Archive for category Personalized Learning

One Child’s Story

Many educators have been focused on the “SCIENCE” of education for a long time now.  Because of this the “HEART” of education has been put on the back burner and forgotten.  This post is a true story that is a reminder about WHY the HEART of education and relationships are so important.  I have omitted names so that those involved can remain anonymous, but please do not let that take anything away from the amazing story of this resilient young man. 

This story is about a boy in high school who turned out average grades, was a strong athlete, but got into trouble often.  Many teachers and administration had written him off thinking he wouldn’t be able to get it together to be successful in life.  He could be explosive at times and had gotten into a few violent physical altercations.  There was some staff that were even scared of him because they never really knew how he was going to react.

His coach, on the other hand, knew him on a more personal level.  He knew that his home life was tough.  His mom was very sick, his dad was in and out of the country, and this student was left to help take care of his mother and her illness, as well as take care of his little brother.  He was holding down 2 – 3 jobs at a time.  One of his jobs was delivering papers which required him to start his day at 3:00 in the morning, and others included retail jobs or fast food jobs.  Somehow this student continued to make it to school, make it to his athletics, and maintain decent grades.  The pressure he was under was more than just about any adult could take.  Of course he was explosive!  Please keep in mind that he also learned from his family that explosive behavior is how you get people to listen to you.

One day this student was observed by his coach, which also happened to be his teacher wearing the same clothes a couple of days in a row and looking as though he hadn’t showered.  The student appeared to be more tired than normal.  When he was asked if he was ok, the student broke down and told him that he had been kicked out of his house by his mother and he was living out of his car.  The coach immediately got DHS involved and invited the student to live with him and his family.  They lived together for a couple of months until the student was able get things patched up with his mother again and he decided he wanted to move back in with her.

A month after he moved back in with his mother, he had another violent act at school.  Administration kicked him out of school and told him he couldn’t return.  The student decided he was going to give up and drop out of school.  His coach immediately went to his house, picked him up, and drove him to an alternative school to help him get enrolled there.  The student was reluctant, but ultimately decided to give it a try.  Fast forward several months later and he graduates high school.

With his high school diploma he earned a job as a teller at a bank.  Within one year he had a management position at the bank.  In less than four years this man is now only one managerial position away from having his own bank to run.  

Every child’s path to success is different.  But the one thing that EVERY child needs is someone who cares about them, will never give up on them, and will work hard to find a path to success that works for them.  

The science of education is important, but it is time for all educators to look deep into their HEARTS and remember WHY they got into education in the first place.  If it was to help all children grow up to be successful young adults, then maybe we (the educators) need to be passionate enough, creative enough, resilient enough, and LOVE our children enough to find a path that works for each and every one of them.


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Love Your Learner

Do you love the children and young adults in your school buildings?  The past few days I have been honored with the opportunity to work closely with other passionate educators at the ASCDL2L conference.  During this conference I was given time to collaborate with others and reflect on the Whole Child approach to educating our youth.  It was an experience I will never forget.

The Whole Child approach to educating our youth asks us to serve all of our learners’ needs.  It is difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to learn in an environment in which they do not feel safe.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to learn when a person’s health needs are not met.  It is our duty as educators to make sure that ALL of our learners’ needs are met.  This may require us to bring in outside agencies to assist with mental health and addictions.  This may also require a school with a high poverty rate to provide free and reduced lunch and breakfast to all learners.  Whatever the learners’ needs are, we as educators need to work to find the resources they need to help them.

I also believe the Whole Child approach requires us to think about our “students” differently.  You have probably already noticed that I have refrained from using the term “students” to describe the youth that we educate.  If we are truly serving the whole child when educating, it is my opinion that we need to stop thinking of them as “students”.  The term student describes a person who is a RECEIVER of knowledge.  I believe what we truly want our youth to grow up and become are SEEKERS of knowledge.  This kind of person can be best described as a “learner”.  And, if we are truly educating “learners,” we will need to begin developing closer relationships with them in order to understand them.  By better understanding them we can begin to use their passions and interests to support the learning process.

