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April 19, 2021

In Pursuit of Personalized Learning

Tch Laureate Team

This is the first in Sean McComb’s Getting Better Together series, In Pursuit of Personalized Learning. Sean and all the Teaching Channel Laureates are going public with their practice and seeking support in getting better from colleagues and the Tch community.

“Aye, McComb! Why haven’t we been doin’ this allll year?”

With all the sass she could muster and an eye roll that might call for an exorcism, Jessica posed this pointed question to me three Junes ago.

And the question stuck with me. Why hadn’t we been doing this all year?

Let’s talk about what this was. We had just concluded our third lit circle discussion of a social justice project. Students were able to select a topic from about a dozen different issues around the globe. Jessica had chosen to research human trafficking and anchor her research with the narrative of Lakshmi in the novel SOLD, by Patricia McCormick. She and three other students had just finished an intense discussion of the novel and the connections they’d found in their research. They were enthralled. The narrative humanized the research. The research placed the story in the real world. Jessica, who was in her own words a ‘tough cookie,’ was, for maybe the first extended period of time all year, authentically and deeply engaged in work she found compelling and personally valuable.

Why hadn’t we been doing work with that kind of choice consistently?

So many reasons. When I was in school I had learned, almost entirely, through whole-group instruction. It worked for me. And as a teacher, it was really hard to let go. It was challenging to provide materials and resources for so many different interests and ideas. Our education systems haven’t made departure from a “factory model” very easy. And with each passing year of a more “one size fits all” type of teaching, I had settled a little deeper into a rut of the comfortable and the convenient.

Like a tell-tale heart, Jessica’s question has been echoing in my mind, pressing me to get out of the rut and evolve my teaching practice. In the years since, I have made strides, but like many teachers I am my own toughest critic.

Continue to Get Better

This year, I want to continue to get better at providing a more personalized learning experience for the students in my English courses. While I still want to introduce students to works they may not yet know they’ll love, and to share common learning experiences, I want to create a course that allows topics of students’ care and curiosity to drive reading, writing, and thinking more often.

And I want the learning to become deeply personal. For me, personalized learning does not mean moving through a standardized computer program at one’s own pace. Nor does it mean being offered shallow choices around modes for note-taking or exit-ticket prompts.

For me, personalized learning means students hone skills through interests and inquiries they choose and authentically care about. Where they receive feedback and support customized to their individual needs. And where they synthesize and collaborate to own their learning and take it beyond the walls of our classroom.

It’s fun to think big, and it’s hard to make it happen. I feel confident I can grow to make this vision a reality. I know I’ll start with some building blocks of feedback, conferencing and building in choice. But, I think I can get to a more deeply personalized classroom with the support and collaboration of my colleagues and this community. I hope you’ll choose to come along, to pitch in, and to push yourselves, too. I need you to help me to get better. And the kids need all of us to be better. Let’s get there together.


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