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April 30, 2018

Lessons from Experimenting with Personalization in My Classroom

David Rodriguez, AltSchool Educator

The road to personalized learning is a difficult but rewarding one. In this three-part series, AltSchool educator and pedagogy fellow David Rodriguez shares his story of the challenges he has faced on that journey, and discovering his purpose as a teacher.

Read part one: The Road to Personalized Learning: My Journey Toward Wanting More
And part three: 3 Strategies for Building a Foundation of Personalized Learning

“Em-zay!” The boy shouted with increasing exasperation, covering his face with his hands. His breathing was loud and heavy.

“I think it’s Mmmmm-zeeee,” his reading partner replied with icy calm.

“This chair is comfortable,” I thought, “let’s see how this plays out.”

“Em-zay!” The boy screamed again as he picked up the book they were reading and threw it across the room. It hit the cage of the pet rats the class had earned for good behavior. The cage door fell open and Snowy and Sophie made a break for it. Pandemonium erupted.

The Storm Before the Calm

After I resolved to provide my students with a radically better education, I set out on a path of experimentation. I knew what I didn’t like about the old system, but I didn’t have a clear picture of what the next step would be. My teaching team and I got to work experimenting with several new curricula.

The book in question. Ironically, the correct pronunciation involves combining the two students’ versions.

This particular day was the day I rolled out a new partner reading program. I’d read research about the value of choice and differentiation in student reading and was excited about the power of choral reading and partner work. We’d spent the last few days setting expectations, practicing how to discuss a book, and how to use the power of the other student’s voice to improve fluency. I had even invited my principal to come and check out the program on the big day. My confidence was high.

But less than two minutes into the lesson, these two students launched into an argument over how to pronounce the title of the book they’d chosen—and they hadn’t even opened it yet. The book, about a baby hippopotamus who was adopted by a tortoise, was called Owen & Mzee: The Story of a Remarkable Friendship. In my classroom, it was bedlam. Students were screaming and laughing as Snowy and Sophie darted around the room.

Failing Up

The lesson was an objective failure. The students had progressed less in their reading than they would have if I had simply read the textbook out loud to the class. But this incident marked the beginning of a five-year period of experimentation. I refused to fall back on the textbooks and behavior charts that I previously relied on. This was also a period marked by many dramatic failures, each one testing my resolve to innovate.

There was the time that, with student agency in mind, I planned a field trip where students would navigate through the woods with a compass. It’s never a fun moment when you do a headcount and you come up with less than when you started. Then there was the time my class earned the Giant Golden Spoon for good lunchtime behavior. One the students began attacking the class with the giant spoon, eventually reducing the poor substitute teacher to tears. It was enough to make me question my abandonment of those demoralizing behavior charts.

Mostly, there were many, many times that I failed to follow through on idealistic lesson plans. Each time I failed, I could feel those prepackaged textbooks and lesson plans taunting me.

But I didn’t stop experimenting and I still haven’t.

Read more about learner agency: I Drive What I Learn: Enabling Learner Agency

Small Changes, Incremental Progress

It’s scary to fail with students. As teachers, we’re told that we can be the difference in their lives. But what kind of difference? Maxims about failure lose their power when you consider the possibility that failed experimentation could mean a student won’t learn how to read or go to college. It’s important to remind ourselves in these moments of doubt that we are already failing our students—not accepting one failure means risking another.

The most difficult aspect of committing to experimentation and the inevitable failure that comes with it is that there is no singular redeeming moment. The path forward will crumble beneath your feet and you will feel irrevocably lost again and again. I used to tell myself that if I learn enough from a failure to make one positive adjustment (no matter how insignificant that change may be), I can turn that failure into a success.

Learn how to create a culture of innovation at your school.

My favorite practice after a particularly rough day was to sit down and reflect on positive events. Only then would I notice the students who took full advantage of partner reading or pinpoint the students that needed it most. I would then pick up the phone and call my students at home, on speaker phone for their family to hear, to thank them for a specific contribution to class. The next day I would thank the student in front of their peers and ask the entire class what we could do to make our classroom better.

From Lab Rats to Megalodons

A few years after the Owen & Mzee debacle, my students were arguing again. They’d been tasked with making a life-size animal replica for an outdoor art exhibit on the natural history of Los Angeles. This was part of an ambitious local history curriculum that my co-teachers and I had created together. Students couldn’t decide what animal to recreate until one student said something that everybody got on board with.

“Megalodon.”

The students all cheered. As part of our curriculum, the students had learned that Los Angeles used to be in the ocean and they had discovered that megalodons had likely once swam where their classroom now stands. I was happy that there was consensus, but didn’t want them to get too excited.

“That’s awesome, José, but we can’t do a megalodon.”

There was a chorus of awws.

“They were 60 feet long! It’s just impossible!” I explained.

“Why is it impossible?”

I realized I wasn’t giving them a chance because I wanted to shield them from failure. But then I thought: If we take a chance and fail but learn from it, it would ultimately be a success. My students tackled the project enthusiastically, befriending the cafeteria staff and receiving an endless supply of cardboard, sketching a chalk outline of a megalodon based on a scientific photo, and enlisting the help of the after-school program so work could continue after class was over. What started out as one student’s idea turned into a school-wide project.

The number one lesson I continue to learn and relearn is that students can be entrusted to solve problems. Does something feel impossible? Imagine having 25 eager assistant teachers at your disposal. Nothing motivates students more than helping their teacher with an authentic problem, and trusting them, supporting them, and allowing their enthusiasm to drive their results in powerful learning moments—for them and for myself.

In part three, I share some tenets I follow when creating personalized learning experiences as well as the research I’m conducting on personalization.

Read part one: The Road to Personalized Learning: My Journey Toward Wanting More
And part three: 3 Strategies for Building a Foundation of Personalized Learning
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