Newsletter: Back to School

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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It’s official! Everyone is back to school and hard at work developing relationships, testing new routines, and engaging in learning together. How do we work together with our students and staff to grow our thinking and practice around personalized learning? And when we are venturing out to take a risk, try something new… how do we find courage and joy in the experience?

Let’s start with the innovative work happening in the state of Vermont. This Edutopia article by Katy Farber and Penny Bishop features the role of collaboration in personalizing learning in middle grades that extends beyond the classroom.

In each of these schools, students know their voices and actions matter. Across the state, we see more and more students engaging in deeper learning experiences like these, about issues they care about — issues that matter in their daily lives and in their communities.

When personalized learning is more than solely individual, online learning, we see that:

  • Students feel that their work is not disposable,
  • Students see themselves as competent,
  • Students create work that has an audience beyond the teacher, and
  • Students contribute in powerful ways to their communities.

Clearly these expectations and impact are something every educator wants. How do you begin to create that level of competence and ownership of the learning in our students?

Joe Muhlenberg starts us off with his first post “A Cure for Back to School Nightmares” as he asks us to consider:

What if the fear of losing control is actually hindering student growth? What if allowing students to sit in the driver’s seat results in greater learning?

This is Joe’s first year as a personalized learning coach, and he is working with a cohort of high school staff on practical and aspirational ways to invite students to the design table to develop learning experiences together. For example, there is a set of simple questions that any teacher can use to begin to personalize the learning regardless of subject area or grade level.

High school English teacher Shawna Parkinson shares her first blog with the Learning Personalized community, describing a risk she took for the first two days of school. Below is a sneak peak at her powerful reflections she gained from doing this both in her English III and AP Language and Composition classes.

  • Despite even the most elaborate planning, everything changes when the students’ faces are in front of you. As much as I had planned in advance, certain realizations about my lessons only truly “kicked-in” once the students arrived. I had to let myself be in the moment to build connections with the students while still facilitating the plan for the day. In essence, my own humanity as a teacher had to be as apparent to the students as the lesson that was actually created.
  • Learning is fun when students are given the “floor” and given the chance to personalize. My classroom was a dynamic place for learning as chairs were rotated, as objects were held, and as conversation took place. With the array of activities planned in my day, I remained invigorated and joyful due to the busy buzz of learning in my room.
  • Not every moment of every lesson will be perfect. Of course, there are pieces that I would add or expand, but that is to be expected. At the end of the day, my students saw a teacher who tried, who didn’t repeat the same plan, and who was eager to teach. And, as difficult as it is for me and other teachers to do, I now embrace this essential thought: If the heart of personalized learning is the person, as once said by Allison Zmuda, then teachers have to also accept their own humanity. Students need practitioners of their craft- not perfectionists.
  • Teaching is not judged by minutes; it’s decided by moments. Teachers and students, through personalized learning, can create memories together that will far outlast the minutes of pure content instruction… I think we all deserve that.

Up next, friend and colleague Mike Anderson wrote a fabulous blog post on small moves a teacher can make to open up design choices with students. If you haven’t checked out his latest book What We Say and How We Say it Matters it is a thoughtful and practical read that helps grow connections with our students as we personalize the learning environment and assignments.

I hope you are enjoying your start to the school year!

Allison Zmuda
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