Category: 21st Century Learning

A Reflective Approach to Personalize Learning

Leading change. Launching new initiatives. Driving improvement. Shifting a mindset. These phrases inspire some to turn visions into purposeful actions, but leave others with frustration and trepidation. Typically, leaders present ideas, committees are formed, and agendas are set. Responses are mixed—investment levels varied—but we move forward in education.

We’ve identified our purpose. We will reach every student, every day to prepare learners for success in a dynamic world, as advertised in school mission statements. But at the end of a typical (chaotic) school day, can we claim success in achieving our goal? There’s no perfect solution that packages a best practice script, complete with a how-to manual and answer key. However, with the help of educators sharing their experiences and effective models, we can shift a cultural mindset toward personalized learning. Personalized learning is not a program nor a new initiative; it is a philosophy.

The process of where to begin may appear hazy, but our efforts are validated by a clear purpose—reinforced by several simple educator truths.

  • We care about our students.
  • We want all students to learn.
  • We are passionate about education.
  • We take pride in our professional roles.
  • We impact lives.
  • We can always improve our craft.

The last truth often gets misinterpreted as a deficiency—a professional flaw or incompetence—but this is certainly not the case. As the world evolves, so must education. For educators, this means finding new ways to engage, challenge, and empower our learners. While we acknowledge the importance of placing students at the center of learning, many teachers continue to lead from the front of the classroom. Breaking the expected norms of what it means to teach (especially when being evaluated) is daunting. Before diving in or battling with logistics, educators should approach their entry point based on individual understanding and readiness. For educators seeking to personalize their classes:

  • Know where you’re at
  • Think big but start small
  • Design backwards to move forward

Professional growth begins with reflection

When we reflect on our current practices, we may find personalized learning is not far beyond our reach. I invite educators to utilize the reflection guide to increase understanding of personalized learning and recognize how many components of the personalized learning model they already implement. Continue reading


Framing Powerful Memories of School

Remember the excitement of fifth grade? We had enough tools in our backpack to read and write, problem solve, ask big questions, and attack the world with vibrant eyes and independence. Every Friday, I rushed off the bus to search encyclopedias (remember those?), call my grandparents, and contact library reference desks to find the answer to Ms. Setzer’s weekly trivia question. She piqued my curiosity and inspired my thinking with an optional weekend challenge.

By Monday morning, I proudly placed an answer on Ms. Setzer’s desk. Nothing beat the feeling of conquering another quest, and the look of satisfaction in my teacher’s warm smile. During the week in Ms. Setzer’s class, I eagerly completed daily content lessons so I could sit in the oversized chair—the one by the fish tanks—on the stage in the back of the room. In that sacred space, I had time to read for pleasure, solve brain teasers, learn how to play chess, or work on a project.

The most memorable project extended well beyond the fifth grade curriculum. Our school was running a silent auction to fundraise for a charity. Each student was asked to reach out to family and friends for auction items. My buddy and I brainstormed ideas from the oversized chairs in the back of the classroom. What could two fifth grade boys possibly contribute to the cause? Continue reading

Varsity: From Letter Grades to Letter Winners

As another baseball season concludes, I reflect on our team highlights and individual heroics that will become hometown lore, and inevitably, relive several “what-if?” scenarios, as if we could go back and choose new outcomes. I taste the bittersweet reality of saying good-bye to our seniors, while the renewed hope of next year’s potential emerges. I will miss our graduates, but would start a new season tomorrow knowing I have another chance to work with our returning letter winners. This is the annual cycle of emotions experienced by high school varsity coaches.

Since shifting to a personalized learning model in my high school English classes, I have experienced similar feelings. The more we invest in the individual, the more we get to know our learners–interests, strengths, academic needs, areas of improvement, learner preferences, future plans–and the more personal the relationship grows. While there are more technical definitions, that’s how I identify personalized learning.

