We’ve finished the first iteration of trying to move my 10th grade English courses to become more personalized. Students concluded a quarter-long investigation of a social justice issue of their choice. Throughout the quarter, my focus has been to help students move toward mastering skills, while allowing personal choice in content and questions, and customizing feedback and instruction for each student.
Students are working on reading informational texts, writing arguments, speaking and listening, and creative writing. Most class periods begin with a 15-20 minute mini-lesson and then students go to a self-selected station to engage in their work. Three to four tasks are due every two weeks.
Here are 4 positives I’ve found as I’ve personalized learning:
1. Small Group Instruction
One disappointment most secondary teachers simply live with (myself included) is knowing that students have a wide variety of interests, experiences, and learning paces (though not learning styles so much). But given the constraints of our time to plan and our access to resources, we aren’t able to realistically differentiate effectively. And so too often we teach content that is of interest to the adult and move at the pace of the average, while some students sit bored and others feel left behind.
But there’s another way.
I’ve been spending time in elementary schools this year, and have learned how they differentiate for young readers who may be at very different levels of ability. Teachers use assessment data (formative, pre-, self-) to group like-leveled students and put them in groups of five to seven for targeted small group lessons.
Easier said than done.
Grouping of students is a challenge. The complexity of skills in high school standards means it’s difficult to create quick groups from formative assessment. Particularly on some more complex standards.
But I’ve found a workaround. This quarter, I’ve grouped students based on writing skills. Students have been writing an approximately 500-word blog post about their research every two to three weeks. When I give feedback on these blogs, I keep a few note cards handy and put kids into groups based on where they have room to grow on specific writing skills.
In class, students get customized small group instruction for 20-30 minutes in the form of mini-lessons targeting their personal areas for growth. This approach has been remarkable, especially compared to the alternative. Giving feedback for growth is a challenge, so rather than leave margin comments and hope students read them, understand them, process them, and apply them, I can work them through that process in groups during class. And I’ve seen skill gaps close right before my eyes because of it. This is a promising path to more equitable instruction.
Giving my undivided attention to 20-25% of the class is only possible if the remaining students are authentically engaged in their learning and have the resources to support their more independent work. This is the benefit of interest-driven inquiry. These students have selected four umbrella topics they (nearly unanimously) agreed they’re interested in, and each set out to pursue a personal inquiry question within the topic of their choice. They are more intrinsically motivated to learn.
Students had two weeks (five classes) to complete three to four tasks, which generally included a blog post, a critical reading of one of their sources, and then another activity or two which might be planning for or conducting a Skype interview, creative writing, or planning for one of their culminating activities.
Thus, students have to plan and pace themselves. They have to consider when they’ll have class time for individual work, and when they’ll be dedicating that time to collaborative work. When I’m with a small group, they know I won’t be circulating to play whack-a-mole with small hindrances, and so they learn to rely more actively on one another to problem solve. I’ve also “flipped” elements of instruction, providing video analysis of writing samples and uploading models for students to access. Additionally, I’ve asked students to take a “three before me” approach to clarifying questions. Prompting them to check with peers on clarifying questions before bringing the question to me, allows me to focus my time on the most troubling questions.
This long-term investigation has also helped me move students to do more thinking about their thinking. Because students are all in slightly different places at any given time, I’ve come to rely on a lot of reflection and conferencing. At the end of each class, students submit a workshop log where they note their learning and any frustration points or questions moving forward. I respond between classes and they receive my guidance at the beginning of the next class. This exchange helps me track not only their progress, but the way they’re processing their learning.
Rather than a single, massive research paper to culminate their learning, students have completed a series of blog posts to process their learning. This iterative writing approach has given us the opportunity to look at and grow particular writing skills across assignments that share a similar format, audience, and purpose. Students “turn their blogs in” using a submission sheet and a single point rubric to help me know where they see progress and weakness to better guide my feedback.
4. Student Investment
When I think about all that my students are doing to culminate their learning within and beyond this project, I just conclude that the amount of work is so improbable. And it is. It would actually be impossible if the students weren’t driving the work. Some of this may have occurred whether students studied these social justice issues or not. Maybe. But never before have I had a student spend a weekend taking a family trip to a research-related location, or launch organizations in our school around feminism and racial justice, as is happening this year.
As culminating activities within the project, students are bringing their learning to their peers by displaying installations in our hallways, creating a living museum exhibit on the refugee crisis, and developing a series of lunch meetings to discuss racial justice. Other groups have led drives to gather donations and get them into the hands of those marginalized and most in need of support.
These larger investments of time and energy are outstanding and create lasting impact on the students and others, but daily learning also benefits from their authentic engagement. I’ve seen students take markedly more care in their writing because it’s public and they want to get their message across effectively. I’ve had ongoing discussions with students actively learning outside of class because they’ve become engrossed in the issue.
And because of this, I’ve learned too. About heteronormativity, cultural appropriation, Scandinavian prisons, refugee processing, the psychological roots of racial bias, and so much more. As teachers, we often talk about being lifelong learners. This process has reminded me how much of that learning can come from our students.
Sean McComb teaches English at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in the Baltimore County Public Schools System. Sean also supports the development of teaching and learning for Baltimore County’s STAT Initiative. He is affiliated with the Maryland Writing Project, NCTE, Learning Forward, National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and ISTE. Sean is the 2014 National Teacher of the Year and a Teaching Channel Laureate.