Planning a Personalized Learning Unit- What you MUST KNOW to get you started!

Before you introduce personalized learning to your students, you must first establish the model and procedures you wish to follow in your personalized learning classroom. I use the model below to plan out my instruction, the students learning journey (practice), and Summative Assessment options.

 

Seminars and Coaching Workshops in a personalized learning classroom:

As I plan instruction I consider how I can break down the instruction for my students into short seminar sessions (direct/whole class instruction) that lasts no longer than 20-25 minutes. I will try to focus on one skill or concept within a given seminar. I then create coaching workshops that will support students as they learn this skill or concept and/or extend learning on this skill or concept. Each seminar (to cover all skills in a given standard) will be listed in this section for students to see. Each will be a link to the Google Slides Presentation for students who wish to learn the material on their own, ahead of pace, or to review as needed.

Learning Journey Options in a personalized learning unit:

Within the Learning Journey section, I will place the practice documents I used to require as a part of the lesson. These could be practice documents, graphic organizers, Webquests, Prezis, articles, links to helpful websites, etc. Some of these options can be required if you feel your students need them to be successful in meeting the standard. I try to leave most of these as optional resources. As students attempt the summative assessment, they will realize on their own if the practice is necessary! This realization is authentic, and truly helps students to understand HOW they learn best. If students attempt the summative assessment and are not successful in meeting the standard, I do direct students back to this middle section for further practice and support. I will also recommend a conference or a small group coaching workshop for extra support. Then, after students have practiced and gotten sufficient support, students can re-attempt the summative assessment.

Evidence of Meeting the Standard for a personalized learning unit:

Within this last column I will ask students to demonstrate mastery of the standard. From past years of instruction, I have created at least one option. This was usually the option that I required of my students with the traditional teaching and learning method. Now I do make this an optional assessment. I do really try to provide a few options for students within this section. These options grow each year. The best part is that students will often bring me wonderful ideas that are more challenging than those I created! Then I can apply their ideas to the list for next year’s class! This is true for building the learning journey section as well. Students will find helpful websites, online games, articles, etc. and I can add them for students. This list just continues to grow with quality support material!

Below is an example of the three standards I covered in my To Kill a Mockingbird unit. Each standard is listed separately, with the seminars, learning journey, and summative assessment options for each. Students will work through all three standards within the same unit time-frame. They will have voice and choice in planning how they will complete these three standards by the given deadline.

 

I have created a student planning and reflection calendar to help students through this process as they begin. It is a part of the Introduction to Personalized Learning Lesson shown below. Click the link to see more!

The Critical Components of Personalized Learning for any Classroom

Discover the critical components of developing a personalized learning instructional method in your classroom! This article will help you establish a personalized classroom with ease!

Direct Instruction– Seminar (for Personalized Learning Instruction)

Personalizing learning does not mean  that you will need to stop delivering direct instruction. Good teaching strategies apply in a personalized learning platform as well. You will simply find that other methods work well to guide and coach students in their learning. I call this direct instruction a seminar as this is what it truly is. This collegiate term applies as students continue to grow and move into college; what are we doing if we are not preparing them for the possibility of such?

personalize learning

Small Group Instruction—Coaching Workshops (for Personalized Learning Instruction)

You will find that small group instruction will become a staple in your teaching tool-bag of tricks. I call this a coaching workshop. These sessions can be completely teacher-led, focused on a skill, an activity, a standard, supporting students as they move faster or slower through their learning, etc. These can be student led as students support one-another in learning and growing in a standard.

Most often I find myself working with students on specific skills as they are ready to learn them. As students begin to drive the pace of their learning, you will find that students need to learn different skills, concepts, standards, at different times. This is an excellent place to teach students these concepts as they are ready to learn them.

Consider this situation that we have all experienced as teachers:

You are in the middle of a unit you have beautifully backward planned with amazing lessons, relevant content, rich assessments, etc. You realize that most of your class is ready to move on to the next lesson, but you have a few kids who are a bit behind. They may have forgotten to turn in their work, or they were absent, or didn’t understand the concepts from last week, etc. You decide to forge ahead with the new skill. For most of your class, this is just fine. They are ready for the new content. They quickly move to your beautifully assigned practice and assessment. Yet, we have this nagging feeling about those few. What do we do? How do we help them? Do we keep them after school? Assign extra work? We know they couldn’t understand today’s lesson because they didn’t understand yesterday’s lesson. OR how about the students who need material that is more advanced, more challenging?

