aha moment, being a teacher, MIEExpert15, Personalized Learning, student choice, Student dreams, student driven, student voice, Student-centered

The Five Tenets of Personalized Learning

Cross-posted from the Corwin Connect Blog.

I did not know what I was doing when I decided to change the way I taught. I did not know that somewhere out in the education world there was already a term floating around for some of the ideas I had for change, a term that would capture so many of my ideas in one. It was not until a few years of blogging about the changes I had made that someone left a comment on my blog suggesting I learn more about personalizing learning because it seemed like that is what I was talking about. That day, as I googled the term I realized that in my endeavor to create passionate classroom, I had indeed been personalizing learning for all of my students. I was seeing them all as individuals and trying to cater our multi-faceted classroom to fit all of their needs; personalization at its core.

Yet, now when I see all of the discussion of personalized learning, I do not really recognize the term anymore. Over time the term has become associated with technology-laden, self-paced learning, preferably on a device, with little adult teaching and much more student autonomy. While I recognize the inherent good in those components, those are not the powerful aspects of personalized learning and I worry what will happen to those that attempt to personalize learning if they think this is all it is. Because personalizing a child’s learning is so much more than a device, or even a student figuring things out by themselves. Instead it is about knowing your students so well that you can help them navigate their learning journey. That your students have ample opportunity to find out how they learn best and then implement this knowledge as they master the curriculum we have to cover. It means that every child has voice in what they do and that the teacher knows their students well enough to help them grow.

When I wrote my book, Empowered Schools, Empowered Students, as well as Passionate Learners, I kept thinking about the type of environment that I would have thrived in as a child and that my own children would thrive in now. I kept coming back to a few tenets that used to be a part of personalized learning but seems to have gotten lost in the powerful PR campaign of Personalized Learning in 2015. Those tenets are so simple that we often forget to plan for them or even consider them as we craft our curriculum.

The five tenets of personalized learning:

  1. Student Voice.

So much of what we do is about promoting the voice of our students and yet while we ask the world to listen to what our students have to say, we often forget to listen ourselves. Therefore, for any personalized learning journey to be successful, we must start to ask the tough questions. I ask my students what they dislike about school, what they dislike about the subject I teach. I ask them when they started disliking school and why. It is not just to have students feel validated in their emotions, it is so I can work with the demons they bring into our learning environment. If a child dislikes school because they feel powerless then I can combat that dislike by giving them power back. If a child dislikes school because they find it irrelevant well then that becomes my mission for change. If we do not ask our students the tough questions, and also figure out what part we play in their disengagement, then we cannot change it, we cannot personalize. So the true journey into personalized learning begins with getting to know your students really well and then acting on the information they tell you.

  1. Student Choice.

Choice, of course, is a must in any type of class or curriculum, and yet choice to some means chaos or that every child is doing their own thing. Choice can vary depending on the day, on the task, on the curriculum to conquer. Choice does not mean that everything needs to be a free-for-all but instead that choice is always present throughout the day. Choice starts with choice in learning environment. It is time to stop dictating where students sit in the classroom. It is time to stop dictating that all student sit while learning. Choice involves how they learn something, so for some that may mean by listening to a lecture, by working with a partner, by using technology to uncover information. Students must be exposed to many ways of learning so they can discover how to navigate all of the ways, as well as determine how they learn best. Choice also becomes in how they show mastery. I always have a laid out path for students, as well as one where they build their own. Students needs change and so their show of mastery has to change as well. Finally, there must be choice in when they show mastery. Children learn at different rates and so we must find ways within our curriculum to allow for re-application of content if a child had not mastered a standard earlier. Yes, there can be deadlines and cut-off dates, but please allow a child to circle back to a previous standard if they have grown in it.

  1. Student Planning.

This is one of the biggest things for me when I think of personalizing learning. We cannot plan our lessons in isolation anymore, at least, not all of the time. We can certainly be the gatekeepers of where we need to end up and we can also bring our ideas to the table, but at some point, please allow for students to plan with you. It is simple yet so powerful when we discuss our learning goals and then plan together how we will reach them. I have always been inspired by the ideas that my students have brought to the table, as well as been educated on how students learn best. You do not have to do it all of the time, but take the chance and ask students how they would like to cover something, I guarantee you will be surprised at just how much wherewithal the students will have as they work through this process with you, as well as the increased engagement and buy-in simply because they crafted part of the lesson.

