5 Tenets of Choice

I have long believed in putting the “person” back in personalized learning.  In creating engaging classroom experiences with our students as we try to help them discover how they learn best and what they still need to grow in.  However working in the public school system in a state that has mandates and tests to take, means that we sometimes cannot just do whatever we want as we explore 7th grade English.  Means that I am not always able to tell my students to create whatever they want and make it work within our standards.  Means that sometimes we all do the same lesson or produce a similar outcome.  Even if I work in a district that is focused on doing what is best for each child and puts immense trust in its teachers.  Even if at my core I believe that children need to feel like they have control in their learning experience so that they will invest themselves.  And I think this is the reality for many teachers that are trying to do their best in engaging all of their learners.  So how do we truly create experiences where students feel empowered and engaged and have choice, even when it is not free rein at all times?

One of the foundations in our classroom is the five tenets of choice.  These ideas by themselves are the foundation for many successful educational experiences, these ideas have been around for a long time, and these ideas, when coupled together, mean that my students always have choice in something, even if it is not apparent at a quick glance.  While the optimal experience would be for them to have all of these choices at any time, sometimes this is not possible within the system I work.  So, instead, I strive for at least two of these, but preferably more, at any given time.

This tiny excerpt from my forthcoming book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Engaging and Reaching Every Child, details the five tenets of choice, hopefully they will be of help to others as well.

1st Tenet

Choice in engagement, meaning how they access the learning; do they need small group instruction, one-on-one conferring, are they independent or want to work with a peer?  I have students do a pre-assessment of how they would like to work through a project and then plan my classes according to their needs.  To see a sample pre-assessment survey, please see the appendix.   

2nd Tenet

Choice in product, meaning what would they like to create to show their understanding and exploration of a concept.  Sometimes this means full control of the product depending on the standards we are working with, while other times it only means minimal choice such as the format of their written work.   

3rd Tenet

Choice in setting, meaning how and where would they like to learn.  As discussed previously, students need to be afforded opportunities to manipulate the learning community environment to suit their needs.  This is part of their learning journey and so students can choose where they sit, how they sit, whether they work in the learning community or in other designated areas, as well as how they use the environment they are working in.   

4th Tenet

Choice in timeline, meaning when they are ready to be assessed.  While this one is harder to do at times, I do try to provide flexible timelines for students, as well as stay in tuned with what else is happening in other classes.  This may mean that for a longer project I will tell students what the final day is for them to turn something in but that they can turn it in any time they are ready before then.   

5th Tenet

Choice in assessment, meaning how and what I assess as far as their mastery of concepts.  Inspired by Kelly Gallagher I will often ask students to turn in the piece that they think showcase their depth of understanding the best and then assess and confer with them regarding this one piece of work.  This allows students more flexibility and control over how they are assessed, as well as gives them the opportunity to reflect on what mastery really means.  This tenet also means that once students have shown mastery for a quarter, they do not have to prove it to me again but can instead move on to more challenging work.  This is a way for me to ensure that students are provided with learning that matches their needs better and also allows them for more self-directed learning.  

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

Who Are We Really Doing This For?

Traveling this summer seems to have offered me a lot of time for reflection.  There is something about sitting on an airplane, getting nervous about the days ahead and thinking of how did one ever up there?  I realize time and time again that there are certain truths that guide everything I do and that if I ever stray from those truths then I hope I have the spine to admit it.  Because as I travel, I realize more and more that this is not about me, about Pernille the teacher, but instead about the very kids I teach.  About the kids we all teach and yet we seem to so easily forget that as we make decisions in our schools, in our classrooms.

So I realize once again that while I may think I have all of the answers, I won’t ever know unless I ask my students.  That my job is not to foresee and problem solve every little thing, but instead to let them explore and to create alongside me.

That when we go out and share what our students are doing, we need to recognize that this is not about us, but about them.  That it is their education at stake, not our own, and that is why this mission is so very urgent.

We are losing kids every single day in our classrooms.  We are losing them when we remove control over even the slightest things.  We treat them in a way we would not want to be treated ourselves, and then expect them to just be ok with it because that is a part of childhood.  We dictate bathroom breaks, where they sit, who they work with, and even how they share, sometimes allowing very little autonomy in the process.  And then at the end of the day we wonder why they are exhausted and cannot wait to get on with their “real” life?

What if every decision we made was centered on what is best for students?  I know we say that that is what drives us, but is it really?  When we decide on curriculum do we pick it because it is easy for the adults to implement or because it will inspire the children?  When we seek out learning opportunities do we do it for the right reasons or because it is another thing to check off our to do list?

When we control our classrooms so that we can function, do we ever wonder who those we teach will react to the perimeters we set up?

So we can talk about personalizing learning, or whatever other buzz term we are all infatuated with at the moment, or we can talk about good teaching.  About creating learning opportunities that center on the student, on the child, and not the adult needs.  We can remove the “alizing” and just focus on the person instead.

Change may seem hard, but it gets easier as we go.  Think of the small things that already communicate to students that what they need is not as important as what we need.  Think of all the little rules we have in our classrooms that do not benefit them nearly as much as they benefit us.  And then do something about it.

When I ask my students what they wish every teacher would do it is not to give them less work, to give them less tests, or even to speak less – we teachers, do love to talk – it is to let them choose where they sit.  Almost every time.  If that doesn’t speak volumes about how powerless students feel in their education, I am not sure what will.

