being a student, being a teacher, Personalized Learning, student choice

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.

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.  

Be the change, Passion, Personalized Learning, student driven, student voice

Some Ideas for Personalizing Learning in the Younger Grades

“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!

assessment, being a teacher, Personalized Learning, Student

An Easy Yet Powerful Method for Differentiating Instruction

Today was one of those days that gives you hope.  Where you feel like maybe we have been doing something all of these weeks together.  That perhaps the students are on their path to personalize, to take ownership of their learning.  To do all of those things I get a chance to tell others to try.  And it was not because I did anything revolutionary, but instead because I relied on an old method of differentiating, a method that I have not yet perfected, yet it gives us all greater insight every time.  This is best used with something the students have already tried.

It is simple; with whatever task you want students to do ask them to divide themselves into three groups; those that would like to work with support of a teacher, those that would like to work with the support of a peer, and those that would like to support a peer.  Then let them go into those groups, even if you think it may not be the right choice for someone.  Pair students up in the two peer groups and have them do the learning task while you work with the other kids.  That’s it for this time.

Here comes the best bit of this; once they have done the task and you have looked at it (I quickly glanced at their work today and assigned them a score according to the criteria we set), then the following day you regroup them based on their scores.  Why?  Because some kids inevitably need support that they did not get the day before.  Some kids are ready to support their peers and do not know it.  And others just need one more time with the same type of assignment but in a new way.

So why bother with the self grouping in the first place?  Because it gives you invaluable insight to the confidence (and ability) of the students.  This way you get a chance to see how they view themselves and it allows you to have some deeper conversations as to their skills.  Yes, I had to bite my tongue as a few kids made choices I was not sure of, but it turned out that some of them knew themselves and their needs a lot better than I did.

And there you have it, an easy way to gauge students’ skills, confidence, and needs.

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!

aha moment, assessment, being a teacher, being me, MIEExpert15, Passion, Personalized Learning, student choice, student voice, testing

So It Turns Out I Am a Terrible Teacher

It turns out I owe everyone an apology.  Or at least a great big “I am sorry” to all of the people who have ever been inspired by this blog to change the way they teach.  It turns out I don’t know what I am doing, at least not if you look at our test scores.  You see, my students took our district standardized test, the one they take three times a year, and it turns out that at least for some all of my crazy ideas have apparently ruined their English skills.  It wasn’t that their scores dropped just a touch, no, some lost hundreds of points in their comprehension skills; whole grade level disseminated by this terrible teacher.  And there is no one to blame but me, after all, I am the one responsible for all of the teaching.

These tests are a funny thing really, they have a way of messing with even the most stoic of teachers.  We say we don’t care what the test scores are and yet we cannot help but feel fully responsible for the negative scores.   The positive ones, the ones that gained hundreds of points since January; those cannot possible be my doing, because I am teaching all of these kids.  And not all of these kids are improving by leaps and bounds.  So those great scores, they have to be a fluke, but those kids with the big fat minus next to their number, yup, I did that.

As I wrestle with my own feelings of ineptitude tonight, I have realized that who ever thought that teachers could be evaluated by scores that change so dramatically over a year, has never been a teacher.  I could re-test my students tomorrow and guarantee you that all of them would have different scores.  How a test like that can help me plan instruction is beyond me.  How a test like that can be used to evaluate teachers in some states is even further out of my understanding.  And yet it does, and we take it ever so personal because we care.  We think if we had just tried a little harder, worked a little more then maybe we could have reached all of our kids, and not just the “easy” ones.

So I am sorry for ever thinking I could help change education from within.  I am sorry that I have told others to give the classroom back to students, to create passionate learning environments where students not only have a choice, but they also have a voice.  The test told me today that I am doing something wrong for these kids, because there is no way a 34 question test can be wrong, right?  All I can say is that I am thankful to work in an incredible district with an amazing administration that sees beyond the test scores.  That has faith in us and in all we do.  That knows we are bigger than the test scores our students get, because if I didn’t, according to this test, I don’t have any business teaching some of them, or blogging about what I do.

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children.  The second edition of my first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students” is available for pre-order now.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Join our Passionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

being a teacher, Passion, Personalized Learning, student choice

What Personalized Learning Is Not

I seem to have become an advocate for personalized learning, it wasn’t intentional, nor do I think I am good one for the cause.  I believe in creating passionate learning environments where all students have a voice.  So the more discussions I have the more I understand where the hesitance to personalized learning, or any seemingly new initiative that crops up, is stemming from.  Because much like any great educational idea, this idea of personalized learning seems to have become twisted into something it is not.

I believe in personalizing learning for every child.  That doesn’t mean a system,  a plan that can be found in a book, or even mapped out for the world to replicate.  They don’t teach the kids I teach so they have no way of knowing what they need.  That is my job as a teacher to figure out by asking the students.

Personalized learning does not mean to let go, give up control of everything, and hope for the best.  It doesn’t mean that every kid has to make something, invent something, or be creative for every assignment.  It doesn’t mean we have to integrate more technology so that we can reach every kid.  It doesn’t mean that teachers should just facilitate or guide and otherwise get out of the way.  There will never be just one role for all of us to fit all of the time.  Because personalized learning means to personalize which means to teach the kids we have right here, right now.

Those kids we have may want to invent.

Those kids we have may want to create.

Those kids we have may want no structure, to be able to show mastery whichever way they choose, as they tinker, play, and dream.

Those kids we have may want to integrate their own device whenever they can to show off their own genius.

Yet those kid we have may also need support.

Those kids we have may also need guidelines.

Those kids we have may also need a piece of paper with an assignment explained and a path to get from point A to point B.

Those kids we have may also need structure, an end goal that is shared with others, and a teacher that leads the way.

Personalized learning seems to have become confused with yet another rigid system where we assume that all kids want to make.  And that is a shame because the minute we assume that ALL kids want anything then we are doing the opposite of what personalizing learning is.  So don’t believe all of the guidelines, don’t believe that there is just one path to do it right for it means to reach all kids, to find a way to teach all kids, giving them what they need and being in tune with them when that need changes,

As a child, I would have hated being told to create on my own at all times and to somehow figure it all out.  That was not what I needed then, nor is it what I want as an adult.  Make sure in our quest to reach all kids that we don’t think there is only way to reach them.  Make it about teaching them all, reaching all, and realizing that there is not one system for doing that because we do not just teach one child.  Don’t buy the latest idea just because someone sai dthat this is finally the right way to teach, even if it sounds magical.