Finding the Right Fit
My journey into personalized learning was fraught with frustrations, disappointments, and pivots. I began the school year with a class of 18 brilliant fifth grade learners, 12 of them with individualized education plans (IEP’s). What I learned immediately was that the more traditional method of whole-group instruction wasn’t the most beneficial. Although there were some benefits to teaching all students at the same time, I found that this particular teaching practice did not account for the variance of our learners. A student in fifth grade reading at 2nd grade level processes and understands information, and the world, differently than a fifth grader reading on a 4th or 6th grade level. Pivot!
What happened next was a lot of collaboration among our coaches, colleagues, and administrators. We met constantly. We met over the weekends, during our planning blocks, and even during recess. We discussed lesson plans, groupings, classroom structures & routines, and most importantly, the data. We realized that our learners thrived when the lessons were tailored to their specific learning needs and interests. When a learning task was grounded in the context of books or reading a passage that was of high interest, our students performed better. Conversely, when a selected reading passage did not take into account the personal or collective interests of the class, it was difficult to get buy in. The question then became: How do we consistently provide flexibility and support given the diversity of our learners? Pivot!
What emerged was a blended learning station rotation approach to instruction. Students rotated through four basic stations: an adaptive reading program, independent/collaborative skill practice, guided reading, and independent reading. The work at each station was adjusted based on the students. For example, students who read at least two years below grade level were given the opportunity to read grade level texts online. The online platform Raz-kids read the book with the students, posed text dependent questions that could be checked, and also provided students an opportunity to read the book, and save their reading on the website platform. I could then listen to their readings and offer feedback, and plan lessons accordingly.
With this new model, our team began to see amazing results. Students were more engaged, and more work was completed. We were able to quickly pinpoint skill deficits and weaknesses, and during our guided reading time students began to describe their deficits to us. While using the adaptive reading program, one particular student candidly asked me, “Mr. Davis, I don’t get this vowel team rule. Can we talk about this in group?”
Another student, so enamored with the online reading platform, began to read every night at home. After a few weeks of working with this new model, we began to notice even more learner variance. Pivot!
What began as four groups of students rotating through four stations became six groups of students rotating through five stations. As student became more invested in our new systems, their reading levels improved. As reading levels improved, we had to reorganize and form new reading groups based on the data.
Initially, the growing diversity was difficult to manage. However, as the students recognized their growth, and that their activities were geared toward their specific learning needs and preferences, they developed greater patience for the constant innovation occurring within the classroom, and in learning happening before their eyes. In time, we were able to design a rotational system that was satisfying. That said, the level of growth experienced by some students was so exponential that we were forced to revisit and redesign stations and activities.
At the end of the school year, my class of brilliant learners, 12 of whom have IEP’s, experienced a tremendous amount of growth. Our average growth in reading was 1.5 years.
We began the school year with 62.5% of our students testing at the below basic level of reading proficiency, 25% basic level, and 12.5% proficient. At the end of the school year, that same group of students scored 27.7% below basic, 55.5% basic, and 16.7% proficient. Additionally three of our students missed the proficient category by 2 points. If they had gotten one more question correct our proficiency rate would have increased to 33.3%.
When I think about the merits of personalized learning, I think about my 5th grade learners. Although our journey down the road of personalized learning was filled with potholes, we were able to move closer and more quickly to our destination.