My Personalized Learning Approach Isn’t About Tech. It’s About Dignity.

Personalized Learning

My Personalized Learning Approach Isn’t About Tech. It’s About Dignity.

By Valerie Gates     Sep 14, 2017

My Personalized Learning Approach Isn’t About Tech. It’s About Dignity.

This article is part of the guide: What Personalized Learning Looks Like Across the Country: The 2017 Fifty States Project.

“You won’t last a week at that school. Those kids will eat you alive! You’ll end up sliding your key under your classroom door at midnight and quitting without telling anyone!”

These were the words I heard as HR stamped my papers to complete my hiring. I know what they saw: A soft-spoken, middle-aged white woman who had nothing in common with the 2,800 students at an inner-city minority-majority high school in Utah. I was far from a novice teacher. In fact, I had been teaching for 21 years at that point in my career. And yet I started that year with fear, trepidation and zero confidence in my abilities as a teacher.

Now I am beginning my 14th year at that same high school. I am the ELL coordinator, department chair, ELD and AVID teacher and most recently, the 2017 Utah Teacher of the Year. I am not gloating. I am just grateful I have been able to prove them wrong, and it has everything to do with the relationships I've built with students, and those students themselves.

We, as teachers, always start the year off working to develop and establish a relationship with our students. We share stories, ‘ice-break’ together and set up classroom norms as a group. I am fortunate to have a rich diversity in my classes. My students differ in race, religion, English proficiency, identification, lifestyle, degrees of prior formal education, engagement, literacy…the list goes on. For personalized learning to occur in my classroom, I need to discover and establish a commonality between myself and each individual student.

Personalized learning truly becomes "personal" once we develop real relationships with our students. There’s a spectrum of how much time and energy teachers can devote to building and maintaining these relationships. It can start within the classroom, extend out into the school, go deeper into the family and out into the community. The important thing to keep right smack in the front of our minds is:

Amount of time spent working after school ≠ better teacher

Being mindful of establishing and maintaining dignity in your classroom = better teacher

Here’s what the last 14 years have taught me about discovering commonality and maintaining dignity, both in and out of the classroom, and how that leads to personalized learning that matters.

Within the Classroom

My absolute priority at the beginning of each year is to create and maintain a true sense of dignity of the humans in my classroom. Acknowledging the dignity of the students begins with discovering what each of us has in common.

I do this through thoughtful daily/weekly writing prompts and really reading their responses. When students reveal something about themselves or tell an interesting story about their lives, I connect with them in some way over the next couple of days.

I have a quiet conversation if they come in early or as they leave. I sometimes leave a post-it inside their notebooks or respond in the space below their writing in their journal. I send them an email. Depending on the sensitivity of the topic and response, I will occasionally ask a student for permission to share their comments with the class. Once the first conversation takes place, it opens the door to continued conversations throughout the year.

Last year, I had a girl in my freshman class who was quiet and unengaged with a challenging attitude—a bit of a "tough" kid. The students were given the writing prompt, “Who is your rock?” She wrote about her boxing coach.

The next day I asked about what women’s boxing was like and how she got interested in it. She let the tiniest bit of pride and pleasure show on her face and told me about a match that was coming up in a few weeks. I wrote it on my calendar and the day of the event, got there just as she was warming up with her coach. She noticed me and ran up to introduce us. She was a completely different person: Enormously respectful of her coach and opponent, full of life and bursting with confidence.

The next day in school, she gave me permission to show the pictures I had taken to the class. She started engaging with the students and curriculum. Her dignity had been honored and acknowledged that day.

Out of your classroom and into the school

When the school day allows for it, I move my efforts to build commonality outside the walls of my classroom. If I know a student has been anxious about a test or presentation in another class, I will stand by that classroom door either before or after the class. I’ll remind them how hard they’ve worked and how ready they are, or we’ll debrief after the class. With the permission of the teacher, and depending on the wishes of the student, I will sit at the back and watch a presentation; encouraging them with a smile or a quiet thumbs up.

