Personalizing Learning in the Moment

By Noelle Johnson, Sixth Grade Teacher

personalized learning lessons
Noelle Johnson, sixth grade teacher, working with her students.

In adopting personalized learning in my classroom, to say that I have felt alone and lost at times would be an understatement. But as the year comes to a close I can honestly say my growth has been exponential. I am thrilled with this shift in practice. I feel more connected to my students. I have seen their engagement grow and heard affirmations from students, families and administration. I finally feel like I get it.

Personalized learning is not about letting go of everything and writing 28 individual learning plans. It is not about project based learning, passion projects, inquiry learning or whatever other model is currently gaining popularity, although I do believe it does fit well with these models. For me and my students, the heart of personalized learning is the relationship we build with each other. It is predicated on a firm commitment to co-construct learning and the environment. It does not replace explicit instruction, standards or structure, but it does require that I know my students on a level that allows me to facilitate flexible and open learning opportunities.

For me, the key to personalized learning is recognizing those in-the-moment opportunities to shift the learning, a willingness to stray from the “plans,” to have trust and faith in my students.

personalized learning lessons
“For me, the key to personalized learning is recognizing those in-the-moment opportunities to shift the learning, a willingness to stray from the ‘plans,’ to have trust and faith in my students.” – Johnson

It is more than offering choice about what they will read and write about or how they will show their growth and learning. It is about creating a rich, safe environment where my students know and trust the importance of their voice. We work hand-in-hand to design the environment, the instruction, the learning opportunities and assessments. My students know they are the most important stakeholders in their education and they know that I will listen to and trust them.

When Allison Zmuda sat with some of my “trouble makers” — the students that year-after-year struggle with behavior and academics — and really listened to them, they were thrilled to have a captive ear to share their ideas. They were so encouraged that a real author found value in what they were saying, the light in their eyes was immeasurable. When we pause to let our students know that there is value in what they are saying, that they are important, we hook them, and this is the magic of personalized learning. What started as a quick free-write morphed into a week-long writing project, complete with plenty of authentic opportunities to connect to the state content, curriculum and real-world learning.

When we take the time to really listen to our students, connect with their interests and curiosities, that’s when the personalization happens.

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