Both Teacher and Techie: One Approach to Personalized Learning

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 Sara Harvick, Fifth grade English language arts teacher in Putnam County

Personalized learning, 1:1 student device access, and differentiation: these are all strategies teachers hear day-to-day about how to improve student success. Fortunately for me, I was given the opportunity to run with all three at once. The process was difficult, but along the way it has opened doors and further prepared my students for the future.

UntitledIn the beginning of my journey, tailoring learning and incorporating technology for each student felt like a burden. What, on Earth, am I going to do with 25 ten-year olds and brand new laptops? I was nervous; I was stressed; and I was new to teaching. The combination led to late hours, lost sleep, and one or two headaches along the way.

The first year, I was hesitant to trust my students to do much with their laptops– and rightly so at times. As new as it was for me, it was also new to them. Having laptops sitting on their desks with backgrounds to be customized and colorful icons just waiting to be pushed proved a challenge for many of my kids. I didn’t anticipate their level of newness, and I struggled for the first few weeks of attempting technological integration, until I decided to step back and start over with the fundamentals.

Training was, and remains, the key to success for both my students and me. Each year, I begin by training my kids on the simplest of tasks and assign my students a number to indicate which one is their computer– the only computer they should use. However, I remind them it is also my computer, and therefore, they need to treat it with care and respect. We then set up an account using their school emails, and we get in to the colorful world of Chromebooks.

At this point there’s much “oooing” and “ahhing,” and I must implement the careful management that is needed for teaching in a 1:1 classroom. I show them how and what to download as I walk them through Google Classroom, which is my chosen platform for all of my class materials and assignments. Then I stop.

Untitled2The only thing they need to know in the beginning is how to get on Google Classroom. From there I upload all possible sites we will use, and I post directions, assignments, and announcements. I fill their screens with videos, quizzes, and activities to complete at their own pace. The ease of accessibility while still being engaging makes it seem like Google Classroom is the best thing since sliced bread.

Throughout the year, we branch out, and eventually I will let them do a research project where on their own they explore their topic on Google. I have them create their own quizzes and their own projects. By this point they know, or believe, that I watch and see everything they do and every site they visit, so my students remain on task and appropriate. But better than all of that, they remain engaged.

That’s what personalized learning does. It engages students in a way that traditional approaches can’t. They have the impression of control with the ability to go at their own pace. But, as the teacher, I glean similar results and content from each learner.

For example, a few weeks ago I assigned an essay to be researched and completed over the course of three days. Students had three topics to choose from and were able to brainstorm with classmates then before beginning their online research. All of my students completed their research on different days. Three completed it within the first class period and were able to begin drafting their essay. Others took until day two or three to finish researching and drafting. After realizing that those first few students were managing to complete their essays quickly, I decided to give them a special challenge. I emailed them separately and challenged them to make their essay more advanced, similar to what a high-school student would be required to do. I knew that they would struggle, so I provided a Screencastify, a video sharing my computer screen and myself, and explained how an advanced writer would form a thesis statement, provide supporting details, and develop a conclusion for their chosen topic. They then were able to go back and update their essay. Meanwhile my other students were finishing the original assignment. On day three, when all essays were turned in, I had varying levels of complexity submitted, but all the essays still focused on the same three topics.

24297629443_243ca578e6_zWhat I saw happening during this specific assignment was that my advanced learners felt pushed along with my other students. Everyone had an assignment that was tailored to his or her ability. I saw my advanced kids become a bit nervous and excited at being asked to go above and beyond. I never verbally told them to do anything. Instead, I left it up to them to take what I provided electronically and attempt a more complex assignment.

Being a 1:1 classroom has a multitude of advantages, and personalizing students’ learning is just one of them. As I grow in my craft, I hope to discover more unique ways to utilize technology in my classroom to benefit each of my students as individuals.