At my district’s high schools, personalized learning is fairly easy to see. We know that our students are different, and to capitalize on their strengths, we provide opportunities for students to identify a focused path and to find success.
We have a fine arts program that allows students to graduate with a focus on dance, theater or various forms of music. We have a career tech program that lets students credential and intern in culinary, welding, healthcare and more. We have dual enrollment at three local colleges, and AP courses in a wide-range of subjects. And there are programs that provide real-world work opportunities that allow our students to develop career skills and interests before graduating.
It is easy to see how students can find their niche and flourish based on the variety of paths that are available. However, none of this would be successful without a the strong foundation students receive before they enter high school.
Sometimes our elementary and middle school teachers come across as almost apologetic about how “little” they are doing in relation to personalized learning compared to their high school counterparts. But they’re doing more than they think.
Without the work and effort they do every day to prepare our students, all of the choices in our high school would simply be a hodge-podge of random offerings, and students might not know how to maximize these experiences. That’s because at both the elementary and middle school level, we’ve focused on providing tiered, small group instruction on a daily basis.
Part of what makes scalable personalized learning a reality here is the common professional development we offer to teachers of all grades, a program we call the Falcon Learning Conversations Network (FLCN). Last year, we focused as a group on instructional strategies—introducing teachers to a common language around “think time,” quality questioning, formative assessment and feedback. As a district, we used a single walkthrough form used by teachers, administrators and district leaders. It focused on 20 indicators of student engagement. This document helped standardize what good teaching looks like at elementary, middle and high school levels.
Although we are using a different form this year, we still strive for consistency across the district in our walkthroughs and our professional development. This year, our focus is on Identifying your “why,” which includes helping students discover the importance of what they are learning today, and how this prepares them for tomorrow. (Not coincidently, this ties neatly into our district mission: “Preparing students for tomorrow…Today.”)
Our district classrooms use learning targets to help students understand the goal of each lesson, and to provide a vehicle for self-assessment on where they are in meeting that goal. Several years ago, one of our elementary schools began to use data notebooks with their students.
Data notebooks are a pretty simple concept. Students use them track their classroom grades, standardized assessment scores, and collect a portfolio of their best work. These notebooks are a vehicle for students to chart their strengths, challenges, accomplishments and goals for our youngest learners. Recently, I heard one of our high school teachers reflecting on her own second grade son’s ability to assess his learning. She was amazed at his ability to self-assess, and told me, “If he can do that, I know our high schoolers can as well.”
Today, data notebooks are used district wide to help students create feasible personal goals. These notebooks transform into conversations with their teachers, peers and parents. A big part of knowing where you are going as a student is having an understanding of who you are and what you aspire to do or become.
Personal awareness and goal creation are the keys to personalized learning. Although our high school welcomes and thrives on diverse student needs and interests, none of this would be possible without the strong focus on data and individual student need by our elementary and middle school teachers and staff. Just as we have learned when planning units of instruction, backward design is essential to helping students get to their destination. We should all be clear about the advantages our students will have when they arrive at Florence High School.
But before getting to this point, we need to recognize that everything they do in grades K-8 is a step in this direction. From giving them foundation in reading, writing and STEM, to exploring encore opportunities, every part of a student’s elementary and middle school work is part of this preparation. Whatever role in our organization, and whatever level we work at, all participants need to recognize the incredible opportunity our students have in pursuing their goals. Each of us plays an important part in helping our students find their own unique path on their learning journey and to support them in navigating their way.
Jill Edwards is an assistant principal at Florence High School in Florence, Alabama.