This is a real struggle for most teachers, but these small group coaching workshops are a great way to support all of these learners at their level, and at the time they need it.

personalize learning

Individual Support- Conferencing (for Personalized Learning)

I know that I found it exceedingly difficult to meet with students on a one-to-one basis when I used the direct instruction approach on a daily basis. Since transferring to the personalized method of instruction, I am finding these opportunities more than ever before. The best part about these individual conferences- the time you make for each student- is the relationships you build with your students. I used to pride myself on the connections I made with my students at the middle/high school level- yes, all 180 of them. I really thought that I made deep and lasting connections with each individual student. Since allowing more time for these one-on-one sessions, I realized just how little I knew my students within the traditional teaching method. I began to know not just the academic abilities of each student, or basic family/friend/relationship facts about each student, I began to become a part of their lives. I was allowed into their world- their hopes, dreams, fears, the hurdles or set-backs in their learning as well as the immense personal achievement as they grew academically.

personalizing learning

Discussion- Academic Forum (for Personalized Learning)

As an English teacher, I have been working to foster literary discussions my entire career, but I have since realized that discussions are critical to learning across all skills and content areas. I think about how I learn best as an educator. I glean a great deal more when I am a part of a discussion (those lovely PLC groups) than sitting passively in a staff meeting as I am talked at- yes talked at. When I can have conversations over a shared professional development text, new methodology, or even data, I am engaged in growing within that content. I am active in my own learning, and illuminating new pathways to thinking about said content, even the dreaded data discussions!

personalized learning

Independent Learning- Personal Flex (for Personalized Learning)

Within personalized learning, students will often have more voice and choice in whether they would like to complete projects alone, or with a partner/small group. That being said, there are many times that students will just need time to work towards completing a standard. Personal flex allows students to delineate time within the classroom to work on academic goals. Students can be working on a variety of standards and projects within the same class period, on the same day, with the same instructor; it can be done! Personal flex expectations must be clearly defined and practiced- even with your eldest high schoolers, wait, especially with your eldest high schoolers!

Group Work- Group Flex (for Personalized Learning)

Students will find themselves working in small groups on some of the standards. Of course, you can always determine if a specific standard is open to group work, or should be completed independently. This, of course, depends on the standard and the specific learning goals. I often find that the writing standards within the English curriculum are completed independently, but the reading and speaking standards can often be met within a group setting. It is important to recognize that middle and high school students are social beings. This is readily apparent as we maneuver through the hallways, watch our students text during a lesson, snap chat pictures of their face during independent work times, and- oh yeah- those psychology courses we all took in college. Because this is natural and expected behavior, let’s, as teachers, capitalize on this! Allow this time as they work towards their educational goals, they are building skills they will use the rest of their lives! How many times do we hear that employers are far more interested in team players than solo, inflexible practitioners within any given field! As with the independent flex, group flex expectations must be clearly defined and practice right at the beginning of the year, or immediately as you begin to personalize learning. Additionally, a group flex must have a clearly defined space separate from the independent flex. Students need to have clear distinctions within the room- in this space, I can talk- in that space, I cannot! Usually spaces with grouped desks, couches, horseshoe tables, etc are perfect for group flex space. The furniture helps to define that this is a space for collaborative work. Desk in rows, quite hallways, etc. are far better to define a personal- silent- flex space.

teach between the lines

If you were wondering earlier, as I described the small group coaching workshops, what the rest of your class would be doing, don’t worry, this was my main concern as well. The answer lies within the Discussion forum, the Personal Flex, and the Group Flex. As students work towards mastery of a given standard, they will have important work to complete. No more busy work will allow yourself the freedom to meet with specific students, they will drive what they are working on each day. They will determine the best space for their learning, and THEY WILL complete tasks- I promise. It is a bit of a leap of faith at first, but you will soon see great rewards if you just go ahead and jump!

Addressing the Misconceptions-What Personalized Learning IS, and What it IS NOT – #2

There are many misconceptions when it comes to a truly personalized learning platform of instruction.

Misconception # 1
Direct instruction is no longer acceptable.

