One Step at a Time: A Traditional School’s Journey Into Personalized Learning

Jun 05, 2019

As a novice teacher educated in the digital age, I entered education, and specifically Saint Cornelius Catholic School, at a time of whirlwind change. It is a part of the Lumen Christi Academies, a group of Catholic schools in the San Francisco Bay Area whose mission is to “nurture ethical scholars who will change the world” through active, personalized and student-led learning. The schools are undergoing transformations in how instruction will take place, beginning with the 2019-2020 school year.

Much of the changes center on shifting our culture and mindset from teacher-focused to student-centered learning. The idea is exciting and empowering, but it can be difficult to envision, particularly for veteran educators with many years of experience and established practices. I found that many teachers were excited by this new direction, but were unsure of what they could do now, before systematic, top-down changes begin.

During the 2018-2019 school year, I participated in the Consortium for School Innovators (CSI) residency, through which educators like myself shadowed at 3 to 5 schools throughout the Bay Area to learn about innovative techniques in the areas of blended and personalized learning. My objective was to find small, sustaining innovations that teachers could implement now to make the movement towards personalized learning more seamless and less daunting to both students and their peers.

One of the core goals of personalized learning is to “tailor instruction, expression of learning and assessment to each student’s unique needs and preferences,” according to this blog post from ISTE, an education technology association. Tactics to realize this vision include building flexibility in terms of content and grouping, and allowing students to fluidly move from group to group depending on their instructional needs.

Key to making this model work is student motivation, and an internal drive for students to take more ownership of their work. Fostering autonomy and responsibility can lead to significant growth in students’ academic and metacognitive skills.

However, in a school that previously adhered to the traditional brick-and-mortar structure of schools, it can be hard to envision what a new model that encourages student autonomy might look like. And, for teachers who have been teaching in traditional environments for years, it is an intimidating task to completely transform their practice.

Below are three microshifts that I implemented in my classroom at Saint Cornelius that I found can help teachers who may be hesitant to dip their toes into personalized learning and blended innovations.

Microshifts in Practice

1. Flexible Grouping and Stations

A major concern raised by teachers was how to move toward personalized learning when we had a scripted curriculum in core subject areas. Modifying the curriculum appeared to be a huge challenge; how can we possibly personalize something that is essentially pre-designed?

However, at Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School in San Jose, I observed a teacher who “chunked” her curriculum into smaller pieces to establish a streamlined system of instruction. I then realized that breaking apart this scripted curriculum into same-sized chunks was not only possible, but aided in instruction.

This model is similar to the center rotations that already occur in many elementary classrooms, in which students rotate through stations in small groups, working both independently and with the teacher. Differentiation and personalization can occur through teacher instruction, who can provide varying levels of support and hands-on coaching, before letting students do independent practice.

The use of adaptive technology, with websites such as Newsela, NoRedInk, and Zearn, can support teachers in this effort. Many of these tools can offer immediate data from student assessments that can be used to drive instruction the next day. This allows teachers to tailor their lessons to meet student needs, without crafting an entirely new lesson structure.

Take an English Language Arts classroom, for instance, which covers reading, writing, grammar, and comprehension its core areas of focus. Some teachers may want equal amounts of time for covering each area, and have the same stations each day. Others may have the same stations but rotate—the teacher may teach at one station and implement adaptive tools at others. Still, other teachers may have flexible amounts of time, allowing students to “float” between groups if they finish early or adjust how long students stay at each station as needed.

When this model was implemented in my classroom, students stated that they enjoyed the autonomy this model offered. There was more partner- and small-group work, and the teacher-instruction was more streamlined and intentionally planned out, allowing for deeper learning and less boredom. By using data to inform instruction, I was able to target areas of growth for students, moving them towards our predetermined learning goals.

2. Team Accountability

Another area of concern for the teachers at my school was establishing a precedent for efficient and collaborative group work. Group work is an integral part of personalized learning, since it encourages student collaboration and ownership over work, and can foster deeper exploration of a subject.

However, encouraging students to take ownership for their group members is difficult. Previously, students would gripe about having to work with specific classmates, so much so that it was almost always easier for them to work alone or with just one partner.

After shadowing at Leadership Public Schools, a public high school in Richmond, I learned of a team-building technique called Team Tracking that helped build accountability among my students. To modify it for the elementary classroom, I created groups of four and allowed students to pick their team name and job (Homework Checker, Reporter of Points, Recorder of Points, and Job Moderator). Each time a group was prepared (e.g., they all had their materials out, or homework done), they would receive a point, which the Recorder would write down. At the end of the week, the Reporter reported how many points they had, and the team with the most points won a small prize.

Suddenly, students were holding each other accountable for getting their work out and finished, and were relying on one another in a way they had not before. This technique was extremely easy to implement and has improved group rapport in the classroom significantly. It has established a collaborative precedent that has made working in small groups, both at their table group and in small-group instruction, more effective.

3. Metacognitive Skillbuilding

Academics are important, but they can often overshadow other important aspects of education, such as socioemotional skills. Both Cristo Rey San Jose and Leadership Public Schools emphasize building foundational skills such as self-reflection and gratitude, and integrates them throughout the learning experience.

Students need to feel safe and accepted into the classroom culture before academic learning could occur, and that to do this they needed to learn how to take ownership over their work and their actions.

I focused on two techniques to build metacognition. First, I had students begin to reflect on their work. In the past, when I returned assignments to them with my feedback, the work often went unread by students. So instead, each week I had my students choose at least one piece of work they wanted to display on their ClassDojo Portfolio, a digital collection of pictures and posts shared between the student, parent, and teacher. Students took a picture of their chosen work and explained what their work was, why they chose it, what they did well on the assignment, and how they could improve.

At first, students would just choose what they got the best grade on, without further explanation. But soon, students began to choose assignments they enjoyed or that they worked hard on. (Often, they performed well on these assignments as well). This also helped me, as the teacher, see which assignments and projects students were most proud of so I could provide more opportunities for these activities in the future.

I also had students focus on building gratitude for themselves and others using an online platform called GiveThx.org, developed by Leadership Public Schools. This program allows students to write reflections of gratitude about certain topics, and send digital notes of thanks to fellow classmates. I first had students reflect on people they were thankful for, as well as gifts or skills they themselves had and how those skills helped them. Eventually, I had students begin to write notes of gratitude to random students in the class.

Again, there was resistance at first, with students only wanting to send notes to their friends. But as they began to get notes that recognized those same gifts they saw in themselves, students began to open up and express gratitude for one another. This not only established a safer space for students to learn in community, but also increased accountability for themselves and for others, setting up a more collaborative environment.


By making these microshifts in my own practice as a classroom teacher, I hope to encourage other teachers to try new practices in ways that work for them. My hopes are that these smaller nudges in the direction of personalized learning are easy to follow and implement, allowing those apprehensive about personalized learning to dip their toes.

It’s one small step at a time. But by illustrating what is possible, my hope is that these smaller nudges can inspire a larger-scale shift toward making personalized learning a system-wide reality.


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