Think about the one teacher in your life that was your all-time favorite, that one teacher that inspired you to be better.  Have you got that teacher?  Do you feel as though this teacher understood you?  Do you feel as though this teacher loved you?  I believe that before you can help a child you must first understand them.  Before you can truly understand them you have to love them.  It has been proven to me on many occasions that if a learner believes without any doubt that they are loved by you, they will do anything for you and are somehow able to blast through almost any obstacle to find success.  It has also been proven to me, on many occasions, that if an educator truly loves their learners they are willing to do whatever it takes to help them achieve success.  All humans have a need to feel loved.  Why are so many educators afraid to show their learners this compassion and care?

Let’s begin helping our youth by addressing the Whole Child so that we can address their needs, tap into their passions and interests, and guide them to becoming SEEKERS of knowledge.  It’s time you Love Your Learner!

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Let It Happen Organically

A couple of years ago I was hired to be the principal of the 6-12 Collins-Maxwell school in Iowa.  The Superintendent, Jason Ellingson and I both had a passion for Personalized Learning and began to create plans on how to develop this system within the Collins-Maxwell school district.  It was exciting and a lot of fun.  We had a plan that allowed for the system to change over time organically.

After two years at Collins-Maxwell I decided to take a position closer to home that would allow me to spend more time with my wife and kids.  I am now the Vice-Principal of Callanan Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa.  Since making that move, I have been thinking a lot about how a school district the size of Des Moines could make this same change to Personalized Learning.  Some believe that change can’t happen in a district this size without a step-by-step plan that is incremental.  Start with A, then go to B, and so on.  I would like to challenge that and say it will never happen with a step-by-step plan that is incremental.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a plan that lays out all the components necessary with the steps needed to make this happen.  I’m saying that if we think we are going to create a 3-5 year plan to make this happen and then think that by flipping a switch it’s just going to magically appear before our eyes we are sadly mistaken.  And, if this is what people are expecting, the whole plan will fail.

I believe that the only way to change any system over to a Personalized Learning environment is in a more organic manner.  I believe that there are things that must be put in place to support the change, and then from there it is about changing the philosophical views of all those in the organization one person at a time and giving them the supports necessary to change their practices.  I believe this will also build like a snowball rolling down a hill.   Below I will outline some of the things that I believe need to be put in place to make this kind of change happen over time.  Keep in mind that these are not necessarily in chronical order.  I’m not sure that they necessarily need to happen in any specific order.

  1. There must be leaders and pockets of teachers (I like to call them Facilitators of Learning or FOL’s), with strong influence who believe that Personalized Learning is the vehicle needed to help every child reach their full potential. These people must share the same vision, mission, and values.  They must be creative, risk takers to try new things in their classrooms and share out their successes as well as where they came up a little short so that we may learn from them.
  2. Trust must be built within the organization to allow for open and honest conversations to occur around changes in philosophical beliefs.
  3. Conversations must occur about the Vision, Mission, and Values to ensure that everyone is moving towards tighter alignment over time. Conversations must occur about the best vehicle(s) that should be used to support the Vision, Mission, and Values.
  4. Technology must be purchased at a one-to-one ratio to support both FOL’s and learners.
  5. FOL’s must receive personalized professional development on how to use technology to support the learners in their classroom.
  6. FOL’s must be trained in Standards Based/Referenced Learning (SBG/SRG) and how to align and increase the rigor of their Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessments. By using SBG/SRG all learners and FOL’s have a clear focus of what they know and are able to do.  They also have a clear focus of what they need to know and be able to do.  The majority of the standards in the Core are skills.  By focusing on these skills, FOL’s can better personalize for each learner by giving them a voice and choice in how they learn and demonstrate these skills.  SBG/SRG helps FOL’s move away from the one size fits all project/assignment mentality and helps to support a more personalized approach with each learner.
  7. FOL’s must be given and trained how to use a framework within their Collaborative Groups to help focus constructive conversations around the improvement of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessments. Once FOL’s begin discussing and supporting each other in the improvement of their Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessments they will begin to learn from each other’s successes and begin to organically change over time.