  1. Student Reflection.

When I moved to 7th grade, I remember feeling the rush of the curriculum constantly. With only 45 minutes to teach, and oh so much to cover, there was no way we would ever have time to reflect; yet, I discovered the true power of reflection on the days where my lessons were met with disdain. It is easy to dismiss an eye roll or a groan, but when a majority of a classroom participates in such displays, it is our cue to stop and ask why. So reflection became a natural tool for us in 7th grade as we personalized the curriculum that we had to cover. I had to find out how my students felt they were doing. I had to find out what their path forward would be, and that started with a journal and a prompt. Sometimes rather than a written reflection we would speak; as a group, in partnerships or one on one with me. The prompts did not change much throughout the years; how are you doing, what have you learned, what are you working on now? And yet as the conversations grew, so did their understanding of what they needed and where they had to grow. Personalization to me means that a child knows how they learn best and that is not something I can tell them. I can offer them hints and I can point out things they may have missed, but at some point during our very busy days, reflection has to be done so that students can decide their own path.

  1. Student Action.

This final piece is one that gets a lot of attention it seems because this is where personalized learning becomes a thing of beauty; when our students start to change the world. When our students make, create, and have authentic purposes. Yet, student action, to me, is an inward piece as well. Yes, I want students who have a voice in the global education debate, that is why they blog, but I also want students who know how to advocate for themselves as human beings, and as learners. I want students who can successfully navigate tricky conversations and come out feeling like their voice was heard and respected. I want students who when they see a problem, do not just think about it, they do something about it. Whether that problem is a global one or a personal one. So involving students in action, setting up situations where they can see the impact they may have, guiding them through tough conversations, becomes part of personalized learning as well. I have realized that part of my job as a teacher is to help students discover the tools they already have to help them learn best, even if they are faced with an environment that allows for little personalization. I need to help them discover what they can do to make it better for themselves and for others. I need to help them see that their words have power as well as their actions.

So if you are starting on a journey of personalized learning, keep these tenets in mind. Sure, add on the technology but do not make it the focal point. That is not the point of personalizing, however, it can enhance it. Personalizing learning is the key to keeping students engaged and curious, but it also means that there is not one system to follow. Instead, spend the time to truly discover who your students are and help them find their path. Be the teacher that made a difference, not just because you cared about them, but because you taught them how they could be better learners. Our jobs have never been just about covering curriculum and personalizing learning reminds us of that.

If you are looking for a great book club to join to re-energize you in January, consider the Passionate Learners book club on Facebook.  We kick off January 10th.  

being a teacher, collaboration, global, Literacy, MIEExpert15, picture books, projects, Reading, skype, student choice

Our Epic Nonfiction Picture Book Project Take 2

For the past few years, my students have written nonfiction picture books for younger audiences around the world.  Last year, I decided to share the lesson plan to serve as inspiration for those who wanted it, and this year I thought I would do the same.  While the foundation is the same, the process has been tweaked a bit for a more meaningful experience for the students.

The goal of the project is rather simple; create a 15 to 25 slide/page nonfiction picture book meant for a 2nd or 3rd grade audience on anything you wish to write about.  Throughout this project we have been able to successfully marry tech tools with writing, as well as use Skype, Padlet, Twitter and other interactive tools.

Why this project?  Because within it we have been able to work on:

  • How to take organized notes in a way that works for them.
  • How to write a paragraph and all of the myriads of lessons that are attached to that.
  • Grammar!  Spelling!  Punctuation!
  • How to find legal images.
  • How to cite sources, including images, books, and websites.
  • How to uncover reliable sources (yes, there is a place for Wikipedia in our research).
  • How to search the internet better.
  • How to conduct market research using Skype to ask 2nd or 3rd graders what they want to read and how they want to read it.
  • How to rewrite information in our own words.
  • How to do design and layout on a page to make it inviting.
  • How to create good questions.
  • Exploring our own interests.
  • How to write assessment rubrics.
  • How to work as a peer mentor group.
  • How to monitor self-engagement.

