Real Answers to Real Challenges in Personalized Learning

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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I was introduced to Christine Laurenzi through my content and digital media strategist, Chrissie Wywrot. Christine and Chrissie graduated high school together and, coincidentally, Christine is as personalized learning advocate as I am. Christine was invited to give a TEDx talk in Tampa Bay upon launching her summer program that took a more personal approach to learning in Saint Petersburg, Fla. After watching her talk and then perusing her school’s website, I was intrigued by her perspective and clear passion toward her students and personalized learning.

When we “met” over the phone last month, I took the opportunity to ask Christine how she is guiding students and teachers through meaningful design and the learning process. Her process is — in a good way — extreme. She divides her days into to portions: curriculum and inquiry. For the curriculum portion of the day, the students are learning the basics: math, reading, writing, science, etc.

The inquiry portion of the day is especially fascinating because she allows her students input into what they want to research and study. I immediately thought of a home schooling model considering the way she puts her kids first and allows them to explore what they love while driving the pace of curriculum.


“It will always start and end with the kids, no matter what,” she said. “The kids will always be the ones that originate the idea, whether it’s, ‘My parents saw this article on the Internet last night and I’m really pumped and I want to learn about it,’ or ‘When I was walking down the street, I saw this and I want to learn about it.’ Then they’ll collect information whether it’s them going to a museum, going to meet with an expert, looking things up on the Internet, or going to a library, and then they figure out a way to meet with experts that align with that content.

“So the teacher’s role is to understand the topic and how that aligns to science, math, reading and writing, and push them to add that in. Whether it’s a website, podcast, piece of artwork, graph or a chart, the end goal is always that they will share that information with somebody. There will always be a purpose for what they’re learning and that they’ll have to create something in order to share that information, so they’re the ones processing the information, making it their own, guiding the process naturally.”

Christine’s answer resulted in two “Yes, but …” statements coming to mind.

Yes, but … what if the kids don’t have anything they’re interested in?

challenges personalized learning
Christine Laurenzi just completed her first full school year at Indi-Ed.

“Then that’s your job to help expose them,” said Christine, “but – at the same time – that’s okay.”

Christine cited that not everyone has a passion — adults included.

“Even as adults, if we ask our friends, ‘Okay, if you’re not passionate about your job right now, what would you do instead?’ and we get so many blank stares,” she continued. “But then if somebody else has an interest, kids are aiding and learning alongside them and they get to learn about somebody else’s interest.

“Then along the way they’ll start generating a questioning, wondering, inquiring mindset. It’s just a natural give-and-take once you allow them to open up to that mentality.”

Allowing students to be next to somebody that is passionate about a particular topic so that passion rubs off on them is a lovely response and approach. Christine actually interviews each and every student and family that comes into her school to learn more about that student’s passions and interests.

“Even those who are passionate, we let them know that other kids will be helping them achieve their goal,” she said. “Once it’s a ‘we’ mentality and they all know that they’re going to have different roles and different projects; sometimes they’ll be leaders and sometimes they’ll be assistants, that’s also a different mentality to create — a collaborate environment. It’s not always just about one kid, it’s about helping each other achieve different goals.”

Yes, but … how do we teach the basics among all these projects?

“Yes, but” statements are all about playing devil’s advocate, and I took it one step further with my next question. While all of these projects and passions are fantastic, what about reading, writing, and math that students have to learn in order to be productive members of society?

“I think it comes alongside of it and it’s always about balance,” said Christine. “Even though our afternoons will be our inquiry portion of the day, our mornings will also be spent in curriculum because every kid will indeed need to be able to read, write, multiply, and articulate scientific concepts. We have to give both students and teachers the understanding that content knowledge is important. Once you understand that that’s not the entire thing, then that’s when the choice – and maybe the ability to relax into the process – comes. ”

Christine’s students not only learn “the basics,” they are learning more complex concepts than deemed age appropriate because the number of kids in their cohorts are so small.

“Kids are going to be pumped about that customization,” she said, “but maybe that’s just what the teachers need to hear, too: that it’s about balance.”

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