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!