You will still teach to your entire class just as you are now! Will this become less so as you begin to offer voice and choice? Yes. You will find yourself working in small group sessions far more often as students begin to drive their own pace, and content. At first, this was entirely terrifying for me. I love direct instruction: I get excited about my content, I put on a show, I act, I sing, I dance, I create dramatic pauses, and, best of all, I use humor to engage students like a stand-up comedian. The thought of teaching in different styles was enough to send me into a full blown panic attack. Begrudgingly, I stepped away from the spotlight, and left my center stage in an attempt to personalize learning. I worried, of course, that without this classroom’s leading lady- how would students find their way? Who would direct, and drive the show? It really didn’t take long for me to see that the light didn’t go out, it just began to shine on the students instead of me.
What does this extended metaphor really saying? When you stop putting on that show every day, you will find two things happen:

1. You go home FAR less exhausted every day.
2. Your students go home FAR MORE exhausted every day.

When we cajole, act, dance, sing, pray that we get their attention every hour of every day, we are working far harder at their education than they do! They get to be passive learners in their education, taking in the information when they so desire or are able. When they are put in charge- when they drive their own education- when that responsibility is in their hands, they will work harder than ever before. They will be ACTIVE in their education and their learning- and that is an exceedingly beautiful thing.

Misconception # 2
Students are given a list of standards to meet and told to ‘go’.

While students are given standards to meet, they are absolutely supported throughout the process of mastery of each and every standard. The ‘list of standards’ is the greatest component to personalized learning. When students see the standards they are working towards, they understand the age old question- WHY ARE WE LEARNING THIS? They no longer wonder- they know!

“To meet the standard of crafting an argument essay, I must first meet the following learning targets… When I can do all of these smaller pieces, I can show my teacher that I have mastered the standard of writing an argument essay.”

Before personalized learning we might display the daily learning targets, but without the bigger picture, what did students really take away from these silly statements written on the board? They were generally left out of the planning process, and certainly left in the dark about the specific wording and phrasing of the standards that actually drive our instruction each and every day. By clueing them in, we create an immense amount of learner buy-in.
This does not mean that we give students a list of every standard for the entire semester or year. It’s never a good idea to overwhelm students, but you can list the standards associated with a given unit! I usually ask students to reflect on their knowledge of and ability to master the standards before the unit, mid-unit, and post-unit. Below is an image of how I lay out the standards for our “Cemetery Path” Short Story Unit (for sale on my TpT Store).

Students are given a list of the power standards (our district’s terminology for the common core standards), the learning target, the available seminars and coaching workshops, the learning journey suggestions (ways to practice, supportive websites, graphic organizers, etc) and ways to show mastery of each standard. Students are able to create a unit plan for their learning by following the standards they need to meet!

Misconception #3
Teachers don’t really do a great deal of teaching; the students simply go and learn for themselves.

While I will agree that I did a lot less direct instruction teaching, I feel far more active in my teaching than I did prior to the personalized learning platform. I spend a good deal of my time in coaching workshops, or individual conferencing. These settings allow me the opportunity to create meaningful learning experiences, connect with students, engage them in their learning, etc. I look forward to these sessions, and rarely miss the direct teaching I was so accustomed to. I didn’t realize how completely exhausting direct teaching can be until I stopped making this my go-to method of teaching!
I strongly believe that I do far more ‘teaching’ than ever before. There is never a time that I simply sit at my desk, nor do I just walk around and monitor students as they work.

Misconception #4
I have to make a personal learning plan for every single student, every single day.

This is usually the misconception that has teachers trembling in their boots (or in their seats at professional development meetings!) If this is your biggest concern, I have great news for you-YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO THIS! Your students will do this for themselves! I know that sounds too good to be true, but true it is! As your students become more familiar with driving their own learning, they will create their own path towards meeting the standards. You will still offer the same instruction as you would have with the traditional methodology; you may deliver this content differently, but good instruction does not go away in personalized learning. You will still offer a path for learning, guiding, practicing, and applying content- just as would have previously. You will still offer some suggestions/guidelines towards a summative assessment. The only real difference is that these paths are optional. Students can choose to attend all of the coaching workshops, or they can choose to learn it on their own. They can choose to complete all of the practice you offer, or they may create their own path for practice. They can choose the assessment options you have provided, or they can (and will) create unique summative assessment ideas on their own. I have found that the summative assessment options that students create are often far more challenging than anything I would have expected! They often far surpass my expectations. I will say that most students, (until your classes are fairly experienced with the new learning platform) will still simply follow your plan. This allows them to feel success with planning the pacing, and experience the freedom personalized learning will bring- all within a fairly structured environment. Then, as students become more familiar with the process, they will begin to derive their own learning methods, create their own learning materials, and assessments. You don’t have to create a plan for every student, they will create a plan that actually meets their very specific learning needs. I promise!
Below are three products for sale on my store that include a personalized learning teaching plan, introduction to personalized learning lessons, student agendas, and teaching instructions! These are a good place to start as you begin this exciting process!

