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Personalizing Learning: Tips from my Classroom

For a little over a year, I’ve been blending technology with traditional instruction in my Algebra I classroom to support my scholars. Introducing blended learning techniques to your classroom can be overwhelming, and my own journey has been filled with lots of trial and error. Here’s a list of the models and strategies I’ve tested out:

  • Flipped Instruction
  • Classroom Website
  • INM Videos
  • Small Group Instruction
  • Differentiated Make-Up Lessons
  • 1:1 Video Instruction
  • Khan Academy & Tenmarks Summer Math Assignments

In piloting a series of different structures in my classroom, I’ve come to realize four underlying principles that help propel my practice when it gets stuck and help ensure I’m moving in the right direction. This post is dedicated to sharing these principles.

1. Have and Reference a Vision

I’ve always thought technology was pretty cool. I spent loads of free time in high school teaching myself computer programs. As you can probably guess, I had tons of friends. I don’t use blended instruction simply because it is cool, however; I leverage digital instruction because it provides value to my kids in the short- and long-term.

Short-Term: Blended allows for greater prioritization of unmastered skills.

Long-Term: Scholars internalize that technology is a tool for learning.

Despite the many benefits of blended, I’ve experienced my fair share of frustrations—times when I’ve asked myself, “why blend?” In those moments, I forgot the purpose behind blended in my classroom, and the work felt tedious.

Tip: Before getting started, ensure you have a core reason for why you’re actually taking the plunge into personalization with your kids. As you face challenges, come back to your vision. In my classroom, I rely on the following vision statement.

Mr. Stoudt’s scholars will independently use technology to conquer any Algebra I problem forever.

2. Set Goals

If you get to a point where you’re spending extra hours integrating technology, aren’t sure if it is working, and find yourself frustrated or unmotivated, you might need a goal.

Tip: Leverage the fact that you’re hardwired to meet goals and crave the feeling of success that comes from meeting your goals. Set short and long term goals. Even if a goal you set seems cursory and unaligned to “scholar mastery” it is probably still worthwhile. Here are some goals I’ve set:

Mr. Stoudt will execute a flawless computer login procedure by Friday.
100% of scholars will use the headphone symbol to request headphones.
Daily mastery of exit tickets will be at 70% or higher for video lessons.

3. Be Ready For Surprises (Bad and Good)

The Bad:

When I was eight years old, I was certain that my life would change if I got a Creepy Crawler Oven. Nope. Turned out, I was wrong. When I finally used the Thingmaker, I was surprised by two things: (1) Nothing changed, and (2) The whole process was kind of uneventful. I’d made cooler things with a hot glue gun.

This year, I started to create video lessons each day that would be used during and after class instead of direct instruction. I thought mastery of skills would go up and kids would be excited that they could access a lesson at any time. In the beginning though, the opposite was often true. The videos were less effective than whole group instruction for many kids, and kids weren’t excited about having to “re-learn” skills they thought they already knew.

Tip: Be realistic about your expectations for how technology will (and won’t) change your classroom; be ready for surprises (and, often, more work).

The Good:

I got what I thought to be the worst present from my mom when I was about 14. It was a book. Boring, right? The only reason I ended up reading it was because I was grounded and had nothing to do (sorry, Mom). It turned out to be Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and ended up jump-starting a love of reading that still lasts to this day.

Although my video lessons got off to a rocky start, they transformed my practice for the better in three critical (and surprising) ways.

I’ve been able to give my scholars more frequent and stronger academic feedback than I’ve ever given before.
By creating videos prior to teaching, I’m always at the top of my game and intellectually prepared for my lessons.
When kids are in the zone on a video lesson, it allows me to have thoughtful one-on-one conversations with kids and go deeper with questions that prompt kids to do more thinking when tackling a challenge.
Tip: Keep an open mind. Changes you make in your classroom might generate positive outcomes that you never expected.

4. Seek Out Opportunities and Support

I got my foray into blended by participating in a Blended Learning Fellowship with a friend from Sci Academy. Although I know a solid amount about technology, I knew little about bandwidth allocations, web filters, computer procedures, where to find unbreakable headphones, google sites, screencasting, and beyond. I still have a lot to learn, and am constantly humbled by it. The only reason I was able to pick these things up so quickly is that I sought out and listened to advice from people who knew much more than I did.

Tip: Put yourself out there and ask for help; you’ll grow from it.

Collaborate at EdTech Meetups to discuss best practices and learn from other educators. (Shoutout to Hilah Barbot, Alex Perez, Brandon Phenix, Nate Kellogg, Alex Fallon for all of your planning and organizing!)
Check out Edsurge.com for thoughtful guides and news coverage.
Talk to co-workers, administrators, and friends – find a thought partner!
Network at pitch nights @ 4.0 Schools.
I don’t do much gambling (except for one time at the Bellagio when I won $60), but I would put money on blended learning. Last year, my kids were nervous about computerized testing, had difficulty navigating Gmail and Google Docs, and didn’t see the connection between class and digital instruction. This year, kids are mastering material at a high level and are rarely tripped up by technology. As I continue to work with blended techniques, I’m excited to use ever-expanding applications in the classroom, and to move kids from simply meeting standards to a truly deep and insightful understanding of content and skillsets.

For those of you out there about to take the plunge into blended, enjoy it. Expect to be both challenged and rewarded.

P.S. In New Orleans and interested in exploring, planning, and piloting personalized learning in your classroom or school? Reach out to Cate Swinburn (cate@educatenow.net)

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