Implementing Personalized Learning Over A Three-Year Period

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.


In my first blog post, I referenced the start of Hawley Elementary’s journey toward personalized learning. Unbeknownst to them, the teachers within the school had begun engaging in the process. Once I revealed to them that they were, in fact, engaging in personalized learning, they wanted to deepen their existing practice.

Stepping Outside the Box

I bought teachers the book, The Joyful Classroom: Practical Ways to Engage and Challenge Students K-6 from Responsive Classroom. We had a monthly, optional, book chat to discuss each chapter. For those wanting the same learning, but a different experience — or for those who couldn’t make the before-school meeting — we threw in an evening Twitter chat, a first for us.

Although optional — or maybe because of — turnout and interest was high. Discussions revolved around really getting to know our students, interactive modeling, collaborative learning, and designing activities that kids love.

One teacher shared,

“I always watched my kids, but I started to really observe them.”

The book explains, “By making observation intentional and taking time each day to actively observe children; we can learn a lot more about who they are as a group and as individuals. We can use that knowledge to inform daily classroom planning and heighten students’ engagement with their learning.”

Another teacher, after trying interactive modeling, commented,

“The students love being in the spotlight and others see exactly what is expected.”

I began to observe more engaging lessons and activities connecting learning to student interest with increased student choice. Yeah!

Anxiety Around Personalized Learning

To continue our momentum, I gave teachers some resources further exposing them to personalized learning. I set up and shared a Google Doc with them. Teachers posed questions or struggles and I provided individual feedback for all within the group to read.

Brave souls asked great questions and I responded from the perspective of understanding, validation, and support. Teachers were fully engaged in the conversation and encouraged by their experiences, however, they were becoming overwhelmed.

They became frozen with questions like:

  • Where do you begin?
  • How will everything get done if I relinquish control to students?
  • How do you balance student choice with curriculum pacing and requirements?
  • Is this an all day, every day endeavor?

The last question was the most common. Anxiety was emerging.

I have a chart that hangs in my office called Factors in Managing Complex Change, (Knoster, 1991) and (Ambrose, 1987). It details six factors needed for change to be successful and what can occur if a piece is missing. Anxiety is created when teachers feel they lack the knowledge and skills required.

Professional Development was needed.

Forming A New Partnership

I attended a Personalized Learning workshop at the 2016 ASCD Conference. It validated the work we had started and I knew this was the information my teachers were looking for.

We read the article Orchestrating the Move to Student Driven Learning by the workshop presenters Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda. We created another Google Doc for ideas, questions and strategies. Allison agreed to contribute and respond. This was cool. Everyone kept checking to see what people were asking and what the “guru” was suggesting. We piggybacked this with a Skyped PD session with Allison, followed by an author facilitated Book Chat. Things were clicking.

We began realizing there were many ways to personalize learning.

“The amount of personalization varies depending on the goals of the lesson and the immediate needs of the students” (Kallick/Zmuda, 2017).

You can give students control while maintaining a focus and an understanding that personalizing is not every subject, every assignment, all day, every day. Teachers started allowing student voice and choice of topics and assignments; whether to work independently or with a partner or group; and even the choice of the modality of demonstrating understanding.

We started slowly, but soon realized the more we personalized learning, the more students wanted learning personalized.

“When teachers commit to meeting students where they are, inviting them to the design table and listening to what fascinates them, what their struggles are, and how they want to demonstrate learning, an old-fashioned, one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning is no longer viable” (Kallick/Zmuda, 2017).

Golden Tickets

Terrific work was happening all over and I wanted everyone to know about it, but how? I was growing bored of faculty meeting sharing. I wanted people to SEE what we were doing — to know it could be done. I had been trying to start peer observations for awhile, but it had just not clicked.

One night I was channel surfing and came across Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I couldn’t help but notice the excitement those Golden Tickets created.

The next day every staff member had a Golden Ticket in their mailbox. If they cashed it in, it was worth a one-day substitute allowing them to go observe colleagues. They could observe as many as they wanted, for whatever reason they wanted.

I also created a bulletin board in the office with me wearing the purple Wonka hat and wondering who had the Golden Tickets. All of a sudden, teachers were setting up peer observations. I posted the used Golden Tickets. Teachers were everywhere — in this classroom and that classroom. Staff started asking if they can break the ticket into three mornings or if they could have two half days or go to another school to observe. It caught on!

Midway through the year I wanted to reflect and celebrate with staff. We were doing great work, but was it effective? What were we seeing with our students? I was pleased to hear that staff felt energized. They were doing fun things that they used to do but had since stopped. They were excited about the work because students were excited about the work.

Students were engaged; they were asking for and choosing challenges. Students and staff were helping each other. Every student was shining — even those that struggled academically. And the most exciting observation for us was that behavior problems declined during this type of instruction. We were on to something!

An Unexpected Parallel

The year was coming to an end. My mind started drifting toward the next year. My leadership team and I were in agreement that we were no longer able to meet everyone’s needs all the time. We had started dabbling in edcamps and varied experiences, like the Twitter chat.

Teachers were exploring different things, moving in different directions, asking different questions. It was clear that I was going to have to start personalizing professional development. Oh my!

How can I relinquish control? How will I get everything covered? How will I be sure that teachers are doing what they are … Wait a minute, aren’t these the same questions and concerns the teachers had two years ago when I asked them to go down this path with me?

Time for me to model the work. Time to show I am willing to do whatever I ask of them. Time to clearly demonstrate that we are truly in this together.

Reflecting on Progress

As I planned this year’s launch, I again bought everyone a book for PD, but each team will had the opportunity to choose their own title or topic to read, discuss, and share. Golden Tickets continued by request.

Two hashtags were created: one focusing on Instruction — to show Teaching to the Edges — and one focusing on PD, to show professional learning. I personally connected to a concept I saw at the NAESP 2017 Conference: Opportunities to Lead and Learn. Again, nothing new, just sharing learning.

We typically have two faculty meetings a month, but I am giving one to the teachers to use any way they choose. They will plan, facilitate, and participate in what is of interest or importance to them.

I look back over the last two years with pride. There is always something you have to do or the flavor of the month buzz word or a returning pendulum. But as stated in the book, Lead Like a Pirate: Make School Amazing for Your Students and Staff,

“Programs don’t teach kids; teachers do; and teachers are capable of making magic happen for kids” (Burgess/Hough, 2017).

Forget initiatives, just have passion, implement good instructional practices, work together, focus on student need, have fun and make magic. That’s what Hawley is doing.

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Ben Hamilton
6 years ago

A lovely story – your passion for your colleagues and students leaps out from the screen.

You final paragraph perfectly encapsulates the essence of high quality teaching.