So a few details about the project:

  • This is a 3-week long project, anchored by a 10 or so minute mini-lessons every day and then work time the rest of class.
  • Mini-lessons have centered around how to take notes ( I showed them 3 different ways), how to research well, how to write paragraphs, how to rewrite information, and anything else we have had to address.
  • Students were able to ask questions to 2nd and 3rd grade classrooms via Skype to do market research, and incorporate that feedback into their project.
  • I am using this blog and Facebook to find classrooms that will assess the final product.  If you would like to be one, please fill out the form at the end of the post.  Those that sign up to give us feedback, fill out this Google form.
  • Students create their books in Google Slides for easy access for all (we check out Chromebooks), as well as easy design and layout.

Major Changes for this year:

The addition of Google Classroom.

This year we have been using Google Classroom to post tools, create the project, as well as use as a gathering point.  This addition has made it much more manageable as far as giving students the information they need, as well as seeing where students are.  If you have not looked into Google Classroom, this is a great project to use it for.

The Peer Mentor Group.

Students are in peer mentor groups as of today.  These groups are meant to be support groups that also help hold each other accountable.  Students gave me three names; a friend they know well, someone they kind of know, and a name for someone they would like to know.  I then made the groups puzzling out their requests.  Groups are between 2 and 4 people are will be used almost every day as an informal check-in.

The shortened timeline.

Last year we did this project for 6 weeks and although the students stayed fully engaged, we shortened it to 3 because we realized we could achieve the same deep engagement with a shortened product.  It also means the students are using their time better because they know every minute counts.

The actual lesson plan:


  • Finished product should be a 15 to 25 page book, created in Google Slides,  that not only includes 4-5 or so “chapters/sub-topics” but also has a glossary, table of contents, works cited, front and back cover, as well as an about the author.
  • Font size of text should be at least 20.
  • Students will use at least one print research material and supplement with reliable internet sources.
  • We will use the website Easybib.com to cite all of our sources which will be done in conjunction with tech tools.  Cross collaboration is a great idea here.
  • We will spend time in class researching, writing, as well as sharing our work.  Students should be able to finish this in class if time is spent wisely.  

Sample:  Will be shown in class and linked to here.

Modifications/Support provided:

  • Some students will be invited to work in small groups with me and/or support teachers.
  • Graphic organizers and templates can be provided for those who need to follow a format.  To access them, please go to this Google presentation and make a copy as needed.

Mini-Lesson Materials:

Every day, we will focus on a mini-lesson meant to bolster the skills and needs of the students.  The following mini-lessons will be taught (in order):

  1. Exploring NF picture books; what are their text features and why are they important?  Template for this discovery can be found here.
  2. What do you want to teach the world?  Narrowing down topic and finding research materials.  Brainstorming research questions to guide their reading.  
  3. Who is your audience?  What do we know about 2nd and 3rd graders? Preparing for our market research Skype call.  Creating a Padlet with what we think we know about 2nd and 3rd graders reading preferences.  An example can be seen here.  Students also meet in their peer mentor groups to share their topics, their questions and what they are excited about.  
  4. Skype call to classrooms, during the call students will take notes for themselves and afterwards we will update our Padlet with what we know now.  Research time reading their books.
  5. Taking 3 column notes in notebook or Google docs.  Example template can be found here.  More information on this type of note-taking can be seen here
  6. Taking notes on notecards and providing graphic organizers for the notes.  (I glued 6 envelopes into Manilla folders and then laminated them many years ago.  These work well for students because they can use them to organize their notes in sub-topics and can write on the folders using dry erase markers.)  Here is what I share with them as an example.
  7. Using Diigo as a way to take notes (refresher from Tech tools).
  8. Unscrambling a paragraph – parts of a paragraph  (example taken from here)
  9. Fill in the main idea and conclusion – found here
  10. Informal to formal paragraph – found here Alternate is writing a sample paragraph
  11. Teach to your partner, checklist can be found here
  12. Table of contents – what does it do, what does it need?
  13. Glossary – what does it do, what does it need?
  14. Self-assessment, peer edit if they want to and review, checklist can be found here
  15. Turn in 

That’s it, pretty much.  Feel free to modify/adapt/share.

If you would like to receive some of our finished picture books to give feedback on and your teach 4th grade or younger, please fill out the form.  Picture books will be shared at the end of December and you will have until mid-January to provide the feedback.


