At the close of classes last June, summer vacation hung on the horizon like the grand prize at a carnival. I expected the mass euphoria, but not the concern about their academic lives in September. As one student said, “I just started to get things and understand. I don’t know what to expect next year, and I’m a little scared.”
His fear wasn’t being unprepared for the academic rigor of the next grade level. His fear was about the climate of the classrooms he would enter. Would he be allowed to redo assignments? Have flexible due dates? Get one-on-one help? Would other classrooms reflect the same philosophy he experienced in mine?
“I love that almost everybody gets along with each other. I feel like I am always being pushed to do new things.”
Exploring standards-based practice is a leap of instructional faith. Moving toward personalized instruction and grading means building a different climate and culture. Students need to be guided in self-regulating behaviors and shown – through their own work and by example – how to self-monitor, self-correct and self-direct their own behavior. Self-regulation becomes the cornerstone of a personalized classroom.
To truly embrace personalized learning means fostering a culture of experimentation, support, tolerance, and trust. Teachers and students become partners in learning opportunities.
No one can learn anything effectively or deeply in an environment where they don’t feel valued or loved. As Maslow stated, humans need to feel safe, cared for, and accepted, or true learning cannot occur. It has become a foundational piece of research on motivation. As a teacher, I began here in crafting a classroom climate that promoted collaboration and problem-solving. Students need to be the focus of the educational experience, and creating a personalized learning environment started with the placement of desks in my room. Rows were eradicated. No longer was instruction about students looking at me — it was about students looking at each other. Class lessons and activities focused on the necessity of working together to solve a problem or create a product. Rather than group grades, students selected two standards on a rubric from a possible four or six. These two standards had to be defended with evidence of the work the student completed within the group.
Everyone was accountable to one another as well as the project, yet everyone’s assessment was personal and self-selected. As the year went on, more and more of our class projects and activities began to look like this.
At the end of the year, I administered a short survey asking for feedback about the changes in our class. One of my students commented that “I love that almost everybody gets along with each other. I feel like I am always being pushed to do new things.”
For me, this observation was an indication that the culture of our classroom had become one of collaboration and problem-solving, where students took control and self-directed their own learning as they “pushed” themselves to reach higher standards.
Unfortunately, there are no activities or lessons to teach students how to be tolerant, focused individuals. Teachers have to rely on classroom management strategies – sometimes strategies they invent along the way – to create an atmosphere of partnership and cooperation. A few ways to do this are to restructure your policies regarding homework, late work, and resubmission of assignments for higher grades. Taking points away from a student or refusing to accept their work could actually damage any rapport teachers try to build with their students.
Students have communicated that my class is different. One student commented in the survey that she likes that I am “one of those teachers that truly cares about her students from deep down.”
Students also wrote that they feel “safe” and “comfortable.” One said, “I like the feeling that this class gives me. It’s like the feeling of being safe in your own home.” Once students feel like we are allies in their learning, amazing things happen.
Know Thyself (And Them)
It’s also important that you know your own teaching style. Do you offer opportunities for self-reflection and self-direction? Can students work at their own pace? Do you structure your classroom environment to include opportunities to work alone, in small groups or one-on-one with you?
Student-centered classrooms place the needs of the students before the pacing of curriculum and the breadth of the subject matter that must be covered. Student-centered classrooms focus on skills development and mastery rather than absorption of a pre-determined body of knowledge.
The Common Core State Standards are quite clear regarding the skills students should attain by the end of high school. The content is simply the vehicle teachers use to facilitate their students toward mastery.
For many years, I had convinced myself I was student-centered. I offered them opportunities to make up work and redo assignments. Few ever did. It took a while to understand that I was still structuring my classroom to suit my needs, not theirs. If it was all about them, then I would create a learning environment where students could read different texts, practice different skills, and get help on demand, when they need it.
What helps facilitate change is knowing the children in your room and acknowledging that sometimes they need extensions, extra help, and a little understanding. “Mrs. Mess teaches differently and doesn’t give you things that she knows you aren’t capable of,” wrote a student in my 10th grade English class. “She helps whenever needed as much as possible and if you have a busy schedule with projects and such from other classes, you don’t get points taken off if late (less stressful).”
As Rick Wormeli says, “A lawyer who takes two tries to pass the bar exam isn’t restricted to practicing law only on Tuesdays.” Our world offers many opportunities for retakes. What we want to do is teach them to use these second chances carefully and thoughtfully. We don’t want to teach them that they don’t exist at all.
Like adults, the students in our classroom have a variety of pressures and expectations placed upon them by family, school, and others.
Sometimes, what we ask students to do outside of school only places them further behind their peers. Sometimes, we need to examine our own practice, and ask ourselves if our lines in the sand are truly for their benefit.
On a survey, I asked students what they learned in my English class. Some of their answers surprised me – and were instrumental in the changes I made to personalize their learning. The one that hit me the hardest? “What I learned is that you shouldn’t have to pretend; you should be yourself. You shouldn’t have to just fail something and just give up; you should keep trying to succeed. If something knocks you down, you get back up.”
That’s worth learning.
Trust the Process
The most reassuring message I received when I embarked on personalized learning was that I was not alone. The work was hard, and more attempts failed than succeeded at first. But I saw my students shine. I quickly learned not to expect anything to work the first time, but instead to see my work as a process. Like the learning environment I was trying to create, my process was personal and unique. Like the relationships I wanted to build with my students, my process had to emerge organically. When I stopped trying to force it, change sprung up all on its own.
My classroom changed when I did. Nothing else mattered but that my students learn the skills specified in the standards, and not everyone would achieve competency at the same time in the same way. Life slowed down. Students started to observe that they were getting better at the business of learning. One 10th grader commented on her survey, “I’m capable of staying on task and getting work done without really, really stressing.” Another noted that she didn’t feel “rushed” anymore.
Students took time to really engage with text and tasks. On my end-of-the-year survey, one student responded that he learned “how to properly take notes, how to analyze media thoroughly, how to properly annotate, how to be engaged and draw out as many possible observations from the material.”
In a standards-based, personalized learning environment, students begin to focus on skills, not subject matter. They focus on what they need to do. Their talk, then, about what they learn shifts away from titles of books, math concepts, technical terminology, or the universal shrug. They shift their mindset from working to pass a class to working to obtain a skill. Grades become secondary: learning becomes the focus.
Sometimes we as educators feel like a certain unit of study or a particular concept just shouldn’t take so long to learn. We wonder what’s wrong with our instructional practice and strategies. We wonder if we couldn’t be more effective in imparting information or developing their study skills.
Yet in a standards-based classroom, it isn’t about the breadth of your subject matter. It’s about the time you allow students to master skills. What may seem slow to you might be the perfect pacing to allow all students to achieve competency.
And ask them what they think. Student responses can be your best gauge for whether or not your instruction matches their needs. Not only do you need to trust the process, you need to trust the students to give you honest feedback. How did I know my pace was just right? One indicator came from my survey: “… as students we all work at different paces. Mrs. Messenger goes out of her way to get to know her students and work with the students one-to-one in the way she sees fit rather than having 30 students do the same amount of work at the same time.”
Ultimately, the greatest gift isn’t the knowledge you might impart on students– it is the skills they need to acquire that knowledge for themselves.
Caroline Gordon Messenger has taught English for grades 6 through 12 for the past 14 years. Before earning her teacher certification, she was a professional journalist. Messenger holds a Master of Arts in Oral Traditions and a research Master of Philosophy in the Sociology of Education from Lancaster University in Lancaster, U.K. She currently teaches English and Journalism at Naugatuck High School in Naugatuck, CT. Reach her on Twitter: @cjmessenger