“Mom, you have to see this…?”
Thea hands me her science project, her very first in in 1st grade, and she is so excited she has a hard time standing still.
“I have to do this thing and I get to choose and I know I want to do coyotes and a video so we need to learn stuff…”
I grab the paper from her hand and once again marvel at the ingenuity of her teacher and the district we both are in.
Personalizing learning in the younger grades has always been something I felt slightly clueless about. After all, most of the kids I have taught have been older than 9. Yet, by watching what Thea is experiencing in her 1st grade classroom, I have a few ideas for how learning can become more personalized in the younger grades in order to create more passionate learners.
Give scaffolded topic choice. While this seems like a no-brainer, I think giving choice looks a lot different in a 1st grade classroom versus a 4th grade. I know that 6 year olds often have many ideas, which can either lead to brilliance or indecisiveness, so I have seen how a limited amount of choice in specific areas can really help them get engaged. In Thea’s science project she was told to study a Wisconsin animal and was then given a suggested list to select from. She knew right away when we read the words “Coyotes” that they would be her choice, however, her teacher also left it wide open for any animals not on the list as long as they were found natively in our state. Having choice, but with limitations helped Thea get straight to work, and helped her get excited about her topic.
Have many ways to access information. Her teacher did not place a limit on how she should access the information but gave us ideas instead. We therefore watched real coyote videos on YouTube, checked out books, found a PBS kids show, and also found pictures online. Not being limited to one method of finding information meant that we could adapt it to what we had access to, as well as what would work for Thea in the moment.
Have various ways to show learning. While all the students had to do a fill-in-the-blank written report they also had to come up with a way to present their knowledge to the class. A few choices were given; diorama, poster, or a video, but again you could also come up with your own idea. Thea immediately wanted to do a video because she thought it would be fun. As we discussed it more in detail, she decided to act like a teacher because she wants to be one when she grows up. Again, having this choice in how she would present her information made the assignment even more meaningful to her because she got to express her knowledge in a way that made sense to her.
Have selective goal setting. The students all have several goals in each subject area, but the teacher lets them choose which one they want to pay special attention to. That goal gets a star next to it. When they have centers, one of their stations is for working on their selected goal, a clever way of tapping into what they think they need themselves.
Let them pick partners. Even if you think it is a bad idea. We assume more often than not that students will make a bad choice rather than a good one. Yet, Thea tells me proudly how often she selects a new partner for math because she wants to try working with them. This experience not only offers her a way to learn alongside someone else, she also gets to explore more kids who might be a great friend for her. What an awesome skill to work on.
Have them self-asses with smiley faces. Thea is just learning how to read and write, so having them self reflect through writing would take a very long time. A quick and easy way to self reflect is by using smiley/frowney faces as you go through their learning. Again, this allows students to take control of what they felt successful in and set goals for upcoming learning. Another idea is to have students do a video or voxer message where they self-reflect. This can then also be shared with parents to see how a child thinks.
Discourage parent over-involvement. When I first saw the science project, my heart sank a little because I thought of how much work this might be for Brandon and I. Yet, in the rubric itself, it said that to get a “4” or a “3” the work should not be parent produced but rather originate from the child with only minimal parent support. So that is exactly what we did. While we discussed with Thea what she wanted to do, we really wanted the ideas to come from her and then helped her as she needed. The end result; a kind of messy but pretty funny video (who knows if there is a king coyote anywhere?) that clearly shows her enthusiasm for the topic, as well as her knowledge.
I am amazed at the trust Thea’s teacher puts in her little learners and am also reminded in how often we underestimate kids. Personalizing learning is not something we should start when we think kids are old enough, they are never old enough. It is something we should start right away because that is what will create classrooms filled with curious students. That is what will create passionate learners.
If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students. The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) just came out!