           

So, You Have Been Asked To Personalize Learning- What Now? – #1

Whether you yourself desire to personalize learning, or you have been asked by your admin to do so, the process of doing so can seem extremely overwhelming- maybe even downright terror inducing. Upon hearing the phrase Personalized Learning you may find yourself asking some pretty important questions (after you ask what it is, of course!):

Where do I start?

Do I have to throw out everything I have already built?

How will I know students are learning? What if they are not learning?

How will I assess student learning?

How can I possibly personalize learning for all 150+ students in my secondary classroom?

How can I manage multiple texts and multiple assessment options?

How can I manage students going at their own pace? Doesn’t there need to be a beginning and consequent ending of each unit?

How will students know what to do? How will I know what they are doing?

Won’t students simply choose the easiest options? Will they really challenge themselves? How do I make sure they meet the standards?

 

Before you run from the school building screaming, know that everyone who takes this journey finds these questions nearly paralyzing as they begin.

As I began the process of adopting this new teaching paradigm into my classroom, I found the answers to these questions- and you will too. You will find methods within this pedagogy that work for you and your personal teaching style. What I can offer you is advice on each of these questions, the best answers that I have found along my five year journey with personalizing learning. Within this series of blog posts we’ll dive into each question, and discuss practical applications for your classroom. Let’s start with the important discovery of what it really means to personalize learning, and chat about why you DO want to give it a try in your classroom.

  1. What is it?

I like to think of personalized learning as ‘voice and choice on steroids’.

Metaphor alert!

Within a traditional classroom, teachers are the drivers of learning. They plan the best route to knowledge. They determine all of the stops along the way, and the activities that will take place during the ride. Students, within this model, are passive passengers, often going through the motions- playing the game of ‘school’.

Personalized learning strives to push students into that metaphorical driver’s seat. When they take control of their learning, they take ownership of it. But what does this really mean? Students will finally have a say in how they learn new material, when they learn new material, where they choose to learn the material, and often have a choice in the material they learn based on their personal interests.

Whoa! That feels overwhelming again, doesn’t it? Don’t take off running just yet! Start slow. Try differentiating a lesson for your gifted students, offering an extra option for learning, a second option for assessment, or allowing students to flex their seating (not all on the same day, with the same lesson). Rome was not build in a day, and neither is the perfect personalized classroom.

 

  1. Why you DO want to give this a try.

When you begin to try letting go of that tightly grasped curriculum, and allowing students to take that control for themselves, you will see your students transform before your eyes. I distinctly remember being told the same within a staff meeting, and scoffing at the prospect and the presenter herself. And then I gave it a try. My students thrived- even as I made mistakes through the implementation process. I watched them advocate for their learning needs, collaborate on real projects of interest, meet standards at levels higher than I would have even dared to strive for. They tackled the curriculum, and we moved faster through the standards than my own backwards planning. They moved ME forward, and together we achieved the highest test scores I’ve ever seen from my students in the past.

Learners feel respected when you entrust them with that responsibility, they feel mature, and they feel SUCCESS. It’s contagious. The intrinsic motivation becomes a driving force for learners of all backgrounds and abilities. They learn to use words and phrases such as: “what I need for my learning is_____”, “Let’s get refocused so we can stay on pace with our learning”, and “sitting in a collaborative space doesn’t work for my learning, I need a quiet space”. When you hear these (and more) phrases, you will know success. You will feel it. What you have just done is prepare those students for a life outside of school. You have built them to be successful in life—and that is the greatest gift we can give our students.

To get started with this journey take a peek at the next blog post in this series for practical ideas for answering an initial implementation question: Addressing the Misconceptions… What Personalized Learning Is, and What it is NOT.