From Reason and Meaning

In the myth of Sisyphus, the gods condemn Sisyphus to pushing a giant rock up a mountain as punishment. It swiftly becomes an exercise in futility, as Sisyphus and his rock consistently roll back down the mountain. As educators, we can all identify with this feeling – condemned to push the boulders of student motivation, increasing (and often ill-informed) top-down initiatives, budgetary restraints, and community pressures, only to roll back to the starting point time and again.

At this point, “personalization” may feel like a massive (and perhaps for some, even futile) task. To avoid feeling like Sisyphus, we want to acknowledge the feedback from the survey and chip away at the rock to remove unnecessary weight which will ease all of our journeys up the mountainous task inherent in our profession.

Weight #1 – Technology
“Limited technology is an issue.”
“Our district needs to recognize the need to go 1-1 in the high school.”
“If I had a few more computers in my class, it would make it a little easier.”
“I feel that a big push for personalized learning is being driven by technology companies.”
“Will each department have a common platform?”

Yup, perhaps, probably, yes but not here, nope. Those are the responses to those comments and questions in their respective order. Though our access to computers for students has increased, we all feel a frustrated crunch from time to time. Sometimes it’s a great idea you have at the last minute but the labs are all booked. Sometimes it’s when the network is funky and the log-on process takes longer than expected. However, we can’t assume that a 1:1 initiative is going to magically lead to personalized classrooms. There are many 1:1 classrooms where the computer is just a digital notebook – no net gain there. And if cell phones are our biggest gripe as a faculty, we need to be careful what we wish for because every kid with a computer takes a whole new level of purposeful instructional design and vigilant classroom management. Let’s remember – people have been personalizing learning for students for decades without technology. Just because tech companies use the word “personalized” to sell a product doesn’t mean you NEED a product to personalize learning.

We can’t let technology be our excuse or our obstacle. Every single one of us can begin to personalize learning in our classroom by giving students choices – a choice of which questions to answer on an assessment, a choice between assessment modalities or products, a choice about a narrow focus area in a larger conceptual unit. These are no-tech solutions applicable to any class or teacher and can mitigate the tech burden. And if a choice here and there is all some can muster without a deep technology commitment, it’s at least a starting point.

Weight lifted.

Weight #2 – Curriculum
“Teachers have to get in so much curriculum to prepare students for testing.”
“Do we need to cover our units in the scope and sequence to do well on PARCC?”
“It (personalized learning) is risky and open to problems with such a standards driven curriculum.”
“How can we personalize learning in the same classes that are supposed to be following the Common Core units of instruction that have been created and adopted by various departments?”

On the surface, common units and personalized learning seem to fight against each other. However, common focus standards can actually guide personalization. The units provide a structure and end-goal. Personalization happens in getting from Point A to Point Z. Some kids may need to go through the whole painstaking alphabet, while others may only need a hop-step-and-a-jump over K and Q. And if they can get to Z fairly quickly, you can give them the same end point with a new layer added – a new text that shakes their understanding, applying a new skill to a real problem, taking a new perspective, representing data in a different way, or connecting with a person outside of school who uses the information or skill the student just learned. Or better yet, ask the student “what next?” See what they say – it might be amazing.

We should not feel a tug-of-war between personalizing learning OR following the curriculum. The two things must walk hand-in-hand. One cannot be an excuse to ignore the other. Instead, perhaps we reframe the way we view the curriculum. Instead of a dictate, it becomes a structure which allows for multiple options and opportunities for students (and teachers!).

Weight lifted.

[And as for the test – wouldn’t we all want to have students enter into the testing situation confident in what they DO know rather than nervous about what they DON’T know? That’s a whole other conversation about the Culture of Accountability.]

Weight #3 – Time
“Would like more time training with various techniques.”
“I am concerned with my own time management.”
“I think we need additional conversations to make it real in all of our areas.”
“It is a significant paradigm shift…”

Yeah. Spot on. It’s going to take time. This initiative can make us feel like first-year teachers in some respects. There isn’t a soul in the Edu-sphere that denies this takes time. So we all need to hear and accept this – it’s going to take time to learn, practice, observe each other, share successes, document best practices, and figure out where our comfort zones are in terms of frequency, depth, style, and strategies.

The good news is, we have time. We have CPT time built into our schedule (Remember – that C can stand for Collaborative Planning Time – time where we collaborate around these practices and conversations). We have prep periods built into our days where we can prepare ourselves by watching another teacher do something we’re interested in trying. We need to reframe the time we have and view it as a structure to help ease the process.

Weight lifted.

Anyone feel lighter?

Hopefully these acknowledgements help us feel heard and validated.

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 10.32.32 AMFull disclosure – We only addressed a slice of the feedback from the survey. The majority of respondents (31%) categorized their challenges as “Student Know-How.” We will address the many comments about the student experience of personalized learning, including motivation, apathy, reticence, and preference in future posts. It is a super-important chunk of the rock and we WILL NOT shy away from it.

Thank you to everyone who responded to the survey. Results were also discussed at the Leadership Team table and the need for clarification was heard loud and clear. Thank you also to Anne Barnhart, for the crash refresher course in Sisyphus. 🙂

Remember – tweet anytime to #bulldoged. Join the conversation.




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