It might not work. If that happens I could just change it, right?

~ Clint

Monday, July 27, 2015

Year of NO

So I've decided that this is my "Year of No".

There.  I've said it.  Typed it.  Committed to it.

To preface all that I'm about to get in to, I have to first touch on last school year.  It was my toughest year teaching.  BUT it was by far my most rewarding.  A complete oxymoron where I felt on top of the world while at the same time being a moment away from breaking down at any point.  I'm not a crier.  Never have been.  But I could feel stress tears bubbling behind my eyes all day, every day.

I was simply overcommitted.  Overcommitment isn't new to me.  It's my whole life.  The problem is, I was overcommitted to things I didn't really love.  To give a quick run down, here's what my responsibilities looked like:

School level: Teacher, Testing Coordinator, Data Coach, Teacher Leader, Student Teacher Mentor, Webmaster, Secondary Tech Coach (unofficial, but I used to be Tech Coach and I've found that's a position you never really shed), Team Leader, After-School Tutor

District level: School Websites Coordinator, Teacher Websites Coordinator, Curriculum Post-er, Math Textbook Committee, Technology Committee

State level: Innovative Educator Network (hope to explain this soon)

Personal level (like that's a thing!): Wife, Foster Parent, Active Church Member, Youth Sponsor, Ladies' Retreat Coordinator, Friend (though a poor one, at best), TeachersPayTeachers Seller

And even as I look over this list, I know I'm leaving off things!  I don't write all of this to pat myself on the back.  It's really quite the opposite.  I'm a little disgusted with myself to be honest because while I did balance all of these, my heart hurts to wonder how I could have done any of these things well with so much going on.

None of these things are bad.  I am just not passionate about all of them.

So, back to my first statement, I've decided that this is my "Year of No".

Just to be clear, I'm not saying no to everything.  I'm saying no to tasks and responsibilities I'm not passionate about or don't bring me joy.  Testing Coordinator, believe it or not, does not bring me joy.  I'm dumping it along with many others.

I'm still saying yes to plenty and even adding a couple of new items on my plate.  But here's what I'm saying yes to:

YES to loving my students!
YES to personalized learning for my students!
YES to helping build capacity in other teachers!
YES to building relationships!

While I do live overcommitted, I want only to commit to these things.

Sunday, July 19, 2015


I did it!  I actually did it!

Ever since hearing about a seller at the TeachersPayTeachers Conference last week who works on products while getting exercise at her treadmill desk, I have been like a dog with a bone!  Talk about the ultimate multi-tasker!

I finished "building" my treadmill desk (directions here) yesterday and was looking forward to trying it out all day.  Clint did ask where this fell with my recent conviction to honor the Sabbath and not work, but if I'm this excited about it, I don't think it qualifies as work!

Treadmill desk made with a folding table and PVC pipes

I'll admit that I am NOT an exercise enthusiast.  Clint is an amazing runner who's completed 2 marathons to date and dozens of half marathons.  I go to races to cheer him on and feel inspired when I see 80-year-olds crossing the finish line.  I've come home countless times determined to become a runner.

I get on all of the gear and start running, thinking "I can do this ... I can do this ... I can do this" ... and before I hit a half mile it turns to "I CAN'T do this!"

So today is a victory.  As I worked on my Genius Hour Interactive Notebook (to be posted soon), I completed 71 minutes of WALKING and hit 2.41 miles.  Walking at a break-neck speed of 2.  With 0 incline.

But it's a start!