She walked into my room, ponytail swinging. This 11th grader was not a regular student, but a drop-in, requiring some explanation. At this school we had a ‘personalized’ policy for help with content for 30 minutes before and after school; in this case, personalized meant that students could be helped by any teacher they felt could help them make forward progress.
No problem, right? Well, so I thought.
She introduced herself, and grabbed a folder out of her backpack labeled “Science.” I was expecting biology or chemistry, but surpisingly, it was a net force assignment. “I don’t understand this assignment, and it’s due for AP physics tomorrow.” I must have looked dumbfounded, because she followed up with the explanation, “It’s an online class I am taking.” Oh, I failed to mention something–I was the school physics teacher.
Questions raced through my mind. Why was this kid not in my class? Who signed this student up for an online class? And if I wasn’t good enough to take a class from, why bother me with her homework? Silently fuming, we worked the problems until she felt confident, and then she headed out the door to practice. It took me a day or two to come to terms with my feelings of, what, exactly? Anger? Frustration? A bruised ego?
Fast-forward a decade-ish, and as a student-centered advocate, I’m ashamed of myself. In this age of anytime, anywhere learning, why was I so afraid of a kid learning a different way? The answer is simple: fear instead of openness. This was not about the student: it was about me. I knew book study and alternative classes existed, but having a student access those structures came across as a personal threat to me and the “way we do things.” Was my job going to be in jeopardy? Did I have any say in how student learning was unfolding?
The resolution and acceptance of self that accompanies not being the only content game in town took time. It took development of new mental model through study and reflection. Three things stand out as important in this journey:
- By reflecting on my own class from the lens of my teenage self and student feedback, I was better able to see my weaknesses ; based on this reflection, reorganizing the class took place. My all-important content questions were seasoned by skills I felt students absolutely needed and the ability to work withothers using the 4Cs.
- Replacing isolated collections of facts with projects threaded through the entire unit, allowing student choice and creating projects that connected to the community created relevant coursework that made my students want to come to class.
- Moving away from rote memorization and lecture to allowing students to access and critically evaluate digital tools andinformation available at the touch of a phone screen redefined my classroom. It wasn’t easy then, and it still is a consideration in my classroom. Critical thinking and creativity still require students to try, fail, persist, and relearn material.
It is a personal challenge to accept that you are not the only educational source from which students can learn; however, we live in a global world. That means your skill as an educator in building relationships and providing relevant education becomes key to promoting your classroom and content. It’s a hard paradigm shift to realize that if students don’t learn the way you teach, or learn more quickly than peers, it’s time to reconsider the pacing and the journey. That is the hard paradigm shift to personalized learning.