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March 20, 2018

The Road to Personalized Learning: My Journey Toward Wanting More

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. This is the first installment.

Read part two: Lessons from Experimenting with Personalization in My Classroom
And part three: 3 Strategies for Building a Foundation of Personalized Learning

Whether it’s because of the burden it places on the teacher, the implicit role of technology, or just the way the term gets thrown around without a clear definition or pathway to achieving it, personalization has been taking a lot of heat lately. Many teachers are tired of the push for personalization and the jumble of vague vision statements that push imposes on them. While I agree with many of these criticisms, I’m still a firm believer in personalization. But my journey to understanding its importance and just how powerful it can be when it’s used properly in the classroom was a long and, at times, frustrating one.

Learn more about Our Vision for Lab Schools.

Taking the First Step Toward Personalization

In my first year as a teacher, any learning that happened at all happened in a whole group setting. I took my teacher’s guide and did my best to faithfully implement its prescription—not because I believed this helped my students, but because I lacked the skill and imagination to do anything else. I was teaching third grade, and every book in the massive textbook system had a picture of a raccoon on the cover. Every night, I lugged these stacks of textbooks home, promising myself, “This is the night I will turn it all around.” Invariably, every night the teacher’s guide would sit unopened on my coffee table, those judgmental raccoon eyes tracking me around my apartment. They had a clear message: You are a terrible teacher and an even worse person. In the morning, I would take it all, untouched, back to school.

A judgmental raccoon.

My students were out of control and it seemed like every week I was “resetting” my classroom or trying some new intervention.  My principal bluntly toyed with idea of firing me, but, to his credit, signed me up for an online course on classroom management by Harry Wong instead. One line from that training stood out to me: “At the end of every day I go skipping out of my classroom full of energy. How? Because my students do all the work.”

Learning from My Mistakes

The following year, I went all in on a system that involved classic management techniques and well-planned learning centers around my classroom. I followed the training advice and implemented a model that had my students rotating to a different learning center every 20 minutes, where they were greeted by a clear set of directions. This new engine required 20 activities per week instead of five with generic, uninspired readers for each reading level and worksheets there to provide the fuel.

My students were well-behaved. My principal was happy. I was sleeping and buying groceries again. I was just about ready to put my Teacher of the Year trophy on the wall when my assistant teacher approached me and said, “Mr. Rodriguez, your kids are doing so much work, but I’m not sure if they’re learning anything.”

Ouch. It hurt because I knew she was right, and the evidence was everywhere. Hidden in my filing cabinet were hundreds of ungraded worksheets. My students were now so efficient that it was creating a new problem: They were barely receiving any feedback on their work.

Learn more about how AltSchool enables competency-based education.

The Turning Point

There were other problems, too. The leveled readers were coded by color and my struggling readers got books with orange covers. The books weren’t labeled, but the giant font and the watered-down, less-detailed version of the story everyone else was reading were dead giveaways. I felt like I was putting a giant orange dunce cap on each of them. I visualized them sitting on a therapist’s couch 20 years later, talking about how every time they see the color orange, they feel their dreams die.

Within the centers, students would either finish early or not at all. When it came time to rotate, students who were not finished would add their work to a growing backlog, which meant they had to miss out on recess or lunch time to catch up.

Perhaps most disheartening of all, I implemented a 4-3-2-1 system where each student had a clothespin that I moved up or down depending on their adherence to the rules of the classroom and—to be honest—whether or not I had breakfast that morning. When one student saw the clothespins, he commented:

“Oh yeah, my teacher did that last year.”

“How’d it go?” I asked.

“Well, every day I got a ‘one,’ so she started putting my clothespin on the floor.”

I moved the clothespin on my heart from a “one” to the floor.

Formulating a Plan

Although the increasing order in my classroom gave me a clearer view of some fundamental flaws and injustices inherent in a traditional education, the solutions that were readily apparent still didn’t seem quite right. I could adopt a stamp system to streamline feedback, but I wanted my students to get more meaningful feedback. I could assign work that wasn’t finished in class for homework, but I didn’t want to eternally punish kids for working more slowly than others. I could return to teaching primarily whole-group, but that presented its own problems.

I didn’t know what to do, but I had to do something. I put the curriculum in the closet, I took the clothespins off the wall, and I set to work designing a system where students were in control of their learning from the moment when they arrived at school until they went home; a system where student behavior was managed, not with rewards and punishments, but through conversations; a system where differentiation was accomplished without resorting to segregating students by ability level. I wasn’t sure what would happen, but the results were as immediate as they were dramatic. It was as if night had turned to day in my classroom, and it was as simple as having the courage to try.

The Reality Check

No, of course not. It was a mess. Student behavior got worse, feedback was inconsistent, and I couldn’t keep up with the ambitious plans that, while sustainable in my mind, fell apart during the daily grind of teaching. But there was an important difference between this disaster and the disaster of my first year in the classroom—this new mess was born of purpose, and I decided that I would sooner quit teaching than abandon that purpose. Ultimately, I took a leap of faith that meant to build something better, I had to tear down the walls first.

Over the next five years, my class was like the stock market. It may have been a safe long-term investment, but the daily fluctuations were enough to inspire a run on the bank. A painful reality was that some students benefited more than others from the volatility.

Personalized Learning Is a Movement

At the time, I was just a teacher who wanted more for his students. I didn’t know I was part of a movement. No buzzword described what I wanted to do, but defining my goals with terms like “student agency,” “competency-based learning,” and, yes, “personalized learning” helped connect me to resources and mentors that brought me closer to my vision. The definition of personalized learning is vague, and it should be—it represents an aspiration, not a premature prescription.

Don’t miss What Is Personalized Learning? by AltSchool Chief Impact Officer Devin Vodicka.

Personalized learning is about what each and every one of my students deserve, not what an educator can deliver right now. I will never hand the “orange book” to any student again. I will never put clothespins on a number chart again. I will never stop trying to give my students more control of their classroom.

I’m comfortable with the vagueness of personalized learning because we don’t need a perfect idea—we need a movement. If we, as teachers, continue to fixate on every imperfect iteration of this movement, we will never gain momentum, and a status quo that we already know fails learners will continue to lumber forward.

How did I finally implement successful teaching methods using personalized learning ideologies? I talk about that in detail in Part II.

Read part two: Lessons from Experimenting with Personalization in My Classroom
And part three: 3 Strategies for Building a Foundation of Personalized Learning
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