Differentiating in the Personalized Classroom
I love visiting classrooms around the country to not only support but to see educators in action. In my opinion, I learn just as much, if not more, from them as they hopefully do from me. During the spring of 2020, I connected with the Juab School District in Utah and began what would be two years of longitudinal work to help them take personalized learning to the next level. The pandemic derailed our planned first face-to-face day. As a result, Royd Darrington, the assistant superintendent, asked me to create asynchronous models for the staff to watch at their own pace. The first was an overview of foundational instructional strategies and pedagogy, while the other five focused on voice, choice, path, pace, and place.
During the summer, I worked with the entire staff and visited each school to make some observations while offering feedback to the principals. Recently I visited the district where I met with each school to visit classrooms and see how they were progressing with personalized learning. Little did I know that my visit to Red Cliffs Elementary was going to blow my socks off. Upon entering the 4th-grade classroom of Jordan Jones, I saw probably the best examples of differentiation I have ever physically seen in real-time. One of the hallmarks of personalization is the purposeful use of data, which can be used to group, regroup, facilitate targeted instruction, or differentiate. Upon questioning Jordan, she was implementing all of these! There was also choice in the form of a must-do and may-do that varied for each group. Below is the picture I captured.
I could not contain my excitement and awe, so I decided to reach out to get her perspective on this activity. Below is her detailed explanation of what I saw and why she created this activity.
I have done small group instruction for years. Although it felt differentiated, most of the time, each group was receiving nearly the same instruction. I had a hard time grasping how to personalize instruction to my students' needs because I didn't truly understand which skills they were missing. This year, I have been dedicated to using and analyzing data. This has completely changed my classroom. I can honestly say that I know my students this year better than any other group in past years. Learning how to read and understand student data is what started me onto this personalized learning path.
Starting out this year, my students were in 4 reading groups, similar to what I have always done. Students each went to the same groups, and when the timer went off, they would rotate to the next one. It worked, but it was far from personalized. I had data, and I knew what students needed, but I wanted to find a way to truly make my groups targeted and intentional.
This is when we (my teammate and I) came up with the Must Do; May Do idea. There are certain things that I want each student to complete each day, but these are different for different students. Each group has its own Must Do, and May Do activities. Must-Do activities are intentional activities that target individual student needs. May Do activities help reinforce content and skills that have been taught in class. Some activities stay the same each week, while others change. I have found that mixing up activities with different technologies has helped keep students actively engaged.
While students are completing these individualized activities, my instructional assistant and I can work individually or in small groups with students. In these groups, we use data to identify reading and/or phonics skills that students have not yet mastered and then teach them explicitly. Data is the most significant piece of the success of this format of teaching and learning. Groups are formed based on DIBELS data and data from our i-Ready Reading digital component. Students who are working on skills with myself and my instructional assistant are reassessed every three weeks. This helps me know whether the interventions and instruction that are being given are working if the student has mastered the skill, and what to teach next.
During the week that Eric visited my classroom, students completed a Padlet as a Must Do. On this Padlet, students had to write a character analysis paragraph about a character in a book that we have been reading. We chose a Padlet to complete this task for multiple reasons. The first was to help engage my students in a new way to complete this specific task. In class, we had written these on paper, as well as on Google Docs. The second reason was to allow students to see how others had written theirs. This gave students the ability to read their peers' writing and possibly use them as a model.
I have never felt so confident in my teaching. This year, I can honestly say that I am the best teacher I have ever been, and I am growing every day. I feel confident that my students are getting the instruction and practice that they need. My students have learned to make choices that help them learn the most. I had a student last week say, "I don't care how long it takes. I am here to learn. I like to learn."
A few days later, I learned that Jordan had a partner in crime on the 4th-grade team and collaborated on this activity. So naturally, I needed to reach out to Crissa Peterson to get her take as well. Success is typically a team effort, and it was so refreshing to hear how shared goals are achieved by working smarter, not harder. Below is Crissa's take on the activity.
My teammate and I felt that we needed to create a personalized learning experience that was meaningful and engaging to our students. We didn't want our students just completing activities as busywork. We wanted all of the activities to have meaning and value for that specific student. In order to create our groups, we looked at a few different data points. We used DIBELS data, a Phonic Screener for intervention (PSI assessment) that aligns with 95% group phonic skill interventions; we also used the iReady reading diagnostic results and then teacher discretion. From these results, we grouped students with similar learning needs/levels.
We also wanted to create activities that emphasized what we had been working on during our ELA module and All-Block tasks. We knew that Padlet would be a great option because students can share ideas with one another and modify them later if needed. It gave them a chance to enhance their typing skills as well while reinforcing the ELA standards we had been working on during that unit. We also felt that Nearpod was a great way to assess learning. It is an engaging and interactive tool that provides instant feedback to our students.
In creating our groups, we wanted to give our students voice and choice as well. In doing so, we decided to make our groups using the "must do" and "may do" templates. Each group is assigned different personalized "must do" and "may do" activities," so this means students are doing a variety of assignments throughout the block of time. Using this platform also allows the students to work at their own pace, and it also will enable students to master a standard/skill before moving on. "Must do" activities are the activities that are required for students to accomplish. These are personalized for them based on their learning needs. If students have finished their "must-do" activities, then they can go to a "may do" activity for the last round.
Students often tell us that they love being able to choose the order they complete their tasks in and that the activities frequently change for them. I, as a teacher, love that it gives my students the freedom and accountability to finish their assigned activities while keeping them engaged. Most of all, I love that I am personalizing their learning activities based on their individual needs and providing them the opportunity to work at their own pace, all while using technology and interactive tools.
Personalization is about giving all kids what they need, when and where they need it, to succeed. The dynamic combination of differentiation, choice, and targeted instruction does this. By capturing Jordan's and Crissa's story, I hope that other educators will not only see that this is doable whether or not we are in a pandemic but results in an equitable learning experience for learners.