It’s tough to describe most implementations of personalized learning—especially to students and parents—in a way that conveys how it works on a day-to-day basis. Instead of focusing on the details, we tend to hover around the philosophies and ideologies that build the skeleton of our environment.
Unfortunately, that’s even more confusing to parents, especially since it’s loaded with terminology and acronyms that send them into a tizzy. How else could they feel when we tell them we want their student in our problem-based, mastery-driven, self-directed, 1:1, personalized, bell-less classroom? Or when we talk about ever-changing schedules and how grades are determined through students’ public exhibition of work, which is scored along a cognitive skills rubric?
More often than not they look at us like we’re nuts—rightly so—which is why in my learning environment, we take a slightly different approach, easing parents into our way of thinking slowly, and involving them and their and students in a hands-on way as they get acquainted with what we do and why—because what we do is pretty different.
Here at Kuna Middle School in Kuna, Idaho (a quiet farm suburb outside Boise), we run a learning environment with cross-curricular, project-based learning experiences at its core. We call it "Synergy." Students work on one project at a time and all four core areas—Math, ELA, Science, and History—are integrated into those projects.
To facilitate this type of learning well, we use a unique physical environment: Four mentors move about three different learning spaces with no doors in the doorways, no bells and a schedule that changes daily. Needless to say this is a drastic change for students and parents, but we feel that how we teach, combined with the physical and online environments, helps us truly personalize learning for our students. But in order to fully understand this, parents definitely need an introduction.
So in our case, we send them to bootcamp.
Our First Bootcamp: The Firehose
Before each school year ends, we invite next year’s interested families to visit our learning space and give them a quick rundown of the ideologies the drive our practice, and the methodologies we use to reach students each day. It's the first in a series of bootcamps for parents to help introduce the model, and it usually ends up being that full-bore stream of jargon-laced teacher talk listed above. Think of it like opening up a firehose and unleashing everything at once.
In the end, their eyebrows tell us everything: though we seem to know what we’re talking about, they tend not to understand a word of it. They’re interested, and it sounds incredibly exciting, but they don’t even know which questions to ask. This confusion is expected, so we anticipate this isn’t the last time we’ll talk with them.
Second Bootcamp: Y’all Ready for This?
We meet again in the summer with the parents and students who have requested to be with us —our students stay with us for two years, so it’s important we really spend some time getting them acquainted with our beautiful mess. This time things are more structured, and a little more like what our students experience. The families come in and we ask them to take over our space in the same way our students do: they sit on the couches, chairs, yoga balls, Hokki stools and lean on our standing tables as we go through the same presentation they saw the previous year, then offer several different spots in our learning space to visit.
At the same time, we run short 15-minute “classes” and allow families to switch between them at their own pace; they can leave whenever they feel like their questions have been answered. We also stick around for as long as needed after the Bootcamp to let parents drill down into the finer details they want to understand.
- Questions about grades meet in one room
- Questions about schedules meet in another
- Questions about our online environment, the Summit Learning Platform, meet in a third room, and
- We always have Synergy alumni on hand to talk with parents and students about their own experiences with us.
Third Bootcamp: Synergy 101
Once the school year starts, our students spend time getting acquainted with their mentor teachers and fellow classmates. We put them through round after round of team-building and self-discovery exercises and then give them their first project of the year: Synergy 101.
In this project, our students use Summit to maneuver through a project we built, which teaches and tests them on the ins-and-outs of our program. Students set up a personal Google Calendar—essential for scheduling classes day-to-day—and learn how projects work and how checkpoints build toward a final product. We spend time showing them how to learn material at their own pace and explain that the concept of mastery learning—where work is returned to them until they can show they’ve really gotten it.
Afterward, students cap off the tutorial by creating a short screencast video on our learning model, which each student scripts out, records, narrates and shows off to his or her parents at a schoolwide back-to-school night.
This is when the “aha moment” arrives.
Students get that public exhibition of their work, which is absolutely necessary for a piece of learning to take meaning. The teaching of acquired information is not only exhilarating but it teaches kids to be critical of their own work through self-reflection and drives those understandings deeper into permanent knowledge.
For those parents who’d been worried or confused or unsure about what they were dropping their kid into—they get a gift. They get a video, made by their kid, that answers those questions they didn’t know to ask. (You can check out an example of one of these student made videos here.)
Parents still need support—personalized learning does not mean a student is sailing smoothly once the first project is finished. Kids are kids, and they will fall behind. Students and parents will forget the lessons intended to be taught in that first project. Hair will be pulled out by both parties.
So continuous communication is key: weekly email updates from your team explaining where students should be in their work; new changes to your classroom should be sent out; and proactive emails outlining concerns or praise are a must. Parents are giving us their babies, but we have to take care of both of them for the long haul. And that’s not something you can settle all in one meeting.
Kevin Murphy is an English language arts teacher at Kuna Middle School in Idaho.