It is my belief that if all of these things are put in place a more Personalized Learning environment will begin to take shape organically and gain momentum over time, one classroom at a time.  This is a big shift for all learners in the organization and must be given the time and support needed to be successful.   At some point, administration will need to consider the thought of releasing some barriers the traditional school places on its learners such as: semester time limits, bell schedules, grade levels, and others.  When that will need to happen, I’m not sure.  The leaders will know when it is right because the FOL’s and learners will become frustrated by the limitations of the current system.

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Passion = Fuel

All of us have had things we needed to do that we struggled to get done.  Not because they were difficult or that we couldn’t find the time, but because we didn’t have the passion to do them.  Passion is the fuel that drives us.  If we are passionate about something, excuses seem to magically disappear and we immediately begin finding solutions to getting the project done.  When I think about this, I immediately begin trying to find ways in which I can use this knowledge to better support all learners and educators.

Think about the traditional classroom…  Each educator has their lectures, assignments, labs, projects, and assessments.  We all know that the vast majority of them are not things the learners want to do.  What is it that motivates them to get them done?  This motivation is different for each learner.  For some it is the drive to make their parents happy, others have an internal drive to do well on whatever they work on, and then there are grades, college, future careers, relationships with friends and educators, and many more.

There is one motivation that they all have in common.  That is passion.  The problem is… We as educators rarely tap into this motivation.  I believe one of the main reasons we don’t tap into it is because of a fear of loss of control.  In order to truly tap into each learner’s passion we would need to listen to the learners and allow them to have some say into what they are learning about.  I know, I know, there is that Common Core thing that we must all follow.

Really take a look at the Social Studies standards and you will see that they are comprised of a lot of skills.  These are not countries and time periods.  The Language Arts standards are also a list of skills that are needed.  Why can’t we use this to our advantage to allow our students to tell us what they are passionate about and let them come up with a project they would like to do?  Or, present the students with a project then be open minded enough to listen to the students if they ask to do something similar aligned to what they are passionate about.  We can then tell them what they will have to do through this project to meet the standards.   Who knows… you might even be able to fit some of the math and science standards into that as well.

So, if passion = fuel I say we start filling our learners up with some highly combustible passion that will take them wherever they choose to go.  I can just about guarantee you they will get much further and faster with this than anything else you fill them up with.


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Differentiation vs Personalization

Differentiation has been the buzzword for many years.  Everyone has been saying that we must differentiate our instruction for our students to support their individual needs.  Recently personalization has become the new buzzword.  I have had many conversations with people about personalization and it seems to me that the majority of people are using these two terms interchangeably.  Are they the same thing?  If not, what’s the difference?

I believe that the two are very different.  Teachers differentiate for their students by giving alternative assignments or modifications to assignments for students to better support a student’s needs.  It is the teacher that makes the majority of the decisions for differentiation.

Facilitators of learning, (i.e. teachers) personalize learning by giving learners, (i.e. students) both a voice and choice in their learning.  Learners are pushed to take more ownership of their learning and are not just given choices, but allowed to have a voice in what the process looks like.  No, they are not permitted to skip over Common Core learnings.  Instead they are given the standards, benchmarks, and proficiencies they must learn and given the freedom and ownership to have a voice and choice in how they learn them and how they demonstrate mastery of the learning.  The facilitator of learning will make the final decision on whether to approve the learner’s process and demonstration of learning both before proceeding and after completion.  The facilitator will also be able to give suggestions on how to move forward, but the ownership is shared by both the learner and facilitator.

This has a very different feel than differentiation.  When you talk about personalization, what are you really saying, meaning, and hearing?

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