When starting out with personalized learning, the product is, in my view, the natural way to begin. This involves allowing students to choose the way they will demonstrate their learning, or the product, of their growth. It typically exists at the end of a unit and acts as a summative assessment for students.
In language arts, I’ve had a ton of success with this. I started small, offering a menu of options for students to choose from. Then, I took another step and provided a menu where one of the options was a “free choice”. A few students took the opportunity, but many still adhered to the provided ideas.
Then, in a leap of faith, I gave a completely open-ended prompt. I provided the learning goals to be assessed and told the students to do whatever they wanted to demonstrate their proficiency. I was completely freaked out, mainly because I was letting go of control… completely. But it turned out beautifully. Kids were playing to their strengths, creating projects I couldn’t have imagined. I had students writing letters as though they were the characters in the novel, creating interactive games on Scratch to recreate events from the plot, and writing skits/short plays to showcase their dramatic abilities.
I never knew the depth students could go to when I gave them the chance. And I was so happy I did!
Personalizing the process or pacing of a unit is a bit more robust, and to be quite honest, requires a lot of front-loading on the part of the teacher. There are many ways to go about it, and the one that works best is really up to the educator implementing it.
The first time I tried to personalize the pacing, I gave students a list of tasks they needed to complete for the week, and told them to make sure they all got done by Friday. The week went by, Friday came, and the kids were a mess. Most of them hadn’t completed even half of the work, they had no idea what they were supposed to be doing each day, and the stress they felt was palpable.
I realized that without proper scaffolding and tools to help them manage their time, they wouldn’t be successful. This fail very clearly helped me see the difference between structure and control. Control is dictating what everyone is doing, how they are doing it, and when it is getting done… every second of every day. Structure, on the other hand, is providing tools, deadlines, and clear expectations that are to be followed.
This is when I began to use my weekly calendar. It’s my preferred method of personalization for pacing, as it tends to work really well for my students and for me. Each week, students receive a calendar from me. It has the tasks they are to work on every day–all of which must be completed by the end of class on Friday.
The weekly calendar provides necessary structure and scaffolding by giving students a way to plan their week, and a way to hold themselves accountable. At first, I told them to account for a 10-15 minute mini lesson at the start of every class. As I’ve become more comfortable, I have started including the mini lessons as tasks they have to plan.
Calendars like this work well for me because I know what lessons and activities to have ready for the week. I put them out in my room, and students are able to grab them as they need them. When a student or group needs a lesson, I’ll do a quick check with the entire class to see if anyone else needs to join. It’s straightforward, it’s simple to plan, and it definitely gives them options to personalize.
To many, this might be the most intimidating option when it comes to personalized learning. I know it certainly was to me. I could not fathom how I would ensure my students learned to write if they could choose the content. I mean, what 6th grader was going to choose to write a research-based, argumentative essay?
I was sorely mistaken about what this concept actually meant, and my mindset on it held me back from truly looking into ways to make it happen. Once I began to reflect on it though, it made perfect sense in my language arts classroom.
Reading and writing are, at their foundation, personal endeavors. As humans, we read mostly because we enjoy it, and we write because we have something to say.
When we personalize the content for our students, it doesn’t mean we scale back the rigor or allow them to graduate our class without writing anything. It does mean that we give them a voice in what they will read and write about.
I started this process by using book tastings to group my students in a literature circle. This, to me, combined naturally with my self-pacing calendar. It was my first take at personalizing multiple areas, and it worked seamlessly. I loved the ownership my students had over the lit circle, and I could see how much they enjoyed it.
As I evolved in my understanding of personalizing content, I began to teach thematic writing units. Now, all my writing units exist in this way. I can teach argumentative writing and research, regardless of the topic my students choose to write about. In fact, their arguments are more compelling and better researched because it’s actually their opinion.
I can teach informational writing and speaking by opening the floor to anything they are interested in learning about. Their engagement in the content standards actually increasesand I have students asking me to do further research. Why? Because they’re actually learning about something they find intriguing.
When you take a moment and really consider just how many opportunities there are to personalize the content, you begin to open your classroom up to student voice. You begin to see ways for students to grow, as people and as learners. And that, after all, is what school is all about.