The Path to Personalization: Finding My Legs

Tch Laureate Team

This is part of Sean McComb’s Getting Better Together series, In Pursuit of Personalized Learning. Sean and all the Teaching Channel Laureates are going public with their practice and seeking support in getting better from colleagues and the Tch community.

Last winter I watched my son, Silas, move from cautiously cruising along furniture or, with parent support, take his first furtive steps independently. I remember how his chunky stumps wobbled as he lurched toward the object of his desire.

Getting Better TogetherAnd that’s pretty much how I feel as a teacher right now.

I have an idea of how I want a personalized (student-centered, inquiry-based, interest-driven) classroom to operate. I’ve seen folks model some pieces, I’ve listened to master teachers explain their processes, and I’ve done a great deal of thinking. Now it’s time to let go and step out.

Silas walkingOver the next quarter of the school year, students will engage in a Justice Inquiry project. I created the graphic below as a reference for the students and me to grasp all the components at once. We’re all pretty excited (and nervous) to dig into this work that’s very different than our norms, but I want to pause to record some key steps we’ve taken to get to this point.

Start with the Kids

There’s been a good deal of conversation in the edu-sphere around what is, and is not, personalized learning. For me, personalized learning is not a student moving at his or her own pace through a standardized (likely online) curriculum. Personalized learning is also not about shallow choices with regard to which graphic organizer, or which formative assessment a student will choose in order to process or demonstrate learning. For me, personal learning starts with the interests and experiences of the learner. I love, and have had my thinking influenced by, Diana Laufenberg’s thoughts here and here.

survey resultsAs I started to prepare for this year’s classes back in June, I surveyed my students to see what topics interested them most. I chose eight topics that seemed prevalent in the culture and current events at the time, and provided space for students to submit other options. The results of that survey clearly showed three areas of interest: Criminal Justice, LGBT Issues, and Racial Justice.

Resource Gathering

With those results in hand, I spent my mindless social media surfing time over the summer collecting articles in Pocket, or messaging them to myself as they popped into my feed. When I had casual conversations with friends who are tuned into these issues, I asked them for recommendations and stored those as well. I then created a wiki populated with these resources, with reading menus for each topic as a starting place, so students could develop a framework and knowledge base on an issue of their choosing.

Also over the summer, I became aware of the refugee crisis affecting the Middle East and Europe. Touched by the juxtaposition of the plight of the refugees and the privilege I enjoy, I felt compelled to offer this category as a fourth option to students, who were likely unaware of the issue in June (I am also taking action personally).

Toe in the Water

In mid-October, with topics identified and resources on deck, and with a traditional unit of study on The Kite Runner and Oedipus Rex under our belts, we completed a station-based lesson to introduce the four issues.

Students spent 20-25 minutes exploring two to three resources related to each category. They listened to an excerpt of an NPR interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates. They reviewed the results of the GLSEN National School Climate Survey. They explored a website with 28 maps and charts visualizing America’s prison system. And they learned (many for the first time) of the devastation occurring as millions of refugees flee a war-torn Middle East.

In exploring these resources and others, I aimed to give students exposure to all of the topics in order to make a better decision on where they want to invest their time and learning. These stations also presented some pathways for students to direct their own personal inquiry question that will drive their research.

The Big Picture

justice inquiryDuring the two class periods the stations activity spanned, I wanted to share the “big picture” idea of our work in this unit with the students. For my own clarity, and theirs, I created this graphic to help capture the project visually.

Worried that I would overwhelm 15 year olds with so much information, we talked through some concerns, and then I asked students to complete a “compass organizer.” This asks students to provide me with a quick reflection on what they: Need, Suggest, Worry About, and are Excited About, in order to set our direction forward.compass organizer

Next Steps

My next challenge will be transitioning students from a traditional classroom setting into a workshop model. This is where students are prioritizing and scheduling their work time, based on their own progress and needs.

How are you finding your “legs” with regard to personalized learning for your students this year? Let us know in the comments below.

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 ProjectNCTELearning ForwardNational Network of State Teachers of the Year, and ISTE. Sean is the 2014 National Teacher of the Year and a Teaching Channel Laureate. Connect with him on Twitter: @Mr_McComb.

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