Redirecting the Fire: How Personalized Learning Transformed Our Classrooms

By Kristen Wright and Erin Cordova

Throughout our teaching careers, we’ve been the kind of teachers who always jumped in with both feet, willing to try new things in an effort to make learning more fun and engaging. Our excitement to try new things created a sense of urgency in us. We jumped right in and weren’t afraid to try new things.

However, when we think back and truly reflect on our teaching journey, we believe our students “forced” us down the path of personalized learning. We quickly concluded that, if each child learns differently, has individual needs and obviously has different interests, our only choice was to not only look into personalized learning, but to figure out how it could work for both of us, for them … for all!

How Our Journey Began

Our journey to personalized learning started approximately three years ago. We’d become frustrated by days spent fussing at our students to complete assignments and chasing after incomplete work. These traditional methods and teaching techniques were burning us out. Although our students were learning, they were merely compliant and weren’t truly engaged.

We were putting out fires left and right! If we’d wanted to do that, we would have become firefighters! We realized we needed to change our classroom environment and change our approach to teaching.

Creativity, Critical Thinking, and Collaboration

We began our journey deciding we needed to encourage more creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration. We thought that by changing the physical learning environment we could make that happen. We turned all of our desks around, shared community supplies, and eliminated nametags. We liked the flexibility our classroom design created, but it didn’t create the type of learning we were hoping it would.

The culture was changing, but we didn’t see a shift in student engagement or the products our students were producing. We knew there was so much more we could do! What we didn’t realize was that we were progressing down the path of personalized learning.

Another Step Forward

In the summer of 2015, we attended a professional development opportunity where educators from around the country shared all the amazing work students were doing through various thinking models.

We sat in session after session where educators told us about amazing work students from all over the country were producing, even in the primary grades. Those students not only came from different regions of our country, they were from different economic and cultural backgrounds. We kept asking ourselves, if those students could create and produce such great learning and products, then why couldn’t ours?

After a lot of reflecting that summer, we came to the realization that maybe it wasn’t the students that need to change. It was our approach to teaching that had to change and personalized learning was the practice we needed to integrate — it was the solution we’d been seeking. Our only regret is that we didn’t start this journey sooner!

Our Goal

Our goal has always been to create a strong foundation for our students, but now it is so much more than that. Not only do we want to produce students who love reading, writing, and math and who are capable of reaching their academic goals, we want to produce students who love learning. We want students to direct their own learning. We want to be facilitators of this learning, not the beholders of all information.

It’s not about us, it’s about the kids. It’s about their learning. We want to embrace the natural curiosity of our first graders and encourage them to ask a lot of questions and pursue their interests and passions in order to create a better understanding of the world!

Personalized learning pathways give us a way to achieve all of these desires and more!

About the Authors

Kristen Wright has been teaching primary students for the last 12 years and is currently teaching 1st grade at Wildcat Mountain Elementary School in Douglas County, CO. She is enthusiastic about increasing student ownership and engagement through personalized learning, even with the littlest learners.

Erin Cordova has been a first grade teacher at Wildcat Mountain Elementary in Douglas County, CO for the past 7 years. She is a lifelong learner who has developed a passion for personalized learning, especially in a primary classroom.

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