So this summer, or winter depending on where you are, whenever a new decision needs to be made, don’t think of what you need.  Think of what kids might need, and if you are not sure; ask them.  They are ready to tell us if we only ask.

I am currently working on two separate literacy books.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  The first book titled Reimaging Literacy Through Global Collaboration is scheduled for release November, 2016 by Solution Tree.  The second, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

You Cannot Buy Your Way to Personalized Learning

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When I decided to change the way I taught, I didn’t have a system.  I had a lot of ideas, a lot of thoughts, a lot of failures to push me forward in my quest to be a better teacher.  I had kids who hoped that school would be about them again.  I had parents that hoped that their kids would like school when their year with me was done.  I had dreams of something different, but I didn’t have a clear path, I didn’t have a curriculum to follow.  If I would have, I don’t know where I would have ended up.

You see, when you choose to make learning more personal to the students, it is not about buying a curriculum.  It is not about buying a solution.  Or even reading a book and following the step-by-step directions to make it more personal.  It is not about finding the new tool so that you can adapt and make it fit all of your learners.  In fact, it may be just the opposite. It is about getting to know your students, getting to know yourself, and then finding as much inspiration you can to become a better teacher for all of your kids.  So when I wrote my book, Passionate Learners, it wasn’t so that others could teach like me, but instead so others could start to question their own teaching as well.  I didn’t want to give directions, but just ideas, questions, and things to reflect on.  Because making learning about the kids again means that we have to be the ones to figure it out.  Because they are our kids, in our schools, and no one can tell us better than what they need than them.

Personalized learning is not about a system.  It is not about a box.  It is not about a computer where students can self-pace as they work through a set curriculum.  It is not about a checklist, nor learning in isolation.  Personalizing learning is about what is right for the kid that is in front of you at that very moment.  About helping them get to a place where they can figure out what they need and what they would like to accomplish.   And yes, sometimes that kid doesn’t know what they need and then it becomes our job to help them figure it out.   It is not about what you can do for the students to take control of their learning, it is about what they can do.  Personalizing learning is indeed what great teaching is all about; knowing the students and helping them find ways to make all learning worth doing again. 

So if someone tries to sell you or your school a  personalized learning system, a personalized learning curriculum, or even a technology solution so that all students can work at their own pace, I would stop and think about that for a moment.  How can they possibly promise you personalized when it is far from personal?  How can someone who does not know your students, your school, your needs, deliver something that will fit all of those things?

Education is a business and we should never forget that.  As much as we may think that every person who creates something for the education market is in it for the right reasons, we would be fools if we truly believed that.  Much like every other educational buzzword, personalized learning will become the new cash cow until a new buzzword overtakes it.  Don’t let companies ruin what kids need.  Don’t fall for the sales pitches.  Personalizing learning for students means the emphasis is on the personal and for the personal to happen, we have to know our kids and we have to listen to our kids.  Not a company.  Not a sales pitch.  But the voices of the very students we teach.  And that is free.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

 

A Small Idea for More Choice in Our Curriculum

It never fails; spring break hits and all of a sudden it seems there is very little time left of the school year.  The students feel it as they grow more restless, eager to explore more, not as satisfied with the same old routine.  We feel it as educators, too.  We feel the sheer panic of not having done enough, not having taught enough, not being enough.

So I wanted to do a review of the standards we have covered.  I wanted to give the students way more choice.  While choice and student voice is huge component of what we do, it can sometimes feel lost in the background as we create projects together and try to dig deeper into our learning.  So I wanted to facilitate more small group and I wanted to be able to meet the needs of more students.  I wanted to be more for more of my kids as they really stretch their legs, and their minds.

So on a plane ride home from Texas, it finally fell into place.  A short “Choose your adventure” type of paper where all of the students could choose whatever they needed for the 5 standards.  (We actually have 7 but 2 of them will be  explored in May).  They didn’t have to get a bingo.  They didn’t have to pick anything in particular.  They just had to pick one from each standard after deciding what they needed the most.  Every standard gets 2 days of work-time in class, students can change their minds to their needs, and the best part has been that the two incredible special education teachers that are also in our classroom in various hours are also teaching.  Utilizing their knowledge and ideas is something I have really wanted to do for a long time, but had a hard time figuring out how to do.  This has done just that.

My Standards Review - Google Docs.clipular

So how has it been?  Kind of amazing actually.  Students are more in tune with what they need and want.  They are getting to work with others if they would like, they are coming up with some creative ideas when they want, or they are getting the support they feel they need.  In fact, I asked a group of kids if this was helpful and they all gave me an enthusiastic yes!  I have loved the smaller groups, the one-on-one teaching that I have been able to do, as well as seeing the success that they are experiencing.

While my mission as a teacher is to provide as much choice in learning as possible, in whichever area is needed, sometimes it is hard to wrap my head around personalizing learning more when I teach so many students.  This small breakdown of skills and choices has helped us do just that and is making me think about every thing I teach.  What other units can be made into something like this?  Where else can we provide opportunities that fit the needs of students better?  I hope this inspires you to maybe do something similar.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

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.  

Some Ideas for Personalizing Learning in the Younger Grades

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“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!