As a reading specialist who teaches grades K-5, my lesson construction is required to be very standardized. I am required to use certain materials and teach specific skills. The standardized lessons work well for my kindergarten through second grade students, because we are still building the foundational skills of reading. However, after those skills have been mastered, I find these standardized lessons, with a very predictable and structured format bore my third through fifth grade students. These lessons also bore me and that is what lead me to search for some novel ways to teach with the required materials. This search lead me to explore Customized Learning. Some key components of Customized Learning are not ones that teachers can control, so it is important to focus on the ones that are within my control. These are the aspects that I am looking to incorporate into my standard classroom procedures.
I am still at the beginning of this journey toward change, however I have already begun to incorporate one very important part of Customized Learning. The first step toward change began with a focus on my classroom environment. Do the students feel respected? Do they feel comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions? Can they learn how to organize their time, to complete work at their own pace, and within an appropriate amount of time? I look at these three questions and my answers were, I’m not sure. The best way I realized to find out these answers was to ask my students. The students told me that they felt respected and felt comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions if they correlated with the text. As a teacher I was allowing them to talk only about the text, but wasn’t always taking the time to hear, what they already knew about a topic or what they still had questions about. The answer to my last question was “no.” Our class time was very structured and always teacher directed. This lead me to incorporate some simple changes to increase student voice and choice. Each student was given paper and pencil in which they were to write down any questions they had while they were reading. Once they were finished reading the text, they crossed off any questions that were answered in the text, the students then researched any questions they still had and shared these questions and answers with the group. I also, began to create a list of activities that we must accomplish that week, but allowed the students to choose how and when they would be completed during the week. It is alright if not all things were completed because of quality work on other tasks. This has worked well so far. I know student directed learning is the heart of customized learning, and these strategies are still teacher directed, but I am starting small and building the foundation of that type of learning with my students. As I and the students become more comfortable, I will start to give them more control of learning activities.
After changing my classroom environment, I next started to focus on the skills that my students needed to learn. As a reading specialist, I work with a small group of students, who are generally grouped by similar reading strengths and needs. For the most part, my older students generally have strong foundational reading skills, but need support in using these skills to effectively obtain information from a text. So the majority of instruction is focused on comprehension. Teaching students how to use various strategies to locate and recall information and basic inferential skills (lower level thinking skills) has always been a strength of my teaching. However, this year, an emphasis has been placed district-wide on providing more instruction on higher order thinking skills in language arts. These include asking questions that do not have a right or wrong answer, asking questions about the structure of the text, and questions about the author’s intent for writing the text. This has been the best change that I have made in my classroom. The discussions that we have about the text, have been more meaningful and interesting, often leading to debate between students about different aspects of the text. I have done well at incorporating this type of questioning into our discussions, but have just embarked on the path to thinking about how I can begin to give students varied ways to respond to a text.
So my next challenge for my classroom is to see how to implement ways for students to choose how they share their learning. I definitely see the benefit in this key component of Customized Learning. Not all students learn in the same ways, so by giving choice, I am allowing the students to choose an approach that will fit his or her learning style. Also, by having students share their learning with the group, the other students are seeing the information in a variety of ways as well and this can lead to a better understanding of a topic. Right now, it is either in written and/or verbal forms. This is my next step of changing my classroom model.
One of the most important aspects of any learning environment is providing feedback. Again, I thought the best approach was to ask my students about their thoughts on how I was doing. This group of students was more shy than the other group I questioned about the classroom atmosphere. They were reluctant to express their opinions about things they did not like, so this was not a great success. However, the discussion did give me some ideas of ways to be more effective in this area. One positive thing the students noted was that I always ended each group stating something that was done well and something that needed work. This made me think about the structure of our progress monitoring day that we have every other week. I am required to progress monitor my students’ progress on oral reading fluency. Each student has their own individual goal. I talk with each student personally and tell them what the goal is, how they are progressing so far, and then after the one minute assessment, I talk with each student about how they improved and what reading behaviors still need work. The students respond well to this feedback and I have seen the motivation to do well on these assessments improve. Therefore I am currently working on a structure where feedback for our weekly activities is structured in a similar way.
I realize that I have a long way to go to become a true Customized Learning classroom and because of some of the limitations that my standardized classroom presents, I may never be able to reach the highest level (student-driven) of this type of instruction. However, I feel any step towards providing more student choice and voice is a change for the better. The change in thought and practice so far has been challenging, but rewarding and I feel excited for this change. My students are more engaged and lessons more meaningful. Right now I am still at the teacher-centered phase of these changes, but my next goal is to become more student-centered. After all, isn’t my responsibility as a teacher to grow and change with my students to make sure that they are prepared for the futures that await them.
Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2015, November 8). Choice is More than a Menu of Options. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from http://www.personalizelearning.com/2015/11/choice-is-more-than-menu-of-options.html
Customized Learning. (2014, July 15). Retrieved January 23, 2018, from https://mcmel.org/customized-learning/
Thompson, J. (2017, March 20). Getting Started with Personalized Learning. Retrieved December 09, 2017, from http://www.learningpersonalized.com/getting-started-with-personalized-learning/