I offer to write a note, send an email or speak to another teacher on behalf of a student (always allowing the student to read it beforehand) to help explain a family situation or particular concern. This is a delicate operation. It’s important to keep in mind the dignity of both the teacher and student. If I have established a good, trusting relationship with the teacher, these communications are always well received. The teacher is in the loop, feels trusted, and the student’s dignity has been honored.

A visit to a student’s other class to talk to the teacher about a particularly good day, an inspired performance, a thoughtful discussion, an impressive thought process or excellent behavior builds commonality. It doesn’t have to be a loud “student-of-the-week” announcement or enormous production. Subtlety can be very strong. A whispered shout-out can echo for weeks.

A shy smile, a straightening of the shoulders, a determined look in their eyes, the admiration from classmates, and a visible increase in confidence. Dignity.

Out of your school and into the home

Many of our female refugee students from several countries in Africa are strongly encouraged to marry during the summer of their junior year in what is virtually always an arranged marriage. When I started teaching at my school, I noticed most of these young women did not return to school that fall for their senior year. They had come so far only to miss graduating by one year.

So now, as soon as I hear about upcoming marriages, I make my way out to visit their homes. I establish sincere relationships with their mothers as we talk about high school diplomas and how they can open opportunities for their daughters. I find out where the fiancés live and arrange visits with them and their mothers. More relationships, more discussions, more trust. Now the majority of these amazing young women return to school after their marriages. It may take a month or two, but they come back. And they graduate.

Home visits are time consuming, daunting at times, a little awkward and enormously rewarding. They bring a huge return on your investment. Throughout the 14 years at my current school, my philosophy of home visits has evolved. It began with home visits virtually every day after school and on. Needless to say, that was a plan doomed to fail.

I have created a sustainable home visit plan. I choose one day per week to dedicate to home visits. This year, it will be Wednesday afternoons or evenings. I always invite one other classroom teacher to come along and an interpreter if I need one. Including another teacher widens the student’s and family’s circle of trust, improves the in-school relationship between the student and that teacher and builds the commonality that will lead to strong, positive relationships. When my own children were younger, I brought them along.

By investing a little time, I get improved attendance, behavior in class and academic success. I develop relationships with families that extend to younger siblings and endure as they make their way to high school. Families know their dignity will be upheld when they come to the school and that their children are respected.

Out into the community

Moving beyond student’s homes and reaching out into the community sends the fingers of commonality and respect out in many directions. When I am invited, I attend as many teas, weddings, births, baptisms, funerals, family reunions, quinceneras and Eid celebrations as I realistically can. I have a very kind and generous husband who is always happy to come with me.

And that’s another connection. When one family invites me to one of these occasions, I am given the opportunity to meet and talk with other members of that specific community. Parents, grandparents, siblings, and community leaders see me as a person of trust. Word spreads throughout the community that my school is respectful of their traditions and beliefs. They have my name they can use when they first come into the school and they know I’ll come right down to meet them in the office and get them where they need to be. And here we go again—respecting that dignity will lead to strong, solid relationships between teacher, student, family and community.

So, how does this all relate to personalized instruction?

Discovering and developing a commonality between student and teacher leads to establishing and maintaining dignity in the classroom. If we truly consider the dignity of our students to be an absolute priority, everything else falls into place.

With dignity in mind, it is more likely a teacher will create a lesson plan that will acknowledge students’ individual strengths and needs. Teachers pose appropriate questions when we consider what a student is actually understanding rather than just thinking about what we are saying. Our responses, reactions, discussion topics and behavior all change when we seek commonality with our students. Commonality leads to honoring dignity. Respecting dignity inevitably leads to thoughtful, personalized instruction.

In the end, and from the beginning, it all comes down to human dignity.

Valerie Gates is an ELD and AVID teacher, Department Chair, and ELL coordinator at West High School, a large urban high school in Salt Lake City.

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