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Turn your classroom into a personalized learning environment

By now you’ve probably heard of personalized learning, which tailors instruction, expression of learning and assessment to each student’s unique needs and preferences. While one-on-one instruction geared toward the strengths and challenges of each student has always been an ideal, only in recent years have technological advances allowed it to become a reality in public education.

Personalized learning capitalizes on students’ almost instinctual ability to use technology, but it is so much more than technology and algorithms. It is the purposeful design of blended instruction to combine face-to-face teaching, technology-assisted instruction and student-to-student collaboration to leverage each student’s learning style and interests for deeper learning. When done right, it meets several of the ISTE Standards for Students and ISTE Standards for Educators while leading to a more rigorous, challenging, engaging and thought-provoking curriculum.

Over the last four years, I have transformed my traditional classroom into a blended-learning environment that provides a more personalized learning experience for each one of my students. It hasn’t been easy. It’s taken a lot of research, trial and error, and adjustments. But the results have definitely been worth it.

Here are five lessons I’ve learned that have helped me take my classroom from a traditional sage-on-the-stage affair to a tech-assisted personalized learning haven.

1. Learn from others.

I won’t lie. The journey from old school to new learning paradigm was bumpy at first. I tried blended lessons that took less time than planned, had technology failures, chose the wrong method of delivery for various types of content or skills, and generally made every mistake you can imagine. But I didn’t give up, and eventually I had more successes than failures. My students’ input and further pedagogical study helped me refine my lesson planning until I got it right.

I started by researching personalized and blended learning as a member of the Rodel Teacher Council (RTC) to create the Blueprint for Personalized Learning in Delaware. I was also a member of the BRINC Consortium, a group formed to implement blended learning in several Delaware districts.

Being able to work with other teachers also implementing blended learning was key to my continued growth. We worked with Modern Teacher to understand the shifts in pedagogy necessary to transition to blended learning. I heard Caitlin Tucker at a BRINC training and have used her books to guide my continued development.

All of these experiences helped me find more effective ways to lead my students while empowering them to take responsibility for their own learning. On top of that, learning from and collaborating with others is a hallmark of the new ISTE Standards for Educators, which advise us to “dedicate time to collaborate with both colleagues and students to improve practice, discover and share resources and ideas, and solve problems.”

2. Use the technology you have.

Although it is not the focus of a student-centered classroom, technology plays a big part in the success of this approach because it allows the differentiation of instruction, assessment and expression of learning as well as the collection of student data.

We don’t have a 1:1 environment at this time, but the students — who are my co-learners and teachers — have helped me adapt to whatever tools are available. The standard hardware in core content classrooms throughout my district includes a set of 15 iPads, a projector and a document camera.

Students are allowed to use their cell phones for educational purposes. We use Schoology as a learning management system. I use Google Classroom and curriculum sites such as CommonLit | Free Fiction & Nonfiction Literacy Resources to embed high-quality digital content within our LMS. Much to my surprise, technology itself plays the smallest role in providing personalized learning for my students.

3. Let students make choices.

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When I first embarked on this mission, I decided to “release” one piece of the assignment at a time in an effort to control student's’ pathway through the material. Since then, I have learned to take a more personalized approach to assignments, which also aligns to the ISTE Standard for Educators that advise us to “foster a culture where students take ownership of their learning goals and outcomes in both independent and group settings.”

Class often starts with a mini-lesson, which then flows into students making choices about what they need to do next to meet specific learning targets aligned to the standards.

My units in Schoology offer guidance to the students while allowing them to choose their own learning pathways and complete the activities in the order that makes the most sense to them.

For instance, while reading a short story, they can choose between just reading or reading along as they listen to a story. They can also decide whether to annotate online or on a printed copy. They can take notes on paper or record their thoughts verbally as they analyze the story.

While my students are still required to write traditional essays on many assignments, they also get the chance to show their learning in a variety of other ways. When appropriate, they can submit their analysis by writing a traditional essay, creating a website, creating infographics, writing a script for a video that they then record or via a communication tool they suggest.

4. Choose the best content delivery method.

I had another a-ha moment when I finally understood how to choose the right delivery method for various types of content. My first few attempts included finding a video on each topic to provide background information or delivering a face-to-face lecture on a new concept, followed by an online quiz. My inaugural online lesson consisted of a folder with a page for my essential question, a copy of my PowerPoint and a link for students to submit their notes.