Be the change, being a teacher, being me, global read aloud, MIEExpert15

The Worth of You

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Lynda Mullaly Hunt made me cry yesterday.  Right in the middle of a panel session on the community of the Global Read Aloud.  I had held my tears back all throughout as the authors had shared what it means to have their book read and loved by so many children on a global scale.  I had held my tears back as they had talked about the ways that their books had changed the lives of others, how children had found hope, courage, and determination through their pages.  Yet when Lynda told me that the slide showing a globe was for me because I had changed the world. I cried.  And then Lynda cried, and I sat there in awe because I  never set out to make a difference, I simply wanted to read a book aloud to my students and have them share their thoughts.

So I write this post not to gloat in the Global Read Aloud glory.  Nor to say that I am anything special, but more so to tell people that your ideas have worth.  That your ideas may make a difference to someone else.  That those ideas you carry inside need to be spoken because you will never know what type of difference they may make.

And yes, it is scary to speak a dream aloud.  And yes, it is scary to let others in .  And yes, it is scary to be proud of what you have created.  But it is worth it.  Even if your idea changes the course for one other person, or even if just changes yours, it will never change anything if you do not speak out loud.  If you do not share.

I never set out to make a difference, I wish I could say I had.  But it happened, if even just for my own students as they fell in love with a book year after year and wanted to make the world a better place.  Because I dared to speak aloud.  I dared to think that perhaps someone somewhere would see the beauty in this so simple idea.  And so the Global Read Aloud will continue to make a difference for so many kids, for so many teachers, as we gather in this time of terrorism, uncertainty and a world determined to be dark at times.  We need books to connect us because the world seems to be trying to tear us apart at times.  We need books to remind us that we are more alike than different.  We need books and experiences and emotions so that we can remember that we are humans first and that whatever difference we may have can be overcome.

I never set out to change the world, and I am not even sure that I have.  But I had an idea that I dared speak aloud and now cannot imagine a world without it.  Share yours; change the world.


being a teacher, books, ideas, Literacy, MIEExpert15, Passion, picture books

But How Do You Really Teach With Picture Books?


2 days into the year and already we have shared 5 picture books.  Today I read How to Read A Story by the amazing Kate Messner 5 times as we discussed what we love and hate about reading.  As we discussed what makes a great reading experience.  As I invited my students to come on over, one boy clapped his hands, “Story time!” he said.  And not in a sarcastic 7th grade too-cool-for-school kind of way, but in the way that little kids say  it; excited to hear the story.   Excited to share in this moment.  No one laughed at him, instead others joined in, murmuring their appreciation as well.  Story time began as we sat around the rocking chair.

So I read aloud, and we added one more book to our “How many picture books in a year” bulletin board and my students left feeling like there was absolutely nothing wrong with doing just this; sharing a picture book even though now they are in middle school and maybe too old for some things.

I am often asked why picture books?  Why spend the money on these seemingly simple books?  Do I really teach with them or is it just for fun?  And sure, sometimes it is just for fun, but most of the time?  Picture books are serious business in our classroom.

I don’t just buy picture books because they look fun.  A lot goes into the selection process.  These are sacred texts we are bringing in, ones that will build our community, inspire us, and make us better readers and writers.  That is something I take very seriously.

Selecting one to be read aloud is not done lightly either.  At the moment I am contemplating whether to use The Day I Lost My Superpowers by Michael Escoffier or Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman as we get ready to discuss how we stop identifying ourselves as readers or writers tomorrow.  I use them as a way to bridge a conversation that otherwise might be hard for some of my students to start.  I use them as a way to access topics that sometimes my students cannot speak about because they are afraid of how others will react.  Yet, when a character in a picture book goes through a situation that resonates with them then it becomes a safe conversation for them to have as well.  You want to speak about loneliness in your classrooms?  Read The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig or To the Sea by Cale Atkinson.

I use picture books as mentor texts, guiding us as we hone our own craft as readers, writers, and speakers.  We read them once to find out the story, and then later I bring them back as we look at writers craft.  We use them to figure out how to tell our message in a powerful way, such as by studying the careful word choice of Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson.  We use them for setting up plot while still leaving our reader in suspense such as the storytelling found in The Skunk by Mac Barnett.  We use them for when we are seemingly stuck for topics to write about and forget how extraordinary something simple can be such as the stories shared in Float by Daniel Miyares and Something Extraordinary by Ben Clanton.

