How One Principal Introduced Personalized Learning in Newtown, CT

Chris Moretti

Chris Moretti is the principal of Hawley Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. While he has worked in education for 20 years, he also has experience from a previous career as a stand-up comedian, working in clubs from 1988 to 1993. He and his wife, Annmarie, have three boys.

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I became principal of Hawley Elementary School in Newtown, CT, during the summer of 2014. This was my second principalship.

As any new principal, I spent the first year surveying the lay of the land. I took time to get to know the staff and to let them get to know me. I learned the curriculum, assessments being used, teaching practices, and styles. Hawley’s culture was professional, positive, supportive and collaborative.

Our mantra academically, socially, and behaviorally became “What’s best for kids.”

Our path would be for teachers to reflect deeper on their teaching practices while taking responsibility for their new learning based on student need. All of this would be done while sharing, collaborating, and supporting each other toward doing anything needed to help all students be successful.

Our work would be fun and not feel like another initiative.

A Small First Step

The following fall, I opened the school year by showing a TEDTalk entitled “The Myth of Average” by Todd Rose. He spoke of the Air Force banning the “average” design of its cockpits because pilots were different shapes and sizes — no one was average. Suppliers were given the charge to “design to the edges.”

I, in turn, posed this question to my teachers:

“What if we banned every student doing the same work at the same time?”

I had each teacher answer that question with no barriers or restrictions, just, What If? I collected and kept the responses.

We began discussing what it would take to get there and we coined the phrase, Teaching to the Edges (T2E). Nothing new. Nothing earth shattering. Nothing scary. Not another initiative, just our own phraseology that simply meant doing whatever a student needed to be successful.

It caught on.

Teaching to the Edges

We started asking questions such as:

  • HOW will we know what a student needs?
  • WHY am I giving this assignment?
  • WHAT if they didn’t learn it?
  • WHAT if they knew it already?

Our commitment to thinking through the lens of these four questions shifted the conversations in our PLCs, faculty, data team, and SRBI meetings to become more focused, targeted, and creative. Assessment data took on a whole new meaning from what assessment data we were using, to how we were using it, to what data did we not have.

Staff began discussing varied groupings and partnerships. We began mixing classes for work. Enrichment, special education, guidance and special area teachers were getting involved.

This was becoming something.

Introducing Personalized Learning

Last year, I shared a video montage of those teachers’ answers that I previously collected from the question, “What if we banned every student doing the same work at the same time?”

Answers had included:

  • “students would be engaged”
  • “students would feel more invested”
  • “every student would be challenged”
  • “instruction would truly be targeting needs”
  • “we would be forced to think outside the box”
  • “I wish we could”

Teams and teachers shared the work we had done throughout the previous year toward our endeavor of Teaching to the Edges. I then introduced the term Personalized Learning.

I told them they would be hearing about it, reading about it; seeing tweets about it, and that all the kids on their block would be doing it. They automatically started panicking.

Here we go again; changing directions. Another new initiative just when I was comfortable with what I was doing.

I told them not to worry — we didn’t have to change directions because we were already doing it! Our T2E was personalized learning, differentiated instruction, co-teaching, interdisciplinary instruction, SRBI intervention, enrichment, etc. We were blazing the trail and I just wanted us to keep doing what we were doing.

Nothing new. Not a change. Just continue and build upon our work.

A Seed of Excitement

Staff wanted to work together even more and to better support each other’s work and growth.

Hey, what if we shared goals, had collaborative areas of focus, and targeted our PD to not only connect to those things but to our new Teacher Evaluation Plan Rubric as well?

Made sense. This was our next level of work.

Read my next blog post about implementing personalized learning over a three-year period.

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