But I was simply using technology in place of my normal face-to-face teaching. When asked to explain the “why” behind my choices during professional learning sessions, I realized there was more to creating blended lessons than simply adding technology.

Today, I carefully construct my units with specific learning goals that drive the method of delivery and learning activities. When deciding how to structure my lessons, I look at the learning activities I’ve used in the past to decide which were successful and which need to be refined or replaced. As a result, instead of lecturing to students and showing them a PowerPoint during class time, I often give them screencasts or videos to watch at home.

The screencasts, which I create with Zaption, Screencast-o-matic and Video Ant, are better than PowerPoints because students can hear my voice instead of clicking through a silent slide deck. And videos are better than face-to-face lectures because they can skip forward, pause or rewind as needed until they get the lesson. They still get a chance to ask questions during our class time or online.

This flipped learning setup frees up my students to use class time to practice their skills. For instance, they might annotate a short story or poem in Google Docs or take part in a Socratic seminar. During our unit on research into social justice issues, students receive a digital review of the research process and choose their learning activities based on their needs. Some may meet with me to review how to embed quotes while other groups start planning their presentations and still others work independently on gathering valid research.

5. Assess as you go.

Instead of just giving a final exam at the end of each unit, I try to use formative assessment to enable me to give my students guidance and assistance when they need it. I use a variety of methods for this. For instance, my video lectures often include interactive questions to assess their understanding of the material. Playposit and TED-Ed: Lessons Worth Sharing are my go-to tools for this type of assessment. And our classroom is often noisy and active as we play a round of Kahoot, which gives me instant, actionable feedback on what we need to do next, who needs to be pulled into a small group for reteaching and who would be better off in a group that pursues extended learning while I reteach the rest of the class.

I also gather formative assessment data through:

  • Discussion threads.

  • Self-grading quizzes, which give students immediate and actionable feedback on their proficiency in specific skills.

  • Monitoring of students works in progress on Google Docs.

  • Exit tickets, which assess the class’ comfort level with new concepts.

I use all of this data to inform adjustments to learning activities as well as selection of resources to help students meet the standards addressed in the unit. When the assessments show a student has mastered a skill, I can provide them with instruction to go deeper or learn new skills.

6. Pull it all together.

My original objective was to transform my classroom into a blended learning model that would give my students the best access to rigorous, engaging, personalized learning experiences.

Going into my fifth year, I am pleased with the progress we’ve made toward this goal and excited to implement new ideas including more flexibility in seating and groups as well as a better use of formative data.

My classroom today is a vastly different place than it was five years ago. Instead of showing up to class to hear me deliver all the content and teach the skills they need to meet the standards for our curriculum, my students are now the masters of their own learning destinies.

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Instead of relying on notes they take during one-time lectures, they can access and even return to my videos and screencasts and other resources when they need them most, as they are working on an assignment or reviewing for a test.

My role used to be standing in front of the room lecturing about the research process, modeling various components and monitoring students’ progress toward a final, correctly formatted research paper.

Recently I began partnering with the Human Ecology Foundation to expose my students to a range of real-world issues. The students then form groups and choose one to research and propose a solution or way to make an impact. Not only are they learning to do authentic research, they will be volunteering and learning about the issue through first-hand experience. Students can even win a scholarship for their research and projects!

I am available to assist students, conduct check-ins, and assess their individual responsibilities and group outcomes throughout the project. But most of the time I just stay out of the way while they learn how to effectively research, collaborate and create presentations together.

The biggest compliment I have received since all this started came from a student in my AP Language and Composition class. He told me, “Your class is easy. I don’t mean simple — I mean it is easy for me to learn because I can pick assignments that let me do my best work.”

I strive to make my classes that kind of “easy” for every student I teach. Across the board, my students acknowledge that they feel better prepared for college or jobs because of our use of collaborative technology. I’ve had students who are now in college tell me that our use of digital content made it easier for them to adjust to college.

Robyn Howton is English Department Chair and the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) coordinator at Mount Pleasant High School in Wilmington, Delaware. She is a member of the Rodel Teacher Council, which created the Blueprint for Personalized Learning in Delaware, and a member of the original cohort of the BRINC consortium.

This is an updated version of an article that originally published on May 19, 2015.

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