Classroom Strategies

What’s It Like to Learn in a Rigorous and Personalized Classroom?

The piece above was originally published on the TNTP Blog. It was republished here with the permission of TNTP.

In Meg Cassedy-Blum’s sixth-grade language arts classroom at Haven Academy in the South Bronx, free-thinking and independence are a regular part of the school day. So, it’s fitting that they’re studying Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for girls’ education and the youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate.

But the revolutionary spirit isn’t just in the curriculum, far from it. Ms. C-B, as she’s known in class, and her students are piloting personalized learning, an instructional approach that gives kids more ownership over their learning. Students in a personalized classroom have a choice over when and how to complete assignments, with some assignments tailored to each student’s needs. Importantly, how students progress through content is informed by what they have mastered, rather than just what they have experienced.

The goal of the pilot is to give students the freedom to make decisions about how they learn as they access grade-level assignments and additional activities connected to their interests and learning levels. The project is part of the​ Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund Blended Literacy Initiative, which supports schools with implementing personalized learning along with knowledge-based literacy instruction. Over the next three years, TNTP will help Haven Academy and a second New York City school, Concourse Village Elementary, pilot personalized learning and deliver knowledge-based literacy instruction, adding more classrooms each year.

At Haven Academy, students—referred to as “scholars” by the staff—begin class time the same way many other middle schoolers do, with a “Do Now” activity. However, instead of an exercise referencing yesterday’s lesson or practicing skills they need for today, Ms. C-B’s students are writing down what they plan to work on by choosing from a “playlist” of activities, most of which connect to “I Am Malala,” the book the class is reading.

“When the students arrive, they get to decide what they’re going to work on and whether they’re going to work with a partner, work on their own, work in a small group, or work with me,” says Ms. C-B. “They get to decide in what order they’re going to do their activities, and they have a lot of choice on what those activities are—but I’d say the culture of the classroom is very urgent.”

Nyla, soft-spoken but confident, raises her hand. “I’m going to do my exercises for chapter 14, and then my independent reading if I still have time.”

“What about you, Jequan?” asks Ms. C-B.

“I have to finish chapter 13, so I want to try to do that before I have group time later,” Jequan replies energetically.

After a few more kids share their plans with the class, they disperse. Some leave their desks in favor of reading on the carpet in the front of the classroom, and a couple of students listen to audiobook versions of “I Am Malala.” This gives even struggling readers a chance to access the book, so they’re able to participate in class. Others grab laptops to complete reading comprehension quizzes, which help Ms. C-B monitor each student, while others complete activities from their Wit & Wisdom workbooks. Most importantly, though the specific activities vary significantly, every student spends the majority of their time doing rigorous grade-level work. “It’s important to us to keep the standards consistent between students, and that we’re all reading the same book, so the kids can learn from each other about the same thing, but how each student gets there is different,” says Ms. C-B.

Nyla pulls colored pencils from her bookbag and selects a reading comprehension activity from her playlist. From a list of more than 20 options, she’s chosen to create a poem and bumper sticker based on themes from Chapter 14. Though Nyla chose the specific way to demonstrate what she’s learned and is trusted to complete it on her own, she’s not without structure. Her bumper sticker should include accurate information from the text and show the main character’s point of view, as Ms. C-B will give her feedback on both of these later. “I chose to do the poem and the sticker because I wanted to describe Malala because she’s really caring and smart and kind. I wanted to pick one that let me focus on her and describe her,” says Nyla. She goes on to say, “This class is different because we get to plan our work, and it’s much more organized. That’s a big part of it. In other classes, I’m not that organized. So, I’m like, ‘Oh, I have so much work to finish.’ But now I can just check it off every time I do something.”

Some teachers might be anxious about giving kids choice and access to technology the way Ms. C-B does. For her though, allowing students independence is an important part of helping them succeed with the rigorous material. “I’ve seen teachers see a student disengaged from a written assignment and say, ‘They just don’t want to learn.’ But just because you’re teaching them in the way that’s comfortable for you, doesn’t mean it’s comfortable for your students.” Furthermore, Ms. C-B says, “We can give our students the tools to advocate for themselves by figuring out how they like to learn, and then feeling confident enough to say, ‘It’s not that I’m not a good student, it’s just that I learn in a different way.’” So, although Ms. C-B’s classroom may look unique to some, her students still have access to all four key resources identified in The Opportunity Myth: high expectations for students, access to grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, and strong engagement.

About an hour into class, Ms. C-B gathers Jequan and his classmates Ivelisse and Aaliyah who’ve all signed up to work as a group today. She quickly coaches them on choosing an appropriate activity to do together, but doesn’t stick around to help them do it, and moves on to conference one-on-one with Nyla.

Ms. C-B uses her personal experience with her students as well as the data she’s constantly collecting from their assignments to guide her one-on-one discussions. “Conferencing is a big part of how I’m able to help them. We also use software that allows me to see their computer screens, so I can chat with them through the system if I see they’re stuck,” says Ms. C-B.

A few minutes later, near the end of class, Jequan, Ivelisse, and Aaliyah present their group work for everyone, and even the quietest students clap enthusiastically. Just before the bell rings, Ms. C-B prompts them to reflect on their day, asking questions like “Are you on track or off track?” and “Was it difficult for you to stay focused working independently or with a partner?”. After a few students share how they spent class, they head off to lunch.

Giving kids control over how they learn may seem daunting, especially when it comes to how it might affect student behavior. But for teachers who might be interested in creating a more personalized classroom but are nervous about issues with classroom culture, Ms. C-B has some words of encouragement. “I used to think that when things were running smoothly, it was because I was micromanaging everything that was happening. Now, I know that after I put the right systems in place, the classroom runs itself. Everybody knows what the expectations are and what to do, but I don’t have to manage the students as much because they’re managing themselves. It’s great, and I think it’s a really good experience for them to have, and very empowering.”

The pilot and activities described in this article took place during the spring semester of the 2017-2018 school year. Ms. C-B is currently an instructional coach for teachers at Haven Academy who are implementing personalized learning in their classrooms. 

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About the Author: Monica Milligan is a Vice President at TNTP, where she leads a diverse portfolio of client work that integrates TNTP’s approaches on academics, talent management, and supportive environments for students and teachers. Before joining TNTP, Monica was a teacher, and served in senior leadership roles for Chicago Public Schools and KIPP Austin. She also worked as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company.

About the Author: Kit Tollerson is a Director and Leadership Coach for the Innovative Schools Team at TNTP, which partners with schools and school systems around the country to design and implement new school models. Prior to TNTP, he was a teacher as well as a founding principal of an elementary school. Kit also worked as an executive for an edtech startup.