I often get the question: Why did you become a teacher? I find it hard to answer this question, as I don’t always feel that it accurately represents why I’m still a teacher. When I began teaching, I knew I liked kids, and I merely took a risk on a profession I thought might be fun. The first few years of my career, however, were transformative, both professionally and personally. I fell in love, not only with the learning process, but also with the human condition that is learning. It seemed that, through becoming an educator, I found myself as a learner, too.
My approach to teaching and learning grounds itself in the premise that learning is a human condition, and that school should be a place that not only sets children up for a lifetime of loving learning, but also helps them to see the relevance and empowerment that can come from being an autonomous learner. Nothing has helped me explore this more than the concept of personalized learning, which I’ve had the pleasure of exploring with AltSchool for the past three school years. While personalization is generally defined in terms of academic rigor, I tend to define it as the art of making learning personal to children, and through this portfolio, I hope to provide some examples of how I’ve tried to make this come to life in my classrooms.
Planning and Preparation
I’ve always believed that structured planning, grounded in the tenets of backward design, engender an intentionally structured curriculum that still allows children to see themselves within the confines of a given unit. In my experience, personalization is made even more possible by intentionally crafted units of instruction that allow for various levels of proficiency and the easy connection to real-world concepts or topics of interest. In fact, in the summer of 2016, when I trained a group of teachers in Beijing on creating project-based, backward-designed units of instruction, I used this example to demonstrate how I was able to make a geometry unit personal to my children.
This planning style transcends siloed subjects, and I believe this mentality can be used to create multi-disciplinary units of instruction, much like I did with my kindergarten and first-grade multi-age classes. While I planned reading, writing, and math workshop as separate entities throughout the day, all of them were seamlessly connected through our “Communities” unit, where we studied communities from around the world.
The classroom environment is, arguably, the most crucial component of building a warm, nurturing, and personalized environment. In order for personalization to occur, the environment must be intentionally engineered for autonomy. This helps children realize and actualize their own sense of intrinsic motivation, allowing them to internalize their own goals and make meaningful improvements to their work.
Social and emotional learning lie at the heart of a classroom environment that values intrinsic motivation. In my classroom, I capitalize on morning meeting to explicitly teach social-emotional lessons and attempt to bring parents into the experience, as well, by posting about the language we use on our “Parent Portal,” so they can mirror it at home. This allows the classroom environment we’ve built to extend beyond the walls of the classroom and create a symmetrical experience for my children.
Proactively, I teach my children about Peace Talks, Mindfulness, and the Zones of Regulation, so that they are able to use this language to solve problems on their own. I also take time to teach them about flexible thinking, relying mostly on the Superflex curriculum to do so. We talk through scenarios, and I even “think aloud,” when I’m noticing unexpected circumstances that I have to navigate.
Above all else, I believe that a supportive classroom environment allows children to grow into themselves and learn from their mistakes in a safe space. Learning requires a great deal of vulnerability, and through the intentional building of an environment that makes the space and time for this, we can support all children in reaching their full potential.
At the heart of any instructional framework lies student engagement. It’s what makes even a class-wide activity or project utterly personal to each and every child. Oftentimes, personalization is mistaken for individualization, where every child is operating independently: but this is categorically different than every child functioning with autonomy. Autonomy implies thoughtful, individualized decision-making, whereas independence implies isolation. For this reason, my instruction embodies a project-based mindset, calling upon the tenets of the workshop model in all areas.
I value a short mini-lesson, grounded in content but focused on strategic thinking, followed by the majority of the block which can be used for independent conferring, small-group work, and the space and time for the children to navigate their own learning journeys. This allows the space for short feedback loops with individual children, meanwhile granting them the time to spread their wings and witness their own autonomy, agency, and purpose in the greater experience of learning.
How do I keep tabs on this? I rigorously assess, and in as many forms as I can bear to think of. I find that one-on-one conferring in all areas allows space for short, immediately actionable feedback loops that allow students to develop a growth mindset. By constantly giving feedback, and by focusing on both successes and challenges, I can help children gain a sense of mastery–an awareness that they will always be getting better, and that they need to continue setting goals for themselves.
My student-friendly writing rubrics are an excellent example of this. In fact, this was the central narrative for my publication in ASCD’s Educational Leadership. These rubrics allow children to compare their work against relationally strong and weak samples of work, setting goals based on observable characteristics.
My assessment, however, does not end here. As a part of my work for a technology start-up, I developed a number of skills that have allowed me to minimize the complexity of personalized learning, creating spreadsheets that help me visualize data and generate reports to parents, bringing all key stakeholders into the feedback loops and helping to support the child from multiple fronts.
These reports are based solely on criterion-referenced data, highlighting the importance of clear grade-level expectations and rubrics. These clear expectations lay the foundation on which I can help each child draw his or her individual path, creating a triangulated common language–one that can be shared by me, the parents, and the children. All of this was possible by leveraging the power of technology, not to teach the children, but to manage the complexity of data collection.
Education is a profession of camaraderie. I believe that we get what we give, and through the result of my efforts to connect with other teachers, I believe I’ve gained a great deal. I’ve been exposed to different ways of thinking, and also learned to refine the ways in which I communicate the intention behind my practice.
Most recently, I’ve presented at the National Board Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington D.C. (2016), as well as two OESIS (Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools) Conferences in Boston (2015) and Los Angeles (2016). In Washington D.C., my colleague, Courtney Reynolds, and I shared our approach to personalization. In Boston, I was able to share approaches for a technology-rich reading and writing workshop and an innovative classroom design project. In Los Angeles, I shared about using data mindfully and in a child-centered way.
I seek to contribute to the collective of professional knowledge in other ways, as well. I started my blog in January of 2013 and have published consistently since then. I’ve watched my audience grow, and now I contribute to prominent digital and print publication, such as ILA’s “Literacy Today,” ASCD’s “Educational Leadership,” and the Huffington Post. Please see the Features page to see where else I’ve published.
In the summer of 2016, I spent three weeks in China, working with a new school, building their model for personalized learning. Yinuo Li, the director the Gates Foundation for China, invited me out to work with her teachers, do some guest lessons around Beijing, and speak at a few events in the area. I was able to teach various grade levels, including lessons to both fourth- and seventh-grade, at Tsinghua University and Beijing Academy, respectively, as well as speak at the Yale Center and the Beijing Department of Education.
I look forward to finding more domestic and international partners in the pursuit of making a meaningful impact on education. Please do not hesitate to reach out using the contact buttons at the top of this page!