Picture books are not just something we read, we write them ourselves in our epic nonfiction picture book project.  We study them.  We speak about them.   We get ideas and inspiration from them.  We carefully protect the time we have to read them.  They are the mentor texts we shape our instruction around.

They become part of the tapestry of our room and something the students search out for solace when they need to feel like they are readers again. As one child told me yesterday after I had shared our very first picture book, “Picture books make you remember your imagination again.”  And I knew that these kids got it.  That they knew that this wasn’t just me having some fun, but that picture books will teach us some of the largest lesson this year.  That picture books are not just for little kids and laughter.  They are for readers of all ages, and in particular, those who have gotten lost.

PS:  If you want to know which picture books, or at least a small sample of which I have in our room, see these lists.

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!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge, but rumor has it that it is out on Kindle already!

aha moment, being me, MIEExpert15, Passion, Student dreams

A Thought on Perspective – The Fish Tank


I sat there watching the fish swim in place, barely noticing Augustine’s excited screams.  Amazing that a 19th month old toddler pointing, yelling, and even wanting so badly to hit the glass did not shake the fish.  They barely moved.  And Augustine stood in total awe, oblivious to the world around her.

The fish seemed content.  They had clean water, a few rocks, a few fish friends and obviously enough to eat.  And yet, they were clearly too large for their tank.  There was nowhere to hide, no trees except for the fake ones painted on the back wall.  No places to go except hovering right in the middle staring out at a retirement homes’ front entrance.  A completely average life for most goldfish I presume.

What if our classrooms are much like that fish tank?

What if that is how we teach out students?

What if we give them enough to just thrive, to be complacent, to be just fine?  What if we provide our students with just the necessities in our curriculum and care?  We will surely see them grow.  They will not wither away.  But will we notice when they become too large for our tanks?  When they long for more than the artificial experiences we are providing for them?  Will we notice when their dreams outgrow the space that we share, the needs we fulfill?  And not only will we notice, but what will we do with that knowledge?  What will we do to tear down a wall?  Give them the world so that the very tanks we keep them in don’t set them on a path toward creativity suffocation?

Sometimes I think that I am doing a just fine job, and I don’t take the time to step away from our room, from the tank to speak, and look at it from an outsiders perspective.  It is hard to do when you are the caretaker of a classroom community because you think that you are doing everything you should be doing.  Yet the dreams of our students are sometimes so big that we have to unleash them on the world, because if we don’t the dreams will die.  We have to be able to create spaces where our students can continue to thrive, not just survive, not just hovering in the middle of the only space they have.

What of our students don’t know that there is more to the world than what we offer them?  Then how can we ever expect them to want to change the world?

Who ever thought a too large goldfish would remind me of that?

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!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge.  

MIEExpert15, student driven, technology

How About a Mystery Vox?


The power of Skype never ceases to amaze me and I have loved doing Mystery Skypes for many years now.  So as I started to plan for back to school I knew I wanted to participate once more in as many Mystery Skypes as possible, but I also wanted to try a different approach; the mystery Vox.

What is Voxer?  It is a free walkie-talkie app that allows you to leave messages asynchronously or even a 15 second video if you would like to other users around the world.  For more information or to download it, go here.

What is a Mystery Vox?  Using the power of Voxer, students would take turn leaving clues throughout the day, checking in when they could in order to try to guess the geographical location of the other classroom.  The questions still have to be in a yes or no format and students may still not google each other.

Why do this rather than Skype?  For me it allows multiple classes to collaborate throughout the day trying to piece together where a class is. It also works around the timezone issues that can limit where we do a Mystery Skype with.  Students will not have designated roles like they do in a Mystery Skype; anyone can guess, anyone can ask a question.  I also love that students can digest the clues before they ask the next question.  However, I still plan on doing lots of Mystery Skypes too!

How will this work?  Sign up below on the form and then go to the form responses to find a match.  Reach out and set up the day or week you would like to do this in.

To see the form responses and find someone, go here.

To see more about Mystery Skype, go here

What will this look like in my classroom?  I will have a running list of clues and answers on the board, as well as questions asked.  I will probably have students do this for me.  I may even put it in a Google doc.  I will alert kids to it throughout the day and ask them to come up with a question and an answer.  I will use my own voxer account as I do not feel like setting up another one, right now anyway, and my students will be the ones leaving the messages.  We will try to have it guessed within a day.  I think that is really it.

Any further ideas?