Inside each of our students there is a superhero waiting to get out. Unfortunately, many students spend years locked in an inflexible classroom environment without their strengths ever being recognized or appreciated. Personalized Learning offers students a chance to demonstrate these latent abilities. It offers teachers an opportunity as well. Finding our students' strengths first, before focusing on their areas of weakness, will help us see these students in a new way and will open up new pathways to success. Below, I have included several case studies from the 2014-2015 school year. While this sample is not a complete catalog of Personalized Learning projects for the year, it does include projects from students who represent a wide range of abilities and interests. Click the "Failing Superman" link below to learn more abut the rationale behind Personalized Learning.
Last October, some of my students asked if they could use a patch of dirt outside of our classroom as a garden to plant sunflower seeds. Apparently, their interest in sunflowers grew out of an art lesson on Vincent van Gogh. The projects below represent a particular learning path taken by these students toward a better understanding of sunflowers. Their work also serves as a good example of the need to consider outside learning environments in a Personalized Learning model.
The students followed up their initial effort with an additional project based on their observations while monitoring the progress of their plants.
A third project grew out of further observations several weeks later.
And, finally, several months later, the students noticed a difference in the growth patterns of their plants, which lead to a fourth project that explained these differences. Unfortunately, the finished project was lost at the end of the year when the iPads were wiped for a security update. While I am unable to display the finished project here, I have included three pictures below that illustrate the main idea of the project.
The students' involvement in the sunflower project spanned most of the school year and included multiple sessions of between 30 and 45 minutes. During that time, these students were able to investigate wide-ranging concepts and build real world skills in a way that would not have been possible in a traditional classroom setting. This year, based in part on the success of this project, we are in the process of upgrading the outside spaces at Temple Heights to make them more inviting and productive as learning spaces for our students.
This case study also emphasizes the effectiveness of outdoor learning spaces. It involves a student who typically, and sometimes frustratingly, looks at problems from a unique and interesting perspective. He is an "outside the box" thinker and refuses to accept mainstream solutions to common problems. He is very good in math and extremely skilled in technology. This student was determined to innovate on a kite flying activity that he observed at recess.
As you can see, he made a kite out of a piece of printer paper, some tape, and a barbecue skewer. He proposed to use a radio-controlled car to fly it. Here are the results:
To achieve these results, the student had to manipulate many variables, such as the length of the kite's tail, the attachment of the kite string along the kite's keel, the wind direction, and the speed of the car.This led to many failed attempts:
The perseverance demonstrated by this student was remarkable. Clearly, however, it was not the first time he had thought about the innovation process. At the conclusion of the project, he reminded me of the Thomas Edison quotation above.
For this project, the students used their P.L. time to apply skills they had learned previously in class. They found a creative way to solve a problem by using the planning and building skills they learned during a class pillow-making project.
I have included this case study to illustrate how the learning environment can beviewed not only as a physical space, but also as a social space. The students involved in the Student Store project were inspired by school-wide fund raising efforts for our music program, and they wanted to participate directly in the process. After creating the video below, they visited all of the upper grade classes and presented the plan to their peers.
The students ran their student store for a period of two weeks. During that time, they were able to raise about $150.00 and contribute this money to help sustain our music program. Needless to say, the music teacher was quite impressed. View the video below to see how the project came to life.
This project, like the previous projects, allowed the students to escape the physical confines of the classroom. Unlike the other projects, however, it allowed them to explore a different social space as well. This is the kind of opportunity that separates Personalized Learning from a more traditional approach.
The Teacher's Role
So what makes Personalized Learning more than just free time or exploration? And what role does the teacher play in making Personalized Learning something different? Well, to begin with, I insist that the students in my class set weekly goals for themselves. They list these goals on their Personalized Learning contract. The students agree to work in the chosen areas and prepare a class presentation on their main project each week. Choosing the areas of interests and following the contract are student responsibilities. My responsibilities are a little more subtle. It's my job to identify leverage points along the timeline of a particular project to introduce essential questions that will lead to a more complex examination of the concepts involved in the project. These essential questions are not generated before the project starts. The opportunities for these questions arise out of the work that the students do. For example, in the Student Store project above, there were two opportunities for essential questions; once, when Mrs. Morton asked the students how they would display their merchandise, and again when I asked them how they would keep track of their money. In each case, the students were challenged to deepen their understanding of how a business is run. They were able to meet these challenges while retaining their overall enthusiasm for the project. You can view the Personalized Learning contract that I use with my students below. This contract is used with students who have demonstrated grade level competency in reading and/or math.
Below, you will find examples of student playlists.
The students involved in this project were reluctant to participate in any aspect of the traditional curriculum. When they were given the opportunity to work with electrical circuits, however, they were thrilled. During the year, they completed more than 100 intricate and complex circuits by following written instructions. They worked as a group and individually to innovate on these circuits as well. At the end of the year, the students prepared the following video for STEM Fest and demonstrated their circuits for all to see.
Many students chose to build websites as Personalized Learning projects. Most of the websites accurately reflected the personalities and interests of the students who created them. One website, however, was a real shocker. The student who created it was extremely shy in the classroom, and I was concerned that she didn't seem to have a voice. Luckily, she was given the opportunity to create a website. Click the link below to view the site.
As it turns out, this student has a very strong voice in her written work. She also has a strong sense of humor and an impressive aesthetic sensibility that she demonstrates consistently throughout her website. I never would have known this if I had not given her the opportunity to engage in Personalized Learning.There was no indication of this student's talents on the registration card or on report cards from previous years. She was always recognized as a good student, but never as a superhero.