Educators know the feelings. Satisfaction. Exhaustion. Fulfillment. Pride. Seasonal allergies are not solely to blame for end-of-year watery eyes as teachers wish their kids a final “have a nice summer” sentiment. There is an emptiness–a sense of loss–knowing the time has come for our students to move on. We’ve done our part, but now we must watch them become someone else’s responsibility. All of the progress, conversations, and feedback exchanged between teachers and learners reset; the learning process starts over next year.

So what do we do? Post a letter grade. Auto-fill several comments. At best, rush to write something nice in students’ yearbooks. And then, they are gone. The classroom is silent until a new group enters.

In my reflections this summer, I question how we end each school year. I question myself.

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Create Learning PERMANENCE Through Reassessment

Like many educators, I want to create a learning environment around a mindset that teaches students to be patient, trust the learning process (and the teacher), and celebrate growth. But there is a powerful force that challenges such conditions. We live in a culture that continues to reward, rank, and emphasize grades over learning, points over progress, and recall over creation. 

It’s time to reassess our culture of learning. By acknowledging and acting on the following truths, educators live up to their professional title and create learning permanence.

All students can learn.
Always return to this central truth as foremost in education.

Learning is a messy process; consequently, teaching all students to learn is challenging work. Continue reading

Visions, Voices, Creative Choices: Preparing Learners for the Future

What a week. By the end of an emotionally-draining, anxiety-ridden election week, many find themselves struggling to breathe, smothering under the weight of an insecure future. Each breath as shallow as the destructive rhetoric of intolerance forcing American voters to choose a side—a blade that cuts deeper than partisan politics. With respect to our right to have a voice in the democratic process, what message did adults express to a generation of impressionable children?

Rather than answer that question, I ended the week in the most comforting place I know—with my family. As the father of two compassionate, open-minded, respectful children, I maintain hope for the future. While I cannot protect them from all the realities they will encounter, I will continue to model empathy, encourage dialogue about their questions, and equip them with knowledge and courage to overcome ignorance.

Raising children to become critical thinkers and selfless citizens feels overwhelming at times, but parents are not alone. They have a support system and powerful ally in education. Together, we send a message of hope built on trust, protected by knowledge, and secured by an understanding that all lives matter.

Before closing the week by spending a quiet Friday night watching movies with my family, I attended a two-day conference: The 7th Annual National Convening on Personalized Learning. This year, The Institute for Personalized Learning focused on Preparing Learners for the Future, “to produce learners that work independently, are able to drive their own learning, and want to learn out of curiosity.” From one presenter to the next, all conversations challenged traditional thinking about the way we do school. In fact, every speaker inspired an audience of educators to rethink their vision of school. Breakout sessions shared models of success and struggle to personalize learning, while reinforcing the fact that personalization is not a pre-packaged educational program, initiative, or buzzword. It is a culture-shifting philosophy that puts learning at the center of all decisions, leverages student voice and choice, and empowers every student, every day.

Here are my notes and greatest takeaways from two days of rich dialogue, challenging thoughts, and memorable conversations with passionate educators… Continue reading

Personalized Learning: Where to Begin?


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Leading change. Launching new initiatives. Driving improvement. Shifting a mindset. These phrases inspire some to turn visions into purposeful actions, but leave others with anxiety and trepidation. Typically, leaders present ideas, committees are formed, and plans are set. Responses are mixed, investment levels varied, but here we go…

Then what happens to slow progress or impede growth? After defining what we are trying to become, even the most well-intended contributors get caught in the reality trap. How can we make change happen? Voices of the “yeah but’s” emerge from the crowd and collect followers. Doubt infects momentum. Leaders expend more energy justifying actions with research and rationalizing intent through models of success. Unfortunately, the result is often greater distance from the intended outcome—retreating to the security of old habits and traditional practices. How do we escape this cycle in education? Continue reading

A Personalized Classroom Tour

On the eve of another school year’s opening day, I captured several images of the personalized learning environment students will enter in the morning. Welcome back to The Clubhouse!

Learners will immediately face choices and be challenged to determine where they will learn best each day. Those searching for an uncomfortable, cumbersome, Industrial Age desk are out of luck in room A15–I ditched the last three desks during this year’s back-to-school renovation. However, there are plenty of excellent work spaces available.


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