Not Your Ordinary Classroom: How Personalized Learning Changed the Way I Teach

The department’s Personalized Learning Task Force is meeting throughout 2016 to identify promising practices and discuss how personalized learning could work across Tennessee. We’re pleased to share a peek into classrooms already creating personalized learning experiences for students in this series. 

by Beth Kasler, Seventh grade English language arts teacher in Bristol City Schools

classroom2 (2)When I started teaching, I promised myself to fully utilize the tools that were provided by my district to enhance my teaching practice, and ultimately my students’ learning. When I began my journey into personalized learning, I was swimming in a vast sea of possibilities. I’d like to say that I was a natural, or that this was easy, but that would not be accurate. It was overwhelming, confusing, exciting, depressing, exhausting, and eventually enlightening. Our school system provided the impetus—a digital conversion during which every student would be issued a laptop—but the challenge was mine, and I accepted it with reckless abandon.

Now, when you walk in my classroom, it doesn’t look out of the ordinary; there are desks, bookshelves, whiteboards, and students. But, if you take a closer look at the students and the tools they are using, you will quickly see that my classroom is far from average. In addition to the laptops, there are two pieces of software that are at the heart of my classroom: Microsoft Class Notebook and Schoology. These are my starting lineup. My students and I depend on them day-in and day-out for information and communication. By combining these tools, students are able to participate in class while finding ways to uniquely connect to the materials. While it sounds difficult for each student to have unique experience in a class of 25-30, it is the definition of personalized learning, which allows for greater outcomes for each student.

feverEarlier this school year, my class read the book Fever 1793, one of our explorations focused on presidential speeches in times of tragedy. We listened to speeches from recent presidents addressing the nation after a tragedy, then studied the similarities in the speeches and identified the key points that a president would address. Next, students were asked to write their own speeches from the perspective of President George Washington addressing the citizens of Philadelphia in response to the yellow-fever epidemic of 1793.

As students began to write, I noticed a student who appeared to be off-task. I could tell from across the room that he had YouTube up on his computer and was watching a video rather than completing the task. I walked across the room to speak with this student and was surprised to discover that the YouTube video on his screen was footage of one of the two disasters addressed by the speeches we had previously heard. This student had taken ownership of his learning and was looking to make a personal connection to the lesson and the assignment. While I never doubted the power and potential of personalized learning, watching this student make an effort to forge a meaningful connection between writing and his own understanding of a historical event made the impact and implications of personalized learning really hit home. This is an example of what personalized learning can do. It still requires students to complete their work and demonstrate competency, but it ultimately allows them the freedom to internalize learning and make personal connections.

classroom1These experiences are the things that cannot be anticipated or replicated by a teacher’s lesson plan. This is the real learning that takes place in my classroom; student ownership and engagement are critical for students to internalize and retain knowledge. Combining the powerful implications of personalized learning with a digital learning environment has allowed me to utilize students’ natural inquisitiveness as a tool to enhance learning and solidify that personal connection between classroom learning and real-life experience. We are teaching digital natives, and in order to engage, challenge, and inspire these students, we must embrace the reality and the power that comes from combining personalized learning, with a technology-rich school environment. Once we as educators free ourselves from our traditional roots and commit to just taking the plunge into the sea of personalized learning alongside our students, we can finally realize the learning potential that we have within our classrooms.