By George Yeager and Sarah Evans
George Yeager is currently a third grade teacher at Palm Beach Day Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida. He is a National Board Certified Teacher with a Bachelors Degree in Elementary Education and a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction. George currently co-teaches in a self contained classroom with partner, Sarah Evans.
Sarah Evans is a National Board Certified third grade teacher and mentor with over 20 years of classroom teaching experience. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education and a Master’s Degree in Languages Arts. Evans is also a Thinking Maps Trainer and Writing Project consultant.
At a recent Personalized Learning presentation, we participated in a coaching session with Bena Kallick. She asked us to share, with the educators in the audience, a project that we had recently begun with our class of third graders. The purpose of sharing would be to investigate how we could increase the personalization of the project.
We had initially believed that this series of lessons, which included student choice and varied expectations for learners, had been personalized. However, after reading about personalized learning in Students at the Center by Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda, we learned that there was an important difference between differentiated instruction and personalized learning. With that, we decided to introduce a writing project on which we were currently working with our students. This project provided many opportunities for individualized and differentiated instruction, but we hoped if we had a greater understanding of how to personalize it, we could greatly enhance the instructional and personal impact the project would have on our students as individuals.
We began the coaching session by explaining the project on which we would be focusing. At our school, each grade level participates in a global studies program. In third grade, our students study a country in Africa. Each year, we invite our students to choose a topic for independent study that enhances their understanding of the country’s culture. We then guide students through the process of writing a narrative that incorporates their knowledge of their independent study as well as their understanding of the cultural, geographical, and political topics related to the African country we are studying. Additionally, students learn to develop characters that use the Habits of Mind to solve problems. This year, we were also reading the junior novel The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba. Inspired by Kamkwamba’s innovative spirit to bring electricity to remote villages in his country, the students integrated the story’s theme of creating an invention to solve a problem into their own writing pieces.
Depending on the amount of time we have, we often involve the students in co-creating a rubric for the narrative. We also invite the students’ parents in to read the students’ published pieces and sample cuisine from the country we are studying on a school-wide Global Studies Day.
Redefining an authentic audience
This particular year, however, we knew the students would not have time to complete a well-written published piece before our Global Studies Day. That left us without an authentic audience and purpose for which to write. Most of our students were still excited about writing their piece and did not need additional motivation. However, a few struggling writers were not as enthusiastic about writing without an authentic purpose.
We were hoping to glean, from our coaching session, ways we could reach our less passionate writers through personalized learning. Kallick skillfully used a coaching protocol that modeled— for the audience as well as for us— ways to use questioning to stretch student thinking while personalizing learning.
Inspired by our coaching session with Kallick and the participating educators, we learned to think of an authentic audience as more than just someone with whom you can meet. We realized that William Kamkwamba, the author and main character of the novel the children were reading, could serve as an authentic audience.
Upon returning to school, we shared with our third grade class the idea of sending their published stories to author William Kamkwamba via email. Because of Kamkwamba’s stature as a hero among our third grade students, they were moved and excited by the idea. With the students, we also brainstormed a few other inspirations to whom we thought we could email their work.
Co-creating a rubric personalized to student interests
We then invited our young authors to evaluate a rubric we created with a previous third grade class. We wondered if they would want to revise the rubric to increase the expectations for themselves and their classmates, knowing that we would be sending our work out to an audience we held in high esteem. Our students quickly agreed that the expectations on the rubric would have to be increased if we were going to send their work to a real author. Together, we co-created a new rubric.
The expectations they set for themselves and each other far exceeded third grade writing expectations and included an advanced interpretation of the writing skills we taught them throughout the year. With this new motivation personalized to the students’ interests and individual values, even our less enthusiastic writers wrote from their heart with newfound purpose and passion. They turned out pieces that proved to themselves and others that they are authors with incredible talent.
Unlocking student potential with personalization
The addition of personalization to project-based learning experiences helped us to unlock our students’ fullest potential. Through this opportunity, we learned to personalize instruction to motivate all students, especially struggling and resistant writers. Our coaching session with Bena Kallick helped us to plan more reflectively and deliberately include opportunities for students to personalize their learning in an effort to intrinsically motivate achievement and teach for understanding.